In the 1648-1815 era, sometimes expansively conceived as “the long eighteenth century,” pre-industrial society in Germany reached its fullest flowering, while it also sank the roots of the industrialism that would later overshadow it. Rural life attained its peak of complexity, displaying a populous landscape of villages, manorial seats and hamlets serving them, market towns, pastoral and forest enterprises, and the many rural industries, notably milling, that depended on water power and wind. Eighty or ninety percent of the German population lived in such settings. Among town dwellers, more lived in medium-sized market and administrative centers numbering a few thousand or tens of thousands of inhabitants than in big cities, such as Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Munich, and Vienna, whose populations only slowly rose toward or beyond one hundred thousand souls.
Village farmers (Bauern or “peasants”) were either fullholders with lands large enough to sustain their families from mixed cereal-livestock agriculture alone (on average soils, twenty to forty acres would have barely sufficed, and many peasant farms were much bigger), or they were halfholders or smallholders, living partly from cultivating their fields and partly from wage-labor for others, sometimes including seasonal cottage industry, notably spinning and weaving, but also simple woodworking and metal crafts. Virtually all landed villagers were legal subjects of one or another old-established lordship [Herrschaft]: seigneurial power exercised by the landed nobility or, in the case of villages bowing to the Catholic Church or a territorial ruler, by sub-officials or tenant-farmers leasing ecclesiastical or princely estates. Lordship entailed responsibility for maintaining local courts and police services (including insalubrious but sometimes escapable jails), cooperating in upholding religious life and associated charitable works, and in helping collect taxes and conscript soldiers.
Subject villagers typically held their lands in hereditary tenure, whether de facto or de jure. Often, but not always, they were free to sell their holdings among themselves, though rural culture greatly prized undiminished inheritance across the generations. Among commoners subject to seigneurial lordship, payment of rent – historians sometimes call it “feudal rent” – was universal. Such obligation might be met in natural payments (especially in grain), in cash, or in labor-services (for example, minimally, a few days yearly of work on seigneurial land or, maximally, three days weekly or more of such labor, employing – in the case of levies on largeholding farmers – two farmhands and a team of horses).
Labor services loomed large in peasant rent wherever the seigneurial lords maintained large manor-farms of their own, producing crops for near or distant markets. Such conditions prevailed especially in northern and eastern (east-Elbian) Germany, most significantly in the Kingdom of Prussia, whose landed nobility figure in the historical literature as “the Junkers” (a medieval word for young noblemen [junger Herr]). The Junkers’ large estates often profitably shipped their grain surpluses from river and Baltic ports to Germany’s burgeoning cities or western Europe. Their subject villagers rendered heavy labor services, and were, in a few regions, tied to their natal villages as serfs [Leibeigene].