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« Tuna 3 / 2019

Manorial Courts in Estland and Livland under Swedish Rule

This article discusses a recent argumentation by Heikki Pihlajamäki according to whom the medieval seigneurial courts in Livonia were not dismantled with the Swedish court ordinances at the beginning of the 1630s but continued to exist as manorial courts throughout the period of Swedish rule until 1710. In fact, Arnold Soom and many other renowned historians of this period have also mentioned the practice of manor courts (Gutsgerichte) in seventeenth-century Livonia.

After the 1630s, the landlords of Livland and Estland retained considerable power to solve local civil, disciplinary and petty criminal cases. These, however, were not processed as court cases, rather they were part of ordinary domestic discipline (Hausdisciplin) on the manor. The court ordinance of 1632 officially accepted and institutionalised landlords’ rights to administer domestic discipline in Livonia. The sources from the 1630s up to 1700 never mention manorial courts (Gutsgericht) in Livland or Estland. The only exceptions were the manors that had been granted to Swedish counts (the families of Oxenstierna, Thurn, De la Gardie) who held a special privilege to run patrimonial courts on their possessions. Such patrimonial courts remained active in Livland and Estland until the 1680s, when the Swedish high aristocracy lost their fiefs in the Baltic provinces through the reduktion.

After the reduktion of the 1680s when many noble estates reverted back into crown hands, the new leaseholders of crown estates retained only modest rights for administering domestic discipline over crown peasants. Clearly manorial courts did not exist on crown manors. However, at the same time the provincial administration in both Livland and Estland started actively trying to revive the old village office known as law-finders (Rechtsfinder) or hirsnik. Although the role of the law-finders had historically been to participate in local court sessions as peasants’ representatives, during the last two decades of the 17th century, the law-finders chosen on crown estates did not sit in courts. Instead, their function was to moderate and look after the leaseholders’ limited rights to discipline and punish peasants, and to act as overseers in the village.

The administrative and court documents of the 1680s and 1690s leave no doubt that after the reduktion, the peasants had increasingly started to communicate with the state and the royal courts. The number of court cases where peasants were involved increased tremendously and this was clearly connected with the restricted rights of the leaseholders of crown estates to solve local disciplinary and petty criminal cases at their own will. The royal courts and provincial administrations of Estland and Livland took supplications and complaints submitted by crown peasants very seriously and peasants acted as subjects in their own right without the custody of any lord. Nevertheless, the state still addressed official responses, state taxes and other public commitments to the manors and not directly to peasants since all crown peasants were still bound to a certain manorial estate.