In western and southern Germany, lordship rarely entailed large-estate enterprise on the east-Elbian model. Seigneurial authorities generally confined themselves to levying cash or natural rents on subject villagers, whose occasional servile legal status justified additional extractions, particularly death-duties. Only along the North Sea coast did a freeholding German peasantry, independent of seigneurialism, exist in significant and compact numbers.
Crucial to the landed villagers were less the facts of lordship and legal subjection than the size and productivity of their landholdings, and the combined bite of rent, taxes, and – not only in Catholic regions – tithes. Subjection and serfdom might hold farmers against their will, but more often the villagers’ aim was to occupy desirable farms in their native regions and live well, by their own standards, from them. In western and southern Germany, the impediment to this was population growth and the fragmentation of peasant farms through partible inheritance (that is, the division of farms among heirs). Here, the number of marginal smallholdings proliferated over time, while numerous landless householders and renters dependent on wage-labor and seasonal cottage industry emerged.
In east-Elbian Germany, the large-estate system – a form of “commercialized manorialism” – depended on fullholding peasants and their horsepower for its labor needs. Consequently, while a long-term expansion of smallholders and cottagers occurred here as well, the core of the numerous large peasant farms remained intact. For their possessors, the great challenge was to minimize the burden of feudal rent, and especially weekly labor services. These became the source of interminable conflict, both in the fields, the seigneurial courts, and the royal appeals courts.
Farming families’ well-being depended less on legal status than on material assets, especially in land, and on the rents they paid. Peasant prosperity displayed itself in diet, clothing, dowries and marriage portions bestowed by parents on children marrying away from the farm, and in provisions for the retirement of elders. A solid standard of farmstead living might just as well be encountered in East Prussia or Brandenburg as in Bavaria or the Rhineland. The Protestant freeholders of the North Sea coast, immune to feudal rent and tithes, collectively fared best of all (though their numbers were not great).
Virtually every village possessed its poverty-prone, land-poor or landless fringe population, whose presence grew, especially as the population mushroomed after 1763. For if recovery from the losses of the Thirty Years War lingered into the 1720s, a generation or two later demographic pressure began building, especially in regions with partible inheritance. Though pre-modern statistics must be compiled from disparate sources, and while the extent of losses in the great seventeenth-century war is controversial, the following approximations of the Holy Roman Empire’s population (mainly German, but not including German communities to the east of the Empire’s borders, nor excluding Czech speakers in Austria’s Bohemian-Moravian lands) reflect wide consensus: 1618 – 21 million; 1650 – 16 million; 1700 – 21 million; 1750 – 23 million; 1800 – 31 million. By 1815, and in some regions well before then, self-sufficient farming families constituted, on average, only a minority of the village population (perhaps one-third, more or less). Alongside them, the marginal land-tillers and landless villagers would have ranked, roughly, as equally large groups.