Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Western European Ancestors:
Daily Life: Class and Occupations

Understanding a little about social class in Western European society can help you understand how your ancestors lived as well as provide some important clues in tracing them. Most of us are descendants from peasants. Despite all the stories of people descended from royalty, these are usually little more than stories. In general, the upper class had little reason to come to the U.S. Most of our ancestors lived in rural villages. Until near the end of the 1800s, a relatively small proportion of the population lived in cities. At this point, I haven’t included much information about life in the cities.

Usually, parish records will give the occupation of the head of the household. From this, you can determine into which social class your family fell (some hints for determining their social class are included in each section). Knowing this will help direct your future searches. If your ancestors were landowners, for example, they probably stayed in once place. You will be able to find them in the parish records of the same town – possibly for generations (if your line was lucky enough to inherit the land). On the other hand, if your ancestors didn’t own land, they’ll be more difficult to trace. The family probably moved every few years in search of work, often making their living working on other people’s farms.


The descriptions below are general. Variations existed between countries and even regions. Although the same basic groups existed, their economic well-being and relative size varied. For example, peasants in Scandinavia enjoyed a much more comfortable lifestyle than peasants in Eastern Germany. Also, English society had a slightly different composition. The growth of the Industrial Revolution there meant that a higher percentage of the population lived in cities earlier. Also, England had more of a “middle class” than other societies. Still, the great majority of the population was poor.

People of Status

“People of status” comprised about five percent of the population. This group included nobles, members of the clergy, and burghers as well as people with education such as civil officials, military officers, doctors, teachers, and lawyers. The remaining ninety-five percent of the population were common people, or peasants.

Landed Peasants

Based on an article in German-American Genealogy (the journal of Immigrant Genealogical Society), Fall 2006

Before you can understand what life was like for landowning peasants, you must first have a concept of who belonged in this category. Determining this isn’t as straight-forward as it may seem. Even choosing an adequate word in English to describe this group can be a challenge. Some people label them as “landowners,” others might call them “landed peasants,” and still others might simply use the term “farmers.” All mean something slightly different, but can refer to the same general group of people.

Perhaps, the best way to understand who belonged in this group is to eliminate those who weren’t included. A small percentage of the population owned A LOT of land. These were the wealthy estate owners, often part of the noble class. Very few of our ancestors fell into this category. For one thing, relatively speaking, there simply weren’t very many of them. And for another thing, these comfortable well-established families were not very likely to leave this all behind and come to America. People found in this wealthy group are, of course, landowners. However, they are neither “landed peasants” or really “farmers” either. They fall outside of our discussion.

Other people not included in our category are agricultural laborers. Although these people made their living by working on farms, it wasn’t their own farms. In general, they didn’t own land (or at least a significant amount of land) of their own. While eliminating the wealthy estate owners only took out a small percentage of the population, separating out labors removes a significant group of people. Particularly in the eastern provinces, most of the people were impoverished day laborers. This group is described below.

Finally, people who didn’t make their living off the land, such as craftsmen (blacksmiths, shoemakers, etc.) also don’t belong to our group of farmers or landed peasants.

Even with these limits, it can still be tricky to decide if your ancestor was a landowning peasant. People didn’t just own land or not own land. Instead, it was a continuum. Many of the poor laborers who were not considered landowners, had a very small plot of land that they owned or rented. Similarly, in some German states, even those who had a relatively sizable plot of land weren’t technically the owners of it. For example, in Mecklenburg-Schwerin serfdom wasn’t legally ended until 1820. Prior to this, even “landowning peasants” didn’t truly own their land. It ultimately belonged to some higher authority who had power over the peasants. And, although we ruled out craftsmen, some farmers or landed peasants performed a part-time craft on the side, meaning belonging to one group or another wasn’t always mutually exclusive.

Generally speaking though, a landowner was someone who owned (or perhaps only had rights to) enough land that they could support their family by farming it. This definition leaves a lot of room for variation. Some landowners did relatively well. Others were only a small step above day laborers.

Landed peasants often passed the farm and homestead down in their family for generations. Because of their tie to the land, landed peasants often were not mobile. For a researcher tracing family that owned land, the family is usually located in one village for generations. Of course, not all children could inherit the farm (although in Sweden, for example, they often continued to divide their property between all heirs until enclosure laws were passed), and so some descendents will be found settling elsewhere.

The distinction of owning land had important and yet limited consequences. Landowning peasants enjoyed a slightly better standard of living. For one thing, they had more stability. Although at any time a crop could turn out badly, landowning peasants at least had the guaranteed employment of farming their land available to them. They owned larger and sturdier homes and had more valuable belongings, ranging from horses to better quality clothing. They also occupied a more influential position in the community. Only landowning peasants may have been allowed to participate in the village council or sit in certain pews at church.

Landed peasants usually employed young people to assist with farm and household tasks. In all but the most well-off families, their children also helped on the farm providing an economic asset for the family. Yet, landed peasants didn’t escape other miserable conditions that existed around them. They faced the same high death rates and the same illnesses that plagued landless people. Although slightly better nutrition and less demanding work schedules may have offered some protection, even landowning peasant families usually experienced the deaths of children and family members prematurely. And, of course landed peasants were not spared from the wars that brought misery to the people especially during the 1600 and 1700s.

The lot of the landed peasant varied from place to place. In some areas, they enjoyed a relatively comfortable lifestyle. Many acted as supervisors of their numerous farmhands and maidservants and so did little hard labor themselves. They often had enough food to eat and enjoyed a relatively high level of freedom within their village. In other areas, serfdom existed until the beginning of the 1800s. Here, landed peasants still fell under the jurisdiction of some noble or other overseer. They often were forced to work on his land several days in addition to taking care of their own farm. They worked long, exhausting hours and had little freedom to move or marry as they pleased.

Landless Peasants

(This article first appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of German-American Genealogy.)

Landless people fell at the bottom of the economic structure. People in this category didn’t have a farm of their own. Instead, they made their living by working for other people as farmhands or agricultural laborers.

Landless peasants, contrary to what the name implies, were not always without any land. They may have, in fact, owned a small plot of land – but not one large enough for farming. Their land might have contained their home and perhaps even a small plot for gardening. Many didn’t actually own this small plot, but lived as tenants on someone else’s land. Other times, landless peasants didn’t even have a separate home, but instead lived in the homes of the farmers for whom they worked. This was often the case with young people just starting out on their own, but these living conditions weren’t limited to the young.

In many areas, landless peasants made up the majority of the population. This was particularly true in the poorer eastern parts of Germany. Serfdom remained in these poorer areas throughout the 1700s, meaning that most peasants lived as servants to the landowning masters, with no land of their own and few rights.

In 1807, Prussia passed the October Edict of 1807 declaring that all peasants with landholdings of a certain size were free. Other eastern German states followed suit. Mecklenburg, for example, ended serfdom in 1820. Many people felt that the destitute people in these areas would now be able to rive about their poverty at last. Their belief proved too optimistic.

The 1820s also brought a collapse in the markets. With the paternal system of serfdom abolished, peasants lost the little protection they had. Several years of poor harvests and large-scale epidemics of cattle disease intensified the situation. Peasants at the margin couldn’t survive, leading great numbers of them to sell their land. Often the wealthier estate owners bought the land. The peasants become laborers on the same land they had first been serfs on and then had briefly owned. Over the next few years, the number of peasants living on their own land actually fell.

About this same time, a long population growth began in the German states (and other places). Between 1817 and 1865, more births than deaths occurred every year. The population within the borders of the German Confederation grew from 32.7 million in 1816 to 52.2 million in 1865. Several factors contributed to this growth including a slightly lower mortality rate, lengthening life spans, small improvements in health care, and fewer epidemics.

The growing population added more pressure to the already tight conditions on the land. More children of farmers either couldn’t inherit land or inherited plots too small to farm effectively. Economic conditions kept purchasing an adequate-sized farm of one’s own out of the reach of many peasants.

The lives of our landless peasant ancestors were heard. They lived in small, shabby homes, located on land considered undesirable by others. They had poorer diets and shorter life spans than landowning peasants. Landless peasants also had to live with great uncertainty, since sources of employment could come and go with little or no notice.

Agricultural laborers were second-class citizens, often denied the right to participate in village council or other decision-making bodies. At church, they might have stood near the back while more well-off families sat in the pews.

Landless peasants worked long, hard hours. Exhausting manual labor wasn’t limited to men. Women often had no choice but to work alongside their husbands in the fields or wherever their contribution was needed. This extra work was added to the traditional female tasks of caring for the children, tending the garden, doing laundry, mending, preparing the meals, and other chores.

For landowning peasants, children provided as economic asset by working on the family farm. This didn’t hold true for children in the landless peasant families. Instead, these children drained the already scarce family resources since their parents had to feed, clothe, and care for them. For these reasons, poor parents hired out their children to work for other people at very young ages, sometimes when the children were only six to eight years old. Boys, even before they reached the age of ten, were often given the responsibility of watching over herds of animals. Girls helped with younger children or worked as household servants for the more well-off peasant families.

Skilled Craftsman

Information in this section based on an article in the Fall 2007 issue of German-American Immigrant (the journal for the Immigrant Genealogy Society)

The majority of the Western European population made their living off the land in nineteenth century and before. They worked either as farmers of their own land or as laborers for others who owned land. However, a significant number of people earned their living by performing trades or working as craftsmen. These people varied in type, skill level, and economic well-being. Many lived in cities, but most rural communities had a couple of craftsmen as well. There were many types of craftsmen including blacksmiths, tailors, weavers, shoemakers, bricklayers, clockmakers, bakers, butchers, and brewers just to name a few.

Historically, most craftsmen took part in the guild system. According to James Sheehan in his book German History, guilds were “economic associations that regulated the recruitment and qualifications of their members, licensed the practitioners of a trade, and upheld the standards of production.” Guild associations were very important in the lives of our craftsmen ancestors. They provided centers of social and religious interaction as well as offered charitable assistance to their members. For many years, guilds were compulsory. A craftsman couldn’t operate outside this system and without meeting the approval of those within his guild. Guilds had great control over their members’ ability to practice and regulated many aspects of how they performed their crafts. Guild members were also expected to maintain high moral standards and even to marry properly.

Guilds began operating as early as the 1100s. The enjoyed their most influential position in the 1400s and 1500s, but continued to function for centuries after this. Many guilds came under attack by governments in the 1700s. However, guilds continued to play an important role in society throughout that century.

In the 1800s, governments began placing more limitations on guilds, partly in an effort to end some of the reported abuses and partly in effort to consolidate more power within the government. About this same time, markets began opening up beyond local communities. This further hurt guilds as craftsmen lost their monopoly on the area near them. These hardships led many masters to require more work from their apprentices and journeymen. These two latter groups found their advancement either slowed down or stopped all together.

The 1800s were a volatile time for guilds. By the time that revolutions of 1848 swept through, some guilds had been reduced from instruments of social control to simple economic associations as the states assumed more regulatory power. The power of guilds varied greatly between places. But despite setbacks, the number of people employed as craftsmen increased in many places through the 1860s.

Some guilds experienced tentative increases in power again in the 1850s and 1860s.But by the end of the century as industrialization took hold, the world of the craftsman changed forever. Factories replaced guilds while industrial low-skill workers replaced the carefully trained craftsmen masters. Germany is one of the few countries where traces of the guild system can still be seen today.

The guild system was divided into three major stages for craftsmen attempting to enter the ranks. First, a person worked as an apprentice, then a journeyman, and finally a master. Becoming a skilled craftsman required specific skills and experience. Training sometimes began when a young man reached fourteen – the age at which he completed primary school. Laws in some states required children to attend school until this point. The law, however, was enforced with varying degrees of zeal in different places. Many young men dropped out of primary school to begin their training at much earlier ages.

The first step of training for these young men was to work as an apprentice to a master, usually one in their village or a nearby village. The quality of apprentice’s experience depended on the person for whom the apprentice worked. Some master craftsmen made a conscientious effort to ensure the apprentices working for them learned and understood the trade, giving them important opportunities to practice. Others took advantage of their employees, using them as little more than slave labor. The length of service was usually determined by a contract and often lasted four to seven years.

For many, the most frustrating part of the training was the journeyman stage. While apprentices often worked for masters in their area, in the journeyman phase they were often required to leave their home town and work for a series of masters in other places. Every aspect of their behavior was governed by rules set forth by the guilds, yet journeymen had very little power themselves. This led to resentment and sometimes violent protests by groups of journeymen. Particularly during the revolutionary years in the mid 1800s, the differences between journeymen and masters sometimes erupted in open conflict. The length of service as a journeyman varied, but usually lasted at least two, and sometimes many more, years.

At the end of his traveling training, the journeyman usually returned home to apply for membership in the guild. If his training and performance met the approval of the guild leader and other guild masters, the journeyman would advance to a master.

Standard of Living

Craftsmen varied greatly in their standard of living. Apprentices and journeymen sometimes lived in poor conditions. They worked many hours and had few rights. Masters, on the other hand, could live quite comfortably. Yet, even the standard of living of masters fell along a long continuum. Some employed a number of apprentices, owned large and beautiful homes, and married their children into the best families. Others couldn’t afford to hire any help and instead worked long hours alone, sometimes utilizing the labor of family members.

Economic position also depended on the market the craftsman served. Rural craftsmen rarely became wealthy, although many were comparatively comfortable. They served limited (and often poor) communities. Even in rural areas though, craftsmen (particularly master craftsmen) were usually respected members of the community. In large cities, skilled craftsmen could obtain a high standard of living, selling their goods to a larger and more well-off market by reaching people both within the city and in the surrounding rural communities.

The Old and the Young

Based on an article in German-American Genealogy (the journal of Immigrant Genealogical Society).

While being old or young wasn’t an occupation, it certainly affected the way people who fell into these categories supported themselves. Young people and old people had a unique place in society – with a lifestyle different from other groups of people.

The Young in Society

Many of our ancestors spent a number of years when they were young working as farmhands or maidservants on other farms. During this time, they may have moved several times, working for different people. Their length of employment at any one place could have lasted anywhere from a few months to a few years. Often they worked for people in the same village or in a nearby village. While working there, these young people usually lived at the home of the farmer, sometimes along with other farmhands or maidservants.

Depending on age and the needs of that particular household, these farmhands and maidservants helped with a variety of tasks. Young women may have watched over younger children, prepared meals, fed and cared for animals, tended the garden, and assisted with other household chores. Young men usually helped the male head of household with the seasonal tasks of plowing, harvesting, threshing, caring for animals, and other labor-intensive chores.

The farmer or employer had authority over his farmhands and maidservants. Their well-being during these years rested in the hands of their employer. They may have been treated harshly or kindly – but always as an inferior. Usually, they worked long, hard hours with few days off to visit their families.

When. The age at which young people went away to work for others varied by place, time period, and the economic situation of the family, as described in the next section. They could have left home to begin working in their early teens. Young people often worked for others until they married, although some did return home for a period of time. Given that marriages didn’t occur until the late twenties on average, most young people spent a significant amount of time as hired help for others in the community.

Who. The economic situation of a family greatly affected how their children participated in this system. The pattern of young adults going to work for others was common across most peasant groups – but with some variances.

For families who didn’t farm their own land but instead supported themselves by working as day laborers for others, children served as an economic liability. These parents had to feed, clothe, and care for their children, which stretched their already limited resources. And, these children contributed little to the family’s well-being. There was no farm for them to work on, no animals for them to care for. Children in these poorer families often began working for others as early as possible.

Children of landowning families had different experiences. As opposed to children of landless peasants, children in these families provided an economic asset to their parents. Their help and labor was needed at home. Parents could rely on these children once they became old enough to work instead of having to hire outside help. Some of the children in these families may have stayed working on their own family’s farm for most or all of these years leading up to their marriage.

Of course, there were many different versions of this general model. Many families fell somewhere in the middle of the continuum between owning a large farm and owning no land. The presence of siblings as well as the specific demands of their situation also shaped the choices the family made.

Why. Sending young people away to work for others had several important functions in society. First, it provided them with an opportunity to work and save their money and resources prior to marriage. The expectation in most of the German states was that people didn’t marry until they could afford to establish an independent household. For most of our ancestors, this required a period of employment after they left home.

Working on other farms also exposed young people to a larger environment (but their circle of exposure still remained small by today’s standards - few traveled far). Many people met their spouse or made other important connections during this time.

Finally, the trend shifted labor to where it was needed. It eased the burden on poor households with children. It enabled farmers with larger landholdings access to the man – and woman – power they needed to effectively run their farm.

The Old in Society

The other unique group in German society was older people. While today people often retire when they reach their 60s, in German peasant society things worked a little differently – but not the same for everyone. The most important factor shaping the circumstances of older people, once again, was their economic situation.

The Landed Peasants. The relatively well-off landed peasants had more comfortable circumstances throughout their lives – and the same was true during their older years. (Although comfort is relative – even landowning farmers were still peasants who struggled and worked hard.)

Our landed peasant ancestors usually passed their possessions, including their home and farm, to their children. Often one son was designated to take over the farm from his parents. Once this son became old enough to marry and run the farm on his own, the parents passed the farm to him. However, the parents stayed living in the house in a room set up for them.

It may have been part of the contract when the father passed the home to his son that the son had to continue to provide for his parents until their death. In return, these “retired” parents did their part to contribute to the household as much as possible. Although, they likely couldn’t help with hard physical labor, there were many other ways they could contribute.

Landless Peasants. For our ancestors who didn’t own land, the scenario was much grimmer. They had no home or farm or home to pass on – or to stay and live in. Instead, most landless people worked until they were physically unable to. If they had a married child who could care for them, they may have moved in with the child. In the worst case scenario – where the person couldn’t take care of himself or herself any longer and didn’t have a child who could help either – our ancestors turned to the parish poorhouse for limited support.

Movement Within Society

Peasants did experience some movement within society, but mostly within the peasant class. For most landowning peasants, it was difficult or nearly impossible to enter the higher class of estate owners or nobles. However, it was more likely for the very well-off landed peasants.

On the other hand, within the peasant class you may find a single ancestor changing occupations or places in society several times. For example, a young man first going out on his own is unlikely to be a full farmer. Instead, he probably worked on other people’s farms, saving his money. Several events could bring about a change in his title. If his father died or retired and left the farm to him, this son could suddenly be found described as a landed peasant. Or after some time, he may have saved enough money to purchase a farm of his own. A few men married widowers whose previous husbands had owned full-sized farms and homesteads.

Downward movement also occurred. People’s farms fared badly sometimes. Sickness, drought, fire, war, economic slowdowns, or numerous other events could lead to crisis within a family. Older people became unable to support themselves. Sometimes no major event occurred to cause an ancestor to change between a farmer and a laborer. Instead, the family may have lived right at the margin, having their own farm but also working for others. Whether they are called one thing or another may have simply been a labeling issue that varied depending on who recorded the information.