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A Protestant Pastor on Courtship and Marriage among Propertied Farmers and Tenant Farmers in Westphalia (1786)

This text describes a region in which relatively prosperous landed farmers leased cottagers’ plots to families who supplied necessary seasonal agricultural labor and otherwise occupied themselves with flax spinning in a rural, proto-industrial setting. The author, a prudish pastor, emphasizes, as many such commentators across Western Europe did, the young unmarried cottagers’ lack of discipline and their defiance of conservative sexual codes.

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“On the Ravensberg Peasant”

Johann Mortiz Schwager

[ . . . ]

The relation of a tenant farmer [Kötter] to his landlord is essentially a far worse slavery than the serfdom of the farmer himself. For a reasonable rent payable to his farmer, whom he and the domestics call his landlord, the tenant farmer is given a humble dwelling and just enough land for him to grow the minimum of necessary vegetables and to support a cow in the summer. [ . . . ] In exchange, the tenant is the farmer’s serf, at his call he must show up to work with his wife and children, for which he is paid, yet the poor tenant often has to neglect more work at home than the days’ wages are worth to him. The only thing that can make his slavery more palatable for him is the familiarity with which he treats the landlord and the landlord treats him, and the credit the landlord extends to him. In the winter the landlord only needs the tenant for threshing. [ . . . ] Thus the tenant and his family spend the winter spinning in order to repay their debt. He has grown the flax himself since the landlord rents out the land to him during the summer and cultivates it for him. As long as the flax grows, he is spared any illness, and his children are five to six years old so they can help him spin, the tenant is able to live and spare a little money for himself; but if his cow, his biggest treasure, dies or his wife is too fertile or a member of his family is ill for some time, he is ruined and can hardly recover. His poverty is usually self-inflicted, however. Young folk enters matrimony too early, boys of eighteen marry girls of sixteen, seventeen years, and instead of saving up they make debts. Such a marriage produces many children, and the slightest misfortune will set this couple so far back that recovery is out of sight. This [ . . . ] poverty [ . . . ] is caused by nothing else but moral decline. [ . . . ] Due to the now common familiarity of the sexes and the shameless abandon with which even seemingly honorable people speak of things which the ear of no young man and no maiden should hear, certain urges are developed and ferment too early among the local rural population. Since the young men are encouraged rather than discouraged by the girls the sexual instinct is satisfied without consideration of the consequences. A farmer’s daughter would risk too much by following her inclination, for her greatest ambition is to become a farmer’s wife on a good farm, and that is what makes her remain virtuous. A tenant farmer’s daughter, however, knows no greater happiness than having a man, and among this class of people the male sex is the demure one and the female sex goes courting. The sons of our tenant farmers are too poor to pay off a dishonored girl, so they take her for want of money, and it is easy to guess how such a marriage will work out. [ . . . ] This is exactly why the common girl enjoys giving herself as well as seducing so much. In her way she knows the art of coquetry just as well as a lady and just as unashamedly bares her bosom and other parts halfway since it helps more than fully. If the young man remains prudish, she helps his senses along with some brandy, and if he does not follow her invitation to her bed she will visit him in his. This usually is the whole plot of the novel, begun at the end. The marriage which soon follows and the poverty which accompanies it quickly kill any spark of tenderness, if it still exists, and childbed will cause the first painful expenditures. There was never any mutual respect and thus such a marriage becomes a marriage of savages held together by necessity and animal instincts only.

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