Denmark: Copyhold / Copyholder

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A copyholder was a farmer or cottager, who leased his land from an estate, an institution, the crown, or before 1536, the church. The condition of the contract became binding, when the entrace fee was paid. If the copyholder honored the conditions in the contract, the landowner could not cancel the copyhold during the lifespan of the farmer and his widow.

Condition of ownership[edit | edit source]

Conditions of the copyhold were regulated by extensive laws. The landowner therefore did not have free range make decisions regarding the taxable farm land. The government wanted to avoid unproductive farms. Therefore the landowner was required to find a new copyholder, when the farmer (or his widow) died. Only in case of unusual circumstances could the landowner receive permission to abolish a copyhold.

Titles of copyholders[edit | edit source]

Depending on the size of the copyhold farm the copyholder had various titles:

  • Gårdmand (Farmer) if the farm production consisted of 3-11 units of hartkorn (A Danish unit of land valuation)
  • Boelsmand (Copyholder) if the farm production was less than 3 units of hartkorn.
  • Husmand (Cottage-copyholder) if the farm production was less than 1 unit of hartkorn.

Copyholders Dues[edit | edit source]

The copyholder paid annual dues to the lord and performed corvee labor on the lord's demesne farms. The annual dues were clearly define in the contract and remained constant year after year. The corvee labor, on the other hand, was unspecified and the lord could demand as much of this has he desired until labor laws were passed in the 1790's that limited this right. The copyholders also paid 10% tithing and an additional 1/90 was given to the local clerk (degn) so that 1/9 of all his income went to the church. Finally, the copyholder was also required to pay taxes (cash) to the crown. If a copyholder could not pay the required taxes, then the landed proprietor had to pay on his behalf, and be repaid when the copyholder was able to pay. The taxes owed to the crown were much higher than the rents owed to the lord and many peasants struggled to make these payments. Palle Ove Christiansen found that by careful administration, a well managed estate could reasonably collect about 80% of the taxes owed.

Copyholders Personal Rights[edit | edit source]

In countries with serfdom the landowner had a certain ownership of the farmers (This applied in Russia until 1861). Serfdom did not exist as such in Denmark. Here the farmers in principle had personal freedom. The freedom was however limited.

Until 1702, a law called Vornedskab was in effect on the islands of Zealand, Lolland, Falster, Møn, and Bogø until 1702. This law required peasants to remain on the estate of their birth and the lord could force them to take over farm. In 1733, Adscription (Stavnsbåndet) was established throughout the country. Adscription meant that certain age groups of men and boys could not move away from their estate and was officially established so that the landed proprietors would have available copyholders to occupy vacant copy farms, and also for the purpose of providing a sufficient number of soldiers for the military.

Adscription did not mean much to the copyholder. He seldom had any interest in leaving his farm. In contrast, the adscription gave the landed proprietor and the bailiff great power over the unmarried copyholder sons. Landed proprietors could enroll the copyholder sons to be soldiers or force them to take over a neglected copy farm.

Initially, the landed proprietor had large influence on the administration of justice. Either because he was the judge, or because the judicial district judge or the district-bailiff were dependent upon the landed proprietor. The larger law cases could be appealed to independent judgment seats.

The landed proprietors power in everyday life was limited because the villages were self governing, and because the copyholder was the head of his household.

Copyhold[edit | edit source]

When a copyhold farm was vacant, it was often taken over by a son or son-in-law of the original copyholder. The lord could however decide to give the farm to a stranger.

The origin of the copyhold system[edit | edit source]

During the Viking period, the farmers were independent. The copyhold system is believed to have its origin in connection with the abolition of slavery in the 1100 and 1200's. Many of the freed slaves could have become copyholders under their former rulers.

During the turbulent years at the end of the middle ages many former independent farmers became copyholders. The copyhold system became the common form of ownership in Danish farming. By the end of the reformation (1536) it is estimated that only 25% of the peasantry still owned their own farms. The nationwide 1688 cadastral survey showed there were 59,000 farms in Denmark of which only 1,700 were still independently owned.

Elimination of copyhold system[edit | edit source]

The dissolution of adscription in 1788 was the first step to establish independent ownership as the common ownership format in farming. The development happened at different pace throughout the country. Elimination of the copyhold system was hindered by the Napoleonic Wars and the farm crisis in the 1820’s.

In the 1840’s, 5 out of 6 of farmers in Holbæk County were still copyholders. The demand for elimination of the copyhold system was raised politically by Friends of Farmers.

The party was unsuccessful in getting their demands into the Constitution of 1849. In contrast, a law was established in the 1850’s which enabled the landed proprietors to voluntarily sell their copyhold farms. For every 9 copyhold farms that a landed proprietor sold, he could claim the 10th farm directly as part of his estate.

Even though the development was slow, the copyholders succeeded on the smaller estates to become independent. On the larger estates (counts and lords), nothing happened until after the First World War.

In 1919 Parliament established a law regarding elimination of counts and lords. In 1922 the Supreme Court ruled the counts and lords as it were in the case of the smaller landed proprietors, without charge, could keep every 10th of the prior copyhold farms. This became law in 1925, and the old copyhold system disappeared.

Tenant and state smallholders[edit | edit source]

All farmers however did not become owners of their property. The rectories and a few other farms became tenant farms. In addition there was established several state smallholdings on the state properties.

References[edit | edit source]

From the Danish Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia at: