Schleswig-Holstein: 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.

In 1539 there existed 14,500 farms in the Duchy of Schleswig. Half of these were owned by Schleswig farmers, the rest of the farmers were leaseholders to noble lords or the church. In Holstein it is assumed, the farmers knew similar circumstances. There were more owners in the West and more leaseholders in the East. Rich landowners did not just own single farms but several villages and whole regions. The smaller landowners were called Hufner, a Lanste was a leaseholder, whose property was leased to him by the manor lord. A Inste was the worker of the land with no property at all. He had to rent living space.

With reforms (Verkoppelung) some commonly used lands were privatized and consequently the property ownership changed. This happened in the Duchy Schleswig in 1766 and in the Duchy of Holstein between 1767 and 1770.


In the 17th and 18th century the sovereign and the church issued so called Erdbücher to be established. They served as an overview of their taxable properties. An Erdbuch renders details about each village, giving the location of it, the number of inhabitants, its cadastral specifications, whether and what of the area can be used for grazing, fishing and timber and the expenses of the village in form of cow- and pigherder as well asthe teacher's salaries. Another reference would be to the affiliation of church and mill as well as details about each farm, house and their inhabitants. Further, we receive information through an Erdbuch who the head of household is, his profession, what exactly he occupies and in which condition the building is. We find out how much farmland he has and how much of the meadows he uses. There is information about the yearly sowing, the amount of cattle and tools, the number of servants and their wages. Also were recorded the obligations to manor lords, priests, saxton and teacher, the servitudes, expenses and use, the listing of debts.

If an Erdbuch is available for research, it would give the genealogist quite an insight into an ancestor's life, his position in the village, his property. An Erdbuch today would be found in the State Archive, listed under the Amt (administration)  and parish it once belonged to. For instance: The Erdbuch from 1777 of Weede in the Amt of Traventhal can be retrieved in the Landesarchiv Schleswig under the Signatur (archival number) LAS 109, 767.


For those ancestors who did not buy, lease, inherit or sell land, the researcher can access a rich source of genealogical value: Amtsrechnungen. These are records from a time when there was hardly any correspondence  regarding the simple folk, such as day laborers, Böde, Inste etc.  Most people in former centuries lived in the country side. They were subject to an administration called, Amt. The main purpose for the administration was the levying of taxes and the yearly balancing of the books. In these books all people of a village are listed who in some form or another had an obligation to fill. They paid their taxes, they dealt with fines (Brüche), they worked as skilled laborers for the Amt and received wages. They paid Verbittelsgeld which was a sort of protection fee for day laborers and tenants (Inste). If foreigners went through the territory of an Amt there were customs to pay.

From the lists of incomce one can trace who paid what. Mainly the head of household was responsible to pay taxes. Sometimes a widow paid them. Although we do not find complete families listed in these records, it is possible to determine which families lived in the village. If we cannot determine from church records how many families by the name of Meier lived in a given area, the Amtsrechnungen will give us a clue. When a son marries, he may have taken over property from his father. Amtsrechnungen may reveal changes in taxes and hint at a date of marriage. If a widow pays taxes, we can narrow the death date of her husband and also conclude that none of her children were old enough to run the family affairs.

Those, who took on apprentices had to pay as well as those who drafted their last will and testament. Young people intending to marry did not just have to ask for permission to do so but also had to pay a fee to obtain a bill to present to the priest for marriage in the church.

In Amtsrechnungen one might find information a church record may never reveal. For instance: Widows or widowers are designated as such. One can obtain the place of residence or even of origin from Amtsrechnungen.

Amtsrechungen are available for almost every Amt in Schleswig-Holstein for the years 1600-1867 and are housed exclusively in the Landesarchiv Schleswig-Holstein. They are divided into Abteilungen. Documents from one region can be  in various Abteilungen. Several villages may have fallen under the administration of an Amt, some of them from a different parish. The reverse may also be true, villages of a certain parish may have been administered by various Ämter. Ecclesiastical jurisdictions and administrative jurisdictions did not always run conform.

To find out which village belonged to what Amt, one has to consult a gazetteer. A good one is Topographie des Herzogtums Schleswig by Johannes v. Schröder as well as the one for Holstein, Lübeck and Lauenburg, available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah,call numbers 943.512 E5sj and 943.512 E5sjh. The entries are also being made available online  (click on Gesamtliste, then on the running number)