The History of the Danish Manors
By The Danish Research Centre for Manorial Studies
The terms ‘manor house’ and ‘manor farm’ have changed content and evolved over the centuries. While the manorial farm as a concept is constant and dates way back in Danish history, the same, exact criteria have not always been applied, given that from one period to another manorial farms were different from other farms.
The Middle Ages
Danish manor houses and manorial farms were originally part of feudal society. From the early Middle Ages they were the farms of gentlemen, primarily noblemen. The gentlemen ran these farms themselves and usually lived on them too. The manorial status was related to the status of the owner and to the use, to which he put the farm. In principle, the nobleman was exempt from taxes. If the farm changed owner or the owner changed his use of the farm, the farm could lose its manorial status. Conversely, it was relatively easy for another farm, which a nobleman started to use as his main farm, to acquire manorial status. In other words, the number of manor houses and the consolidation of specific farms that served as manorial farms were a moveable feast.
Following the introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660
Following the introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660, a farm’s manorial status was no longer linked to its owner’s status. Now the farm no longer lost its status because a nobleman happened to sell it. Conversely, a farm no longer gained status as a manor, just because a nobleman started using it as his main farm. A manorial farm was still the estate owner’s own farm and, in principle, he (or a tenant on his behalf) ran it himself. In this respect it was different from the copyhold farms that belonged to the estate. During this period, for a farm to have manor house status was generally dependent on having had that status prior to 1660, or on the absolute monarch subsequently granting the farm privileges. In practice, too, the owner had to continue to run the farm or lease out plots of land, but not to lease out the whole farm as an entity. A manorial farm almost always had copyhold land. From this period and until the agrarian reforms of the late 18th century, very few manorial farms were disbanded or re-established and, given that the status of manor houses was largely dependent on the tradition of the farm (the fact that it had had manor house status prior to 1660), we have a fairly stable picture of the number of manor houses from the late 17th century to around 1770. However, in terms of privileges, a distinction had evolved between manors, which had more than 200 tønder of copyhold land, thereby exempting them from taxes, and the others who were no longer exempt from taxes, but on the whole were not required to pay tithes.
Following the land reforms
The period of the agrarian reforms in the late 18th century represents a break in the history of Danish manor houses. From this point onwards, the overall structure, within which manor houses had emerged and evolved, was gradually dismantled, and many manor houses eventually parcelled out their land and disappeared as large-scale farms. As a rule, that also meant that the manorial buildings gradually disappeared. But many of the farms did continue as large-scale farms, hence as manor houses, going on to survive the good times and bad times of Danish manor house history, and so many still exist today. The mansions thus underwent significant development from the period around the land reforms up to today. However, it is impossible to talk of a legal or formal definition during this period. The tax privileges of the mansions were gradually phased out, and the last remnant of this formal special status disappeared in 1908 with the abolition of the tithe system. But it was more than their formal status that distinguished manor houses. As a rule, throughout history most manor houses have had much more extensive agricultural activities than other farms. In many cases, their main buildings have been characterised by a certain splendour, and the manor house’s many operational buildings, huge areas of land, forests and boundaries have invested the landscape around them with a highly distinctive appearance. Furthermore, the lifestyle that was lived out in the manor houses has often been particularly grand. But these criteria are not synonymous with formal rights and the further we progress, the more difficult it gets to come up with an adequate definition.
The manor house today
The question of what a manor house is today is, in the view of the Danish Research Centre for Manorial Studies, inextricably linked to the tradition described above. ‘Manor House’ is basically a historical concept that relates to a reality that no longer exists. Consequently, the Centre holds the view that, in principle, you can only define a farm as being a manorial farm today, if it was one at a time when the term was current.