Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/February 1880/Hanoverian Village Life



THE Hanoverian village of E—— lies a few miles distant from a famous university town, in a district which still maintains many old-time customs, and which presents, therefore, a curious image of German rural life thirty or forty years ago.

The approach to E—— from G—— is very pretty. The thorough culture of German fields and the absence of fences make a rural prospect especially pleasing to an American. At the foot of a low hill, and completely embowered in green, lay E——, with nothing of it visible as we neared it except the church-steeple and the red-tiled roofs of the principal houses. My lodgings were in a house near the church; my room—the best in the house—commanding a view and smell of the stable and barnyard, with its manure-heap, which we passed on our way from the street to the front door. I still wonder why in E—— the parlor, dining-room, and best sleeping-rooms are made to face the barnyard, while the kitchen and servants' rooms look out upon a pretty garden in which the family spends most of its summer days.

The commune or village of E—— has about six hundred inhabitants. It has no manufactures, and all its people, even its officials except the clergymen, live either partly or entirely upon the produce of the soil tilled by themselves. The tilled land is very minutely subdivided, the pasturage and forest-lands being held and used in common, while the laws and customs governing this use, and the general system of land tenure, culture, and improvement, are in many ways curious to an American.

The land belonging to the commune or village of E—— is divided into tillable, pasture, and wood land. The tilled land amounts to eleven hundred and forty acres, and is owned in plots of from thirty to fifty acres. The Bauermeister, or head of the village, owns one hundred and fifty acres, but he is exceptionally wealthy. The church lands are two hundred and eighty acres, and there are also two hundred and ten acres owned by a noble family, non-resident. The tillable church-lands are let to factory and railroad laborers in small plots, and the women of these tenants form a part of the general laboring force in the harvest-season.

Twenty acres is the least amount of land that a peasant, who lives on the produce of his farm alone, can cultivate profitably in this region, and the living thus obtained is so miserable that those who own so little generally eke out their subsistence by renting land from richer farmers. Sixty acres of the land around E—— have been set apart, by old usage, as common, on which those of the villagers who own "village rights" graze their animals, and from which they get clay and stone for building and a certain amount of hay for winter use. The extreme subdivision of the land around E—— is the result

of the laws which govern the inheritance of land in the province. At the death of the head of the family his land is divided equally among his children, his wife having first taken out of the estate the amount of money or land she brought her husband at marriage, and, in addition to this, a part equal to the share of one of the children. The mother's property at her death goes to the children in the same way.

Church-lands can be sold when the consent of the minister, church trustees, and church government has been obtained, but such sales rarely take place. Land belonging to the commune as commons can not be sold unless special authority has first been given by the state. The highest value I heard set on any land in E—— was three hundred dollars an acre for a garden-spot in the village itself. Land near E—— is not worth so much as near some of the towns around it, because it has never been verkoppelt or "married," as the process is called, by means of which a peasant obtains one compact farm in exchange for a dozen or more widely scattered, small fields. This Verkoppelung and the laws and customs which make such a process necessary show so much of the German farmer's mode of life that I will explain the manner in which it is carried out: In accordance with the laws which govern inheritance, each daughter must receive either at her marriage or at the death of her parents a certain share, varying with the number of children, of all the land belonging to her parents. The chances are, of course, very much against the land which she thus inherits adjoining that of her husband, so that, in the first generation, the family have two fields which may be a mile or two apart. Now, when this couple die, each one of their children receives its share, not of the whole, but of each field owned by the parents. Suppose this process to go on for a century, and it will be readily understood that a peasant may own thirty or forty fields, each containing but a small fraction of an acre, and no two of which lie together. To remedy the evils of this system, Verkoppelung commissions were created for each province by the state, which also undertook the draining, irrigation, and laying out of roads through the land on which they worked.

Any landholder in a village may, by merely notifying the district magistrate, call a meeting of the farmers to consider whether the land of the village shall be verkoppelt, but, if less than half the landowners respond to the call, or if a majority are against the measure, the caller of the meeting has to pay its legal expenses. If half the landowners respond, and the question is favorably decided, notice is at once sent by the magistrate to the general Verkoppelung commission. This commission decides whether the village meeting did its work in a legal way, and, if the requisite amount of red tape proves to have been used, appoints an inferior commission to see that the roads, canals, and ditches are properly placed, and to be responsible for the honest performance of the work to be done. The first work of this commission is to register the value of the land owned by each farmer; then the land is ditched, and canals and roads are built. After the work is finished, all the land of the village is divided into a certain number of grades, generally eight, the first of which contains the best farming land; the remainder containing continually poorer and poorer land until in the last are placed the mountain pasture-fields. Upon each one of these subdivisions a value is then set by the commission; the total value put upon the land being, of course, equal to the value of all the village land before the Verkoppelung. The commission then retires, and a farmers' meeting is called to ratify its valuation. If at this meeting any one objects to the value set upon any piece of land, his objection is noted and sent to the general commission, and, if thought to be reasonable, the land is valued anew; but, if the question is decided adversely to the objector, he has still the right to refuse to take the land in dispute, and it can not be forced upon him. If, however, a considerable number of objections are made to the valuation, a new inferior commission is appointed, this time from among the farmers who have objected to the former valuation; and the decision of this last commission is final, no appeal being allowed.

The preliminaries having been successfully adjusted, the general commission then allots to each farmer arbitrarily an amount of land equal in value, although perhaps not in quantity, to that he had before his land was taken. Whenever there is pasture-land among that belonging to the village, each farmer receives, after the Verkoppelung, a certain amount of it; in which case his farm lies in two parts. The average cost per acre of the whole process is about five dollars, and this is assessed on each peasant according to the value of the land he receives. In case any farmer can not pay his share of the expenses, his land is sold, just as it would be for unpaid taxes.

When a person has land to let, he sends notice to the town crier, who then parades the streets, beating a drum and stopping at each corner to announce that such a person has so much land which will be rented on such a day. On the day mentioned, all those interested meet in the public square, and a lawyer, or the village magistrate, states to the assembly the quantity and location, and the general terms on which it will be rented. He then auctions off the lot field by field. The highest price paid per acre per year, in E——, is seven dollars and fifty cents, and poor land rents as low as twelve cents a year. Leases run from six to eighteen years. Each renter of land deposits with the magistrate, at whose office his lease is drawn up, a sum of money equal to the rental of the land he has taken for one year, and in most cases for two years. The money thus deposited remains with the justice during the whole term for which the land is rented, and is then returned to the depositor if he has paid everything due the landowner. The amount of ready money thus required is so great that farmers can seldom afford to rent more than a few acres of land. Owing in part to the excessively high rent paid for land, and in part to this deposit, farmers can make little more than their living expenses from rented land. In fact, even those who own their land are glad to get through the year without having to run in debt or to deny themselves some of the necessaries of life.

Without exception, the methods of cultivation employed around E—— would be thought in this country old-fashioned and inefficient. Even such simple tools as the scythe and cradle are seldom used, almost all the grain being cut handful after handful with a sickle, and then carefully laid out to dry before being bound into small bundles. A whole family works day after day over the grain, handling each straw at least three times, and yet showing no trace of mental fatigue at the (to me) awful monotony of the work. I could only wonder at the temerity of a government which dares to educate a people before whom, from their childhood, lies nothing but the prospect of drudgery so constant and so stupefying. The farmers, to economize time, generally do their threshing at night, rising for this purpose at twelve or one o'clock, and working at it until it is time for their regular day's labor to begin.

Grains of different sorts and leguminous plants are the main crops grown around E——, to which each farmer adds whatever he needs for his own use. In most cases, also, they do a little market-gardening for the neighboring city market. According to the method by which all the land belonging to the community of E—— is cultivated, the whole arable soil of the village is divided without regard to private ownership into three parts, called Winter, Sommer, and Brachfeld, or fallow. In the Winterfeld are grown those crops which are planted in the fall, or early in the spring—being for E—— mainly rye and wheat. The Sommerfeld has the spring-sown crops, of which barley and oats are good examples. The Brachfeld is, as its name denotes, allowed to lie entirely fallow, or at most is used for pasture, or for the growth of such light crops as esparsette and the legumes. Next year the Brachfeld of the former year becomes Winterfeld; the former Winterfeld is used for Sommerfeld; and so on year after year, and century after century.

A part of the commune-land is used as pasture, and on it each person holding a village right may pasture a certain number of cattle, sheep, pigs, and geese. A second part is meadow-land, and every twelve years this is divided into as many parts as there are holders of village rights, and each one receives a share, of which he has the exclusive use until the redivision at the end of the duodecade. Still a third part of the commune-land is planted with fruit-trees; the produce of which is sold for the benefit of the communal treasury. A fourth, and largest part, is planted with forest-trees, and from it each person receives yearly a certain amount of building and fire wood.

During the months when farm-work is possible the peasants in E—— rise between four and five, and, after a breakfast of coffee, sausage, and bread, go at once to the fields. At half-past nine or ten the whole family sit down in the field and eat black bread, washed down with a kind of coarse brandy called schnapps. Then work goes on again until twelve, when, if the day is hot, they return home and rest for an hour or two, making their noonday meal of bread and the remains of the coffee prepared in the morning and kept warm on the embers, or, if wood is scarce, by wrapping the coffee-pot in the bedclothes! After their return to work, an afternoon meal of bread and schnapps is eaten at half-past three, and an evening meal of bread, coffee, and a warm soup, when they stop work at seven or eight. Constant toil of this sort leaves but little time for reading or self-improvement, and only six papers are taken in E——, not more than twelve or fourteen persons in all reading them. These weeklies and a few story-books, loaned out by the pastor, are the only reading material of a village of five hundred and ninety-one souls. The bread eaten by the peasants is made of coarse black flour, baked once or at most twice a month, and eaten without butter. On Sunday morning a little beef or mutton is sometimes eaten by a few families, but otherwise no animal food is taken except in the form of sausage-meat. Children do not work in the fields until about ten years of age, nor is much work done by them for five or six years later, as from six to fifteen or sixteen years of age they are compelled to attend school. In summer, from June 24th to September 29th, there is no afternoon session of the school, and the children then help in the harvest. The toil of a peasant being so constant, is also done slowly and poorly. A wood-sawyer, for instance, holds and works his saw with only one hand, and draws a breath between each stroke.

A compulsory school law in the province of Hanover forces the peasants to study during ten years of their lives, and during this time a little reading, writing, and arithmetic is acquired; but beyond this is and a slight knowledge of High German they do not advance. Cleanliness is not a peasant virtue in this region, and perhaps I had better say nothing on the subject, further than that the pig is at all times a welcome member of the highest village society, and generally goes into the house by the front door.

All work and no play makes the peasant a dull fellow, and the little education he gets does not help him much. Many stories of their blunders are current, involving oftenest the local Dogberries. To this sort belongs the sign said to have been posted in a stable in G——, and which notified the stablemen that "it is forbidden to feed the horses or cows with lighted pipes or cigars." A trespass notice, still to be seen near E——, gives perhaps the best idea of this sort of muddle-headedness. Written in Plattdeutsch, it gives the warning: "This road is no road, but he who will travel it notwithstanding is fined four marks and two days in jail; the informer to receive half." Laws are so strict and well enforced that there are few crimes. Such as do occur in E—— are mainly fights caused by liquor and family quarrels, which the pastor commonly has influence enough to settle.

Owing to the small land-holdings there is in E—— no distinct class of what we in this country call farm-help; but, when a man has not money enough to hire land in the ordinary way, he goes to a farmer and asks for six or eight acres of land, agreeing to pay so much rent, and giving no deposit, but binding himself to work for the farmer at rates much below those usually paid day laborers—twenty-five cents a day or thirty-five cents for cutting an acre of grain being the prices paid to such boundmen.

House-servants are employed in E—— only by the minister. They are hired at Easter, or on the 16th of November, and one year is the usual length of the term for which they engage. Housemaids receive from fifteen to twenty-five dollars a year, and a present of twenty yards of linen and a pair of shoes; it is also customary to give them small money fees once or twice a year if they have done their work well.

I ought to have explained before, that the village, besides being a collection of people assembled together for protection and to afford church and school facilities, is also a commune in the sense that it is a closed corporation without the power of self-extension or contraction. The village can and does own property, and hires men to do village work, as, for instance, to take care of the cattle owned by members of the corporation. This system of land tenure is said to have originated in the following way: In the earliest times a single family held all the land around it in common. At that time all the land was divided, as it still is, into three parts, to provide for the alternation of crops and the resting of the land. Each man then received his share of the land for a year only, a redivision being made at the end of each season. As time went on, the term for which land was allotted increased, until gradually the principle of private property was introduced and the ownership of land became fixed. But this change did not affect pasture or forest land. The result of all this has been the retention of the communal idea in regard to the so-called village rights which belong to the citizens of E——, but not to all its inhabitants. There are only sixty-six of these rights, and this number can not be increased or diminished, so that only a small part of the six hundred inhabitants of E—— are citizens. Each one of the rights can be halved—thus, of course, also halving the privileges of the possessor, but the subdivision can go no further. Each right gives its possessor the privilege of grazing a certain number of sheep, cattle, geese, and swine on the public pasture; of mowing a certain amount of meadow-land, and of getting stone and clay for building from the village pits, besides a considerable amount of wood each year from the communal forest. Village rights have thus a considerable value, and are sold at prices ranging from two hundred and twenty-five to three hundred dollars each. In order to possess a right a man must own a house in the village, and he can not own more than one right unless he increases the number of houses he owns in the same proportion.

Since the number of rights can not be increased, and since each one can only be halved, there must, of course, be numbers of people in the village who are not corporators. Such persons have none of the privileges belonging to the rest except the permission to graze cattle on the common pasture when they have paid to the commune authorities a fixed price per head for each animal thus fed; nor have such persons any vote when communal affairs are to be passed upon.

E—— is entirely independent of the neighboring city of G——, but offenses against the law are tried by an inferior court sitting in the latter place. Each male in E—— who has attained the age of thirty years, and who is not a pauper or criminal, has a single vote in the election of, those officers who are to govern his village. These officials are, first, a Bauermeister, having the combined powers of sheriff and town clerk; under him are two deputies and a Council of twelve men, all elected for a period of six years. The Bauermeister, who is generally one of the wealthiest and most intelligent of the citizens, keeps the village accounts; makes the state and military reports; registers births, marriages, and deaths, also sales and rentals of land; places criminals and insane in safe keeping; receives applications from the village poor; gives notice of the commencement of military service, to which each young man is bound; and reports to the state at specified times upon communal and village affairs. He is also President of the Council and of all village meetings. For all this hard work he receives only forty dollars a year, and his assistants get nothing but the barren honor of election. Over the Bauermeister is placed a state official who has control of a number of villages. Provincial and village taxes are collected by an officer elected for a term of six years, who receives about thirty dollars per annum for his services.

E—— has two foresters appointed by an imperial forester, under whose control they are. These officers receive about forty-five dollars a year, and for this sum must decide all matters in regard to the cutting or planting of trees; must see that no wood is stolen, and during the wood-cutting season must prevent any one cutting more than his share, and see that only marked trees are cut. They must, moreover, preserve all the game in the forest for the use of that person to whom the right to kill game has been let.

The pastor of E—— is supported by the rental of two hundred and eighty acres of land, belonging to the church, and his income is also slightly increased by marriage, burial, and other fees. Since the minister is the only cultivated man in the village, he has of course great influence over all village affairs, and acts as peacemaker in all disputes or quarrels. To him each farmer comes as occasion demands for advice or instruction, but he never visits his people, except when severe illness or death calls for his good offices, nor have I ever seen a peasant enter the parsonage, except when called there by business. This total separation of the pastor from his flock seemed to me to make the church a mere formal affair incapable of doing much good, yet I could not wonder at the refusal of an educated man to associate with the peasants. Village ministers are appointed by the church consistory, and hold their places for life, unless they break some church rule or preach false doctrine. They are always university men, and are generally well-read, but their views are apt to be narrow—Darwin being looked upon as an arch-fiend, and science, in so far as it does not agree with literal translations of the Bible, as "science falsely so called." They revolve in a little circle, independently of all the secular world, around some bishop or church dignitary. Their social life consists of an interchange of afternoon and evening calls, at which coffee is drunk, and the world, the flesh, and the devil, discussed in a very innocent way; occasionally this monotony is interrupted by a birthday party or a church celebration. The latter are, however, a delusion and a snare to outsiders, as each preacher goes with a sermon or two in his pocket and with his mind made up to read them. As a consequence of this, and of the German peasant's love for sermons, I once stood up in a crowded church from 7 a. m. to 5 p. m., with only an hour's intermission for dinner, listening to an endless series of sermons, varied only by a change of speakers! I left the church at five, but was afterward told that there was an evening session and that the preaching went on for three days.

The pastor is president of a board of trustees, consisting of four church-members, by whom all church expenses are audited, and also of a school board, of four electors and the teacher, which controls school matters. The members of these boards, with the exception of the minister and teacher, are chosen for six years by the votes of all the male church-members.

The schoolmaster unites in one person the duties of sexton, gravedigger, and bell-ringer. All teachers must have passed an examination held by the state, for which they are prepared by some years' study at preparatory schools and a three years' course at one of the eight normal schools in Hanover. In order to enter these schools, the applicant must be eighteen years old and be able to pass an examination in the elementary studies. Teachers earn from one hundred and seventy-five to two hundred and twenty-five dollars a year. In E—— the teacher received eighty-seven cents a year from each of his one hundred pupils, fifteen dollars a year from the church for his services as sexton, besides fifty cents for each adult's and twenty-five cents for each child's grave dug by him. From the state he got eighty-two dollars, and from the village seven dollars and fifty cents a year, with six acres of good farming-land and a house. All the books and maps I saw were of the most old-fashioned sort, and the teacher was drunk whenever he had money enough to buy schnapps. The church consistory appoints and removes the village teachers throughout Hanover. Teachers are not considered socially equal to nor do they associate with ministers. With the teacher ends the list of village officers, and next come those communal servants for whom we in this country have no equivalent. In what follows, the distinction between village electors and commune citizens or corporators must be borne in mind. Those that I have called electors comprise all males over thirty who live in E——, while there are only sixty-six citizens of the commune. Electors have no rights except that of voting for village officers, while village corporators possess many valuable privileges, a list of which I have given above. Communal servants consist of a shepherd, a cowherd, who also looks after the swine, and a gooseherd, who, in addition, is town-crier, and runs on errands for the Bauermeister. All these men are elected yearly at a meeting of the corporators. Such places are much sought after, but do not descend from father to son. Each full corporator may send out daily with these herders four cows, six sheep without lambs, four pigs without shoats, and twelve geese. The animals are collected every morning at stated hours by the herders, who go through the streets playing peculiar airs on their horns, at the sound of which those corporators who wish to send their animals out turn them into the street to be collected. In the evening the animals are brought back from the pasture by their herders, and turned loose in the village to find their own way home. Sheep, however, are not returned to their owners each night in this way, but remain with the herder during the summer season. For their labor the herders receive very little ready money, most of their salary being paid in agricultural products. Each of the herders receives a house and a quarter of an acre of land from the commune. In addition, the shepherd has the privilege of pasturing fifty sheep of his own, and receives seven dollars and a half a year from the commune and about fifty dollars yearly in grain from the citizens. The cow-herder makes about forty dollars a year, and the goose-herder receives a hundred loaves of bread from the citizens and twenty-two dollars in money from the commune, for which he must do all the town-crying and go daily for the orders of the Bauermeister.

I could get very little information in regard to the modes of taxation of the village, each person being willing to tell me what taxes he paid but no one seeming to know just how they were assessed. A farmer with forty acres of land paid, the year I was in E——, five dollars as land-tax, three dollars as poll-tax, one dollar as house-tax, and four dollars as village-tax. He would also, if he had kept a shop or inn, have had to pay a special license. Incomes of less than one hundred and ten dollars are exempt from taxation. Ministers and teachers pay state but not village taxes. The pastor of E—— paid a tax of nine dollars on his income of four hundred and fifty dollars, and a land-tax of twenty-four dollars on two hundred acres of land. Communal taxes vary greatly in rate according to the wealth of the commune. Some communes, which own valuable mines or forests, not only exact no tax from their citizens, but divide annually a surplus among the corporators. A case of this sort is rare, but it is not uncommon to have most of the communal taxes paid by the sale of wood from commune forests.

Almshouse accommodations are so poor and the food and treatment so bad that but few of the inhabitants of E—— feel pauperism to be their vocation. Only one villager receives food and shelter from the village, and a second food alone. Their provisions are obtained by going from house to house in the village, each house being bound by law to provide food for the paupers so many days each year. I asked why the poor-house was not repaired, and was told that the peasants had purposely built it poorly, fearing that if it were comfortable it might encourage pauperism in the village. The poor are supplied with clothes either from the church or village treasury according to circumstances. A residence of two years in a village compels its inhabitants at the expiration of that time to support the applicant, nor can he be forced to do any work in return for his living. The one pauper in E—— was so distressing to the eye that I never passed him if I could avoid it. Blind and lame, hatless, coatless, shoeless, and covered with the mud in which he had slept, he seemed, as he crept from fence-post to fence-post, muttering curses on those who passed without giving him alms, to be forsaken alike by God and man. I can imagine him being, in the words of a dying tramp, "glad to have a hell to go to," but I can not believe that any moderately respectable imp would touch him without the aid of a pair of tongs. A gift of one cent would cause him to bless you until he had reached the nearest dram-shop; more than this I never dared to give, for fear of causing an inroad of beggars upon the village.

An imperial forester, with one or more deputies in each village of his district, has complete control of all the woodland in his circle. By him it is decided how much wood shall be cut each year for the use of the commune or corporation, and without his consent not a stick can be cut in any forest of his district. The commune of E—— owns fifteen hundred and thirty-eight acres of land, which has, since the settlement of the village many generations ago, been planted in forest trees. None of this forest-land has ever been stripped of its trees and devoted to agriculture, with the exception of a small part, which, on account of its position near a much-traveled road, served during the Thirty Years' war as a refuge and place of ambush for brigands and highway robbers. This was, toward the end of the great war, cleared and the land divided among the corporators. The forest-land belonging to E—— is divided into forty parts, one of which may be cleared each year. On account of the large amount of extra labor caused by the keeping up of nurseries, but few villages plant the land cleared by them each year, most of them allowing the natural growth to spring up on the cut portions. Although the natural growth of wood on which E—— depends for its supply does away with the need for a large nursery, the corporators are yet compelled to keep up a small one, in order to plant high, wind-swept ridges where no seed has lodged. This nursery, or Baumschule as it is called, is planted and kept up by the labor of all the corporators. As a general thing, only two days out of the year are spent by each citizen at commune work. In the fall a meeting of the corporators is called, and it is then decided when and how much wood shall be cut. The imperial forester is at once notified, and, in company with the village forester, goes through the part which is to be cut that year and marks all trees under an inch in diameter except those which, from their fine form or good situation, seem likely to make first-rate timber. The whole of the woodland to be cut is then divided into sixty-six parts, and each corporator receives a part, allotted by chance, on which he at once goes to work and clears off the brush and marked trees. "When this has been accomplished throughout the whole tract, the imperial forester is again called, and goes through the forest, marking all trees not large enough for building timber, and which are so warped, decayed, or top-killed as to be unlikely to grow into good timber. These trees are then divided as before, and each citizen cuts and carries away his share. Then, for the third and last time, the forester goes through the tract, and marks all the large trees which seem to be hollow-hearted or to have stopped growing. These are then divided and cut like the rest, with the exceptions that the oaks are first stripped of their bark to be sold to tanners for the benefit of the commune, and that the teacher and minister get none of this large wood because, the peasants say that, when a parsonage or a schoolhouse must be built, it is done, not by the minister or teacher, but by the people. The oak-bark is often worth more than all the rest of the wood of a forest. In starting pine-forests the cones are planted thickly in furrows, and, after the first weeding-out, are left untouched for ten years, at which time alternate trees are cut. This process is repeated every five years, till at the end of thirty years all the trees are cut; the successive cuttings being divided among the corporators.

When any one wishes to build a house in E——, he sends word to the village court, describing the kind of house and where it is to be constructed. Notices are then posted in the village, and, if no one sends written objections to the court before the expiration of fifteen days, the building is allowed, and can not be interfered with. It will be seen that the population of E—— consists of two classes: the few more fortunate, who possess village rights, and draw from these an income which considerably increases their comfort; and the less fortunate, but more numerous, who possess no share in the communal property. But no social distinction, so far as I could see, obtains between these two classes.