Peasant  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A peasant, derived from 15th century French païsant meaning one from the pays, the countryside or region, which itself derives from the Latin pagus, country district, is an agricultural worker with roots in the countryside in which he or she dwells, either working for others or, more specifically, owning or renting and working by his or her own labour a small plot of ground. They are also referred to in England as a "cottager". The term peasant today is sometimes used in a pejorative sense for impoverished farmers.

Peasants typically make up the majority of the agricultural labour force in a Pre-industrial society, depending on the cultivation of their land: without stockpiles of provisions they thrive or starve according to the most recent harvest (illustration, above right). Pre-industrial societies have diminished with the advent of globalization and as such there are considerably less peasants to be found in rural areas throughout the world. However, there are still peasant populations in Mexico, Central America, South America, Africa, India, China, Europe and various parts of Southeast Asia.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Contents

Peasantry in the Middle Ages

The open field system of agriculture dominated most of northern Europe during medieval times and endured until the nineteenth century in many areas. Under this system, peasants lived on a manor presided over by a lord or a bishop of the church. Peasants paid rent or labor services to the lord in exchange for their right to cultivate the land. Fallowed land, pastures, forests, and wasteland were held in common. The open field system required cooperation among the peasants of the manor. It was gradually replaced by individual ownership and management of land.

The relative position of peasants in Western Europe improved greatly after the Black Death had reduced the population of medieval Europe in the mid-14th century: resulting in more land for the survivors and making labor more scarce. In the wake of this disruption to the established order, later centuries saw the invention of the printing press, the development of widespread literacy and the enormous social and intellectual changes of the Enlightenment.

The evolution of ideas in an environment of relatively widespread literacy laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, which enabled mechanically and chemically augmented agricultural production while simultaneously increasing the demand for factory workers in cities, who became what Karl Marx called the proletariat. The trend toward individual ownership of land, typified in England by Enclosure, displaced many peasants from the land and compelled them, often unwillingly, to become urban factory-workers, who came to occupy the socio-economic stratum formerly the preserve of the medieval peasants.

This process happened in an especially pronounced and truncated way in Eastern Europe. Lacking any catalysts for change in the 14th century, Eastern European peasants largely continued upon the original medieval path until the 18th and 19th centuries. Serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861, and while many peasants would remain in areas where their family had farmed for generations, the changes did allow for the buying and selling of lands traditionally held by peasants, and for landless ex-peasants to move to the cities. Even before emancipation in 1861, serfdom was on the wane in Russia. The proportion of serfs within the empire had gradually decreased "from 45-50 percent at the end of the eighteenth century, to 37.7 percent in 1858."

Popular revolts in late medieval Europe

See also

Other terms for "peasant"




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