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Land and Peasants in Medieval Crete. 13th-14th centuries

Athens (Institute for Byzantine Research/NHRF) 1997

National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Historical Research, Faculty Member

Medieval History

Address: Institute of Historical Research Department of Byzantine Research National Hellenic Research Foundation 48 Vassileos Constantinou Av. 11635 Athens Greece

Land and Peasants in Medieval Crete. 13th-14th centuries], Athens (Institute for Byzantine Research/NHRF) 1997

LAND AND PEASANTS IN MEDIEVAL CRETE. XIIIth – XIVth c. The conquest of Crete by the Venetians and the new state of affairs imposed by Venice soon led to a new social and economic order for the island. If, on a social level, the changes that ensued were not entirely radical, on the economic level they were decisive for the future development of Crete. The new system of land ownership imposed by the Venetians was founded on the general principle that the land belongs to the state, and the state disposes of the land as it sees fit, always with a view to serving best its interests and maintaining security both in its overseas domain and at home. The Venetian settlement of the island was conducted on a systematic basis, and the greater part of the island was divided up among the Venetians who were sent there as the feudal, landowning cast. A portion of the land was held by the Latin Church, by monasteries and churches (both Catholic and Orthodox), while the state retained a large region for itself -Paracandia, containing numerous villages in the area around the Cretan capital, Candia. The first major changes to take place on the island were not completed until the end of the thirteenth century, mainly on account of the slow progress made in the face of resistance from the indigenous landowning classes who delayed not only the redistribution of land but also the full conquest of the island. These longestablished, noble families were to profit from their resistance by succeeding in carving out for themselves a right to the land they had fought for. Indirectly, their resistance paved the way for less well-placed Greek families to acquire property rights through various means. By the late thirteenth century the political situation had stabilized and land distribution and ownership had become established. The island held two large social groups, the feudal lords and the peasants, bound to one another by the land. The peasant class was composed of two clearly defined groups: those who were, and those who were not, subject to their lords. The larger of the two groups was composed of villeins, the successors to the Byzantine paroikoi, subject to a rigorously defined dependency on their masters. The villeins in turn were composed of two main categories: those who were bound to the land itself, and thence to the feudal lord, and those who belonged directly to the feudal lord, regardless of the land. In contrast to the villeins, free peasants were not subject personally to their lords, farming the land while being economically dependent on its owners. Although the land was divided into fiefs, cavallarias and serventarias, all serving to assist the state in its task of collecting taxes from the feudal lords, economic life in the countryside was based on the village, whose unity was assured irrespective of the regime of landownership. The peasants lived in the village, they cultivated the farmland roundabout, and they rendered their dues to its owners. While many features of society and daily life in the countryside remained little changed since Byzantine times, the colonial characteristics that the Cretan economy started to acquire as a result of the Venetian conquest led to a number of important changes. More intensive exploitation of the land and the development of city ports that gradually grew into major export and transit centres of, principally, agricultural produce, were the most obvious results of these changes. During the first two centuries of Venetian rule the agrarian economy played a key role. The island's agricultural production was dominated by cereals and vines, while livestock breeding was also important, contributing to the island's export market. Tilling the land (divided into small and medium-sized plots) was based on family-scale labour, as in Byzantine times. The direct cultivation of large areas of land owned by the feudal lords, whether by means of the system of compulsory communal labour (angarie) or by the employment of paid workers -as was the case in western Europe- does not appear to have been the practice in Crete. The Venetians interfered very little in the operations of rural life on the island; rather, their principal objective was to maximise agricultural production. Thus, all those who owned land -feudal lords, the state, the Church and monasteries- made their land available for longer or shorter lengths of time for cultivation by the peasants, under various terms, according to the kind of cultivation undertaken. Thanks to long-term grants of land-cultivation rights (gonico, renting for 29 years), peasants were able to secure practically a lifelong right to the land, to the extent that they were often able to pass on land to their inheritors. This fact was instrumental in binding the peasant to the land and in providing the feudal lord with a much needed agricultural workforce. For his part, the peasant was able to develop his farming activities to the best possible advantage. On the other hand, short term grants of land (such as rents of limited duration and "labour agreements") served, primarily, intensive cultivation of cereals, often destined for the export market. In such cases the landowner would be reluctant to commit his land for long periods with an unproductive peasant farmer or at a rental rate that might turn out to be unprofitable on account of rises in grain prices. The variety of grants of land, combined with the type of cultivation and the small plots of land in different regions gave both peasant and landowner the opportunity to choose the best possible farming solution with the best possible prospects. Landowner, land and peasant were closely bound to one another and interdependent. Nevertheless, the individual owning the land always had a distinct advantage, however much he might depend on farm-labourers in order to turn his land into a profit-making concern. The numerous farm-labour contracts that have survived are evidence of this relationship of dependence, as well as of the landowner's decisions with respect to the best exploitation of his land, and the efforts of both sides to secure their interests by means of the terms of the agreement and by the practice of signing the contract and having it formally ratified. The large number of contracts testifies to the mutual dealings of peasants of the same land, to the increase in the cultivable land area as more and more land was granted for cultivation, and the arrival of new peasant farmers. However, one cannot determine accurately the size and extent of these phenomena, since it is not possible to establish correlations across historical periods, or, what is more, for specific regions, since the sources do not cover the entire island. The profits deriving from the exploitation of the land of the feudal lords were chiefly in kind, as agricultural products, grain, wine and, to a lesser extent, livestock breeding. Everything was destined for the local or international market. Besides the land rent, the feudal lords also reaped various feudal revenues -all kinds of dues and rights- that the peasants paid in order to use the land and other features of the countryside. These revenues, part money, part in kind, did not entail vast sums; they did, however, serve to reaffirm the relationship of dependence, economic and personal, of the peasant on the feudal lord, and determined the position of the peasant within the social and economic system of Crete. The two social classes -feudal lord and peasant- occupied by definition the base and the peak of the economic pyramid of medieval society, that is, the many poor and the few rich. Yet within these two classes further pyramids quickly emerged displaying significant intermediate levels. In other words, by the midfourteenth century there were a considerable number of feudal lords who were running into serious financial difficulties, and a relatively small number of peasants who, while one hesitates to describe their situation as prosperous, at least found themselves to be getting by on a satisfactory economic level. It appears to be the case, therefore, that although Cretan society had clearly defined lines separating the social classes, the level enjoyed by each group's members was not the same, however much their position in the social hierarchy provided them with differing opportunities, starting from a differing base. The prospects and likelihood of finding an alternative livelihood were very limited for a peasant, and any attempt at breaking out of the mould entailed considerable risks. Nonetheless, small-scale trade and investment (basic characteristics of the city-ports, where large numbers of people came together from much of Europe and the Near East), served to fuel the desires and hopes for betterment of the poor of both city and countryside. At difficult moments in the island's history, the peasants turned to the cities and towns. There they hoped to find refuge, or the means by which they might leave the island to seek a better fortune elsewhere.

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