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19. Business in Lichtenstein during 1100-1200CE

JAN. 12, 2021


In the final part of our (unexpected) Alps trilogy, Ryan gets round to telling Pete all about the marvellous world of commerce in 12th Century, Liechtenstein. So put on your suit, pull up an office chair and let's get down to brass tacks by leveraging our understanding of the outputs generated from granular analysis of historical lessons-learned.

Since last week, we haven’t gone far. Liechtenstein is a tiny alpine micro-state sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria and is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world.

It is German speaking (well, more like Swiss-German, but we’re not going to quibble) and uses the Swiss franc as currency, which it earns in part by manufacturing fully 20% of the world’s false teeth. We don’t know why.

Liechtenstein is actually named after the Liechtenstein family. As the Holy Roman Empire rose in power and prominence, the Liechtenstein family are living in their castle in Lower Austria, like you do. They weren’t much to speak of at that time, spending their time buying land, advising the Habsburgs and trying to stay out of trouble.

That is, until the 1600s when Karl I of Liechtenstein sides with the Holy Roman Emperor in a political battle, which is presumably effective as Karl is then made a Prince (a Fürst). It’s not Liechtenstein as we know it today though. That is another 100 years away when, in 1700, Karl’s grandson, Hans-Adam I, buys the regions of Schellenberg and Vaduz and the Holy Roman Emperor decrees that this territory now be called "Liechtenstein”

The Feudal system – the original 1%
1100 to 1200 was a time of feudalism. But what does that mean?
Top of the tree were the Kings who own land because (according to, well, them) God said they should. This naturally meant they could claim taxes from the people living there.
Looking after whole kingdoms is a big job though, so kings would portion out land to their family and friends in different size packages. This creates the nobility. These nobles then function as middle management in the feudal system, overseeing the management of the land, claiming taxes and building armies, taking their cut of everything as they went, obviously.
And on the land? The peasants, which is to say, almost everybody. 98% of the population worked the land and either paid taxed into the feudal system or if they couldn’t pay taxes, were allowed to work the land to feed themselves as serfs.
Very much the bottom of the heap, the serfs were almost slaves, who could be forced to work wherever they were commanded, could not marry without permission and if a farm was sold, the peasants were sold along with it.
Oh, and alongside all that hierarchy, there was the church. The church would look after your spiritual wellbeing…. In in return for a mere 10% of all your income.

God needs his cut too

At this time the Catholic church became the largest landowner in Europe, with a network of parishes reaching into every town and village across Europe. And they had a hierarchy of their own.

The power of the church was represented by Bishops (including the pope himself, who was a bishop). The Bishop would oversee his own church, plus all other parishes in a district. Day-to-day, he would baptize babies, conduct wedding ceremonies, hold last rites, settle disputes, hear confessions, and ordain priests and assign them to their posts.
He would also uphold church law (known as Cannon Law) in Church courts, on moral issues such as incest, adultery, bigamy, matrimonial cases, and legitimacy of children. And as well as church law, there was church business, basically collecting money from donations, ‘tithe’ collection (10% of all income), farming or tolls.
After bishops, monasteries were the most important religious and business centre for the church. On the Rhine, just 9miles south of Liechtenstein’s border today – is Pfäfers Abbey founded by Benedictine monks in 731. The order is named after ‘Benedict of Nursia’ who, shocked by the depravity of Rome fled south to become a hermit, where he conceives of a religious community based on gentle discipline, strict morality, and well-ordered routine. He writes all this up into a handbook, ‘the Rule of St. Benedict’ – but it isn’t until several hundred years later it actually starts to catch on. So don’t despair if that book you wrote isn’t popular today – just give it a couple of centuries.

At its core it is a practical guide for decent living. He recommends we listen, respect, and forgive one another. Also you don’t need to own loads of stuff, share your stuff instead. But be careful with your stuff and realise that God is nearer to us than we imagine – in the ordinary and mundane.

These were the guiding principles for Benedictine monasteries, who aimed to be independent and self-sufficient. To that end the would make their own products in-house as much as possible. This included beer, because Benedict didn’t say you couldn’t have any fun.

As it happens, Pfäfers Abbey is also located on the Rhine trade route, so between their in-house production facilities and the opportunities presented by so many passing traders, the monks were sitting on a pretty impressive fortune.

The nobility weren’t short of cash either. Being a noble was a hereditary affair, so you were either born lucky, or heading for the fields. It was possible to become a noble in some cases, but only if you could forge documents to ‘prove’ your ancestors were nobles, buy an exemption from the rules (as ever, it helps if you start with a great deal of money), or convince a lovely young noble that you weren’t, in fact, a smelly peasant and convince them to marry you.

This (sort of) actually happened with the daughter of the Count of Bregenz, whose only child Elizabeth was courted and married by Hugo II of Tübingen, who inherited the family territory all along the Alpine Rhine, which is a bit more exciting than the oak credenza we got when granny died.

In fact, the descendents of Hugo and Elizabeth took a new name, Werdenberg and not only became super-wealthy. They also built their own fortress - Schloss Vaduz (Castle Vaduz) which they still live in to this day.
No, you can’t go and visit, it’s still their home. They do, however, have an ‘open house’ garden party with a firework display on the 15th August every year, which History Happened Everywhere will be trying to gatecrash this year.

Peasants – revolting as ever
Sorry to have to tell you, but you’d probably have been a peasant. Across most of Europe, 90% of the population were living on rural farms or villages across noble or monasterial estates.
The good news – you might be given about 10 acres of land to farm. The bad news, you need about 12 acres to feed yourself and your family. Great system eh?
In Vaduz, the peasants likely had a second job to make up the difference, such as blacksmith, shoe-maker, butcher, baker, weaver, stone-mason, wheel-wright, tanner, or tax-collector.

Some of these would be done out of their homes, presenting onto the street with a stall under a wooden canopy – very early signs of a high street, albeit with fewer Starbucks.

In your farm, you’d probably rotate crops like rye and barley while putting cattle out to pasture on fields high up on the mountainsides. You might also indulge in a spot of vertical transhumance – this is the seasonal migration of livestock between valleys in the winter and high mountain pastures in the summer.

If you were lucky, you had some cows because the quality of the meat and milk from the alpine herds was considered very good. So much so that cattle production became an investment opportunity for monasteries and citizens of nearby cities. Investors would buy cattle and rent them to farmers or herders.
But with opportunity comes friction. Some “foreign" cattle started to be placed in the alpine pastures, which led to conflicts over grazing rights between the farming communities and their neighbouring cities and monasteries. Wars broke out, over cows. Cows.

Then again, we’d probably support a war over delicious cheese, which was an important product in this time before everyone had a fridge.

The milk from this area was known as heumilch ("hay milk"), based on their diet of natural meadow grasses and this was made into over 30 different Alpine cheeses.

Cheese – it’s what’s for dinner?
One cheese local to Liechtenstein is Sura Kees, which means "sour cheese". This is low-fat and made from skimmed milk, and has been part of the peasant diet for centuries, often served with vinegar, oil and onions, pure on black bread, or eaten with potatoes. Yum.

How to make SuraKees:
o Filtered milk is filled into wooden vessels which separates milk into cream and skim milk
o The cream is used for butter, the skim milk for sour cheese
o The skimmed milk is acidified, then heated, turned and pressed by its own weight
o It remains until a solid mass is formed (about 24 hours)
o Then drained, rubbed with salt (sometimes paprika) and matured in a cellar
o After 3 weeks, the cheese rind is washed off, and placed on wooden cheese racks to be ripened for a further 4 to 6 weeks – maturing from outside in
o A bark grows thick over the cheese, and gives the cheese its typical aroma

So, there you have it. You’re a peasant, you own next-to-nothing, the church takes 10% of your nothing every month. But at least you’ve got your good friends and a tasty cheese.

Welcome to Liechtenstein, 1100 to 1200. 

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