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Chapter 10. The Eastern Absolutists

In This Chapter

• Austria on the rebound

• Prussia becomes a powerhouse

• So many Fredericks

• Russia comes into its own

• For Pete’s sake

The overblown art of the Baroque

After about 1300, and particularly after the onset of the Black Death, history took a much different course in eastern Europe than it did in western Europe. Things didn’t go so well for peasants in eastern Europe.

The Plight of the Peasants

In western Europe, peasant conditions generally improved (see Chapter 1) as the centuries passed. A shortage of labor after the plague meant better economic conditions, and the common people slowly earned more and more rights and freedoms. Though the peasants still were at the bottom of the food chain, serfdom, that state of being legally bound to one’s lord similar to the way a slave might have been, declined in western Europe and by the sixteenth century most peasants were free.

Would You Believe?

Runaway peasants were to be returned to their lords in eastern Europe. Often a runaway had his ear nailed to a post and was then given a knife to free himself; runaways probably didn't try to leave a second time.

During roughly the same period, landlords in eastern Europe were using their political power to clamp down. They passed laws that restricted peasant movement and took away what little land the peasants owned and worked. Furthermore, the lords increased the feudal obligations of the peasants. Peasants were reduced to forced laborers who often worked the majority of the week with little or no compensation; the yield from the land went almost entirely to the lord to meet the peasants’ feudal obligations. While economic and agricultural factors surely played some part, historians point to the political factor as the greatest reason for the rise of serfdom in eastern Europe. That political factor in eastern Europe was that the common people had no representation like the commoners of England with the Parliament and France with the Estates General, for example. After all, the same economic and agricultural situation in western Europe led to the opposite result for the peasants.

The course of history proved different for the monarchy in the east and west, too. During the centuries after the Middle Ages in western Europe, monarchies grew powerful, often at the expense of the nobility. In eastern Europe, though, the landed nobility once again came out on top. There occurred so much political intrigue, war, and so many disputes over succession that those who hoped to be monarchs frequently had to bribe and barter with the nobility to win their support. Basically, these compromises reduced eastern monarchs to being “first among equals” rather than superior to the nobility. Finally, after about 1600, strong monarchs emerged in eastern Europe, monarchs who helped lay the foundation for eastern absolutism. The greatest examples of such rulers rose in Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

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