Friday, February 5, 2016

Serfdom in The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Serfs and Nobles in The Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth

As the fortunes of the nobility rose, those of the peasants declined

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Source: Subtelny, Ukraine: A History.
Galicia, Bukovina and Volhynia, parts of ancient and modern Ukraine and ancestral home of most of Ukrainian-Americans were once a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Coat of Arms of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest, most populated and diverse countries in Europe with a population of over eleven million people.  The Commonwealth was 50% Polish, 28% Ukrainian and 22% other, mainly Lithuanian, Belorussian, Jewish, German and Russian.  Existing unofficially since 1386, Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were united in 1569 by the Union of Lublin. Although the two countries were said to be equal, Poland was the dominant power.

The marriage of Queen Jadwiga of Poland and Jagiello of The Grand Duchy of Lithuanian sealed the Union of Lublin in 1539 and united The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Government of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth
The government of the Commonwealth was unlike any other in Europe. It was said that that the king reigns, but does not govern. There were three parts, the King, elected by the nobles, the Sejm, a legislative body made up of nobles, and the Senat, made of nobles who supervised the king.  The nobles received their privileges and land from military service.  Just to make sure that the nobles, who made up about 15% of the population, would never lose political rights and power, the Sejm had veto power on almost all important matters including law making, foreign policy, taxation, and the declaration of war.

The Economy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Most of the wealth of the Commonwealth was determined by ownership of land.  Nobles owned estates that varied in size, some owned one small manor, others had many estates as well as several villages and towns.  Ternopil was founded and owned by Jan Tarnowski as a military stronghold. Burghers, or people who lived in the towns, were the smallest group in the Commonwealth.  The population of the towns was made up of artisans and merchants.  The largest population, 80%, of the Commonwealth was peasants. 

Europe’s population grew in the 16th century. Inflation caused by the increase of Spanish silver and gold from the Americas contributed to food price increases of 800-100%. Much of the land in the Commonwealth was fertile and suitable for growing grain, mainly rye. Most of the grain was sold within the Commonwealth, but rivers flowing north made it easy to transport grain to the Baltic Sea and on to Western Europe.  In order to produce food grain more efficiently, land holding nobles transformed their estates into folwarki (plantations that grew food, mostly grain).  A cheap labor source was necessary, so demands on the peasants increased.  More and more free labor was needed, so peasants worked the estates as many as many as six days a week. Their rights diminished and their incomes decreased.

The boom lasted about 100 years.  The nobles benefited, peasants suffered.  Nobles gained more political power and limited the king’s power. There was no group in society to look out for the peasant’s welfare. This economy was a one-dimensional, based growing one product, grain.  Towns were ignored, did not grow and develop, and industries were not created.  As new sources of grain developed in other parts of the world, the economy of the Commonwealth suffered.  Estates failed and were bought and sold or rented to tenants.  By the middle of the 18thcentury, the Commonwealth was weak.

Peasants harvesting grain

The Peasants become Serfs.

Long before the Commonwealth was formed, the peasants of Poland and Lithuania were slowly losing their rights and freedom. Since the nobles controlled the political system, they could raise demands on the peasants at will.

In the 15th century, peasants owed noblemen duties for the right to use for their land.  The payment of these duties was usually in free labor and paying rents of some kind.  As long as the peasant performed his duties, he could not be removed from his land.  Peasants had the right to sell their land and to hand it down to heirs. Before 1550, landowners were not engaged in commercial agriculture, and produced food for their own needs. Much of the land on nobles estates were farmed by peasants, and as long as peasant obligations to the lord didn’t increase, their incomes rose. Some peasants did very well, owning 20-30 acre plots, as well as horses, oxen, pigs and cows. The grain boom of the 16th century, benefited the nobles and adversely changed peasant conditions.

In the early 16th century, the required two days of work on the landlord’s land increased to three, four or more days The peasants did not take these changes well, between 1490-92, there were peasant uprisings in Moldovia, Bukovina and Galicia.  The uprisings were quickly put down, cementing the nobles’ control over the peasants. In 1505, the Sejm forbid peasants to leave their village without the permission of the landlord. As the grain economy grew, laws passed by the Sejm changed to enforce more peasant obligations to the lord, and because of this they saw their standard of living decrease. The landlord was given the right to judge peasants, required that they use his mills and purchase alcohol from his taverns. Some nobles charged peasants a fee in order to marry. Peasants could no longer to run their own villages, landlords brought in outsiders to run them according to Polish law. By 1557, according to the Voloky Ustov, the right of peasants to own land was no longer recognized.  The peasant was unable to move, deprived of personal rights and exploited by the landlord.  By 1600, they were serfs, not much better off than slaves.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine
Subeltny, Orest, Ukraine, A History, Toronto, 1988