This article gives some insight into the life of the southern German farmer (Bauer) in past centuries. The life of an individual was determined only partly by obligations to the landlord or the church. More than anything else, the social class into which he was born determined his life in the village. Knowledge of the basic rules of rural life in the past, gives us an opportunity to reflect our own current lifestyle.
There were three social classes in each village in the area that is now called Baden-Wuerttemberg, during the period 1500 to 1800, and perhaps even to 1900.
The first class consisted of wealthy farmers, ca 2-5%. They possessed the big farms. Generally, a small part of their big farm was owned by them and the larger part was obtained by fief from a landlord or the church or a monastery. Also, these farmers occupied the important village positions like governor, judge, etc. (when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return)
The second class was made up of common farmers, ca 60 to 80%. They obtained land also by fief. These farmers worked hard and usually were able to have a modest standard of living for themselves and their families.
The third class consisted of the day laborers (Tageloehner), ca 20 to 40%. They worked for the other farmers for daily wages. They were very, very poor and had many children, many of whom died immediately after birth.
Most of the farmers had a sideline occupation which was usually handed down from father to son.
Upper-class: an occupation that brought in the most money: innkeeper
Middle-class: a smith, cartwright, cooper, tailor, shoemaker, etc.
Lower-class: a weaver, ropemaker, tanner, etc.
There was one profession which has to be considered separately: the millers. Generally they were wealthy, often very rich, but they also had a very bad moral image. It was said that they were not always honest (e.g. they would mix flour with sand or gypsum) and, they were considered to be highly immoral. The last statement is based on the fact that the mills were naturally located outside the village fortification walls. It was at the miller's location that events took place which the village would not tolerate within its own walls (prostitution, gambling, excessive drinking/partying).
The word “Bauer” (farmer) not only denoted the occupation of a farmer but was also used as a title. A “Bauer” had to have at least two horses and/or bulls and one plow. A wealthy first-class Bauer had six horses and a net worth of more than 1000 florin. On the other hand a third class “Tageloehner” possessed not much more than a cottage, a vegetable garden and possibly a cow and some chickens. In order to get a feeling for their wealth and poverty, here are some figures from approximately 1800: a good horse cost about 100 florin, a bull about 40 florin, and an old cow 15 florin. The daily (12 hour day) wage for a “Tageloehner” was six Kreuzer, which is 1/10 of a florin.
Before about 1820, marriage was allowed only with the permission of the landlord. First, the engaged couple had to pay the landlord for his permission (2 to 10 florin). Second, the couple had to prove to him and to the community that they would be able to support themselves and their children without any outside help. A net worth of 100 to 200 florin was required before marriage. Since many engaged couples could not come up with that sum of money, a large number of people remained unmarried. Illegitimate births were a frequent occurrence. The parents of illegitimate children were punished heavily. Both were subjected to a painful interrogation by the village judges and fined. The maximum allowable fine was about 12 florin. A worse fate was to be exposed publicly on Sunday in front of the church, the woman with a straw garland on her head and the man with a straw sword at his side. Because of these difficult conditions, many emigrated to Hungary and Russia, mainly before 1800, and to America after 1800, often not asking the landlord for permission because he would require some remuneration (dozens of guilders).
For the most part, emigrants were recruited from the middle and lower classes. Often a family group put all of their money together in order for one of their sons to emigrate. They hoped that he would earn enough money in the New World to pay for their crossing later. In many cases, this happened. Upperclass people only emigrated if the farm had been willed to one son who then gave his brothers some money to emigrate or find a new existence outside the village. The farm was usually willed to the youngest son.
Another social group for emigration consisted of those persons who were a permanent burden to the community, eg: extremely poor families, unmarried or widowed women with children, violent persons and prisoners. In these cases the community paid partly or fully for the crossing. In 1884, the fee for Bremen to New York crossing was 80 Mark (about 60 florin).
Names and Ancestral Research
An important consideration for family researchers is the fact that marriage between classes was nearly impossible. At best, intermarrying of classes took place only after disasters like a war or a plague. The result of all this was that all families within each class of a village and its neighboring villages were related, as long as they belonged to the same landlord. This is good for finding ancestors relatives but bad for identifying specific individuals because many people had the same name, both given and family names. Researchers must bear in mind that before 1800 in the area of Baden-Wuerttemberg, there were more than 100 tiny counties with jealous landlords. It was not until 1806 that the Grandduchy of Baden and the Kingdom of Wuerttemberg were created by Napoleon.
In a typical Catholic village, two thirds of all sons were named Johann or Jakob and two thirds of all daughters were named Maria or Anna. The rest were named after Saints, especially the local ones. Sometimes the children were named after the landlord or infrequently, after the present or deceased sovereign, provided he was respected or beloved.
Village Government Officials
There were rights for self administration and self jurisdiction of the villages. The head of the village was the governor. The landlord selected him from the members of the community. Under him two or three mayors were selected by the community. Sometimes communities owned considerable amounts of land and forest for common use.
Note: our ancestors dating back to the mid-1500s must have lived under these conditions until about 1800. David