Westphalia Land and Property

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Grundherrschaft and Gutsherrschaft in Germany

Through the centuries most of our ancestors lived in rural areas and came under the auspices of a Grund- or Gutsherr (landowner). Most cultivable land was owned by them – less by small farmers, although it was possible for a Grundherr to lease land to more or less independent farmers. A Grundherr can be lord over a small area, does not have to be a nobleman and can also be a monastery. A manorial system was complex and embraced all aspects of life. A Gutsherr, also a manor lord, owned land and managed it through workers. The farmers of the surrounding area were his subordinates and their affairs were regulated by him or his administrator.

There were three forms of manorial systems:
1. Villication
2. Interest or annuity based
3. Manorial or patrimonial based

• Villication
This system consisted of a manor and a couple of dependent farms. The manor lord owned acreage, meadows, gardens, woods, lakes, rivers, canals, vineyards and mills. The manor lord lived either at the manor house or had his administrator (Villikus) conduct the business. This man was responsible to collect contributions from the farmers, also called Grundholden. He had the power to hold court. Even if some farmers were independent, somehow they became part of the multifaceted enterprise of the manor.

• The interest or annuity based system
This system very much functioned as villication did, only there did not exist the right to ownership. The manor lord leased the land and collected interest or annuities. This form of manorial system was prevalent in areas of clearing or colonization.

 • The manorial or patrimonial system
East of the Elbe River in Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, East/West Prussia, Silesia (Ober-/Niederlausitz) the Gutsherrschaft was prominent. A Gut consisted of a castle like manor house to which was attached a large farming area and smaller farming units (Vorwerk). A Gutsherr was interested in expansion by re-cultivating waste lands and annexing or buying farmlands. In this wise an entire village could become part of the Gutsherrschaft and economic growth be ensured. The entire area was cultivated by farm hands, subordinate farmers and squatters (Gärtner, Häusler). The members of a Gut were part of a more or less crushing personal dependence. Dependents had to observe Erbuntertänigkeit (subservience which was inheritable) Schollenpflicht (tied to the area) and Gesindedienstzwang (had to provide services by waiting in the wings). Gutsherrschaft was spreading because authoritative laws were transferred to the Gutsherrr of noble descent. He exercised police powers and patrimonial jurisprudence.

With all these regulations, obligations, stipulations etc. there are numerous records re. land transactions, regulative and obligatory actions involving our ancestors who dwelled in rural Germany. See the following examples:

Kataster (cadastral surveys)

The Shire of Mark’s (Kleve/Westfalen) farming area was assessed. For the year 1705 a register of 7000 farms is available with varied relevant information. In the areas north of the river Ruhr, the names of Hofpächter (leaseholder) as well as the acreage and yield of the farm are mostly captured. The administration of Bochum, on the other hand, reported also yearly tributes of the leaseholder to their manor lords or other beneficiaries, as well as listed accounts of tithing and obligations.
For the southern parts of the Shire of Mark more exacting information has been passed down. Judges, headmen of the farming communities, the heirs and prospective buyers are mentioned as well as acreage, yield and obligations.
The record keeping was the first profound cadastral registration of Markish grounds under Prussian king Friedrich I.
The author Willy Timm listed all administrations (Ämter) with their villages and farms in his book entitled Kataster der Kontribuablen Güter in der Grafschaft Mark 1705. The book contains a village register and a register listing persons. The book is available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Its call number is 943.56 H25v v. 30 no.6

Fief records

The books are listings of Erblehen or Bauernlehen (fiefs) with their owners, rights and obligations. A fief came under the Lehnsrecht (law that governs fiefdom). A Lehen is a piece of property or properties attached to which are servitude and revenue laws. The Lehnsherr (legal owner of a fief) would transfer properties to a recipient for a life time. Some properties were inheritable, i.e., a recipient would give the property to his son. All transactions would be recorded in an Erbbuch.

The oldest fief records of the Shire of Mark (1392 and 1393) were addressed by Margret Westerburg-Frisch in her book Die Ältesten Lehnbücher der Grafen von der Mark (1392 und 1393). She listed each transaction in two parts and gives annotations for each in parts A and B. The book is available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Its call number is 943.56 H25 v v. 28 no.1

In 1646 the administration of Reineberg kept a record called Urbarium wherein all farms and places within the administration were registered. This particular record still bears evidence of tenure ships (fiefs) in former centuries. What exactly is to be understood by the Urbar of Amt Reineberg is explained as follows: “Das Urbar umspannte in Süddeutschland sogar die Gesamtheit des öffentlichen, ländlichen Lebens und war hier Verwaltungshandbuch, Rechtsbuch und gegebenenfalls auch Urkundenbuch“ which means that all public records of urban life were integrated into one record book, the Urbarium, i.e., administration, jurisprudence and documents. The Urbar of the administration of Reineberg is the oldest compilation of the total population of the Amt. Other Urbare of the area were established much later. The Urbare of Reineberg is the credit of the Swedes which occupied the area from 1633 on and intended to keep it .
The Urbar is divided into Vogteien (administrations), Kirchspiele (parishes) and Bauernschaften (farming communities). Details about owners, lease holders followed by obligations which encumber the property are provided.
A locality register as well as a name register is provided and gives the researcher easy access to the records. The information can be retrieved in the book Grundherrschaft und bäuerlicher Besitz im Amt Reineberg, written by Hans Nordsiek. The book is available for perusal at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The call number is 943.56/M4 R2n.


Zehnt was the decem of tributes either from a property's yield or a craftman's production. A Zehnt was first raised by the Church, later confirmed by Charlemagne and collected as a general compliance posed on all properties. The decem could also be based on private law. Decem was either decimae ecclisiasticae (church tithing) or decimae seaculares (worldy tithing), distinguishing between larger and smaller decem. The larger decem was placed on all grains, as well as on hay and wine, the smaller decem on fruit, vegetables etc. Decem could be delivered in sacks (Sackzehnt) or in bundles (Naturalzehnt). Sackzehnt was also a sum of money. In addition there was Blutzehnt, known as Fleischzehnt, Viehzehnt. This tribute included young animals or meat products or what animals produced such as milk, eggs, etc.

Modern agricultural laws did away with the decem through Ablösung (amortization).

Source: Meyer's Konversationslexikon, 1890.

Some documentation on Ablösungen are available for Bad Lippspringe, Westfalen through www.familysearch.org, Family History Catalog. Films can be ordered through familysearch Research Center network.