Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/Early Condition of the Danish Peasants

Early Condition of the Danish Peasants

Some three hundred years ago a French writer, Pierre d'Avity, in reviewing the living conditions and the character of the natives of various countries, said of the Jutlanders: 'They are a strong people who eat and drink a great deal; they are provident and clever and cling to their own; they are quarrelsome, suspicious, and irascible, and fight stubbornly in defence of their opinions.' If this judgement is true to fact, it is difficult to think of the Danish peasants of that day as members of a cowed and oppressed class, in spite of all the burdens that were imposed upon them.

From the Middle Ages until late in the eighteenth century there was a continuous change to the disadvantage of the peasants. Freeholds gradually disappeared and were replaced by leaseholds. On taking over a patch of land the leaseholder had to pay a premium to the landowner or lord, besides which he had to make a yearly payment called Landgildet (ground-rent), which in most cases was an incommutable burden resting on his land. As a rule the estates of the Middle Ages were not large, and the landowners often had many holdings at a considerable distance from one another; but gradually a movement arose to extend and combine them, and in this way the day of large estates began. This again involved disagreeable consequences for the peasants; for the more the cultivation of large estates developed, the more service was required of them. Moreover, distinct efforts were made to bind them to the land. They did not submit without opposition, to be sure, as shown by the various peasant revolts; but the times were nevertheless unfavourable to them. Still in the year 1500 compulsory service was not widespread in Denmark, and the character of the leaseholds was not, generally speaking, very oppressive. A leaseholder might even, if he wished, give up his lease and remove to another estate.

But efforts to tighten the relation between owner and tenant had long been growing. In the middle of the fourteenth century, after the Black Death, the landowners tried to retain the leaseholders by compelling them to pay a quittance-fee (Forlov) if they gave up a lease. This was especially the case in Zealand and Laaland-Falster, where at the end of the Middle Ages the practice took the form of villeinage (Vornedskab), whereby the son of a leaseholder was bound to take over a farm on the estate. Moreover, increasing demands on the part of the Crown contributed to the growth of villeinage. The maintenance of the army and navy necessitated much carting and hauling on the part of the peasants, while the laying-out of the roads and the building of fortresses and castles was largely their work.