Culture and Contrasts in a Northern European Village: Lifestyles among Manorial Peasants in 18th-Century Denmark

By Christiansen, Palle Ove | Journal of Social History, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Culture and Contrasts in a Northern European Village: Lifestyles among Manorial Peasants in 18th-Century Denmark


Christiansen, Palle Ove, Journal of Social History


This study deals with the reconstruction of peasant life in an East Danish manorial estates region seen in a cultural and social perspective. Even when a population could not write, it may be possible to reconstruct the cultural order in people's closest environment - usually their village. Such a presentation can be built up against the background of normal repetitive sources, where ordinary people appear so frequently that it is possible to identify the "features" of otherwise anonymous individuals so they emerge as socially distinctive.

In the article the possibilities of such a procedure will be reviewed by presenting the results of a larger study of relationships and cultural differences of life on the central Zealand estates (Giesegaard and Juellund) southwest of Copenhagen.(1)

The article contends that we are not, as assumed in most of the rural research, faced with just one, but two different lifestyles among the inhabitants of the same peasant villages. Through the sample study it should be possible to see that we can get closer to the relations among people's actions, routines and perceptions of the world than one normally does in historical interpretations.

By lifestyle I mean the principle of people's everyday activities and their related cultural perspective on life, articulated in relation to their material conditions and in contrast to other lifestyles. Some peasants lived from day to day, more or less resigning themselves to their fate, while at the same time their neighbours might be occupied with the rational management and planning of the future.(2)

The two co-existing lifestyles I want to compare structurally must be seen in contrast to the attempts to identify one particular Continental European peasant type, often normatively described as refractory, simple-minded, sly, and sensual. The forward looking Holstein-born civil servant August Hennings, for example, described the Danish Zealand peasant and his English equivalent as follows: "There [i.e. in England] the farmer, in a [half-timbered] wattle cottage which, for want of windows, looks like a prison, enclosed by filth ... There creeps from the filth a small, bent, sleepy figure, in degree of civilization more like ... a helot than a citizen shaped for the tilling of the soil and the protection of the state".(3) Estate steward Troyel, from the Crown estate in Odsherred, in 1784 wrote somewhat less ironically: "The in general simple and unlettered estate peasant, whose intellectual abilities are quite uncultivated, cannot be expected to be able to be persuaded as others who have a cultivated reason. He is not accustomed to thinking and to agreeing and being moved by inferences, but is driven merely and wholly by the senses. He cannot test the strength and reason of arguments as he never acted from convincing grounds, but only from habit and example".(4)

Statements like these are not so much descriptions of what the peasants were like, as expressions of how the agrarian world could appear from a progressive bourgeois or aristocratic viewpoint. The characterization of the peasants' cultural differentness corresponds entirely with the Enlightenment's foe-images of savage peoples. The strongly degrading phrases are further put into perspective by the fact that before 1800 most people were in fact peasants in the broadest sense of the word. With the exception of the regions around the Channel, the Netherlands and northern Italy, villagers made up 80% of the population of Europe. Most of these people have left us no testimony of their own beyond fields, hedges and some houses in our present-day landscape. Compared with modern ethnographical fieldwork and studies of literate peoples, these circumstances impose great limitations on our research. Yet several of these problems are primarily methodological and technical in nature. If we want to get closer to this culturally diverse, but until 1850 largely anonymous group of the inhabitants of Europe, we must attempt to overcome these difficulties.

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