This website includes a lot of information about peasant life under the heading “Understanding Your Western European Ancestors.” Much of the information found there applies to peasants in Mecklenburg as well. Please read those sections first for a good background. I’ve chosen to highlight here mostly information that was particular to peasants in Mecklenburg.
Life was hard for peasants of all classes in Mecklenburg. They lived in some of the worst living conditions in all of Western Europe, sharing more in common with the peasants of Eastern Europe. As described in Some Major Events of History section, serfdom in Mecklenburg existed from soon after the close of the Thirty Years’ War until 1820. Peasants had little freedom, but lived under the jurisdiction of the landlord.
The Social Class page of the “Western European Ancestors” describes the general make-up of society during the 1700 and 1800s. Mecklenburg followed this basic pattern. The vast majority of the people of Mecklenburg were peasants. They could be further subdivided based on how much land they owned as described in that section.
Nearly everyone in Mecklenburg was poor – and in each class the people were worse off then those in the same class in many other Western and Northern European localities. Landless peasants made up the majority of the population. They had few possessions of their own. Most owned no land, no farm, and often no home. Sometimes landless peasants built little temporary houses. Other times, they lived in the homes of landowners. They went from place to place, working on the farms of other people. They had no power and no rights.
Men worked long, physically draining days. During harvest season, work days could last seventeen to eighteen hours. Women weren’t spared from hard labor, either. They often worked alongside their husbands, planting and harvesting in the field. Women cleaned out the stables, milked the cows, and fed and cared for the livestock. Besides participating in “men’s work,” they performed traditional female tasks such as caring for the children, mending clothes, tending the garden, and washing the laundry.
Landowning peasants enjoyed a slightly higher standard of living. During the long years of serfdom, heir farms were still on someone else’ estate – perhaps the estate of a knight or noble. The estate owner often required them to work three to five days of the week for him, in addition to running their own farms. Even with the help of farmhands whom the family employed, landowning peasants worked long, hard hours. In some places, after paying dues and labor to the estate owners, landowning peasants earned little more than the rural laborers. Many years these families operated in deficit, increasing their dependence on their estate owner.
At the beginning of the 1800s, primary schools operated much as they had for the past one hundred years. All the children from the village, starting at about age five or six, met together in one room. School was held year-round. In rural areas, it often met for shorter hours in the summer to allow the children to help out more at home during these labor-intensive months. Classes lasted nearly six hours on four days of the week throughout most of the year. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, they only met in the mornings, and on Sunday only short lessons, if any, were held.
Schooling focused on religious studies. The main goal of education was to make the children into proper Christians. Children used the Bible, catechisms, and other basic religious works as textbooks. Their most important subject was religious understanding. The curriculum also included basic reading and writing, and sometimes a little arithmetic. Teachers usually had only slightly more education than their students and had probably received little or no training in their profession. School assignments often consisted of memorizing Bible verses or parts of the catechisms.
After completing primary school at age fourteen, children (males anyway) had several options. They could attend secondary schools which would prepare them for the university. However, mostly middle and upper class students, not children of rural peasants, pursued this track. Instead, lower class children who received any additional training did it by learning a trade. Some even dropped out of primary school early in order to begin making their way down this career path.
Becoming a skilled craftsman required specific skills and experience. Training sometimes began when a child reached fourteen, although it could’ve started much earlier. Law required children to first attend a general primary school until this age. The law, however, was enforced with varying degrees of zeal in different places.
Many trades throughout Germany were organized into a system of guilds, or professional organizations. The quality of his experience depended on the person for whom the apprentice worked. Some master craftsmen made a conscientious effort to ensure their apprentices learned and understood the trade, giving them important opportunities to practice. Others took advantage of the apprentices, 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.
Perhaps not surprisingly, education in Mecklenburg lagged behind most of the other German states. As early as 1673, Duke Gustaf Adolf of Mecklenburg assigned a well-known reformer the task of revamping the educational system. His plans were never effectively carried out, leaving the system in disarray. Later dukes directed new efforts in 1757 and 1771, but both failed miserably. Despite the lack of success at the top levels, many cities and even villages ran their local schools somewhat effectively on their own.
Not long after the beginning of the nineteenth century, a profound overhaul of primary education occurred. Prussia’s humiliating defeat to Napoleon in 1806 demonstrated to many the need for far-reaching changes. Prominent leaders and influential reformers began to recognize the potential and value of education. Some idealistically declared that with universal, high-quality education, they could end poverty and criminal behavior.
In response, Prussia and other states begin revising their educational systems. Within a few years, schools began teaching a wider curriculum including history, science, and geography. Prussia established training schools to prepare qualified teachers. Reformers encouraged village schools to divide into several classrooms, instead of teaching children of all ages together. New teaching methods were introduced to promote free thinking, as learning by memorization came under harsh criticism. Teachers began to use textbooks instead of relying solely on the Bible.
Changes proved to be short lived though. A significant backlash began as early as 1822. Sucked in by the conservative rhetoric building throughout Europe, King Frederick William III of Prussia decided that changes had gone far enough. He began to voice his fear that the people were now receiving too much education. He believed that a thinking man was a dangerous man. After all, critics of the reform pointed out, what need did peasants have of these advanced subjects? In fact, they continued, the expanded curriculum made peasants unfit for the reality of their future occupations. Although it took some time for this reactionary mindset to reach the individual village schools, its prevalence grew over the next two decades.
This attitude finally culminated in the Regulations of 1854 which set limits and rules on primary education. The supposed danger of education was reinforced to the Prussian king after the Revolutions of 1848 swept across central Europe. King Frederick William declared education to be one of the causes of the uprisings among the people, and resolved to simplify the material being taught.
The Regulations of 1854 aimed to restore things to how they had been before the educational reforms. Religious training, reading, and writing could be taught in schools. Simple arithmetic was also permitted, but only that needed for domestic use – no square roots, fractions, or decimals. The Regulations forbade history, geography, and science as unnecessary. Training colleges for teachers were closed and memorization resumed as the major method of instruction. Further progress in education didn’t occur until 1870.
Some Demographic Statistics
Demographics are discussed more thoroughly in the Demographics part of the Ancestors from Western Europe section. Here, I’ve included some numbers specific to Mecklenburg.
Death rates among the relatively young were alarmingly high in Mecklenburg. In Neukloster where my ancestors lived for example, between 1820 and 1830 the average life expectancy was only 33.4 years. The first year of life was by far the most precarious. If a person lived to her first birthday, her life expectancy increased by ten years. If she lived to be ten, she could add another ten years to her life expectancy. In Mecklenburg as a whole, nearly forty percent of deaths occurred in children under fourteen. On the other hand, only one-fifth of deaths were among people over seventy.
Certain types of diseases ran rampant in peasant communities. Measles and small pox claimed many young victims. Childbirth was also dangerous to both the mother and child. Children born dead made up a sizable five percent of births in Mecklenburg. However, the broad category of chest infections occupied the position of the leading killer, with pneumonia and other serious infections overcoming people of all ages. “Fever” also appeared often as the cause of death. Accidents claimed many lives as well. Parish records categorized less than ten percent of deaths as due to “old age.”
In 1820 illegitimacy rates in Germany as a whole fell just under twelve percent of all live births. For Mecklenburg, rates reached even higher numbers. Here, nearly twenty percent of births were illegitimate. Around 3,500 babies were born out of wedlock each year.