Surplus and Scarcity in Pre-Industrial Agriculture – Lessons from Austrian Manors

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SFS logoEditor’s Note: This is part of a monthly series showing the work of the Sustainable Farm Systems project

The Sustainable Farm Systems (SFS) project tackles the sustainability of agriculture from a diversity of perspectives. This international and interdisciplinary project pulls together various stories on energy and materials flowing through farming communities, the spread and diffusion of land use regimes across time and space and the evolution of nutrient dynamics in the long run. Our Austrian case study adds an important perspective. In looking at phenomena related to manorialism – the institutional “glue” holding together agrarian societies in Western Europe from the Middle Ages until the Liberal Reforms of 1848 – we put flesh on the bones of the stories on sustainable agriculture. Disentangling the complex web of social relations within farming communities, provides insights on the agents of agricultural – and maybe even sustainable – change.

The environmental history of Austria´s agriculture has widely been accepted as a history of backwardness. In the first half of the nineteenth century, main features of the “first agricultural revolution” – e.g. shortening or abandoning of fallow land, integration of leguminous crops into more complex rotations, introduction of stable keeping – were nearly absent in the core provinces of the Habsburg Empire. Agricultural thinkers of the time debated manorial structures and traditional feudal bonds as prime reasons for rural backwardness – at least until they were finally abolished in 1848. Peasants had few incentives to modernize their humble farmsteads and intensify land use on their small plots. They were obliged to deliver substantial fractions of their harvest to feudal lords as taxes and tithes. Additionally, regular compulsory (corvée) labour within the manorial economy impeded efficient and continuous cultivation of household fields, particularly during the peak of the harvest season. Also, Austrian landlords lost strategic interest in questions of agricultural modernization of their large demesne landholdings on the eve of industrialization. Accordingly, most of the landlords had never been on any field in person or seen the stables from the inside. Ploughing fields, yoking a horse and bringing in the harvest were considered peasant activities solely, and not part of their noble business.

Grafenegg
Grafenegg castle on a gloomy autumn morning (photograph of the author)

Numerous similar accounts on seigneurial agriculture can be found in archives across the country. Accordingly, many of today´s rural and economic historians have re-told different facets of this story on agricultural stagnation. Using socio-ecological methods developed as part of the larger SFS project, our case study challenges this assumption. The estate of Grafenegg, one of the wealthiest and politically most important manorial systems in Early Modern Austria, serves as our principal area of investigation.

Kamp_merged1
The Franciscan cadastre, showing the centre of Grafenegg manor (upper left corner) and the adjacent village of Kamp. (With friendly support from Bundesamt für Eich- und Vermessungswesen, www.bev.gv.at)

Rich archival material enables us to explore the most important socio-ecological relations between landlords and peasants, their farms, animals and fields. To do so, we have integrated some of the most promising sources of Austria´s agricultural history. The Franziszeischer Kataster (Franciscean cadastre) is a comprehensive land survey covering the whole Habsburg Monarchy (530.000 km2 in total). Unlike earlier (and mostly incomplete) attempts in the 18th century, the Franciscean cadastre provides a solid and scientifically valid basis for tax calculation across the empire. From 1817 to 1856, Habsburg expert commissions undertook a series of geodetic in-field surveys on the level of single land parcels for each of the villages in the provinces. Numerous maps (scale 1: 2.880) were created, showing very detailed landscape elements down to a 1m resolution.

This land survey – and all the documentation that comes with it – gives very detailed information on the peasant economy (yields, rotations, livestock numbers, forestry, etc.) and may be considered one of the most important sources for agricultural and land use history in Austria. Still, it lacks detailed insights into manorial resource use, as the state did not levy any taxes on noble estates. To fill this blind spot in Austria´s agricultural landscape we rely on another promising – yet under-researched – source for agricultural and environmental history: the Naturalhauptbuch (NHB). These manorial bookkeeping records were issued by seigneurial bailiffs administering demesne agriculture and provide comprehensive data on the manorial agro-business. They give detailed account on annual stocks, inputs and outputs to and from the manorial farmsteads, and therefore allow us to trace important resources flowing through the entire manorial system.

This land survey – and all the documentation that comes with it – gives very detailed information on the peasant economy (yields, rotations, livestock numbers, forestry, etc.) and may be considered one of the most important sources for agricultural and land use history in Austria. Still, it lacks detailed insights into manorial resource use, as the state did not levy any taxes on noble estates. To fill this blind spot in Austria´s agricultural landscape we rely on another promising – yet under-researched – source for agricultural and environmental history: the Naturalhauptbuch (NHB). These manorial bookkeeping records were issued by seigneurial bailiffs administering demesne agriculture and provide comprehensive data on the manorial agro-business. They give detailed accounts of annual stocks, as well as inputs and outputs to and from the manorial farmsteads, and therefore allow us to trace important resources flowing through the entire manorial system.

We use the rich information from these two sources to investigate the distribution of central resources within manorial agriculture. Our assessment of the respective availability of food, land and labour for each of the landlords´ and peasants´ farms yielded surprising results. We did not find too much stagnation or backwardness in our reconstructions. Instead, what we found was a more complex picture. Grafenegg landlords ran large agro-businesses with plenty of natural and monetary capital at their disposal. The demesne economy was highly differentiated on the inside: the peasants formed the main workforce running the huge enterprise – from direct physical cultivation of the manorial fields to more specialized tasks, e.g. sheep rearing, brick making, milling, and bookkeeping. Within the manorial economy, access to food was strikingly unequal. We found that the landlords monopolized approximately a third of the total food produced in the system! This significant share was drained out of the local land use system and sold on regional markets, so that heavily needed foodstuffs were redirected towards the growing urban, commercial and manufacturing centres. This huge surplus extraction created a situation of stark scarcity for the peasants and pushed them towards the edge of subsistence – which may account for the “stagnation” and “backwardness” found in so many sources and histories.

How did the peasants react to this situation of scarcity? How did they make a living under the conditions of severe subsistence pressure? One option was to engage in the Grafenegg labour market to create a modest monetary income. Our estimates suggest that already 30% of the potential labour time available sufficed to cultivate the entire demesne. Therefore, we may assume that the peasants heavily competed on the local labour market. We needed to look for their alternative strategies. In sharp contrast to many writers in Austrian historiography, our data lets us believe that the second option was of utmost importance – intensification of land use. To raise agricultural production, peasants invested more labour into the same – and limited – plots of land. But this increase in production did not come without costs. Intensification created severe pressure on the local agroecosystems, as it accelerated soil mining and environmental degradation. The Grafenegg case shows that pressure on the peasants was translated into pressure on the land, threatening the sustainability of the whole manorial agricultural system.

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Michael Neundlinger

BA in Social Anthropology, BA in History, MSc in Social Ecology is PhD candidate at the Institute of Social Ecology (SEC) Vienna at Alpen-Adria Universitaet Klagenfurt. His research focuses on resource use and distribution in pre-industrial agro-ecosystems. He has gained experience in interdisciplinary research collaborating with the Center for Environmental History in Vienna (2009 and 2011), with Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich (2010) , with Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (2011) and Historical GIS Lab at University of Saskatchewan (2014). He has attended several conferences and workshops on Environmental History and Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research and is member of the Danube Environmental History Initiative (DEHI) network and the European Rural History Organistation (EURHO). Recently, Neundlinger has worked and published on the interdisciplinary Environmental History of Vienna from the 18th to the 20th century. Currently, he is working on the long-term sustainability of Austrian agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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