Beyond the Village: Recent Approaches to the Social History of the Early Modern German Peasantry



The early modern Germany peasantry emerged as an historical subject in its own right in the 1960s. The first generation of this research gained a mainstream readership partly by appealing for a more ‘democratic’ history, but also by grounding peasant history in a wider interpretive framework indebted to Marxism, in which economic transformation stemmed from class formation, while meaningful political change was driven by class conflict. Although it succeeded in making the first generation of early modern peasant history matter to a wider audience, this class-based framework not only no longer enjoys widespread support, but also has not been replaced in the work of peasant historians with a similarly compelling substitute. As a result, while a great deal of research continues to be published on the early modern German peasantry, its readership is increasingly confined to specialists. All is not lost, however, for with conceptions like ‘economic sociability’ and ‘state-formation from below,’ the best recent research suggests ways of reconnecting the history of the early modern peasantry to wider social and political narratives. The article concludes by surveying some of the kinds of archival resources through which these new frameworks could be investigated.