The imperial abbey of Ellwangen and its peasants: a study of the polyptych of 1337

The imperial abbey of Ellwangen and its peasants: a study of the polyptych of 1337

By Shami Ghosh

Agricultural History Review, Vol. 62:2 (2014)

Ellwangen - photo by

Abstract: This paper presents an analysis of Ellwangen Abbey’s polyptych of 1337, with a view to understanding better the nature of the south German rural economy in this period. It is generally accepted that in England by this point, rural society was highly commercialised, despite (or because of) the survival, at least formally, of the manorial system. In contrast, there was little direct management of demesne lands in much of Germany by this point, but the evidence suggests that rural society was, here as well, highly commercialised. Although this paper is an analysis of only one source for one micro-region, its results suggest that the situation in England might have been less exceptional than is often supposed, and in the final section of this paper some further suggestions are advanced regarding the implications of this point. The article also intends to provide a comparandum from another region for scholars of rural history who cannot access German sources and scholarship, and serves as an invitation to further comparative research on the agrarian history of the later middle ages.

Introduction: The later middle ages has been understood as a crucial phase in the agrarian and economic history of England: an ‘age of transition’, this is a period characterised by changing forms of land tenure, increasing commercialisation and social stratification, and, according to one influential thesis, the origins of capitalism. Scholarship on England – like scholarship on most other regions – tends to follow a ‘national’ trajectory, and generally avoids comparative analysis as a means of understanding the causes of socio-economic change in the long term. This is a particular misfortune in the case of England because, as a result of its industrialisation earlier than other parts of Europe, and because of apparent peculiarities in its agrarian socio-economic system in earlier periods, England tends to be seen very much as an island for itself, unique and following a different path from the rest of the world. Whether deliberately, as in the case of Robert Brenner (who did indeed adopt a comparative framework, but only in order to prove that England was unique), or unwittingly in the case of most other more recent historians (whose narratives about England normally betray no hint that similar developments might be found elsewhere), England tends to be presented as exceptional with respect to agrarian commercialisation, and as a region that appeared to have some sort of drive towards capitalistic development earlier and to a greater extent than can be found elsewhere.

The only way one might genuinely establish just how exceptional England was, however, is by means of detailed comparison with other regions. The basis of any comparative work must necessarily be rigorous empirical analysis, and the purpose of this paper is to provide a comparandum from a region – southern Germany – that tends not to loom large in discussions of agrarian commercialisation and transitions to capitalism, while also providing some stimulus for the more theoretical debate regarding these issues and how unique England’s situation actually was. Agrarian historians in the English-speaking world seeking comparative empirical material from the German lands are relatively well-served by scholarship on the sixteenth century and later periods. For the middle ages, however, most work in English on Germany concerns political history.  Although Werner Rösener’s survey of the medieval peasantry focuses on Germany and is available in English translation, with the exception of some articles by Michael Toch, there is a lack of detailed studies of single estates or landlords that could stimulate further comparative research.

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