Living Through an Echo of History


I have a somewhat miraculous view of literature.  It seems more often than not to be the case that when I reach into the many boxes of books that I’ve inherited and pick out something to read, almost at random, it has a direct relevance to things I’d already been thinking about.

This time, it’s Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941).  Fewer than 100 pages in, I’ve already got notes for myriad essays scribbled in the margins, but the following quotation, I just had to share.  It’s actually something Fromm quotes from Jacob Salwyn Schapiro’s doctoral dissertation Social reform and the Reformation (1909).

The time period described is the later part of the Middle Ages, as medieval society gave way:

Notwithstanding these evidences of prosperity, the condition of the peasantry was rapidly deteriorating.  At the beginning of the sixteenth century very few indeed were independent proprietors of the land they cultivated, with representation in the local diets, which in the Middle Ages was a sign of class independence and equality.  The vast majority were Hoerige, a class personally free but whose land was subject to dues, the individuals being liable to services according to agreement … It was the Hoerige who were the backbone of all the agrarian uprisings.  This middle-class peasant, living in a semi-independent community near the estate of the lord, became aware that the increase of dues and services was transforming him into a state of practical serfdom, and the village common into a part of the lord’s manor.

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve read a better description of what’s happening right now in any modern punditry.  All that’s required is to update the language and replace “Hoerige” with “productive class” and the lord with the government.

  • Warrington Faust

    Why is it that Europeans have forgotten that we are descendants of slaves? It struck me as a kid, reading Ivanhoe. In the opening passages it is noted that one of the characters, a serf, is wearing chain around his neck indicating the name of his owner. Wasn't there, so I don't know if this is literally true. I do know that serfs belonged to land and couldn't move. My own ancestors painted themselves blue and killed Romans with abandon (the Romans were afraid of the woods).