Understanding Occupations in German Research

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This article presents an overview of German society between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. It explains the positions of farmers and artisans in rural communities, and it shows how feudal controls, taxes, and other obligations affected their lives.

Occupations and “Social Standing”[edit | edit source]

Occupations and “social standing” defined each person’s rights and obligations in pre-1900 German society. In accordance with Divine will, one was born into a particular spot in society and expected to remain there and fulfill the associated roles. Upward social mobility was largely impossible. The feudal system was very stable and remained unchanged over centuries. A major shift occurred in the mid-1800s with advancing industrialization. The resulting “capitalist system” included a much broader base of farm laborers and blue collar workers, a larger middle class and a few nobles.

Town Administration[edit | edit source]

A village community included burghers with full citizenship rights (Nachbarn, Bűrger) and “Hintersassen” or “Einsassen”, who had fewer rights. Here are some details about the village hierarchy prior to the 1800s:

  • The top person in charge was the lord of the land--usually a nobleman, church, monastery, etc.
  • The Vogt was usually appointed by the lord of the land.
  • The Bűrgermeister, or mayor, may be appointed or elected.
  • The town council or “court” consisted of 7-12 men. These men exercised administrative, legislative, and limited judicial functions (those not involving capital punishment).
  • The field overseer [Feldwächter] had to enforce the borders of the various field sections and conformity to planting regulations.
  • The treasurer [Kastenmeister] and tax collector [Zentgraf] dealt with local finances and the contributions required to be paid to the various authorities.

CLASSES OF RESIDENTS[edit | edit source]

Bűrger or neighbors were citizens with full rights. In order to become a Bűrger, the applicant had to be the legitimate son of a Bűrger, have a good moral reputation, meet other conditions, and pay a fee, the “Bűrgergeld.” Out-of-town applicants had to provide proof of legitimate birth, proof that they could support a family and proof of a certain amount of personal property, and sometimes procure affidavits of good moral character, etc. The town council decided who could become a citizen and set the fee to be paid. Citizens’ rights included a yearly gift of firewood and occasionally wood for building, as well as a right to graze cattle on the village meadow.

Hintersassen or Beisassen usually had no real property in the town, and had fewer rights than Bűrger. They did not get the free yearly wood allotment and could not graze their cattle (if they had any) on town property. Taxes paid in kind, money, and unpaid labor varied among the social classes, according to social standing, income, and property owned.

CRAFTSMEN[edit | edit source]

Craftsmen, such as weavers, tailors, shoemakers, bakers, carriage builders, glass blowers, etc., were among the village “middle class.” However, most of them also farmed some or had at least a garden to help feed their families. In many cases, even the pastor and the teachers did some farming.

Artisans were limited in their mobility. For example, if a town already had two tailors, and the town council felt that a third one was not needed, no other tailor would be permitted to become a citizen in that town. He may not even be allowed to just live there as a Hintersasse. Thus, many craftsmen either came back to their home town to take over a relative’s shop, or they married a daughter from a family in the same trade. Some married far away from home, perhaps in an area they had visited during their journeyman years.

Young boys were apprenticed to a master tradesman after confirmation (age 12-16). The apprenticeship lasted several years. The father paid a fee to the master. At the end of this time, the master gave the young man a “Gesellenbrief” or journeyman letter. The journeyman spent from 2-4 years, depending on the trade, traveling the country and working for various masters. Upon his return, he produced a “master piece,” which was judged by all the master artisans of his trade in the area, and he was then able to become a master himself. Guilds allowed only those of legitimate birth to join. In many areas, especially larger towns, membership in a guild was required in order to practice a trade.

INNKEEPERS[edit | edit source]

Inns were a social center in every community. The innkeeper was a highly respected member of the community. Inns often have names such as “the Crown,” “the Stag,” “the Lion,” etc. The townspeople were required to patronize the inn and buy certain amounts of alcoholic beverages on social occasions, such as family events and Kirmes. Conversely, certain members of the community, notably the pastor and teacher, were often forbidden to frequent the inn.

“DISHONORABLE PROFESSIONS”[edit | edit source]

“Dishonorable professions” included those dealing with social taboos, such as crime, illness, death, and “earth.” Included were bath house owners, prostitutes, executioners, bailiffs, weavers, potters, charcoal burners, castrators, grave diggers, and many others, depending on the region. They married within their class and had no upward mobility.

FARMERS[edit | edit source]

The German language includes over a hundred terms that mean “farmer,” which are often listed in historical records to denote a person’s social standing. Most of these terms imply a certain position on the social scale. This scale differentiates between farmers who have more property, and therefore more rights and fewer obligations, and those who own very little land or work as farm laborers. In general, lower class meant fewer rights and more obligations.

“LEIBEIGENSCHAFT”[edit | edit source]

Leibeigenschaft was a medieval form of serfdom, usually passed down through the mother. It should not be equated with slavery. Leibeigene persons were tied to the land, so their mobility was severely limited. In return for the peasants’ service, the landlord was supposed to provide support and protection in times of war, famine, and other times of need. Special permission from the landlord was required in order to marry, move to another farming estate or town, or emigrate. Some surviving records of these manumissions have been indexed and help locate the origins of pre-19th century emigrants. Special taxes, both in kind and money, and unpaid labor on the Lord's estate, were required. When the head of household died, the best piece of livestock in the barn[Besthaupt] was paid to the Lord of the land. In case of his wife’s death, her best dress was the required payment. In the 17th through 19th centuries, most of the obligations associated with Leibeigenschaft were converted to cash payments.

Model of a dependent farmer’s obligations in East Prussia:

 The work week (six days) is divided into twelve half days. Sunday is not counted. 


A -The farmer works six half days per week on the farm owner’s estate without pay.

B- Another half day is worked to earn money for various taxes paid in money or kind.

C- Another half day is worked to pay tithes.

D- Another half day is worked to pay for other contributions (maintain roads, deliver food to the military, help build a school, etc.).

E- This leaves the farmer three half days to work for the sustenance of his own family.

FOR FURTHER READING[edit | edit source]

Blum, Jerome, The end of the old order in rural Europe, Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1978, xiii, 505 p., [2] p. of pl. : ill., facsims., map, portr., ISBN 0691052662, FHL INTL BOOK 940 H6bj. Historical overview of the social emancipation of the rural peasantry in Austria-Hungary, the Baltic States, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Switzerland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Boehlke, LeRoy, Pomerania: its people and its history, [Germantown, Wisconsin] : L. Boehlke, 1983, 36 p. : Ill., coats of arms, maps.,4th printing, FHL INTL BOOK 943.82 H2b

Cowan, Alexander Francis, The Urban Patriciate: Lübeck and Venice, 1580-1700, Köln : Böhlau, 1986, xvi, 267 p., ISBN 3412060840, FHL INTL BOOK 943.512/L1 H6c. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Heinemeier, Dan C., A Social History of Hesse: Roman times to 1900, Arlington, Virginia: Heinemeier Publications, 2002, 377 p.: ill., maps, ports. ISBN 0967182212, FHL INTL BOOK 943.41 H2hd. Has a good bibliography.

Hoffmann, Richard C., Land, liberties and lordship in late medieval countryside: agrarian structures and change in the Duchy of Wrocław, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989, xx, 578 p., [1] folded leaf: charts, general. Tables, maps, ISBN 0812280903, FHL INTL BOOK 943.85 R2hr. Social history of the former Duchy of Wrocław, part of the larger Duchy of Silesia, from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Includes glossary and gazetteer explaining German and Polish place-name changes.

Sabean, David Warren. Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0521386926. FHL INTL BOOK 943.47/N6 H6sd. Extensive social history of a small Wuerttemberg community with lengthy discussions about family relations as they fit into the local social fabric.

Thode, Ernest. GERMAN-English Genealogical Dictionary, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1992. ISBN 0-8063-1342-0. FHL INTL REF 433.21 T352g 1992.

Walker, Mack. German Home Towns: community state, and general estate, 1648-1871, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971, 473 p., ISBN/ISSN 0801406706, FHL INTL 943 H2wm.

HELPFUL WEB SITES[edit | edit source]

http://brigittegastelancestry.com/occupat.htm and http://sites.rootsweb.com/~romban/misc/germanjobs.html#OutlineTree –old German professions, occupations, and illnesses, translated from German into English language [some letters are missing].

http://wiki.genealogy.net/wiki/Kategorie:Berufsbezeichnung –dictionary of historic occupations with references [in German].

http://www.nuernberger-hausbuecher.de/index.php?do=page&mo=8Die Hausbűcher der Nűrnberger Zwölfbrűderstiftung (The Housebooks of the Twelve-Brethren Foundation in Nuernberg) Two social foundations in Nűrnberg maintained retirement homes for indigent old craftsmen. The “housebooks,” kept since about 1426 and 1511 respectively, include portraits of the residents, usually depicted in the typical clothing and with the tools of their trade. Each folio includes a transcription of the text and explanatory notes in German. The collection includes several topical indexes in English.