In the seventeenth century, some European lands had begun to produce food more effectively, while in others the population declined or stagnated. So demand for eastern grain slackened. It was not as easy as it had been for eastern landowners to make large profits by selling food to the west. So they had an incentive to reduce their costs by getting cheaper labor. The result was that they used their control over state power and the law to force peasants to provide them with free labor. The peasants of eastern Germany, Poland and Russia ceased to be free laborers and became serfs....In some places (Castile, east Germany, Poland, and eventually Russia) only the nobles had full ownership of land. This was silly, as it discouraged the people who farmed the land (the peasants) from doing so efficiently, since they knew the landowners would take much the profit. Also silly was the idea that anyone who worked in retail trade automatically lost noble status - an idea which prevailed in France, Spain, Portugal, and parts of Italy, but which discouraged investment in productive enterprises. The French termed this loss of status dérogeance. In many parts of Europe, a large incentive to become noble was to enjoy privileges including tax exemptions. In England, however, nobles did pay taxes, and therefore had a good reason for joining with non-nobles in resisting the king's efforts to raise taxes. Townsmen were difficult to fit into the old threefold structure; some were extremely poor, while others were as wealthy as all but the richest nobles. Churchmen, too, varied in status. Those at the bottom of the church's hierarchy ranked hardly above peasants, while bishops, archbishops and abbots were the equals of nobles. Such professionals as physicians and lawyers also claimed noble status. Lawyers were especially insistent upon this, but not everyone believed them. Peasants (or small farmers) varied in wealth and status depending on how much land they held, and on the conditions upon which they held it. The latter was probably the more important factor. Where tenures were insecure and onerous, peasants were unproductive. Where peasants were freest they were most productive, since they were working for themselves - as in the Dutch Republic, England, and Catalonia. It was in those places that the agricultural revolution began. Wise governments protected free peasants against local lords. Prosperous peasants were able and wiling to pay higher taxes. Where this did not happen (Castile, Poland), decay was the result. http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/351/351-012.htm
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