What was Peasant Life Like? Our Daily Bread: German Village Life 1500-1850
Most history books give you plain facts… you learn about wars, you learn who was king, and where the borders changed. What you don’t usually get, is what was it LIKE to be a peasant and have battles raging around you? To actually struggle to feed a family? What was German Village life really LIKE? Fortunately, “Our Daily Bread: German Village Life 1500-1850” by Teva J Scheer opens up that world in a completely engaging way that answers all of those questions.
Our Daily Bread: German Village Life, 1500-1850
Now, it would be really easy for this book to be another recitation of facts. Maybe some lists of foods and jobs, or statistics on how many people and villages there were in “Germany” (I put it in quotes, because Germany as we know it today didn’t quite exist as a stand alone country at the time). Teva Scheer makes the past accessible by creating the family of Johann Adam Mann, a villager in Baden-Würtetemberg, and letting us follow along in their lives. Life, death, work, worship, marriage, childbirth, and expectations; It’s all there.
What did Villagers eat? (I was surprised how few vegetables were in their diet…) How did Villagers worship? (The Thirty Years War made some serious changes.) How did the social Hierarchy work? (Truly there wasn’t much upward movement. Born to a Cooper family, you can expect to take on that trade….). What role did of each family member play… from Husband to Wife and down to each child.
Life in a German Village
The book is broken down by topic rather than chronological. It begins with an overall social structure, describing the politics and religion in the world around the Village. Not everything that we read in our history books affected small towns… but there was a trickling down effect. Taxes and loyalties to higher ups were part of daily life.
One of the more eye-opening parts (to me) was when the villagers were read the new rules of their “Gerichtsherr” (Overlord). My Oma and cousins lived outside a Dorf (small village), and I always thought some of the “rules” were a bit restricting. Turns out, most of the Dorfordnungen (village rules) were set in place hundreds of years ago. What you may or may not do… when things must be done… what is shown, and what is hidden… who is welcome, and who isn’t. It reminded me of my childhood visits. Everyone knew me, because I was an “outsider” from California… yet I was still sort of one of them. Window shades must be opened by a certain time so no one would think you are lazy. And sidewalks are swept!
A Year in the Life of a Peasant
What was a year in the life of a peasant like? Villagers were tied to the land, and it all revolved around the Church calendar. Bauern Regeln dictated planting and harvest times. Farming even came with rules. Crop rotation was the law so that land wouldn’t be worn out from overuse. The rule of Primogeniture, the oldest son inheriting everything, helped keep the land together, was set up to keep land from being split for inheritance. Every generation family plots would become smaller, until families couldn’t provide for themselves with their own property.
My favorite chapter was The Village Year. Season by season… beginning and ending with Advent… the year in the life of a family in a German Village is described. It’s amazing how much is the same (mostly the holiday celebrations). But it’s also nice to see how far we have come (social status is much less fixed in the 21st Century).
I picked this book up to do some background reading before heading to the Emigration Museum in Bremerhaven. I was curious. WHY did so many Germans emigrate? What was life like in Germany… and what was it like for them to take the leap? “Our Daily Bread” follows one of Johann’s family members as he heads to the new world (In this case, he sails to New Orleans, which ties in to my recent visit to the Deutsches Haus. The world really can be small some days). It made the cramped quarters of a sailing ship carrying Emigrants exhibit in Bremerhaven seem more real to me.
At around 200 pages, “Our Daily Bread: German Village Live 1500-1850” is not tremendously long. Still, this little book packs in loads of information. And truly, it goes a LONG way to explaining why Germans are the hardworking and fun loving people that they are today.
Find “Our Daily Bread: German Village Life , 1500-1850 Here
It may not be a typical “beach read”, but you will find yourself caught up in the past!