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The Legal Status of Subject Villagers in Prussia, as reflected in the General Law Code for the Prussian States (1794)

Before the peasant emancipation [Bauernbefreiung] of the early nineteenth century, every village farmer stood in law as a subject [Untertan] under a seigneurial lord, usually a landed nobleman entrusted with rural jurisdiction, but often also an administrator (whether bourgeois or noble) of a large-scale royal domain farm. Towns, too, sometimes administered village subjects. The titles by which such villagers held the lands they tilled varied, though in practice most were hereditary. Rents owed to the lordships might be rendered in cash or in kind, as labor services, or as a combination. Contentious issues included villagers’ property rights, personal mobility, and labor obligations to their seigneurial overlords, as well as the temptations lordships faced to enclose peasant land in their own seigneurial estates. The General Law Code for the Prussian States (1794) displays the contradictions of viewing subject villagers both as “free citizens of the state” and as seigneurial tenants bound by numerous longstanding seigneurial powers which, in some cases, amounted to personal serfdom (though the code, like customary law before it, put limits on seigneurial caprice).

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Part Seven. On the Peasantry [Village Farmers]

First Section. On the Peasantry in General.

Who Is a Peasant:

1. Members of the peasant class [“estate”] are all inhabitants of the open countryside who are directly engaged in cultivation of the soil and other agriculture, insofar as they are not excluded from this class through noble birth, office-holding, or special rights.

2. Whoever belongs to the peasant class may not, without the state’s permission, ply a bourgeois [urban] occupation, or commit his children to such occupations. [ . . . ]

3. Such types of handicrafts or industry, apart from cultivation of the soil and other agriculture, as may be pursued in the countryside without special permission are specified in the following section. [These included milling, blacksmithing, small-scale tailoring and linen-weaving, and limited tavern- and innkeeping.] [ . . . ]

General Rights and Duties of the Peasantry.

8. Every rural dweller is obliged to efficiently cultivate his landholding and help meet the needs of the communal livelihood. [ . . . ]

14. The number of peasant landholdings in the countryside may not be diminished, either through enclosure of their farmsteads and lands [into noble or state demesne land] or their amalgamation into larger units. [ . . . ]

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