May 13, 2011 – 12:42pm by BellBS
Most Germans lived in rural areas between the 17th and 19th century. In the 18th century, statistics show that this was true for about 80% of the population. Most farmers were not owners of the land. The land belonged to wealthy land owners, and the cultivator of the land was a mere servant and in many instances, a serf. If a farmer was treated as a serf, he had no personal freedom, i.e., he was not able to marry without consent of his sovereign lord, he could not move anywhere else and could not sell or obtain land. Therefore, few people were able to sell out. If they did, they were free of obligations towards the authorities and could buy, sell, lease, inherit, etc., without interference. Still, their business was recorded.
People who were put in charge of land and a working farm were able to pass it on with the understanding that the successor would ensure the same care and yield as the previous user did. If a farmer died, several scenarios could take place. The farmland could be divided among all heirs or be given to the oldest or youngest son while other brothers and sisters received monetary compensations. If a farmer had no heir, the sovereign or manor lord took back the property and gave it to another farmer who could be a relative of the deceased.
All members of a farming community had to develop a fine-tuned working relationship with each other. This did not work smoothly at all times. There were disputes. People would let their cattle graze on fields just ploughed or cattle would trespass an area not yet harvested, for example. This happened because the farming land was divided into narrow strips, therefore not easily accessible.
The social hierarchy of a village was determined by the size of farmland and personal property. People with little or no property found themselves at the bottom on the social ranking. These were the sons and daughters of farmers who were not entitled to inherit the farm. The number of people in such predicament grew steadily after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). They had to work as day laborers or seasonal workers and had to be very creative to make ends meet. Many bought looms and made money by weaving.
Whether your ancestor was lucky to run a farm or was a day laborer, he left behind records of his business or labor. Such records can be found today in state or private archives.
For information on German archives, see the Germany Archives and Libraries article in the FamilySearch Research Wiki.
View from Divi Blasii Church tower, Muehlhausen, Thueringen, Deutschland, 2008.