Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/Condition of the Peasants in the Eighteenth Century

Condition of the Peasants in the Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century apparently brought an improvement in the condition of the Danish peasant, for villeinage was abolished in 1702. But shortly before that military service had been made compulsory throughout the country, and the burden arising therefrom was increased in 1733 by the introduction of bondage (Stavnsbaand), whereby all peasants between the ages of fourteen and thirty-five were bound to remain on the estate. In this way it came about that military conscription rested entirely in the hands of the landlords, who were thus enabled to keep their labourers. In the course of time, moreover, the oppression of bondage was increased by the extension of the age limit; and when to these heavy burdens were added the tithes levied for the support of the church, the sum-total greatly hampered the pursuit and development of agriculture. Moreover, other misfortunes, such as cattle-plague, contributed to aggravate conditions, so that profits were reduced to a minimum and the work of the peasants was characterized by laziness and stupidity.

Towards the close of the century, however, things began to look better. In France economists were pointing with increasing emphasis to the great importance of agriculture, and in line therewith were developing the physiocratic doctrine. It was not physiocratism, however, which eventually dominated politico-economic theory in Denmark, for the physiocrats are scarcely mentioned in the Danish literature of the eighteenth century. The foreign ideas which may be said to have influenced the literature of Denmark are rather those of the encyclopaedists. But it is more in accord with the truth to say that the humane ideas which subsequently led to the emancipation of the peasants sprang forth spontaneously when the time was ripe for them. These ideas were then, as it were, in the air.

In 1761 the Dowager Queen, Sophie Magdalene, took the first step toward reform by exempting the peasants on her estate of Hörsholm, in the north of Zealand, from all services and tithes against the payment of a fixed rent, and by making them hereditary leaseholders with the right to sell and mortgage. The peasants on her estate were thus placed, in all essentials, in the position of freeholders. Some years later Bernstorff followed her example on the Gentofte estate, and other landowners did likewise. An ordinance of 1771 specified the amount and kind of compulsory service to be rendered, and another of 1781 was intended to abolish the old system of 'common fields'—a sharing of agricultural labour and produce which was no longer of any importance. This ordinance allowed an exchange of 'parcels' or strips of land, so that the holdings of one man might lie in two or, at the most, three places.

In 1784 the King himself began to introduce reforms on many of the crownlands in the north of Zealand. The peasants were exempted from most of their former obligatory services, land was allotted to them, buildings were moved for them, and in many cases they were made owners or freeholders. Finally, in 1786, an agricultural commission was appointed to investigate the condition of the entire peasant class. Reforms then followed in rapid succession. In 1787 the question of land tenure was examined; in 1788 the corn trade and cattle trade were declared free; in 1791 an important ordinance regulating tenant service was issued, and in 1792 another concerning allotments. Most important of them all was the abolition of bondage in 1788, with a transition period of twelve years.

These reforms were of the greatest value from every standpoint, and wherever they were carried out they made room for technical progress. Profits from agriculture, which until then had been very modest, increased considerably for the reason that the peasants, released from many compulsory services and protected against arbitrary demands, held a stronger economic position and found it much easier to pay their dues both to their landlords and to the state.

The majority of the peasants continued as leaseholders. But after the system of 'common fields' was abolished there was this change in favour of the landlords, namely, that in leasing their land they could demand as high a rent as the peasants would pay, the amount being determined by free competition. The landlords thus obtained an advantage, while the peasants, though subject to increased rent, were far more independent than before.

These great social reforms of the eighteenth century were carried out under peaceful conditions. In France the emancipation of the peasants was brought about by the great Revolution; in Germany, where the oppression must often have been extremely severe, it did not take place until the nineteenth century.

It is well known that no such formal emancipation was necessary in England, where it was accomplished by the use of capital in the course of the country's normal economic development. It may be said that Denmark was second to England in its gradual, peaceful, social adjustments. But agricultural reform in Denmark was much more beneficial to the peasantry than it was in England. While in the latter country, under the development of the system of great holdings, the peasant class almost disappeared, being replaced by the farmer and the agricultural labourer, whose condition was extremely poor, in Denmark the peasant class survived and came to form a solid and secure core of the population. At the present day it actually holds almost as many farms as it did in the eighteenth century.