In my quest for understanding what life was like for Pierre Chastain and his fellow Huguenots, I’ve been reading several books which may seem irrelevant on the surface. One such book, Communal Christianity: The Life and Loss of a Peasant Vision in Early Modern Germany by David Mayes, discusses a little-known yet significant religious movement in Germany between the 16th and 18th centuries. Mayes’ geographical focus for this book just so happens to be the Hesse Province, specifically rural Upper Hesse, which is where my two favorite German villages, Louisendorf and Schwabendorf, reside.
The reason for reading books such as this one, as I’ve discovered over and over again, is simply that one piece of knowledge leads to another. One book leads to ten other books. This strategy has repeatedly steered me towards discoveries about Pierre Chastain and my family history.
Mayes introduces Communal Christianity with the following:
The present study began more by accident than intention. At the outset it was to be a project on popular religious culture in the town of Marburg. But while digging through the Marburg Consistory registers of 1611-24 to begin gathering material on the subject, I discovered the registers in fact contained a lot more information about the surrounding area of rural Upper Hesse. Intrigued by it, and by the fact that events in the rural locales were presenting a noticeable contrast to those in Hesse’s urban areas, I decided to investigate other sources on rural parish affairs from earlier and later periods. It wasn’t long before I found myself plunging with abandon into the packets and bound volumes and individual files located in the Hessian State Archives in Marburg.
I read these opening lines with growing jealousy. I wanted to be plunging with abandon into the packets and bound volumes and individual files located in the Hessian State Archives in Marburg. I’ve already discovered two documents from the Marburg Archives related to the Chastain family. I’m confident there are more, and I’d love to get my hands on them.
I haven’t read the entire book (I’ve learned to pick my battles) so this won’t be the most elegant or comprehensive summary, but, from what I’ve gathered, Mayes contrasts the communal religion of the peasants in this area of Germany with the more well-known Confessional Christianity. Communal Christians identified themselves primarily as Christian as opposed to a specific sect of Christianity (e.g. Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist). They weren’t worried about how exactly justification and sanctification worked (to name just two of the many theological issues that the confessional varieties of Christianity fought over). On the other hand, the warring factions of Confessional Christianity developed increasingly complicated belief systems which sundered each group irrevocably from the others. Mayes states:
Looking back into 1555-1648 Central Europe, one sees those groups of confessional Christianity—Lutheranism, Catholicism, Reformed—whose eccliastical systems outfitted the territorial churches, and one sees the other groups of confessional Christianity—foremost the Anabaptists—who stood as sectarians or noncomformists to those established confessional churches. While adherents in each were, on one level, Christian, the rise of combative, complex belief-systems caused them to be identified and identify themselves sooner as members of their particular, confessional group. Divisions would crystallize as each group designed its system to refute that of an opponent. Identification was then forged further through religious practice, for the form of worship was simply a manifestation of each group’s doctrinal beliefs.
But these more dogmatic brands of Christianity were not claimed by the majority of the populace in rural Upper Hesse.
Yet the known adherents of all these confessional groups totaled only a minority of the population. There was still a considerable majority, living mostly in rural settings, that cannot be automatically lumped into one or the other. It is true that a Lutheran, Catholic, or Calvinist system was installed in a given German territory’s parishes, and the territorial populace was willy-nilly attending services in the local parish church. But that religion per se did not ipso facto represent the religious orientation of the people.
This boiling cauldron of religious division was exacerbated by the arrival of the Huguenots in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Like the Huguenots, Karl, the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, was Calvinist, but he had reasons beyond that for inviting the Huguenots to settle his lands.
The Huguenots came to Hesse-Kassel in three waves: 1685-87, 1697-99, and 1720-22. Their arrival served simply as one more source of antagonism between the rural Upper Hessians and Karl’s policies. The landgrave generously granted privileges to these religious refugees, including status and rights equal to that of other subjects, a general decree of protection, and properties on which they did not have to pay the Kontribution. Karl hoped the Huguenots’ expertise in commerce and trade would jump-start a still struggling economy, and therefore settlements in Hesse-Kassel were first set up in urban areas of Lower Hesse. But within a few years, sites for colonies in rural Upper Hesse were selected by the Frankenberg Oberschultheiss, the chief forester, and the landgrave himself.
As stated above, the French refugees didn’t have to pay taxes for the first few decades after settling in Hesse-Kassel. More on that later. Now, on to Louisendorf and Schwabendorf.
The other six Huguenot colonies were in the confessionally tumultuous northern Upper Hesse: Louisendorf (1688) by the northern border, Schwabendorf (1687), Hertingshausen (1695), and Wolfskaute (1699) on the Burgwald’s east side, and Todenhausen (1720) and Wiesenfield (1720) on the west side. The sites were chose for obvious reasons—they constituted enough deserted or unused lands and forests whose borders were vaguely defined and therefore could be more easily sectioned off by Karl. The rural Upper Hessians and landed nobles took offense at these intrusions onto properties they claimed as their own by custom and by law. Most Gemeinden had verbal confrontations with the authorities and even physical skirmishes with the Huguenots in a vain effort to retain their lands. The Huguenot project did not provide the kind of economic stimulus Karl had hoped for, yet the landgrave’s reception of the Huguenots, the French Chancellery’s administration of their settlements, and the officials’ and foresters’ work at the local level personified the kind of ambitious, progressive policies of the state of Hesse-Kassel.
The mention of Huguenot confrontations with the native Germans confirms Poole’s accounts, of which I’ve already written. However, a particularly intriguing footnote for the above passage directly contradicts other histories.
The settlements’ organization and planning enhanced the role of foresters as well as the rationalization of early modern forest administration. An office of the government known as the French Chancellery was created to organize the colonization process, draw up laws and rights regarding the refugees, and distribute financial subsidies to them. The privileges were reconfirmed in 1731, 1765, and 1786, and the Chancellery survived until 1800, in which year both the privileges and the Chancellery were finally dissolved. The Huguenots found life in rural Upper Hesse difficult due to isolation, poorer soils, and lack of agricultural know-how. They were usually dependent on government subsidies, and some families left to find better opportunities elsewhere.
This was the first I’d seen the claim that the refugees struggled due to their lack of farming experience. In fact, everything else I’d read up to this point had claimed the exact opposite. In Weiss’ History of the French Protestant Refugees, he states:
Agriculturists, and all those who lacked means of existence, received grants of uncultivated land in various cantons of Hesse, where they created successively eighteen agricultural colonies: Karlsdorf, founded in 1686; Mariensdorf, Schwabendorf, and Frauenberg, in 1687; Louisendorf, in 1688 ; Kertiugshausen, in 1694; Leckinghausen, Frankenheim, and Wolfskante, in 1699; Karlshaven, Kelse, Schunberg, St Ottilie, Gethsemane, in 1700; Todenhausen and Wiesenfeld, in 1720; Gewissenruhe and Gottestreue, in 1722. The expatriated French were of great service to agriculture, which was singularly backward in that country. They rendered sterile lands fertile, and drained marshes, which their intelligent toil transformed into fruitful orchards, and into fields producing vegetables, most of whose sorts were unknown before their arrival. They improved the breeding of cattle, which they understood better than the Hessians. They taught them the art of gardening, introduced (for the first time in the landgraviate) artificial meadows and the cultivation of the potato. Turkeys, also, were first taken into Hesse by them. The working of coal mines, now so profitable to the whole electorate, also dates from their establishment in the country.
In Poole’s History, he quotes from Arnaud’s Protestants de Dauphiné which makes the same claims as Weiss. This left me scratching my head. Which account is true? Perhaps it’s a mixture of both. It could be that the refugees did initially struggle but then, through experience, were able to make the improvements suggested by Weiss and Arnaud. This does seem to fit what we know about the Huguenot refugees. A large percentage of them were not farmers but artisans of some trade or another.
According to The Schwabendorf Book of Families, the refugees in Schwabendorf were first required to pay taxes in 1722 (Schwabendorf was established in 1687). As mentioned by Mayes, the landgrave, hoping to attract Huguenot settlers, did not originally require them to pay the Kontribution. Below is a list of the settlers living in Schwabendorf in 1724 and their taxable capital.
Translations and values of recorded property:
Haus u. Garten – House and Garden, 30 guilders
Pferd – horse, 6 guilders
Ochsen or Schubochsen – oxen, 3 guilders
Kuh – cow, 2 guilders
Schafe – sheep, 1 guilder for 10 sheep
Braulos – bull, 5 guilders
Strumpfstuhl – I’m not entirely certain, but I believe this is a stocking frame (pictured above) used for making stockings. Stocking weaving may have been the primary industry of the Schwabendorfers. 25 guilders
Interestingly, just as low taxes may have played a role in attracting Pierre to Hesse in the 1680s and 1690s, high taxes, along with exorbitant land prices, may have been a factor in the Chastains leaving Hesse for America in 1860.