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Our German Peasant Roots

In and Around Pfalz: Grandpa Joe’s German Roots


We can trace Grandpa Joe’s ancestral German towns largely to one general area in the middle section of far western Germany, surrounding what is known in English as the Palatinate. For simplicity I will call this area by its German name, Pfalz. Many Americans (and Australians) can today find roots in this area, because large numbers of Pfalz natives emigrated from there in both the 1700s and the 1800s. (This is also the same general area from which both the Applers and Barbs of the Williss family ancestry may have originated.) Pfalz has a historic cultural and political identity, although throughout the centuries its boundaries have shifted for various reasons.[1] Pfalz today politically survives into the Germany political state of Rheinland-Pfalz. Reading up on the history of this area is certainly recommended, as there seems to be a never-ending volume of very interesting material.[2]

Rough location of Pfalz in Europe (derived from Google Maps)


Rough Location of Pfalz, marked by a circle (Google Maps).

There is no way I or most people reading this will ever do enough research to catch up to the experts on this area of German history. But we can identify some of the major historical facts that undoubtedly affected our roots.

A State of Constant Instability

As the old saying goes, “The only constant is change”.

Well, this was certainly the case with Pfalz, at least when it was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Over more than 1000 years preceding Mathias’s emigration to the US, Pfalz was broken up into fiefdoms and other political divisions that were at any time subject to political instability. Political boundaries were subject to change, and did change, for any number of reasons. Sometimes these changes occurred by negotiation or handshake, sometimes by order of the Church, sometimes by force.

To illustrate the lack of political stability within the Holy Roman Empire, take a look at the map of the Holy Roman Empire at the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618. I have plotted the approximate locations of Grandpa Joe’s ancestral German villages. You can see the boundaries of the different political areas- stated simply, these areas were forever were constantly bumping into one another. The tussles and feuds among the entities was a constant backdrop to German society throughout the centuries.

Map_of_the_Holy_Roman_Empire_(1618)_-_DE.svg eve of War's outbreak Wikipedia - Copy

Grandpa Joe’s Ancestral Village Locations in Holy Roman Empire, c.1618.  The approximate locations of the villages of Grandpa Joe’s grandparents in the context of the Habsburg and Holy Roman Empires at the outbreak of the  Thirty Years’ War, 1618, as plotted on a map generated and generously posted by Wikipedia User Sir Lain and posted on the Wikipedia page on the Thirty Years’ War.[3]


When Did They Move to Pfalz?  We know our Bürger ancestors can be traced to the village of Deidesheim, and the Weissents to Alsace, France (their area for hundreds of years subject to the Holy Roman Empire). We can only speculate as to when our Bürgers first migrated to the Deidesheim area, or when our Weissents migrated to the Obersteinbach area. Any success we may have in discovering our roots along either of these lines will not likely extend further back in time than the 16th Century. That’s at least partly because this was the era in which surnames first became more widespread for peasants. And the best records we can discover from this era were either from the local Roman Catholic Church or, later, the civil local government.

That said, I do have a strong expectation that we can consider our identified Pfalz and Alsace ancestors as truly and deeply local: more likely than not, they were from this general region for many centuries. At least for the Bürger ancestors, and the families they married, more likely than not they were from Pfalz, or areas surrounding it, for many centuries – and dating well back into feudal times. I can think of no reason to conclude otherwise. One genealogy researcher on the Weissents noted that the Krueters (a surname marrying a Weissent) may have had Swiss origins, and it’s entirely possible that some or all of them at one point had migrated to the area after the Thirty Years’ War from other parts of of France or as far away as the Netherlands or Switzerland. That said, barring actual proof of that, I am thinking that if we consider our roots in the larger timeframe, I must conclude the majority of our peasant ancestors were from the general region.

Their Lives As Peasants

We have several German surnames in our ancestry. Regardless of the name, there can be no doubt but that our German ancestors were largely of the peasant and lower-income working class population in their communities. For instance, we’ve found documentation that they worked the land as farmers in the 18th and 19th century (Weissend) and lived winegrowers (Berger) and vine dressers (Andress, people who tended to the wine grape vines) in the 1700s and 1800s.

So, what were their lives like?  Until we can do further research, it’s not clear where they sat in the social and economic hierarchy, what quality of life they had, and so forth. Also, it could make a difference what era we research, since life was overall either or better or worse depending on the history. Generalizations are difficult about their socio-economic status as well as day-to-day life. Historian Barbara Tuchman, writing about life in 14th Century in France in her book A Distant Mirror during the Black Death, covered peasants well. She is careful to stress the difficulties of drawing generalities about peasants, saying “[f]or every statement on peasant life there is another that contradicts it”.  She describes:

“Like every other group, peasants were diverse, ranging in economic level from half-savage pauper to the proprietor of fields and featherbeds who could hoard money and send his son to the university. The general term for peasant was villein or vilain, which had acquired a pejorative tone, though harmlessly derived from the Latin villa. Neither exactly slave nor entirely free, the villein belonged to the estate of his lord, under obligation to pay rent or work services for use of the land, and in turn to enjoy the right of protection and justice. A serf was someone  in personal bondade who belonged by birth to a particular lord, and, so that his children should follow him, was forbidden under a rule called formariage from marrying outside the domain.”[4]

We cannot tell where in the peasant hierarchy our ancestors were positioned. Records were either not kept or later lost, although at least there is some promise for at least researching those ancestors of the early modern era (17th-18th Centuries).

There are several general sources on European peasants that, as usual, present only generalities. In addition to the Wiki types of sources, there are a number of interesting articles.[5] One of my own faves is The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages.[6]

Some Contemporary Depictions of Peasants

Fortunately, those of us alive today can get an idea of some of the aspects of daily life of peasants from paintings and drawings.

Sebald Beham (1500-1550) was a well-known 16th Century copper engraving artist, originally from Nuremburg, but who spent his adulthood living in different cities. He left a legacy of many prints, including many images of peasants and peasant life. Sebald was alive during the Peasant wars of 1524-1525.  His customers were persons who were able to afford his art – primarily, only the upper classes – but also many middle-class who could afford prints of his drawings. Because of the bias towards the upper classes, it’s not surprising that his depictions of peasant life always seem to display peasants as crude, sloppy, drunk, oversexed or violent. Also, he always seems to show the peasants as well-fed, although I tend to think given their lifestyle and diet, they would actually have been on the slender side.

But, notwithstanding the exaggerations in his drawings, they are immensely helpful for those of us today wanting to understand how peasants dressed, their clothing and their personal objects in daily life.[7]

peasants wedding feast 1950.479.2_print


The Peasant Wedding or the Twelve Months: one print in a set of twelve, by Hans Sebald Beham (1546), from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. [8]  I think this depicts either peasants on their way to a wedding or engaged in a circle dance. Beham made a few drawings with peasants projectile vomiting. The peasants here look like they are in their best clothing and also (for those days) very healthy looking –i.e., well-fed. But the accuracy of the clothing should not be disputed, since it matches so much of what we see depicted in other contemporary images of peasants.


The Peasant Wedding or the Twelve Months No. 8 1950.479.8_print


The Peasant Wedding or the Twelve Months: No. 8 (Sebald Beham, 1546).  Note the congregation aside the grapevine  — this may signify how important grape growing was to society and to peasants. So much detail in these drawings!


Sebald Beham was inspired by an older artist, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), who himself did several drawings of peasants. Here’s a famous one from Albrecht, “Peasant Couple Dancing”:


Peasant Couple Dancing (1514), by Albrecht Dürer. (Wikimedia Commons; also shared by


Peasants at the Market - Albrecht Dürer from Nurenburg_-_Marktbauern 1512

Peasants at the Market, by Albrecht Dürer (1512) (Wikimedia Commons). The clothing would have been accurate for the era.



Adriaen Brouwer, Inn with Drunken Peasants, 1620s

Inn with Drunken Peasants, by Adriaen Brouwer (c. 1525-1526). Adrian Brouwer was another artist of the 16th Century who often focused on peasants. (rijksmuseuam – mauritshuis). The woman in the front who has lost her footing: yes, that’s a baby she’s holding. (Wikimedia Commons).



Another by Adriean Brouwer, Peasants Brawling Over Cards.  The elderly people in the background by the fireplace seem alarmed. (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister)(Wikimedia Commons)



Peasants brawling in The Peasant Wedding or the Twelve Months.[9]


Peasants'_Brawl_LACMA_61_41_11 - Henry J B anestors maybe Copy

Detail from the brawl from the Peasant Wedding: when I saw this, I could not help myself but think of Henry J. Berger, himself a direct descendant of this population.




Peasants’ Brawl (S. Beham, dated 1521-1550).  Here again the peasants are depicted as unruly. At first I laughed when I noticed the woman separating the two groups of fighters. Then it occurred to me – I wonder if  the peasants in this image are not brawling because they are drunk or dumb, but because they are actually fighting over scare resources, such as a property boundary disagreement or the right to harvest grapes from a particular plot of land.  (Metropolitan Museum and Rijksmuseum; copy from Wikimedia Commons.)





[2]     Official website for the state:; and the obligatory Wikipedia article link:

[3]       Arte des Heiligen Römischen Reiches im Jahr 1618 am Vorabend des Dreißigjährigen Krieges; ; Main source: “Deutschland: 1618-1648”, in: Josef Engel (ed.), Grosser Historischer Weltatlas, herausgegeben vom Bayerischen Schulbuch-Verlag: Dritter Teil, Neuzeit, Munich and Tübingen, 1967, p. 122.

[4]        Tuchman, Barbara W., A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978 Alfred Knopf), at pp. 172-173.

[5]       Quick online general sources for the modern, attention span-challenged reader:

Click to access HIST201-1.1.4-MedievalPeasants-FINAL1.pdf



See also:

Getty Museum:

National Gallery of Victoria:


An excellent article on Beham can be found in the Journal of Historic Netherlandish Art, Sebald Beham, Entrepreneur, Printmaker and Painter, by Alison G. Stewart:

“In Beham’s small engravings of peasant festivals made at Frankfurt during the late 1530s to late 1540s, he stresses adultery, groping couples, and vomiting and defecating peasants. Such emphasis on the body appears to have been unusual for an artist of the high caliber of Beham.”

[8]    The Peasant Wedding or the Twelve Months: 11-Martinus Wintermon 12-Nicolaus Cristmon|url=|author=Hans Sebald Beham|year=1546|access-date=04 January 2020|publisher=Cleveland Museum of Art

[9]       The Peasant Wedding or the Twelve Months: No. 9 |url=|author=Hans Sebald Beham|year=1547|access-date=04 January 2020|publisher=Cleveland Museum of Art


[10]       The Peasant Wedding or the Twelve Months: No. 9 |url=|author=Hans Sebald Beham|year=1547|access-date=04 January 2020|publisher=Cleveland Museum of Art













Me (on the phone): "That's "C-r-e-s-a-p".

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