Serfdom

Theme

Tied to the land of their birth

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When a souring economy causes housing prices to fall and unemployment to rise, the headlines often reflect the increasing fear that homeowners will bound to their homes – serfs of the poor economy in a sense. A serf is someone who is unable to move from the town where he was born. Historically, a tenant farmer was obliged to be obedient to his landlord. Starting in the 15th century, landlords on Zealand interpreted that to mean that no one – neither man, woman nor child – could move away from a village associated with a manor without permission. The particular type of serfdom practiced in Denmark at this time is known as villeinage, and in exchange for the protection of the landlord, the villein was required to work the manor’s fields. The practice was abolished in 1702, but it wasn’t long after that a new form of serfdom, adscription, was introduced in 1733 and applied to all the country’s peasants. The goal was to ensure that young men remained on manor land so they were available to be called into military service. The benefit for landlords, though, was that it ensured a source of labour close at hand. In time, adscription came to include all men and boys between the ages of 4 and 40. Both villeins and adscripts could buy their freedom, or they could attempt to flee from the manor, but doing so was at their own peril.

Unfettering the bonds
Adscription became a symbol of an oppressive society, and its repeal in 1788 served as the breakthrough for the Enlightenment and the period of major agricultural reforms.
Common sense, education, hard work and enterprise were to reform the agricultural landscape, farming methods and not least the peasants themselves. The bonds of serfdom were to be unfettered for those who were open to reform, and capriciousness was to be replaced by rules and agreements.
The goal of the reforms was the creation of a systematised agricultural nation where farm and field belonged together, and where sensible and hardworking farmers themselves were responsible for improving agricultural production. It was presumed that the best way of doing so was to prove to the farmer that the hard work he put into improving the soil and his buildings would benefit his heirs. In that manner, agriculture was to become an enormous savings bank that was passed down from one generation to the next. In the matter of a few decades, two-thirds of the country’s farms became the property of their former tenants. From 1807, war and economic downturn put a halt to the development until the end of the century. By the start of the 20th century, as few as 3,000-4,000 tenant farms remained. And in 1919, the time was ripe for the government to call for all tenant farms to be sold to their tenants.

Chequerboard reform
By 1919 it had long since become apparent that improved agricultural equipment and farming methods were more important for improving efficiency than allowing tenants to take over their farms. Still, allowing farmers to plan their own production and control their fields was important. The planting collective that had existed in villages for generations was quickly identified as the arch enemy of reform. Village land needed to be redistributed so that each farm received a proportionate share in one single, preferably square, lot with the farm placed at the centre. The idea was to replace the nation of villages that made up Denmark with a nation of individual farms and a land distribution that resembled a giant chequerboard.

Freedom’s heavy price
Ideals, however, aren’t without their costs. Moving farm buildings, laying new roads to every single farm and all the other improvements of that type of reform were so expensive that they were rarely carried out. Normally, some type of compromise was struck that meant as many farms as possible remained in the village. Other areas avoided relocating farms entirely by slicing up the village fields like a cake, giving each farm a triangular-shaped lot that pointed inwards towards the village. The boundaries between fields drew a star-shaped pattern on the village fields. Wheel, hub and spoke serve as a direct link between the village collective and its successor. The government passed legislation to support the reform, which reached its high point in the 1790s when as much as half of the country’s agricultural land changed hands.


Housing boom
The transition to self-owning farms made it possible for far more farmers than ever before to own their own property. On tenant manors, the old pattern of large farms and few households was kept up. Establishing new households required the express permission of the landlord. Self-owning farms operated differently. Newly established farmers faced with a need for capital to finance their purchase often sold off parts of their land for small farms and houses. There was a legal limit on the amount of land that could be sold off, which meant that the number of houses grew at a faster rate than the number of farms. Throughout the Kingdom of Denmark as it existed around 1800, there were 56,000 farms and 60,000 houses. A century later, the number of houses had tripled to 212,500 in 1905, while the number of farms had risen to just 76,000. The typical resident was now a smallholder, but the farms retained control over the land, and dominated rural attitudes.

The harvest of poverty

As the farmers grew wealthier, their standard of living distanced itself from that of smallholders and agricultural labourers. Around 1800, two-thirds of homes had between one and two hectares of land to use to supplement their income, the rest had just a garden. Most of the newly built homes had no land. Also when it came to personal rights such as the right to vote and hold office, smallholders lagged well behind farm owners. In the 1840s, the plight of smallholders became a political issue. By the 1860s, the population had grown by 11 percent, but the number of people receiving poor benefits had surged by 41 percent. Workhouses were set up around the country as ways to stem the tide of increasing rural poverty. Many sought their fortunes in the cities, while still others emigrated. Some 128,000 Danes emigrated to the US alone between 1860 and 1890.