Did medieval rulers place overbearing taxes on their peasants? A study on late medieval Sweden reveals fascinating details about how much peasants had to pay to the royal government in taxes.
Two economic historians from Stockholm University were able to analyze all of the available taxation records from the Swedish kingdom during the later Middle Ages and express those figures both in real money as well as calculate the quantity of butter and the number of oxen that could be bought for a given tax sum. The article ‘The Late-Medieval Crisis Quantified: Real taxes in Sweden, 1320–1550’, by Dag Retsö and Johan Söderberg, appears in the Scandinavian Journal of History.
The historians note that during this period Swedish peasants saw dramatic changes in how much taxes they had to pay, with very low taxes during the period 1320–1363; followed by very high taxes for the next seventy years, and then ending the Middle Ages with lower taxes. Much of the income for the royal household would come from taxes on the peasantry, as the noble families, the clergy, and many townsmen (including those in Stockholm) were exempt from paying taxes. They also found that these taxes were collected mostly in kind (rye, barley, cattle, sheep, butter, pork and iron) rather than in cash.
During the middle decades of the fourteenth century, the average tax-paying peasant would have to pay the equivalent of 32 grams of silver to the royal treasury. This would represent about 2% of the value of their farm. If it was delivered as butter, it would be the equivalent of 16 kilograms. Retsö and Söderberg believe that during this period a typical peasant would have owned about four cows, which could deliver between 14 and 20 kilograms of butter per year.
The situation would change dramatically in 1363 when Sweden was invaded by German forces led by Duke Albert of Mecklenburg. Duke Albert’s son, who was also named Albert, was elected King of Sweden the following year, and the family would rule until 1389. The historians termed this era “a decentralized plunder economy” with extremely high taxes (as well as just outright theft of peasant property) being needed to support huge military expenses. Records from the years 1365 and 1366 show that the average peasant had to pay 168 and 227 grams of silver, or the equivalent of 105 and 162 kilograms of butter during those years.
The rule of the Mecklenburgs would come to an end in 1389 as the forces of Queen Margaret of Denmark conquered Sweden (she founded the Kalmar Union, which united the Scandinavian countries until the 16th century). Taxes would remain high during her reign – the authors explain that:
The regime of Margaret aimed at strengthening royal power and the central state. In order to broaden the tax base of the crown, Margaret enacted a reduction of several thousand farms that had been acquired by noblemen or the church and exempted from land dues to the crown. These properties were now brought back to ordinary tax-paying status, reversing the trend during the previous regime of King Albert. The queen strengthened royal control of the bailiffs, though local uprisings against them still occurred.
Overall, the period between 1365 and 1424 would see the average annual tax rate to be 177 grams of silver, or the equivalent of 105 kilograms of butter – overall, it was about 15% of the value of a farm. By way of comparison, in England during the 1370s, just prior to the Peasants’ Revolt, the average tax per capita was about 10 grams of silver.
The article notes that:
A key question is how the peasants were able to survive the high taxes in the decades around 1400. Part of the answer seems to be that taxes were redistributed from poor to rich peasants due to the collective responsibility of the local community. Affluent taxpayers had to pay those amounts that the less wealthy did not manage to put up. In practice, then, the tax system was less regressive than it would appear at first sight.
Eventually, the high taxes would help lead to the Engelbrekt rebellion of 1434–1436, which would depose King Eric of Pomerania and usher in a new era of much lower taxes. Retsö and Söderberg calculate that between 1446 and 1551, the average peasant paid 17 grams of silver in tax, the equivalent of about 17 kilograms of butter. It was also noted that castles, which played a central role in the extortion of taxes, were often attacked and destroyed during the Engelbrekt rebellion. “Several of these strongholds were not rebuilt, with the result that the number of functioning castles was much reduced toward the end of the 15th century,” they write.
Besides the great variations in taxation rates over time, the authors also found that the amount of taxes paid would be much different depending on which area of Sweden you lived. While the northern areas paid little taxes, those in the central region, which was the most fertile and economically diverse, paid five times as much.
The article concludes:
Most of the late-medieval period, then, was characterized by low taxes. This state of affairs obviously was connected to the comparatively high material living standards of the period. It also stimulated labour-saving technological change in peasant agriculture. The other side of the coin was that the state was too weak to avert or subdue armed conflicts involving Swedish as well as Danish lords fighting for supremacy. No working monopoly of violence was created.
‘The Late-Medieval Crisis Quantified: Real taxes in Sweden, 1320–1550’, by Dag Retsö and Johan Söderberg, appears in the Scandinavian Journal of History, Vol.40:1 (2015). The article can be accessed through Taylor and Francis Online.
Top Image: A tax collector at work in the 15th century. Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 1. Nürnberg 1426–1549. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317.2° fol. 48r