Medieval European Peasants
The relative position of peasants in Western Europe improved greatly when the Black Death unsettled the demography of medieval Europe in the mid-14th century.
In the wake of this disruption to the established order, later centuries saw the invention of the printing press, the development of widespread literacy and the enormous social and intellectual changes of the Enlightenment.
The evolution of ideas in an environment of relatively widespread literacy laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, which enabled mechanically- and chemically-augmented agricultural production while simultaneously increasing the demand for factory workers in cities. Urban factory-workers, with their low skill and large numbers, quickly came to occupy the socio-economic stratum formerly the preserve of the medieval peasants.
This process happened in an especially pronounced and truncated way in Eastern Europe. Lacking any catalysts for change in the 14th century, Eastern European peasants largely continued upon the original medieval path until the 18th and 19th centuries. Serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861, and while many peasants would remain in areas where their family had farmed for generations, the changes did allow for the buying and selling of lands traditionally held by peasants, and for landless ex-peasants to move to the cities. Even before emancipation in 1861, serfdom was on the wane in Russia. The proportion of serfs within the empire had gradually decreased "from 45-50 percent at the end of the eighteenth century, to 37.7 percent in 1858."
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