The agrarian reforms' significance for Rasmus Stang


Map of Nørre Ørslev from 1809, after the parcelling out of the land. ©Danish Geodata Agency.


Rasmus Stang lived at a time that was characterised by great changes. The new ideals of the Enlightenment, which focused on freedom, science and progress, flourished and left their mark on political life. In France, the new thoughts culminated in the 1789 revolution. Denmark also felt the winds of change. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of pervasive reforms were introduced, which would later come to be known as the Agrarian Reforms. This comprehensive legislative work led to a reorganisation of the agricultural sector and resulted in vast legal, financial and social changes in rural society. The purpose was to promote productivity and improve the farmers' conditions. One of the masterminds behind the reforms was Prime Minister C. D. F., Count Reventlow, a landowner from Lolland.


Four of the agrarian reforms' fundamental issues had an impact on Rasmus Stang's life.


The right to move freely - the abolition of the Stavnsbånd (manorial bondage)

The first of the agrarian reform changes that had an effect on Rasmus' life was the abolition of the manorial bondage in 1788. From 1788 to 1800, the manorial bondage was gradually phased out.


This meant that after 1800, Rasmus was free to move away from the estate where he was born without having to ask permission from the squire. Before that, he and other males aged 4-40 had been tied to the estate where they belonged, i.e. where they were born. However, Rasmus did not take advantage of the new freedom to move away from Vestensborg. He remained at his copyhold farm in Nørre Ørslev with his first wife, Margrethe, and the couple's first child, Niels.


The striking farmers - the villeinage duty

The second agrarian reform resolution that affected Rasmus was the adjustment of the villeinage duty.


Villeinage was the forced labour that tenant farmers carried out on the estates. Along with the annual manorial dues, villeinage constituted the rental fee for the copyhold farm. Villeinage was usually divided into a number of days where Rasmus would have to provide a farmhand to work in the fields, and a number of days where he had to provide a horse for work. In contrast to the manorial dues, the villeinage was not set out in the tenancy contract - the landowner was at liberty to adjust the number of days up and down as needed, which made many farmers feel abused. At the end of the 18th century, disputes between landowners and tenant farmers about the extent of the villeinage sparked strikes.


On Saturday 4 September 1790, it all became too much for the farmers in Nørre Ørslev. For the seventh day in a row, they had been summoned to work at Vestensborg. By now, they had had enough and stayed away from work! The landowners responded by issuing fines. The farmers refused to pay. Rasmus was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he could not approve of the illegal insubordination against the landowners, due to his position as parish bailiff - the public authorities' representative. On the other hand, Rasmus was himself a farmer and thus subjected to the landowner's unjust treatment. Nobody knows what Rasmus decided to do.


Negotiations between the farmers and the landowner were initiated, but in vain. The end of the matter was that in August 1791, the Crown bought the Vestensborg estate in order to implement the reforms itself. On 1 May 1792, villeinage at Vestensborg was replaced by a monetary fee. Initially, villeinage was not abolished nationwide, but in 1799, it was decided that landowners could no longer decide the extent of the work themselves.


Goodbye to the neighbour - the parcelling out of the land

The next part of the agrarian reform changes that made a difference in Rasmus' life was the parcelling out of the land into new plots and the relocation of farms.

The objective of the two measures was to streamline agriculture by abolishing the villages' communal ownership of land. Up until then, farms were gathered in villages, surrounded by fields, with the individual farm's plots of land distributed across the village fields, so that each farmer had a narrow strip to cultivate in each field. This system guaranteed a fair distribution of good and bad soil, and the farmers cultivated the land in unison. In step with a growing demand for agricultural products in the 18th century, leading landowners realised that this land utilisation system was both extensive and inefficient. This realisation sparked the beginning of the parcelling out of the land.


Falstergårdens amputerede gavl, efter udflytningen af tvillingegården. Foto: Roberto Fortuna.

The amputated gable end of Falstergården farm is the only remaining trace of the twin farm. Photo: Roberto Fortuna.   


In Nørre Ørslev, the village lands were measured and mapped and then redistributed. The village was now divided into 17 farms and 17 house plots. Two of the former farms in the village had to be scrapped. As the objective was for the farms to be placed centrally in relation to the new plots of land, eight of the village farms had to be moved out to their new lands outside the village. Rasmus' farm, which was one half of a former twin farm, remained in the village, while the other half was scrapped, and the outbuildings were demolished. It was decided that the farmhouse, which was joined to the Falstergården farm, should be left standing for as long as its owner, Mr Troelsen, and his wife remained alive. After their death, the farmhouse fell into disrepair, until it partially collapsed. Today, the southern gable end of Falstergården's western wing stands as a scar that has healed, bearing witness to the enormous impact the parcelling out had on both the village and the individual farmer's life. The close social and operational community that had existed for generations was now dissolved. The parcelling out of the land gave the farmers the opportunity to make operations more efficient, but they each faced this responsibility alone. Names such as Tårebæk (Stream of Tears), Frihedsprøve (Trial of Freedom) and Tvisten (The Dispute) indicate that the families on the farms that were moved outside Nørre Ørslev did not all rejoice at the change. The parcelling out of Nørre Ørslev took place from 1791 to 1794.


Setting up your own house - from copyhold to freehold

The last of the agrarian reform changes that impacted on Rasmus' life was the transition from copyhold to freehold.


Being a copyholder meant that the farmer rented a farm with appertaining lands from the estate in return for an annual payment, the so-called manorial dues, and villeinage work. In contrast to renting, copyhold tenure had no time limit. Copyhold tenure was for life.


On 20 February 1807, Rasmus Stang signed his deed of conveyance. In doing so, he went from being a copyholder under the Vestensborg estate to being a freehold farmer who owned his own home and land. Rasmus died in April 1807 and so he only lived to be a freeholder for just short of two months.