Serfdom and the intensifying manorial economy

The impact of the Swedish social order in Estonia continued under the Russian Empire. Although the Northern War meant a severe setback to the development of schools, the Swedish church and school systems remained practically unchanged, nor did the relatively high level of literacy among the peasantry disappear either. Most peasants learned to read at home, though the level of literacy in the late 18th century was nevertheless remarkable for the time: in North Estonia 40%, in South Estonia 55% and in Saaremaa Island 62% of the active population could read. These numbers are close to those of Central Europe and are a far cry from the situation in Russia — the majority of Russian peasants were illiterate as late as the beginning of the 20th century. But, for the peasantry, basic reading skills comprised almost the entire education in the 18th century; writing and arithmetic were taught at only a few rural schools.

Peter I gave back the Baltic German nobility their manor houses which the state had expropriated during the Swedish years. This act also denoted the abolition of emancipating the serfs, a process that started along with the nationalisation of the manors. It was naturally a serious setback to the position of the whole peasantry. It is hardly likely, however, that the peasants were much aware of this: liberation from serfdom was immediately followed by the plague and the Northern War, preventing the planned reforms from starting to function in earnest. Nevertheless, the land valuations and the peasants’ taxes, determined in the late Swedish period, remained largely valid in the first half of the 18th century, when peasants’ rates were still based on the special official contract book (Wackenbuch) from before the Northern War. Notwithstanding, the 18th century was the period of the total predominance of serfdom on Estonian territory. Similar systems of Gutsherrschaft, based on the peasant’s personal dependency and corvée, were in force in various East and North German areas. In Mecklenburg, for instance, where landlords took over farmlands as agriculture intensified and chased the tenants off their property, the Gutsherrschaft system acquired much more inhuman forms than in the Baltic provinces.

The 1739 declaration of Otto Fabian von Rosen, a Livonian district magistrate, postulated the landlords’ limitless right of ownership over the entire property and person of a peasant. It can be regarded as the ideal legislative model expressing the supremacy of the nobility. But everyday life during the serfdom period, which in Estonia has been researched even less than the agrarian legislation, was still largely shaped by the patriarchal relations between landlords and peasants, founded on customs and traditions. The rapid growth of the Estonian population in the 18th century has even been seen as a sign of the relatively tolerable circumstances of the region’s peasantry.

The deterioration in the peasants’ circumstances was perhaps caused by general economic development rather than by their uneasy juridical status. After the Northern War and the plague, most land lay fallow. The extent of fields under cultivation before the Northern War was reattained only as late as the 1750s; by the end of the 18th century, the sown area twice exceeded the pre-war level. The fields of both the manors and farmsteads were extended; though the former mostly at the expense of the latter. Shortly after the Northern War, the landlords were compelled to reconfirm the rates fixed in the Wackenbuch in the Swedish period, partly because of the shortage of labour. The rapid development of the manorial economy in the mid-18th century was founded on the spread of liquor distilling. In addition to the spirits sold in Russia, the mash from the distilleries was used to fatten the cattle, whose manure was fertilising the fields. Brisk agricultural activities brought about the increase in the peasants’ corvée which lords of the manor, shrewdly ignoring the Swedish Wackenbuch, increased to include additional compulsory labour. At the same time, the lifestyle of the nobility and other Baltic Germans became far more refined. Taking advantage of the economic boom, they erected grand neo-classical mansions surrounded by splendid parks which adorn the Estonian landscape even today.

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