Schleswig-Holstein: Social, religious and political history

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Everyday life in a Schleswig-Holstein village between 1600 and 1900

The majority of people in Schleswig-Holstein lived in the country during the above mentioned time frame. They were organized in small villages consisting of men and women, married and single folk, grown-ups and children, old and young, farmers, craftsmen, merchants, day laborers, servants, rich and poor, newcomers and old-established families, people passing-through and others. All these people and their circumstances formed a complex legal, economic, social and cultural network and had an impact not entirely homogenous throughout Schleswig-Holstein. In the western parts of the duchies the farmers owned their lands, in the middle parts of Schleswig-Holstein (Geest) the ground was not as fertile so that workers of the land had to be in communication about sowing and harvesting, cattle drive and grazing. Manors dotted the Eastern parts of Schleswig-Holstein. Although the land belonged to the manor lords, farmers took a role in determining which work had to be done.
About 90% of the rural population worked in a more or less profitable situation. They formed a hierarchy firmly established until the Industrial Revolution. A Käthner had a little farm which did not provide entirely the sustenance he needed to support his family, therefore he supplemented his income with a skilled trade. Landarbeiter (workers of the land) and day laborers also known as Inste sometimes had their own small parcels of land, but often not. Therefore, they had to work for other farmers or for the manor lord. Farm hands (Magd or Knecht) worked with a farmer side by side and received food and lodging and a little money. The poor formed the bottom of the hierarchy. Those who were old, sick or had experienced some misfortune were dependent on others' support.
Other members of the community formed another hierarchy according to profession or office. The manor lord was at the top, followed by the pastor and the Bauernvogt, the man who represented the farmers (Hufner) who owned several acres of land and others who functioned as overseers. The teacher and the cow and pig herders formed the lower end of this social structure. Yet another hierarchy was represented by the Church.
Families, households and community were run by the patriarchal order. Women, children and servants had no legal rights. All hierarchal structures had to be strictly adhered to. Social climbing and professional advancements were unheard of. Who wanted to escape such restrictions had to do just that, flee, preferably oversees to avoid punishment or prison.

After serfdom was abolished (1805), emigration or migration was not easy and connected with financial difficulties and administrative complexities. Most people conformed to the seemingly predestined restrictions placed upon them by nobility and Church. That does not mean life was conflict free. Court records testify of quarreling over seating arrangements in Church, for instance. It was not an issue of someone getting a better seat in order to listen to the sermon. Nobody was to touch the seating arrangement because the village hierarchy had to be maintained into the smallest detail at all times. This also was true of clothing and customs. One had to maintain the honor of the standing in the community. Any insult was looked at as prosecutable. Who did not want to comply had to expect punishment. The possibility to withdraw from restrictions and punishment did not exist, for nobody really fancied to be excluded from the community because that could lead to vagabondism and poverty.
How everybody had to behave was anchored in customs and conventions. Servants had to comply to the so called “Gesindeordnung” (servants’ guidelines). Such guidelines were in place in Schleswig-Holstein since the 16th century. Additions were added, but until 1919 the law looked favorably at the employer when contentious matters arose. Court records testify about bad treatment, withholdings of wages, excessive job requirements and premature abandonment of service, to list a few.
Labor organization, tools, various activities and their flow did not change much since the 15th century until 1850. From this time on machines accomplished most what hands had produced before. Even though the work load was somewhat alleviated, the yearly cycle of work remained. Many found it impossible to go to church on Sunday, because work came first. Also, children were indispensable during harvest season. Although school attendance was mandatory since 1814 in Schleswig-Holstein, the law was not observed until 1867 when the new Prussian administrations implemented stronger controls. From then on the restrictions holding down the rural population disappeared. The son of a day laborer was now able to become a postal worker. This was a sensation in personal as well as social respects

Everyday life in a village was not just determined by culture and social structures but the powers to be saw that everyday life was also given legal status. Written laws and bylaws cemented the once orally determined rules, so that all uncertainties now would have a verifiable legal basis at any given time.
Daily life in Schleswig-Holstein villages started to accelerate with the industrialization. Within twenty to thirty years many villages were transformed. Where poverty abounded decades before because of abolishment of serfdom, rural depopulation, land consolidation and private property that could not be cultivated properly, new building materials made it possible to add stables and houses. New brands of fertilizer became available and new delivery areas opened up.
The industrialization did not just bring improvements but also down sides, especially for craftsmen. People like weavers, saddle makers and shoemakers had to abandon their professions because manufactured goods were entering the markets en masse. Servants who had worked as farmhands were now out of work because of machinery that was either hired as help or purchased. Many agricultural laborers had no other choice but to emigrate or migrate to cities. This development also changed the face of the village by thinning of the population.

Likelihood is that your ancestor belonged to the rural population and participated in all aspects of village life. Besides being part of the Church and listed in church records, he would be found in census records, land records, tax records, military records, emigration, migration and court records.

Source: Zeitschrift für Niederdeutsche Familienkunde. Heft 3/3. Quartel 2003. Nils Hansen. Alltag der Dorfbevölkerung in Schleswig-Holstein

Here is a link explaining the history of Amt Bordesholm.


This website gives some background information about three distinct rural groups of Schleswig-Holsteiner. The author attempts to explain certain attitudes among these groups and why they decide politically, socially and otherwise the way they do.

The online publication Slesvigland has listed many interesting articles re. the Schleswig part of Schleswig-Holstein. Those interested in the Northern parts of the state can get much useful information from varies subjects, icluding history, politics, emigration, culture etc.


Dorf/Ortschroniken These are accounts of historical events in chronological order, written in prose with added pictures, documents and objects. Dates and facts are gathered which deal with the history of a village or region. Next to village genealogical accounts (Ortsfamilienbücher) Ortschroniken portray part of the regional history. Usually they are not written by scientists but rather by persons, who have a special historical interest in the research area. Therfore an Ortschronik ist subjective. City chronicles, on the other hand, represent a historical discipline following given guidelines. For Ortschroniken such guidelines do not exist. However, the Ortschronik should contain new facts, something that was not known before. Each researcher works at his own discretion. A good Ortschronik should have a table of contents, page numbers and an index. Important is the fact that information can easily be added if such were to be retrieved. The material for an Ortschronik comes from archives. The most important ones are church archives. Baptisms, marriages and deaths as well as remarks made by the priests which could provide important clues for the history of the area. Ortschroniken can be reaching back to the 16th century and are an essential part of information for researchers. One has to remember, that family research is not an exact science. The genealogist has to rely on observations and recordings assembled mainly by people who would do this according to their own discernment. Therefore, the researcher may find deviations. And the more sources are at hand, the better it becomes to make a sound judgment in some cases. Ortschroniken also rely on information from school chronicles. These appear in Germany in the 19th century and can contain information about students’ parents, religious affiliation, confirmation dates etc. Also, the recordings of manor lord offices can be part of an Ortschronik. Many sources can be accessed from various depositories, i.e., state libraries, family archives, neighboring archives. Ortschroniken for Schleswig-Holstein are available at theLandesbibliothek in Kiel or at the Landesarchiv Schleswig-Holstein. Some are also online. (Google search: Ortschroniken online)


This website features articles and essays about local history 1857-1863 concerning the Duchy of Lauenburg.

Here is a link to the history of Kastdorf in the Duchy of Lauenburg

Witches and Sorcerers in Schleswig-Holstein

In the 1500 and 1600s the delusional idea took hold in Schleswig-Holstein and other parts of Germany that some men and women had the power to put a hex on persons, their animals or had in any form an influence in the unexplained destruction of property. Such actions were prosecuted by the contemporary jurisprudence and harsh judgments administered. The condemned were expelled, drowned, stoned, tortured or burnt, only a few were acquitted. The practice was finally abandoned in the 1700s. Nobody knows whether such an unfortunate creature could have belonged to his ancestors. Therefore, a search in the respective court records was conducted and a list of women compiled and added to, who were branded as witches, where they were from and what their punishment was. These lists can be located in the German periodical Zeitschrift für Niedersächsische Familienkunde, vol. 27, page 66-67, year 28 (1953) page 15 and vol. 43 page 68-71, call number Europe 943.5 B2z