Some time ago, there was an argument in one of the napoleonic wargaming groups on Facebook about the presence or not of fences in the Central European landscape during the napoleonic wars. I can only speak about Eastern Austria, as this is where my games are set and my research is focussed.
Let’s start with one of Franz Mayer’s great paintings, which he produced during the second half of the 18th century for the Abbey of Melk. This one shows Rohrendorf near Krems:
As always, there are a great many fascinating details to be discovered. For example, in the background, you can see vineyards and a “Kellergasse”, the traditional row of small earthen wine cellars. Many of the inhabitants seem to be vinters instead of farmers, so their buildings look a bit different than the typical farm buildings I have discussed in a previous post. But this would be another topic altogether!
For now, let’s first have a look at the individual farmsteads in the foreground. Closed towards the street with buildings, they are open towards the back, where you can see orchards, vegetable patches and the occasional barn (there are less barns than in farming villages, as the inhabitants seem to be mainly vinters). Everything that belongs to the farm is fenced in with what looks like a picket fence. Its function is not only to keep out animals, it also demarcates the property of the farmer and has a legal meaning. Crossing that fence would, in theory, be a criminal act. Up until the 17th century, a farmer was allowed to kill a trespasser at night if he did not answer when addressed. Those fences were permanent features and would be repaired regularly.
Next, I want to draw your attention to the fields you can see between the village proper and the hills with the vineyards. They are rather small plots surrounded by narrow dirt tracks (you can see one where the two people are standing in the middle of the picture). There are no fences around the fields (something that is corroborated by many other contemporary images) – with one noteable exception, namely the field in the middle of the image.
However, what seems to be the main road leading from the village to the vineyards – or rather, into a hollow way and through this further into the background – is flanked by a fence on both sides.
This is something that can be seen in other contemporary images, too.
For example, in this image of Markt Gerungs, there also is a fence running along the road leading to the village. It is even more prominent in the image of Joachimsberg.
Those fences were seasonal and were built only along roads leading to pastures. Their purpose was to protect the crops from animals which were driven to their pastures. In Eastern Austria, there was actually not that much cattle breeding. Herds would be very small and usually a herdsman paid by the community would collect the cattle from the farms in the morning and drive it to the pasture, from where they were driven back in the evening. The pasture was common property and often located at meadows, e.g. near an arm of the Danube. Pastures would of course be fenced in to prevent the animals from going astray.
Usually, each farmer was responsible for his own field and had to build a fence if it bordered a road where cattle was driven. However, in some areas, the building of such fences was regulated, with the fences being erected by 1st May and dismantled after harvest at the end of September. According to tradition, after that time, “fields were free”, that is, it was allowed to let animals walk or graze there with impunity.
Fields that lay fallow (because of the three-year crop rotation) could also be used as pasturage. If so, then the fallow fields would be fenced in to prevent the livestock from moving into the tilled fields and ruining the crop. The fenced field in the middle of the painting could be one of those.
Such temporary fences were usually rather simple affairs, consisting of horizontal poles of wood propped up by stakes (the exact form would differ regionally). Wooden nails or wicker would be used to hold the construction together. There were only gates for animals; to allow pedestrians to access the fields, a “Stiegl” (stile) was used, e.g. in the form of a bench to step on and over the fence.
For my gaming table, I made both kinds of fences. The picket fence was 3-D printed, using a file I found on Thingiverse. The cattle fence was built out of wooden rods.
Blau, Josef: “Zäune im Böhmerwalde,” Zeitschrift für österreichische Volkskunde 7 (1901), pp. 1-8.
Eysn, M.: “Hag und Zaun im Herzogthum Salzburg,” Zeitschrift für österreichische Volkskunde 4 (1898), pp. 273-283.
Österreichischer Ingenieur- und Architektenverein (ed.): Das Bauernhaus in Österreich-Ungarn und in seinen Grenzgebieten. Wien: Verl. d. Österr. Ingenieur- u. Architekten-Vereines 1906.