1

Wehrbauer (German pronunciation: [ˈveːɐ̯ˌbaʊ.ɐ], defensive peasant), plural Wehrbauern, is a German term for settlers living on the marches of a realm, who were tasked with holding back foreign invaders until the arrival of proper military reinforcements. In turn they were granted special liberties. Wehrbauern were mainly used on the eastern fringes of the Holy Roman Empire and later Austria-Hungary to slow attacks by the Ottoman Empire. [Wikipedia]

I... just don't think that makes sense. Why would you choose to delegate the highly important (and absolutely crucial for securing the continued existence of your empire!!) task of defending the border regions to the probably most unfit demographic imaginable (peasants)? Who were these people that despite being peasants they were able to hold back against hordes of foreign invaders (large armies with possibly quite advanced military equipment) for hours (days??) long enough until an actual army arrived but unable (or never daring to) to cast off the yoke of their own feudal serfdom?

How was it never a at all, seen as a problem by medieval aristocrats that they were being highly dependent on essentially free roaming bandits in the border regions for securing their empires, over which they could exercise only very limited control? What we're they even offering them in exchange? Saying "autonomy" and "freedom" doesn't make much sense at all, because that just means 'giving up control', i.e. reducing their leverage over them, so it should rather present a reason why they would NOT want to serve them.

How did these groups never challenge the status quo and the power of the ruling aristocrats inland?

3
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MCW
    Mar 1 at 17:25
  • I've moved all comments to chat. Comments are not an appropriate place to discuss or defend the thesis in the question. Comments are to be used to identify issues with the question; the question is edited to resolve the issue and the comment flagged for deletion. Discussion should occur in chat (if at all)
    – MCW
    Mar 1 at 17:27
  • 1
    The Wikipedia article says they were used in a variety of situations, but principally in 7th century in the southern flanks of the Byzantine empire and 16th and 17th century Germanic lands. Neither of those are medieval Europe. Can you clarify what period you are asking about?
    – Stuart F
    Mar 3 at 9:44

1 Answer 1

9

Let us take the example of the empire of Charlemagne and its expansion over the Pyrenees, in the late eighth century, clashing with the Umayyad Caliphate which controlled the Iberian peninsula. This is a real situation from which we can see patterns that recur with other polities, and other borders. The Wehrbauern, later and elsewhere, actually come from the same post-Roman Visigothic system of land tenure and obligation that was behind the structure used here.

The Franks were a large and powerful kingdom. They had a King, with a roaming court rather than a fixed capital (Charlemagne used Aachen as a home base but it was not an administrative headquarters independently of his presence). He had a core group of elite troops, the scara, but these were not enough to constitute a full army. To get more people, he had to summon them, according to a set regime. This levy obliged some local authority, such as a count or a bishop, to provide men; there were rules about repeated service, penalties for non-performance, and so on. Ultimately, that reflects a negotiation between competing demands, including the need to have people working the fields. Charlemagne's practice was to have a summer campaign each year.

Some of those offensives were targeted at creating a barrier region south of the Pyrenees. While the mountains are a natural boundary, control of the southern side would prevent the Umayyads from opportunistic raids, and the land was desirable in itself. But that territory, the "Marca Hispanica", was also then exposed to attack from the remainder of al-Andalus.

Charlemagne established the usual pattern of provincial rulers, in this case known as marquises for those territories on the border. "Marca", "marquis" and "march" are all from a Germanic root meaning "border". These rulers were not yet hereditary. They were in charge of their area, with considerable autonomy since at most times, Charlemagne was far away. While subject to the usual annual levy, they were also expected to be on the defensive at ordinary times, so that the whole area could remain Carolingian.

There was no way to support an additional standing army based on the resources available, and within the constraints of the system.

  • Levied soldiers are obliged to return home. They have to help with the harvest. While this point might be pressed, even Charlemagne has limited ability to anger his vassals.
  • All soldiers have to be housed and fed. The mobile campaign had strict logistics to make it possible for the army to survive. These were not available in the case of longer-term occupation. The population was initially quite low in the conquered regions.

The counts and marquises did use their own scarae, but we are not talking about huge numbers of people: they also relied on the ordinary populace at need. Specific forms of local levy were used to create castle garrisons, later known as the gaitagium or watch-duty, and counts would have even-more-local subordinates. In Catalonia, the smallest unit was the villa, a grouping of a half-dozen peasant families who paid their taxes to the count as a community.

Desiring to expand the population (which would increase production and make a larger body available for the levy), Charlemagne offered increased autonomy in some of these locations, under a system of land-grant called the aprisio. Incoming landowners would take charge of some swathe of previously unoccupied land, and after thirty years would gain legal tenure almost amounting to allodial title - a high degree of security, subject to the payment of taxes and participation in the levy. They and their descendants became proprietors of their own land, independent of the everyday control of the local lord. This was an attractive offer, even if it came with the understanding that they would occasionally be attacked by the Umayyads.

While Charlemagne and successors were giving up a degree of control, holders of land per aprisionem were still integrated into the political, economic, judicial and cultural system of the empire. Local lords were the ones losing out, which did give rise to various armed clashes and legal changes over the next centuries.

To follow up on some specific points raised:

  • "Essentially free roaming bandits in the border regions" is not accurate; the point of peasants is that they were settled on the land. Like anybody else, they wouldn't be off fighting willy-nilly, but only when there was a real need. They were not conducting bandit raids on their neighbours in the March.
  • "reducing your leverage over them" - ultimately, you are still getting what you care about (taxes, levies), and maybe even achieving more loyalty and prosperity
  • "cast off the yoke of their feudal serfdom" - this is an important dynamic, but often taking the form of incremental changes to conditions rather than mass armed rebellions against the aristocracy. There were many clashes between and among peasants and lords, but not framed in terms of class-consciousness as such. It was more often about specific grievances.

Similar patterns have been used at other places and times in history. That includes the Roman system of emphyteusis and the American settlement of its western frontier, which are both cases where there was a strong but distant central administration. Local autonomy was going to be the case anyway, but can be formally offered in order to entice people to dangerous duties.

5
  • 2
    OP also made the common mistake of confusing "peasants" with "serfs". I wonder if any "soldier peasants" were actually serfs.
    – Spencer
    Mar 11 at 14:39
  • 1
    OP seems to make an incorrect assumption that peasants could not constitute an effective fighting force. A counterexample to such an assumption might be the free peasants of Dithmarschen who beat back attempts at subjugation by nobility on multiple occasions over more than two hundred years: "In 1319 Gerhard III was repelled in the Battle of Wöhrden ... On 17 February 1500, in the Battle of Hemmingstedt, the outnumbered Ditmarsians, led by Wulf Isebrand, defeated the invading armies and thus destroyed King John's dream of subjecting Dithmarschen."
    – njuffa
    Mar 11 at 19:04
  • 1
    @njuffa: Also: In the days before multimillion dollar sports contracts even for mere journeymen, a certain Bobby Hull would spend his summers baling hay on his Prince Edward County farm - lending additional power to his feared slap shot. Being a peasant has never implied physical ineptitude except when food is truly scarce; rather the opposite. Mar 11 at 23:37
  • @Spencer: You have conflated serf and slave. I cannot speak to conditions east of the Oder-Neisse; but west of that (and even in high feudalism, several centuries after Charlemagne) serfs and peasants were one and the same - and in general not mistreated. In England after the Conquest, where William modeled feudalism after what he had learned and seen in France, serfs were indistinguishable from freemen except as regards their feudal duty of 40 days service per year to their liege. Mar 11 at 23:41
  • @PieterGeerkens No, I have not, and it baffles me how you extracted that from my comment.
    – Spencer
    Mar 11 at 23:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.