Title


CHAPTER XXIX.

THE SAXON PEASANTRY AND THEIR CUSTOMS.

IN all the arrangements of Saxon village life, the one idea which pervades every act of the community, whether it relates to public parish business or husbandry, guilds or the events more immediately concerning each little household, is that the individual is but an integral part of one large family. A family tie unites and holds all together. This notion of family life is the basis on which all their social relations are established : it serves also to explain many a custom which otherwise might appear strange and even unintelligible.

Each individual, as member of one and the same family, was supposed to have an interest in the weal or woe of his neighbour; and as, when viewed in this light, the success or ill-fortune of one concerned all the others, every person was called on, whenever needed, to lend his assistance in getting in the harvest, building a house, etc., and was also expected to participate in his neighbour's joy, and to show him the last mark of respect by being at his funeral. No matter what occurred, it concerned more or less the whole colony.

The words "Father" and "Mother," which were invariably employed as the titles of thsoe who had a superintending office, give proof of this patriarchal state.* 29_1

29_1 * Léchenvoter, Nobervoter und Motter, Torbesvoter (Feldrichter).

A wedding or bethrothal, or any other family festival, is still shared in by all the villagers. Each one sends his presnet of a fowl, or cakes, or flour, and each comes to dance and to partake of the abundant cheer. Their field labour is even a communal act, and they all decide together about beginning the work, just as the individual farmer might talk over with his sons the advisability of ploughing on the morrow. The "Hann" or "Borger," as he is sometimes called, -- the chief elected authority of the place, -- summons the villagers to meet him at the church. The men who have been sent out to examine the state of the fields have returned, and now a decision is to be come to about preparing them for sowin oats or maize. All are assmebled before the church-door. "On certain slopes," so it si state, "the land is in a good condition, but by the mill and all up the valley it is still wet and stickey.: So it is decided that no ploughing is to be dome before next week; and whoever disobeys shall pay a florin in penalty.

Andthe same with the harvest, It is begun by a service in the church, to which all go in holiday dress; and then away to the cornfield; the youths with bunches of lowers in their hats. But generally, as a fitting prelude to an act that is to bring blessed plenty into every house, the whole community share in the Holy Communions, -- the authorities havingpreviously decided among themselves the day when all are to go forth with their sickles, and also that on which the sheaves are to carried home.

When the thermometer stands at 28 degressR., to swing the scythe the whole day long is trying work; so the mowing is done at night. By this plan time too is gained, which for the Saxon is a great thing. The whole community are told to be ready on the following afternoon at four ; and at that hour they assemble, each with his well-hammered scythe, and set out from the village. The " Hann " is there on horseback,-like a leader,-and should any deserter steal away, the glittering of his bright scythe-blade in the distance betrays him, and the " Hann" is after him in a trice, to punish him for his delinquency. That night there is not a man in the village, save the clergyman, and his curate, and the village schoolmaster,always excepting the aged and infirm. And so the"Hann" marches through the street, and keeps a vigilant look-out, lest thieves should come; and to affright any chance prowler around the place, he fires off a pistol from time to time, which also tells the workers in the moonlit meadows that he is watching round their homes.

Thus the work is quickly done. If the weather is fine, the haymaking is got over in no time. Not one goes home to dinner ; they have, they say, no time for that ; for with the Saxon peasant everything is secondary to the business of his farm,-comfort, health, family ties. They do not even think of marrying except at a time when the wadding festivities will in nowise interfere with the necessary field labour ; thus, all the weddings in a village take place on the same day. By this plan no time is lost. The Saxons are probably the only people who carry calculation so far; none understand better the identity of the words " thrifty " and "thriving." In the so-called Haferland, the Feast of St. Catharine (Nov. 25) is the day for marrying. Elsewhere, as in the neighbour hood of Bistritz, it is on the 3rd of February. The anec dote related by one of themselves is very characteristic. It was haymaking-time, when the funeral of a peasant sadly interfered with carrying home the crop. The weather, too, was threatening, which made it the more necessary to house it with all possible speed. " Oh, Johnny, Johnny," the widow is reported to have exclaimed, amid her tears, " how could you serve us so, and die just when there was so much to do!" And yet when all are busy at work in the hay-field, if the tolling of the church- bell should announce that a neighbour is about to leave his old home and be carried to his grave, rake and fork or scythe are instantly laid down, and all hasten back to show the departed member of their common family the last honours. The inconvenience may be great, but all go and join in the procession and the prayer.

That the interest of the individual should be made subservient to the common weal is understood and followed by even the most uncivilized communities. But that the community shall interest itself in the welfare of the individual, and all join together to prevent his suffering loss, is a law less generally followed. One of the Saxon customs shows how it is observed here. Should a villager's cow or ox break a leg, or any other accident necessitate its being killed, the " Hann" at once decides how much meat each inhabitant is to take, in order to prevent the one member of the family suffering by his mischance. But for such arrangement the man's loss would be great; in this way he loses nothing.

The farmer who has several fields, and perhaps but one son (in the Haferland the peasant has few children), will certainly have enough to do to till them. They are far apart, and far from. his dwelling ; and in order to get through his work he will be off betimes, so as to begin labour by daybreak. He returns late, he gets no warm food during the day, and his nourishment altogether is not commensurate with the exertion undergone. He certainly lives badly : he eats little meat, and denies him self everything like good cheer. He begins to work hard while very young, and the frequency of an internal injury arises, I was told, from this habit, and from lifting wood and other things too heavy for a boy's strength. But a Saxon peasant allows of no excuse for not working, neither for himself nor others. There are seasons when he sleeps but four hours in the twenty-four. He works so incessantly that he has no leisure for mirth; the fatigue of continual labour disinclines him for merriment, and when the moment for repose arrives, he rests himself and is quiet. This mode of life soon tells upon him, and he looks old before his time. It is the same with the women constant work and a poor and scanty diet soon destroy the roundness of their features. Hemp-washing in the brook in autumn is one of their duties, and while at it they get wet and cold and ill. With them, too, early marriage tends to give a premature appearance of age.

The distance all the peasantry have to go for medical aid is often severely felt. It is a long drive to the nearest doctor, and the sufferer often pines away, when a little timely help would have saved him.

Saxon village life, or a Saxon household, cannot fail to impress the stranger favourably. It is undeniable that the greatest order reigns in all the affairs of these people, private as well as public. There is an exactitude in everything they do which is probably unequalled. In their communal affairs, in the payment of contributions in kind or in money, in sowing and reaping, even in the places which, according to age and sex, are given to the congregation in church, there is a regularity of proceeding which may be called pedantic, and to which they adhere as pertinaciously as to the cherished faith of their fathers. In the household, too, everything has its appointed time and season. As the days grow short the spinning begins, and she would be looked on as a bad housewife who was not ready with her work by the sixth week after Christmas. Then the loom is put up, and she sits at it and plies the shuttle so busily, that by the time spring comes the long pieces of linen are just ready to be bleached. And now begin out-of-door duties.

As was said, the first appearance of the Saxon peasant is particularly favourable.

But I cannot help acknowledging that on meeting more frequently with the villagers, and becoming better ac- quainted with them, it seemed to me as if they all had a conventional air,-a manner acquired or put on, which however may at last, from habit, have become natural to them. In speech, too, as well as manner, there was, I fancied, something Methodistical. It was the uniformity of the exterior which suggested the thought that it was artificial. It is not possible that among a communityamong many communities-of men, there should not be wide differences of character naturally influencing the outward manner, which is, to a degree, the reflection of the inner man. But, among this peasantry, the same calm, smooth deportment prevails everywhere; it is the stereotyped form, and has no variety. They greet and preface their answers to you in a certain set phrase, which at first attracts, but which by constant repetition at last tires you. The Saxon peasant has always a well-turned answer ready, in which a certain unction never fails.

Once only, on entering a cottage, the master did not move, but looked at me, after muttering a rather sulky " Guten Morgen," with an expression which seemed to say, "Well, what do you want here ?" The man gained greatly in my estimation, by deviating from the beaten track and showing himself as lie was. Indeed, in all intercourse with the Saxon peasant, you will find a great deal of outward formality, and not even our own English slaves to conventionality labour to "keep up appearances " more than he. For this he toils as he does, and feeds so poorly ; has often but one child, and forces that one to marry, not according to inclination, but solely with reference to the house and barns of the future son or daughter-in-law. His thrift has become his master; it overcomes other natural emotions ; and the affections are put out of court when there is a question of broad acres or hard pelf. I have myself seen how the importance attached to possession is able completely to deaden even parental love.

The Saxon peasant acts in all according to system. Strictly ordered, admirable arrangement has ever been the groundwork of his existence. It was so of his political well-being and of his social life, in times when, but for this, surrounding inimical influences would have destroyed him. We have seen that even now he goes to sow or reap his fields, not when he might be best inclined to do so, but at the time fixed by the commune ; so accus- tomed is he to subordinate his own will to others. And hence, perhaps, it may arise that a want of natural spon- taneity is observable in these people.

The way in which a Saxon peasant replies to a question struck me as peculiar. If you ask " Have you any fruit ?" he does not answer " Yes;" but, "We have." " Can that be done ?"-" It can." When a child is born, the church bell is rung, just as it is tolled when a member of the community dies.*29_2

29_2 * I heard, in a Saxon village, a word which helped to explain to me an English expression which had hitherto been unintelligible to me,-that of godchild. The word, however, is also a Bavarian provincialism. (Die Gott, die Gotten, die Gottel, adinater, filiola,-godmother, goddaughter. Der Gött, der Göttel,-godfather, godson.) " My Godo is coming to see nie to- day," said the pastor one afternoon, and I now comprehended that to the original word-in itself sufficient-we, misunderstanding its meaning, had added, as expletive, another (child, father, mother, etc.) which was quite unnecessary. By making God of " gode," we helped also to confuse the etymology. It has nothing to do with God. Another circumstance seemed to me singular. The Hungarian "wad " means wild, mad ; the Scotch " wed " too.

It is very extraordinary how habits and modes of life, induced by a peculiar state of things, continue and become characteristic features when the original cause has long ceased to be.*29_3 I have often asked myself if the pre-sent thrift of the Saxon peasant may not have originated in the former uncertainty of possession, when now a Vayvode and now a Turkish pasha disputed with him his right to his own; and with regard to his hoarded corn, lie still feels happy in the thought that he has a good store in the granary, just as in those times when a sudden foray might have deprived him of his whole household stock. He likes, too, that his neighbours should see his abundance.

29_3* With many of the brutes this is singularly the case. The household dog still turns round and round before lying down, as when wild in the prairie; although the necessity of doing so, to smooth a bed for himself in the long grass, no longer exists.

In his dress, also, he would fain show that he lacks nothing. His boots therefore are unnecessarily large, that it may not seem as if leather had been spared in making them. Hence, the more material used the better.

To money, homage is everywhere paid, in hamlet as in town ; and even these remote villages acknowledge its power. A household that has but little linen, is obliged to wash often. To do so more than four or six times a year, is therefore considered as a sign of poverty; and, on this account, it is said of the inhabitants of Mehburg, that they would not think of choosing, as their clergyman; one who needed to have a washing-day more than once a year. But then the Mehburger is proud of the piles of linen in his house, besides the white large-horned oxen and the buffaloes in his stable.

Formerly, no doubt, each community lived more apart from the rest than is the case now. The dwellers in an adjoining district were therefore looked on as strangers, inasmuch as they were not of "the family," which every village seemed to form in itself. And even now, it is not at all liked that a youth or maiden should marry out of the village, or that from a neighbouring parish a young wife or husband come to settle there. They prefer keeping together; they want no interlopers, and detest innovation.*29_4

29_4* I see by a note to a very interesting paper on Saxon customs, by a professor at one of the best public schools in Transylvania, that this dislike to any admixture of a foreign (not of the same town or village) element is not confined to the peasantry ; for even he laments the " decomposition" which the national feeling undergoes by such process. He laments the sad fact, that of thirty-five marriages which had taken place in the year, eight of the parties became inhabitants of his native town by means of their new family connection. " Nearly one quarter of the whole number!" he exclaims, in his regret at this proof of what he looks on as degeneracy in his nation. And, in favourable contrast, he states that in 1811 there were forty-three weddings in the town, and but one among the whole eighty-six individuals who was not a townsman ; and in the two following years, although there were thirty-three and fifty-four weddings, not a single stranger was among them. If this feeling of exclusiveness-this close-borough system -find advocates in men of really superior education, we may judge how integral a part it is of the nation's mind, and how deeply it must be rooted.

And this last is the reason why they have made, except lately here and there, no progress in agriculture ; they are suspicious of new methods, as they are of a new face.-j-t29_5 This dislike to change, however, is characteristic of all peasantry. Not so, however, the mistrust of a stranger, which is strongly marked in the Saxon peasant. All my inquiries about their fields, their family, customs, labours, prices, made them, it was evident, feel uncomfortable. And even if I were sometimes in a village, visiting the different people daily, chatting with them and playing with the children, and taking part in their merrymakings, they could not overcome the feeling. That I should stay among them at all was quite a riddle. What was my motive ? what my aim ? They could not make it out.

29_5-j-j The Hungarian peasants adopt improvements in agriculture readily. They watch what is done, and, if good, copy it.

One evening, on returning after a walk to the village where I was staying, I overtook some peasants going homewards with their carts, so 1 joined and chatted with them. Presently, one of the men asked if he might put a question, and if I would certainly not be offended. " Of course not; put as many as you like."-" Well then," he said, "just tell me why you stay here among us. The `Richter' says you are a 'Naturforscher' (a natural philosopher) ; perhaps you are, but what that is I don't know." I did my best to satisfy him, but was doubtless unsuccessful.

I had been, just before, at a large Wallachian village, and there, too, had talked much with the people, had been in their houses, and, so it seems, asked a multiplicity of questions ; indeed; it was this unfortunate habit of questioning which caused all the mistrust. My friendly host told me after I had left, that several people came to him to ask who I was. He told them, "An Englishman, travelling to see the country and the people.' " Don't believe it," said they, shaking their heads, and holding up their finger with an air of mystery ; " it's no such thing. The man is a spy; you may be sure he is a spy. As to his questions, there was no end to them. He asked us about every thing; there was nothing he did not question us about. No, no; I tell you he is a spy." And no assurance, it seemed, would make them change their opinion. I told this to a Saxon village clergyman, one evening, as we sat together after supper, thinking he would be as amused at it as myself. " Well," he said, very gravely, "that is what the people say here, too. They do not understand that their customs can interest a stranger, and so they account for your manner."

The ceremonies of the Saxon peasantry are so manifold, that a volume might be filled with these alone. They vary, though generally only in details, in different districts, -according, no doubt, to the part of the mother- country whence their ancestors emigrated. In Silesia are two villages, where the dress and dialect of the inhabitants is quite the same as those of the Saxons of Bistritz. They are, probably, apart of the body of emigrants who passed there on their way to the north of Transylvania, and, stopping, sojourned in the neighbourhood while the others pursued their journey south. In Luxembourg, also, the peasantry speak a dialect which is nearly, if not quite, the same as that of some of the Saxons in Transylvania. The customs, above mentioned, are mostly observed in the so-called Hafer-land. But order is everywhere a characteristic both in and out of doors. Each implement has its place, and even in the build of the house, and the arrangement and adorning of its interior, a certain symmetry is observed,-all pointing to a similarity of tastes and habits. There is the niche in the wall, near the stove (Katzenhöll), for the cat to sit and purr in ; there is the gaily-painted cupboard, and a portrait of Luther and Melanchthon on the walls, and the large table with a stoneslab, uncovered on Sundays, and the long blue and red locker, in which, with the holiday finery, lie the Bible and hymn-book, and whatever papers it is of importance to preserve.

I have spent many a pleasant hour in such cottages, joking with the women or gleaning information from the men. They are shrewd, hard-working, and intelligent, and-thanks to their good schools-they possess a fair amount of knowledge. I should be sorry to do them an injustice in my statements, and I think I have not.

The thing is, the whole demeanour of the peasant imposes at first; but this afterwards rather tells against him than otherwise ; for when you come to measure him, you do so involuntarily, by a higher scale than you would apply to another in his position of life. Then, if you find discrepancies, you are apt to judge him over-severely ; but this is his own fault, for it was solely his air and manner which caused you to apply the standard you have chosen.




Text Archive Home | Book Details | Table of Contents