Understanding Your ...

Ancestors in Specific Locations:
Skåne, Sweden: Peasant Life

This website includes a lot of information about peasant life under the heading “Understanding Your Western European Ancestors.” Much of the information found there applies to peasants in Skåne as well. Please read those sections first for a good background. I’ve chosen to highlight here mostly information that was particular to peasants in Skåne.

Land Divisions

The divisions of social class were similar in Skåne as in other areas of Western Europe, as described in the Social Class section. This section discusses some aspects particular to Skåne.

Landed peasants in Skåne had an easier existence than landed peasants in many other areas. In fact, the male head of the landed peasant household in Skåne developed a reputation for being fat and lazy. He performed little hard labor himself, but instead directed tasks among his family and hired help. Many male heads spent a significant amount of their time drinking home-brewed alcohol to excess, eating, or sitting around the house smoking a pipe.

In early times, landed peasant families owned at least one mantal of land. A mantal was not an exact amount of land, but instead varied from place to place and through time. A measurement developed centuries earlier, a mantal supposedly represented the minimum amount of land a farmer needed to support his family.

As time passed, farmers divided their holdings into smaller and smaller pieces in order to pass them on to multiple heirs. Eventually, it became rare for a peasant to own an entire mantal of land. Small improvements in agriculture also meant that a farmer needed less land to support his family. In the early 1800s, a farmer could support his family on 1/16 of a mantal, making this the arbitrary division placing a family in the landed peasants group of society.

Families owning less than 1/16 of a mantal of land fell into the category of “semilandless peasants,” peasants who didn’t have enough land to support their families fully. These families supplemented their incomes by working on other people’s land as day laborers or by performing a trade on the side. Semilandless peasants employed outside help occasionally, but mostly relied on the labor of their family members. Most owned their own homestead, but one considerably smaller than their landed peasant neighbors. Then as in other places landless people, who owned no land, were at the bottom of society.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, more and more people entered the classes of landless or semilandless peasants. Although originally landed peasants had made up the majority in Swedish rural society, at the beginning of the 1800s, this group began to shrink rapidly. This was partly because the Swedish population increased from 2.3 million in 1800 to 5.1 million in 1900. The land simply couldn’t absorb the additional people. This left many young people with either no land or only a small piece that had been divided once again from their families’ possessions.

Concern grew about the “proletariatization” of the countryside. The number of landed peasants rose by just ten percent while the landless group quadrupled. As one Swedish historian concluded, “The mass of Swedish people were poor and getting poorer.”

Farming and Chores

Prior to the passage of the enskifte ordinance (discussed in the Events of History section), farming hadn’t changed much in hundreds of years in Skåne. In fact, if anything, it was more complicated. Decreased size of landholdings combined with the strip farming system utilized in the area made farming inefficient and difficult. In order to divide the land fairly between heirs and to allow for a plot of land to connect to a water source, farmers divided their land into long narrow strips, sometimes narrower than the plow itself.

The continual buying and selling, dividing and inheriting of these long, narrow pieces of land meant that farmers with significant landholdings often owned many unconnected pieces of land, scattered throughout the area. This led some to speculate that Skåne had the most poorly used land in the world. The complicated arrangements greatly slowed even simple farming tasks. The division of land into narrow strips also made it impossible for one peasant to harvest his land without disturbing the land around his. To combat this problem, village associations often assigned days for planting and harvesting.

The fertilization of fields demonstrates the inefficiencies. To complete this task, a farmer and his farmhands loaded up the manure near the family’s home and transported it to the fields. However, since the fields were located so far from one another and from the family’s home, they spent a great deal of the day walking between places. In fact, they may have walked one hour from their home to a strip of land they intend to fertilize. Most farmers had some landholdings that lay dormant, simply too far away to make planting and harvesting there practical.

Tasks on the farm coincided with the calendar. Plowing took place in spring, followed by planting. Haymaking occurred in July. In August and September, the household focused on grain harvesting. During harvest time, work continued nearly around the clock, sometimes beginning at 4 a.m. and not finishing until after midnight (although many of those involved took an afternoon rest). After harvesting, a farmer and his farmhands concentrated on threshing, usually for twelve to thirteen hours a day. Other tasks include repairing fences, caring for livestock, and milking cows.

Women also had important tasks to fulfill. They may have helped in the field if needed. They spent a great amount of her time cooking, spinning, weaving, mending, completing household chores, and overseeing the household. Caring for children also demanded their attention. Women in landed peasant households who had the financial resources to employ help likely spent some time with the smallest children while assigning out other tasks to maidservants and daughters. However, they were often needed elsewhere and had to turn the task of watching the young children over to others.

One important chore usually performed by a female maidservant was the production of aquavit, or home brewed alcohol. Preparing aquavit was a time-consuming task. The job sometimes kept the maidservant up all night because of the constant supervision it demanded.

Aquavit was a vital part of life in Skåne and accompanied most meals. Most Swedish peasants (except the very poorest) had a still in their kitchen which they use to produce this drink from grain or potatoes. By the end of the seventeenth century, consumption had reached forty quarts per capita per year, and continued to rise. The Swedish ruler at the time proclaimed, “Aquavit will be the ruin of the Swedish people.” During a grain shortage, one Swedish king outlawed home production of aquavit since people were using up the valuable grain to make alcohol instead of for food for the hungry people.

In the summer and intense planting and harvesting times, the family had little energy or time for much besides taking care of the necessities of life. Long hours of daylight meant long hours of work. However, when the days grew shorter, the men sometimes relaxed after the sun went down. They smoked pipes, told stories, and played with their children. Women gathered with their older daughters, maidservants, and other women in the community to spin or weave and chat late into the night.

The Village

The enskifte (discussed in the Events of History section) and other land ordinances drastically changed village life in Skåne. However, before these changes took place, the village was at the center of life in Skåne.

An important part of nearly every village was its village council. Landowning peasants and some skilled craftsman belonged to the village council. Village councils served as governing boards, making important decisions that residents were required to live by. Members of the council attended meetings every Sunday afternoon from the beginning of May to the end of September and on other occasions as needed, meeting outdoors around a large rock or other landmark near the center of the village.

Many of the topics discussed at meetings centered on cooperation in farming. Councils chose planting and harvesting dates and set rules for crop rotation and grazing animals. They also made assignments for shared tasks, such as fence building. Villagers usually jointly hired a shepherd, responsible for watching over all the village livestock. Each council member was expected to contribute money or produce to pay the shepherd. Villagers also cooperated in guarding the village pond during the winter. Once the pond froze over, they took turns standing near it, making sure no animals fell through as they drank from a small hole in the ice.

Village councils supervised other types of projects as well. They passed rules to help prevent fires and conducted annual safety inspections of ovens and chimneys. Road repair and snow removal also required the participation of all in the village, directed by the council. Finally, the council served as a behavior regulator. Villagers could bring complaints here. Common concerns included people traveling on Sunday, drinking excessively, or swearing.

Villages also provided our ancestors with social interaction and an outlet for fun. When a community had finished haymaking for the season, for example, the village held a social gathering with music and dancing. Many villages even had their own fiddler who played well-known traditional songs to which he added his own unique twist.

Weddings and christenings were cause for celebration involving food, alcohol, music, and dancing. Adults often gathered children at their feet to tell them stories and rhymes that had been passed down for generations. Many stories centered around magical figures, such as the popular Näcken, a violin-playing water-sprite with special powers. Celebrations lasted late into the night, lightening the spirits of all who attended.


Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Swedish Lutheran Church was the dominant, and basically only, religious presence in the country (a very few Jewish, Catholic, and Reformed congregations were allowed to operate). Opting out of religion was also not possible. Both strong social norms and laws kept religion firmly planted in the people’s lives. Peasant families attended church and lived by the standards the church set forth. The local parish minister held one of the most powerful positions in the community.

Yet despite the lack of religious freedom, people had still dissented from the state church for many years. Individual religious expression began appearing more frequently around the start of the nineteenth century. At first, these movements involved only a small minority of the population. Charismatic leaders attracted followers as they attacked the state church and demanded change, although often within the boundaries of the Swedish Lutheran Church.

Religious dissidence, previously only a small and insignificant trickle, began to grow into a noticeable stream in the mid nineteenth century. The time would become known as the Religious Awakening. Many of the movements came from within Sweden. A group known as the Readers, who had become active in the mid-eighteenth century, worked with particular energy in the early decades of the nineteenth century. They held their own prayer meetings and emphasized the importance of faith, resisting the authoritarian emphasis they saw within the Swedish Lutheran Church.

Religious practices of other countries, including the U.S., started to make an impact on Sweden in the 1830s and ‘40s. Not only American ideologies, but Americans themselves, penetrated the country. First, the Methodist and Baptist movement entered, winning some converts. The Swedish civil and religious leaders reacted strongly to their presence. Often, they arrested their missionaries, imprisoning them on diets of bread and water or exiling them. But repression couldn’t stop the growing restlessness.

As the Religious Awakening continued to unfold, authorities renewed their persecution of the dissidents. Franklin Scott, a Swedish historian, called the 1840s “the intolerant decade,” and intolerance, of course, lasted beyond the close of that decade. Despite this, several groups gained noticeable attention. Erik Jansson led one particularly visible group, mostly based in northern Sweden. He burned religious books and attracted the support of hundreds before authorities arrested him. Jansson later immigrated to America with about a thousand loyal converts. Baptists and Methodists, with support from the United States, also continued struggling to establish congregations.

In 1855, a step was taken toward making religion more of a choice. The requirement for people to publicly affirm their faith was abolished. Although small, the step showed the loosening grip of the state church.

In 1861, a proposition for increased, but still limited, religious freedom made its way to the Diet in Stockholm. Only the lowest of the four estates (or groups represented in the Swedish government) supported the measure. The nobles and clergy expressed their concern for “protecting” the peasants from the deceitful preaching of new religions. The peasants, they felt, didn’t possess the knowledge and experience to judge for themselves.

Despite this setback, halting progress continued. The very next year, the Conventicle Decree, which forbade private religious gatherings, was repealed. Gradually during the decades leading up to the twentieth century, religious freedom expanded.


Schooling didn’t interfere too much with peasant children’s duties at home. If they received an education beyond the Bible and Luther’s Catechisms, it was sparse. In 1842, the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament) passed a landmark act, requiring every parish to establish a common school. However, the establishment of these schools took time. Before the act, only about half of the parishes had schools and, generally, only boys attended them. Although most people learned to read in order to study the Catechisms, writing among females was less common.