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Free and Unfree Agrarian Workers: Peasants and Slaves, 1550-1750

by James A. Diskant
World History Center, Northeastern University
Boston, Massachusetts


Most of the information on these websites is dated and refers back to the AP® World History Curriculum prior to the course revisions implemented in the 2011-12 academic year.

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This unit focuses on the worlds of peasants and slaves as they evolved in the two centuries from 1550 to 1750. Students will learn that similar forms of work developed in different parts of the world to address (1) immediate needs that peasants and their lords defined for local consumption, (2) revenue needs that peasants or their lords required from a regional market, and (3) the development of a slave-based economy serving a global market for foodstuffs that brought more and more revenue to an ever-smaller group of landlords. These activities collectively will allow students to actively uncover the world of agricultural laborers -- whether in diversified estate systems or cash crop economies. In addition to learning about work, students will also learn about the nature of workers' relationships to those whom they owed obligations, whether they were "free" peasants or whether they were "unfree" serfs or slaves. The unit thus addresses the evolving nature of agrarian work and changes in social structure, as well as economics and politics and the changing life of people in rural communities.

Lessons focus on the mapping of principal agricultural crops, analysis of the nature of agricultural work in various world regions, the nature of life and work for free peasants, the nature of life and work for unfree agriculturists (slaves and serfs), and interpreting the changing patterns of agricultural work. Students will look at two cases from each of the continents. They include Ethiopia and Kongo in Africa, Brazil and Mexico in the Americas, China and Japan in Asia, and France and Russia in Europe. Student activities include creating maps on the production of major crops, analyzing images to identify the character of agricultural work, analyzing primary texts to learn the work of free peasants and then of unfree agricultural laborers, and writing a document-based question.

Main Points of the Unit

Big Questions
Best Practices
Lesson Summary
Assessment Overview
AP World History Course Description Connections

Big Questions
  • What were the similarities and differences among land-tenure systems in the world from 1550 to 1750?
  • How did agricultural labor differ when farmers produced for self-sufficiency, on estates for regional markets, or in production of cash crops?
  • How did the needs of agricultural production create both "free" and "unfree" laborers in many regions of the world?
  • In what ways was the division of agricultural work influenced by one's gender or age?
  • What can visual evidence tell us about the nature of work in the past?
Best Practices
Best Practices are teaching strategies that are interactive and involve high-level thinking skills. The appropriate Best Practices vary widely with teacher strengths, school environment, student population, and experience. But all student populations will benefit from experience with strategies showing that world history is much more than lectures and more than a survey of facts and dates. This unit, within its individual lessons, includes the following examples of Best Practice teaching strategies:
  • Analyze primary text documents
  • Analyze visual documents
  • Create maps
Lesson Summary
Lesson 1. Mapping Agricultural Crops, 1550-1750
Students rely on atlases as sources and use the technique of the Big Map to locate major crops in various areas of the world during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in select places in the world. Students then answer questions about the purpose of different crops, and draw inferences about the relationship of produce with the organization of work.

Lesson 2. Visualizing Work and Agrarian Workers
Students view images of agricultural work for six areas of the world and analyze the nature of work and the character of the tools, with attention to whether the workers are in free or slave status.

Lesson 3. Analyzing Primary Documents on Free Peasants
Students analyze text documents on agricultural work in four regions of the world and answer questions on their work and work obligations. They begin the first stage of work on a document-based question (DBQ).

Lesson 4. Analyzing Primary Documents on Unfree Workers
Students use the jigsaw technique to analyze primary documents on unfree workers (slaves and serfs) and share their findings with a peer. Students return to their original partner, and develop a thesis statement for a comparative essay.

Lesson 5. Making Thematic Timelines
Students work in groups to create their own timeline of the topic, then share their findings with others. If time permits, students also share their outlines for DBQ and comparative essays.

Assessment Overview
For Lesson 1, the teacher can assess student maps. For Lesson 2, students can assess their peers in their analysis of images. For Lesson 3, students can assess their peers in the analysis of text documents, and the teacher can assess student questions on peasant labor. For Lesson 4, the teacher can assess student outlines for DBQ essays. For Lesson 5, the teacher can assess student outlines for comparative essays and assess student timelines.

AP World History Course Description Connections
  • Interactions in economy and politics
  • Systems of social and gender structure
  • Technology, demography, and environment
Habits of Mind:
  • Using texts and other primary documents
  • Comparing within and among societies
  • Constructing and evaluating arguments
Major Developments:
  • Demographic and environmental changes
  • Knowledge of major empires
  • Slave systems and slave trade
  • Diverse interpretations
Content Objectives
  • Gain knowledge about different labor systems in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe
  • Explore the range of social networks of free and unfree agricultural workers
  • Observe changes of labor conditions over time
  • Understand the range of meanings of the terms "peasant," "slave," and "serf"
Skill Objectives
  • Interpretive analysis of visual documents in social history
  • Interpretive analysis of text documents
  • Creating a time line to summarize a historical argument
  • Textbook
  • Handouts
  • For map activity: overhead projector(s); 8 1/2 x 11" transparency acetate, which can be fed through a copy machine
  • For timeline activity: 5 large pieces of paper (3' by 5'), pencils, rulers, and markers
  • Atlases

General Editors: Patrick Manning and Deborah Smith Johnston; World History Center, Northeastern University

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