What is a Danish Manor – theme

The Estate’s Workforce

By Adam Tybjærg Schacke, PhD.

The estate owner was entitled to a large number of taxes and benefits from his copyholders. These included compulsory, unpaid labour in the manor’s fields. The copyholders, regardless of whether they were farmers or smallholders, were thus inextricably linked with the manor house in an estate-management system that was only finally dissolved in the early 20th century. By this time, however, the traditional estate system had been overtaken by new ways of adapting. The former copyholders had become more self-sufficient, and the estate’s workforce now came mainly from both permanent and more loosely associated farmworkers and not from compulsory labour provided by the copyholders.


A manor house’s revenue

The entitlement of a manor house to taxes and services had different backgrounds. However, for the estate owners, it made sense to divide them up, depending on whether it was guaranteed or permanent income, uncertain or variable income, or on whether there were advantages associated with the supremacy, which an estate owner had over his tenants.

The guaranteed income was primarily the landgilde. This was the tax the tenants had to pay for the right to cultivate the land. It was a kind of rent. The landgilde was generally regarded as fixed, because it was determined by the size of the land attached to the copyhold farm. It was often composed of several individual taxes in the form of products. These included not only different kinds of grain, but also everything from butter to hay, cattle, pigs, lambs, laths etc. Later it became common to convert these commodities into a sum of money.

The uncertain revenue included the entitlement the estate owner had to income that might fluctuate from year to year. This included the copyhold fee a tenant had to pay as a lump sum for the acquisition of a copyhold (farm or house), which of course depended on the arrival of new tenants on the estate. There was was also the so-called oldengæld [English: acorn payment], which a tenant farmer had to pay for permission for his pigs to walk in the woods during those years, when there was an abundance of acorns. Finally, there was the so-called sagefald: the fines imposed on copyholders who had been sentenced by the court, and to which the estate owner was entitled. This was also income that was quite difficult for the estate owner to control or regulate.

Compulsory labour

There were also more intangible rights, which the estate owners had by virtue of their supremacy over their tenants. Among the most important rights was the right to what was called ægt og arbejde, which we normally classify as driving duty and compulsory labour – though often only as compulsory labour, because they were two sides of the same coin: the obligation to do jobs for the estate owner.

In contrast to the landgilde, from the estate owner’s point of view, the compulsory labour was far more flexible, since, in principle, it was granted in return for the use of a specific piece of land. Initially, the compulsory labour was granted based on the fact that the copyholder was the estate owner’s servant. In return, the estate owner had an obligation to protect or defend the copyholder. Later, the origin of compulsory labour was somewhat forgotten about, and it was considered a tax similar to the landgilde. However, the significant difference was the fact that compulsory labour could be changed.

Compulsory labour was crucial for the landowners, because it formed the basis of operation of the main farms from the late Middle Ages to the first half of the 19th century, though varying from region to region in the country. The fields of the manor’s farms (the land of the main farm) were cultivated mainly with the use the compulsory labour imposed upon the copyhold farmers. Furthermore, in addition to their labour, the farmers had to turn up with equipment, even including ploughs or wagons with horses to pull them.

Work on the main farm

Compulsory labour included virtually every imaginable form of job necessary to run a main farm and its associated fields. These jobs included: so-called ‘span days’ when the copyholder had to provide a cart and a span of horses or cattle to pull it; ploughing days when the farmer had to bring a plough; and days when one man would have to work for the main farm. Fortunately for the copyholder, he did not have to turn up in person for the compulsory labour: outside the peak periods he could send a farmhand in his place – an opportunity a smallholder rarely had.

The compulsory labour was not much different from the work that peasant farmers had always performed. In the 17th century it was not uncommon for an individual peasant farmer to have a certain plot of land, a so-called hovlod, to be ploughed, sown, harrowed, harvested etc. However, ‘span days’ might involve communal work, when fertiliser had to be spread, or when grain and grass had to be driven in. On workdays, the farmer could be expected to do anything from cutting corn, digging ditches, repairing fences, cutting peat and felling trees to small artisanal tasks and refurbishing buildings.

The scale of the compulsory labour

It is no coincidence that the copyhold farmers who had to provide compulsory labour at the beginning of the period are referred to as weekday servants: in other words, people who, one day a week, had to supply services in the form of work for the estate owner.

However, at the beginning of the 16th century, it was established that copyhold farmers were obliged to provide compulsory labour. It was also clear that in principle this work had no limit, because the estate owners had to “make their estates as useful as possible.” In contrast to the landgilde, the estate owners had another button to press when they wanted more resources from the copyhold farmers.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, expansion of the fields of the main farms and production from the farms led to a greater and greater need for labour. So the scale of the compulsory labour increased. Consequently, by the end of the 18th century there were incidences where the compulsory labour was taking place seven days a week. Even in the late 17th century, however, compulsory labour could be perceived as overwhelming. For example, a popular ballad, allegedly written by a farmer, complains: “I don’t have one day free, because of the compulsory labour for my estate owner.”

The limit of the compulsory labour came, in principle, when the work became a burden for the copyholder’s own farm, and there was no longer any connection between what a farmer should provide in taxes and other services and the production of the copyhold farm. As a rule, the estate owner was not interested in destroying the copyhold farms, since they provided the main farms with the necessary labour.

After much debate, in 1799 it was decided that the scale of the compulsory labour a copyholder had to provide should be established, so both the estate owner and the copyholder knew the terms. So the debate was not about whether compulsory labour should be granted or about the estate owner’s right to this, but solely about its scale and whether it should be replaced by a monetary tax.

Abolition of adscription and the land reforms

Establishment of the scale of compulsory labour was one element in the major agrarian reforms of the 18th century. Adscription was another of the important issues, on an equal footing with arguments for and against entitlement to freehold. Adscription had been introduced in 1733 and was basically a military reform, which would provide suitable soldiers for the army. This meant that men between the ages of 14 and 36 were bound to live on the estate, on which they were born, and that they could only move away with the estate owner’s permission. This was one of the ways estate owners guaranteed a workforce for the main farm. Adscription was abolished by an Order of 1788, but there was a transitional period, which helped make sure the estate owners had a workforce for their land. The last remnant of adscription was not revoked until 1800.

Also around 1800, the state discovered that total severance of the peasants’ farms from the estates via freehold was desirable. However, this would mean that the estates would lose the crucial compulsory labour they had been entitled to. This prompted several estate owners to fight against the transition to the right to freehold. There was still no solution to the challenge of obtaining a workforce for the main farms, if the tenant farmers became freeholders.

In the 1780s, the government therefore faced difficulties in terms of priorities. On the one hand, they wanted to encourage freehold, which was thought to be the most fruitful form of production. On the other hand, they acknowledged that the estate owners were dependent on the farmer’s compulsory labour to run the main farms – especially in such labour-intensive periods as the harvest. The larger estates would find it particularly difficult to obtain labour if their copyhold farms were sold as freeholds.

However, the government lent a helping hand. In 1791 permission was given to close down copyhold farms, but only if the land was divided between smallholders. This meant the estate owners could designate land for smallholders, who could then continue to work in the manor’s fields. The increase in the number of smallholders could release the copyhold farmers from the obligation to provide compulsory labour. That meant they were dispensable and could make the transition to freehold. Everyone was happy: government, estate owners and farmers: maybe with the exception of the smallholders, who were picked to provide the labour for the main farms.

The estates in the 19th century

From the late 18th century and well into the 19th century, farming legislation reflected this by not including the smallholders (those who owned land) and the journeymen (who did not own land). The Compulsory Labour Act of 1799 even excluded the smallholders and journeymen from the provisions of the act. So their indeterminate, so-called compulsory labour continued.

By 1800, many farmers had already made the transition from being tenants to owners. The crises of the early 19th put a temporary halt to this development, and around 1850 there were still at least 140 estates that were still run on the basis of compulsory labour, and estates in Denmark had about 19,500 copyhold farms. On the other hand, the number of smallholders of different kinds on the estates had risen to over 40,000. It was now from among the latter that the estate owners drew much of the necessary labour for the land of the main farms.

The first wave of freehold in the late 18th had often resulted in the parcelling out of entire estates, and the main farms were literally closed down. On the other hand, the 19th century witnessed every imaginable expansion of main farms. Home farms were built on the fields of main farms, while the estate owners’ constant desire for the right to expand the land of the main farm at the expense of the peasants’ land was to an extent accommodated by the government. This had generally been prohibited since the late 17th century, but was again permitted on certain terms.

The estate owner’s income from his former copyholds did not necessarily end with the transition to freehold. Like today’s homeowners, the copyhold farmers did not have the money to buy their farms in cash and, therefore, had to borrow money. Consequently, in the 19th century, several estate owners lived on the interest the farmers paid on the loans they had taken in order to buy the freeholds of the farms.

The new workforce: smallholders, farmhands and milkmaids

The expansion of the manor farms meant there was still a huge need for labour for farming the manor’s land. But this changed from being based on compulsory labour from the estate’s tenant farmers, who had to supply tools as well as labour, to being based on labour from smallholders and non-farmers, who did not have enough land, from which to earn a living.

This development meant that, in the latter half of the 19th century, the workforce in the manor houses was more diverse than before. First there was the permanent workforce on the farm itself. They had to look after the animals all year round and were regular, salaried workers, such as farmhands and milkmaids. They were largely unmarried and were given food and lodging as part of their pay. Secondly, there were the permanent smallholders and farmworkers who could carry out the usual tillage work and a variety of odd jobs. They were frequently expected to be married and were thereby given the option of living in one of the houses on the estate. Thirdly, there were the more casual, seasonal workers: for example, women and boys who could take care of the root crop areas. Then there were the smallholders with their own land, who could take care of other seasonal activities such as sowing, haymaking, harvesting and threshing or fertilisation and the cleaning of ditches.

The estates and the large team of people

Even partly into the 20th century, the manor houses continued with the already established system of obtaining labour from both regular workers and more casually hired smallholders. A survey of the workforce on about 600 estates after 1900 shows that it was normal to have: 1 manager/bailiff, 1 herdsman, 1 chief farmhand, 1 shepherd, some apprentices, 4-5 farmhands and 3-4 milkmaids in Jutland, and 5-6  east of the Great Belt. The very big difference between the regions can be ascribed the number of so-called journeymen: smallholders loosely affiliated with the estates. In Jutland there were an average of 6 such journeymen, while on Zealand and Lolland-Falster there were about 12. The same applies to Poles (and partly Swedes), who represented a large part of the seasonal workforce. There were an average of 2-3 in Jutland and on Funen, while there were about 7 on Zealand and on average about 20 on the Lolland Falster estates.

Well into the 20th century, the manor houses continued to be large employers. Only when agriculture was mechanised after World War II did the manor farms cease to provide work for a large number of workers. It was during the same period that servants in the main buildings disappeared or, at least, shrank greatly in terms of numbers.