"Bergbeschau" at the Falkenstein near Schwaz in the year 1526
At the beginning of the 16th century the richest silver and copper mines in Europe were near Schwaz in the Tyrol. For many years, mining history research concentrated on the mine owners, the handful of large mining companies and foundry operators, and their connections with the Habsburg nobility. Little, however, was known about the miners who numbered 10,000 in the Schwaz mining region alone.
However, in 1526 a survey was conducted of the largest Schwaz mine complex, Falkenstein, which gave valuable information about the workforce and its structure. Mining operations there were already very efficiently organised. Nearly half of the just under 4,600 miners were employed as diggers and hewers to cut away the ore or dig the tunnels. There was roughly only one simple labourer for every digger or hewer.
A special work structure dominated at that time, the so-called Lehenschaft. 75 % of the digging and hewing work was performed by hewers organised in a Lehenschaft, the rest was done by miners working on piece rates. The Lehenschaft was a common employment relationship in all the mines in the Alps. In Schwaz it usually consisted of 1 to 3 hewers who paid the mining company a certain sum of money which varied and had to be negotiated from year to year. In return, the mining company gave them the right to a part of the mine which they could work. The hewers had to pay dues on the ore which they mined and had to offer it for sale first to the mining company in question. Therefore, ore prices automatically became an issue of conflict.
Even though, the miners working in a so-called Lehenschaft were strictly speaking self-employed businessmen and, over the years, became rather independent, one must not overstress the entrepreneurial element of their work. They were first and foremost workers who had to get their own hands dirty to make money and at the beginning of the 16th century they were still very much under the influence of the mining companies.