By Peter Moser (Archives of Rural History, Bern)

Somewhat parallel to the rise of economic and social history, a marginalisation of agricultural historical research and the securing and indexing of sources relating to rural society from the 19th and 20th centuries took place at many universities and archives in the 1970s–80s. However, the dwindling interest in agricultural history in established institutions coincided with, and was counterbalanced by the founding of new institutions throughout Europe in the 1990s that began to revive academic interest in the historical study of rural societies and the agrarian question in the age of industrial capitalism. New research interests, methods, and funding models began to appear. For example, academic journals such as Rural History in Great Britain in 1990 and Histoires et Sociétés Rurales in France in 1994 came into being. In Germany, the Arbeitskreis für Agrargeschichte was founded in 1994, in Ireland the Agricultural History Society of Ireland in 2000, and in Austria the Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Geschichte des ländlichen Raumes in 2002. In Switzerland, a virtual archive was created in the same year: the Archiv für Agrargeschichte became active in the collection, indexing, safeguarding, and open-access publication of sources as well as scientific research.

While the establishment and development of these new research institutions, umbrella organisations, virtual archives, journals, and online portals at the national level occurred largely independently of each other, the COST Action A35 Programme Progressore from 2005 to 2009 contributed significantly to linking the new institutions and initiatives with older establishments and especially with the founding of new institutions at the European level. Among researchers this intensification and consolidation of the transnational exchange of knowledge led to the launch of the publication series Rural History in Europe in 2008 and to the formation of the umbrella organisation European Rural History Organisation (EURHO) in 2010. In 2017 the European Rural History Film Association (ERHFA) came into being, making film sources relating to rural societies and agricultural practices openly accessible and thus citable for researchers and verifiable for reviewers.

The Europeanisation of historical research, and the dissemination of sources from Portugal to Finland and from Greece to Ireland, have not only substantially expanded our knowledge of a wide range of topics, but have also strongly contributed to the establishment of a whole array of newly created institutions at the national level. Both developments, the strengthening of research institutions at the national level and the exchange of knowledge within the European framework, led to a marked increase of interest in rural history, especially among young researchers. This “departure at the margins”[1] is reflected not just in a growing output of monographs and articles in anthologies and journals, but also in the form of numerous research projects and the hundreds of papers presented biennially at the Rural History Conferences organized on behalf of EURHO since 2010.

More than anything, this impressive recent expansion of rural history at the European level has become possible because English was tacitly accepted as a lingua franca. Indeed, the community of rural historians underwent the same process as previously the social sciences, disciplines receptive to modernisation theories. “The working language of the association shall be English,” states the EURHO’s constitution succinctly,”[2] even if the overwhelming majority of participants in the Rural History Conferences are not native speakers of English and less than 10 per cent of EURHO’s institutional members are active in countries where English is the main spoken language. Neither at the time of its foundation nor since then was any opposition articulated within the EURHO to this state of affairs, nor to the serious constraints it imposes on the linguistic diversity of its members. The tacit acceptance of the dominance of the English language at the European level has meant that English has also begun to assert itself as the dominant language at national levels. Today, many Swedes, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians publish their texts in English even when they are addressing local or regional issues within their own country, because writing in English guarantees that these texts can also be read and understood in Greece, France, Switzerland, or Scotland.

Nowadays hardly anyone would want to miss this development. That said, we should remember that it comes with problematic aspects that are particularly obvious for agricultural historians of the 19th/20th centuries. Agriculture in this period was not merely influenced by the increasingly dominant and relatively uniform and standard ideas of statehood and society modelled on industrial conditions and capitalist expectations. It also remained shaped by local peculiarities springing from diverse social circumstances as well as from the different soils, microclimates, topographies, animals, and plants with which those working the land had to contend. The resulting social, economic, technical, cultural, and political diversity of agricultural settings in Europe is reflected in a wide variety of terminologies in many languages. It is in this context of diverse languages and dialects that we find the actors who worked the land coming up with their own conceptions and distinctions to represent linguistically their experiences and life-worlds. When attempts are made to reduce this diversity of representation to the conceptions and distinctions of a single language, fundamental questions arise. The limitations here apply all the more insofar as English, a language that has been primarily modelled on industrial conditions for more than two centuries, often lacks appropriate terms for agricultural phenomena.

What is important to remember here is that sometimes terms simply cannot be translated faithfully from one language to another. As Reinhart Koselleck reminds us, not “all experiences, that have been expressed in terms, can be reproduced in the apparently corresponding terms of other languages”.[3] For the analysis of agrarian settings all over Europe a serious question therefore arises: do the terms historians habitually use convey the cognitive and experiential knowledge of the actors who have worked and dealt with animals and plants under specific agricultural circumstances in the past? Or do they convey something else entirely – for example, the expectation that locally shaped agrarian practices will be replaced by processes oriented to a notion of agriculture modeled on capitalist-industrial relations?

The difficulties relating to how concrete experiences and conditions in agriculture are represented in other languages are well illustrated by the terms Bauer and Bäuerin in German and paysan and paysanne in French, for which there are simply no corresponding terms in English. A paysan from the French Jura was neither a farmer nor a peasant. And a Bäuerin from Styria was something quite different from a peasant woman or a farmer’s wife, as the terminologically correct translations in English would render them. Furthermore, a paysanne is definitely not the same as a female farmer. In the English-speaking world of Europe, despite a relatively good source base and the boom in gender studies and rural history in recent decades, substantial research has been carried out on farmers,[4] but not on Bäuerinnen, paysannes, or Bauern. Why this is the case can be attributed to the reality that historians and gender researchers who communicate exclusively in English have no adequate arsenal of terms to draw upon. To illustrate what is involved here we can ask: How should a Bäuerin like Elizabeth Bobbett be referred to in English?[5] Bobbett was a single woman who managed her own farm for more than four decades in County Wicklow, Ireland. As General Secretary of the Irish Farmers’ Federation she furthermore played a leading role in farmers’ politics. Quite obviously, Bobbett was neither a farmer’s wife nor a female farmer, but a Bäuerin. There is simply no adequate term in the English language to describe the status and activities of women independently running a farm, because Bäuerinnen have been perceived in the Anglo-Saxon industrial societies since the 19th century as a phenomenon of the past with no relevance to the present.

Attempts by historians to study the activities of Bäuerinnen exclusively in the language of English therefore always runs the risk of repeating the problematic process that has already led, in the social sciences, to the simultaneous creation of knowledge and ignorance of highly relevant bäuerlich-agrarischer contextual settings. “Science generates both knowledge and ignorance,” writes the agricultural sociologist Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, “and one of the black holes it has created systematically obscures the ways in which peasants operate within the modern world. Thus the phenomenon of the peasant has been delegated to remote places hidden in history and the periphery. What science did was to create an image and model of the agricultural entrepreneur – a model that posits the farmer, his practices and the relations in which he is engaged as they are supposed to be.”[6]  If the social sciences, which have focused almost exclusively on industrial relations since the 1960s, tend to banish agricultural phenomena of the 19th/20th centuries to a past that is irrelevant to them, historiography, by using “terms of expectation”[7] such as female farmer or farmer’s wife, creates normative connotations that say more about what Bauern und Bäuerinnen should be like rather than about how they saw themselves (and behaved) in the social settings in which they lived. This form of interest in agriculture, which is more oriented towards construction and correction than to analysis that is faithful to complex local realities, has increasingly dominated in industrial societies since the middle of the 19th century, when book titles such as “The Schaffhauser peasant as he should be, and is not, and how he is, and should not be” began to appear.[8]

What can be said then is that the dominance of the English language that accompanied the Europeanisation of rural and agricultural historiography of the 19th and 20th centuries has resulted in the strengthening of new institutions and in an expansion of research-based knowledge, but simultaneously it has also resulted in the creation of black holes and white spaces. Moreover, the dominance of English has contributed to a greater homogenisation of research interests. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that today an increasing number of research projects ask more or less explicitly about “the modernisation” of agriculture in certain periods and territories. They ask primarily whether specific agricultures were “already modern” or “not yet modern”. Where historical actors were concerned this means that the main question becomes whether the Bauern were already farmers or still peasants, or whether the paysannes were already farmers’ wives or still peasants’ wives. As legitimate as the question of the degree of modernisation may be from a sociological or economic perspective, at this point historiography should have more to offer than the measurement of putative deficits or achievements. How, we can ask more revealingly, did the actors in the first economic globalisation from the 1870s onwards bank on large-scale enterprises, joint-stock companies, wage labour, and steam engines in industry, while in agriculture they were concurrently favouring family farms, cooperatives, and working animals? To answer this question terminologies are needed that can accurately capture the simultaneity of seemingly non-simultaneous phenomena, rather than simply seeking to locate these phenomena in a temporal sequence.[9]

German and French, for example, provide distinctive terminologies when it comes to certain agricultural phenomena. In the 19th and 20th centuries, men running a farm referred to themselves as Bauern or paysans when they were dealing with political and societal issues, and as Landwirte or agriculteurs when they were addressing economic matters. By applying these different terms they not only verbalised their multiple identities, but also addressed the often widely diverse expectations that industrial societies made of them. Historiography should be able to take these various expectations into account if it wants to understand why actors behaved the way they did. If environmental historians today perceive the agriculture of the 20th century as “too modern”, while economic historians identify it as “not modern enough”, then this indicates that both tend to put the emphasis on expectations rather than on a range of concrete behaviours. In this case environmental and economic historians risk simply projecting the neoliberal dogma that the development of agriculture could and should be steered for economic reasons by a liberal trade policy and, for ecological reasons, simultaneously by an interventionist environmental policy.[10] A historical analysis, in contrast, would primarily ask whether, why and how historical actors have sought to integrate the inextricable activities of production and reproduction in the process of exploiting biotic resources and not, as the social sciences tend to do, split off and modularise them.

There is a pressing need for agricultural historiography to reconsider, explore, and discover why the development of agriculture in industrial societies remains so heterogeneous in spite of the many attempts by states and the industrial sector to homogenize it. The big challenge is to document and explain why agriculture has taken on so many styles and is shaped so differently by the relevant actors.[11]  However, the conceptualisation of the peasant population as an “awkward class”,[12] and its actors as “polybians”,[13] requires a multilingual terminology that is sensitive to agrarian settings as well as aware of scientific theories. Only in this way can we ensure that the contingency of historical development is not written out of the narratives from the very outset. But so far, this imperative for plurality is hardly ever explicitly addressed within the European institutions of rural history. Significantly, in the practice of their everyday life, multilingual solutions are tacitly (re)asserting themselves, and therefore modifying the dominance of English as the lingua franca. The European Rural History Film Association for example exercises a multilingual form of indexing the film metadata for practical reasons, in spite of the fact that it accepts English as the lingua franca.[14]


The triumph of English in the last three decades has greatly expanded our knowledge of the agrarian question in industrial societies and rural societies at large. At the same time, it has become clear that the Anglicisation of historical research in rural and agricultural history not only promotes, but also impedes our willingness to take more seriously the diversity of the actors’ experiences and their manifold ways of behaving and being in the world. The effort inherent in all scientific research to reduce the complexity of its object of investigation generates problems that should be debated within the European institutions of rural history sooner rather than later.

What needs to be appreciated most of all is that the Europeanisation of agricultural historiography has not been a homogeneous process; it is rather characterised by ambivalences.[15] These uncertainties are, among other reasons, noticeable in the fact that English – the very language that makes it possible today for actors to communicate across linguistic borders – proves to be a barrier when it comes to historicising the diversity of agrarian phenomena in industrial societies. A way out of this difficulty requires neither the abandonment of the Europeanisation of rural and agricultural historiography of the 19th and 20th centuries nor the dispensing with English as the central language of communication. What is required instead is a simultaneous movement that encourages a multilingualism that does greater justice to the diversity of historical conditions. If we agree that in the age of global history it is not a re-nationalisation of historiography but a “non-national national history”[16] that makes it possible to thematise national peculiarities in rural history, then we should practise a multilingualism that not only respects diverse linguistic circumstances but actively emphasises them in order to historicise local agrarian peculiarities more adequately.

Today’s Europe has become the arena in which the most fundamental discussions about the global hegemony of Western ideas take place.[17] Might not the institutions behind the Europeanisation of rural and agricultural history become the stage for debates about which language(s) are best suited to historicise the diversity of bäuerlich-agrarischer phenomena?

[1] Urs Hafner, Aufbruch am Rand. Die neue Geschichtsschreibung zu den ländlichen Gesellschaften der neuzeitlichen Schweiz – Einführung und Übersicht (Bern, 2016).

[2] Cf.

[3] Reinhart Koselleck, “Drei bürgerliche Welten? Zur vergleichenden Semantik der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft in Deutschland, England und Frankreich,” in Begriffsgeschichten. Studien zur Semantik und Pragmatik der politischen und sozialen Sprache (Frankfurt a. M., 2006): 402–464, 412.

[4] Cf. Richard Hoyle, ed., The Farmer in England, 16501980 (London, 2016).

[5] For more information on Elizabeth Bobbett, cf. Peter Moser, “Partizipation ohne Integration? Das gesellschaftspolitische Engagement der Bäuerinnen Elizabeth Bobbett und Augusta Gillabert-Randin in der Schweiz und in der Republik Irland,” in Norbert Franz et. al, eds., Identitätsbildung und Partizipation im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Luxemburg im europäischen Kontext (Études Luxembourgeoises, Bd. 12), Frankfurt am Main 2016), 101–130.

[6] Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, The New Peasantry. Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization (London, 2009), 17.

[7] For a definition of the Erwartungsbegriff, cf. Reinhart Koselleck, “Einleitung,” in Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck, eds., Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. 1 (Stuttgart, 1972 [2004]), XIII–XXVII, XVI.

[8] Zacharias Gysel, Der Schaffhauser Bauer, wie er sein sollte, und wie er nicht ist, wie er ist, und wie er nicht sein sollte. Eine Geschichte aus dem Leben, den Bauern des Kantons Schaffhausen zur Beherzigung und Kurzweil erzählt von einem Klettgäuer (Schaffhausen, 1854).

[9] Juri Auderset, Peter Moser, Die Agrarfrage in der Industriegesellschaft. Wissenskulturen, Machtverhältnisse und natürliche Ressourcen in der agrarisch-industriellen Wissensgesellschaft (1850–1950) (Wien, 2018).

[10] Juri Auderset, Peter Moser, “Permanenz des Unbehagens. Epistemischer Wandel und agrarpolitische Re-Regulierung im Zeitalter des Neoliberalismus,” in Regula Ludi, Mathias Ruoss, and Leena Schmitter, eds., Zwang zur Freiheit. Krise und Neoliberalismus in der Schweiz (Zürich, 2018), 37–61.

[11] Ernst Langthaler, “Wirtschaften mit Stil. Historisch-anthropologische Perspektiven zum Agrarstrukturwandel als Praxis,” in: Historische Anthropologie 3, (2012): 276–296.

[12] Theodor Shanin, The Awkward Class. Political Sociology of Peasantry in a Developing Society: Russia, 1910–1925 (Oxford, 1972).

[13] Richard Kearney, Reconceptualizing the Peasantry. Anthropology in Global Perspective (Boulder, 1996).

[14] The constitution of the ERHFA states: “The ERHFA is a multilingual association; in order to facilitate the communication, the working language shall primarily be English.” Cf.

[15] Cf. Clara M. Frysztacka, “Die Ambivalenzen der Europäisierung. Einführung in ein Forschungsprogramm,” in Themenportal Europäische Geschichte,

[16] Cf. “Forum Nation: Julia Angster, Das Ende der Selbstverständlichkeit. Zum Bedeutungsverlust des nationalen Denkrahmens in der deutschen Geschichtswissenschaft,” H-Soz-Kult, 08.09.2021,

[17] Cf. Michael Heinlein et. al., Futures of Modernity. Challenges for Cosmopolitical Thought and Practice (Bielefeld, 2012).