Agrarian conditions

Under the Swedish reign, Estonian society functioned more or less in the same way as had been the case in the Middle Ages. The rural population was divided into two main groups: landed gentry and the peasants. The landed gentry consisted of Germans and increasingly of Swedes, while the peasants were Estonians. Between the two main social groups there were manorial administrators, millers, innkeepers and artisans. At the end of the 17th century there were about 1000 manors (knights’ manors, crown manors, parsonages and town manors) which produced mostly grain (rye and barley) to be exported to western Europe and Sweden: the Baltic Sea provinces were even sometimes called ‘Sweden’s breadbasket’. Estonia at that time was the northernmost exporter of grain.

The manorial economy depended on corvée — the farms were obliged to supply the manor with human labour and a draft of domestic animals. In addition to corvée, each farm had to provide a certain part of its crops and other products to the manor. As agricultural development was extended by cultivating new lands, the lords tended to increase the corvée.

Hoping to achieve a better life, peasants fled their lands and sought new opportunities. In the 17th century the peasant exodus had become so great that the authorities, urged by the lords, intervened. The law published in 1668 and ratified in 1671 (the so-called ‘country police law’) made provisions to return runaway peasants; even the dependence of peasants’ children on their lords was recorded. The new law gave legal justification to the established common law. By the end of this period, the majority of peasantry lost their freedom and became dependent on the landlord to an extent that could fairly be called serfdom. The practice of selling a peasant separately from his land attests to the spread of serfdom.

The process was different from that in Sweden, where peasants were free and represented in the Riksdag. The Swedish monarchs attempted to ease the peasants’ condition on crown properties in their overseas provinces: these attempts have been seen as an intention to form a class of free peasants in Estonia and Livonia after the Swedish model, which would have been supportive of the central authority in contrast to the unreliability of the local aristocracy. The efforts of the distant central authority met with strong opposition from the local aristocracy. In addition, as the crown properties decreased, so too did the immediate motivation to better the status of the peasants.

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