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Norwegian farmers

Johan I. Borgos:

Norwegian Farmer Groups

Every genealogist doing research in old Norwegian sources has met some strange words: 'Selveier', 'leilending', 'husmann' ('husmand'), 'innerst' ('inderst') etc. What were the realities behind these terms? This text tries to give some simplified explanations. Regional differences and changes during history are not described in detail.

First of all: It's an anachronistic mistake to label these terms as 'occupations'. The great majority were farmers, and a great deal of them combined farming with fisheries or forestry.They even worked as blacksmiths, shoemakers and in many other trades. Their means of livelihood almost never consisted of only one 'occupation' (which is a too modern word!).

What is the difference between 'selveier', 'leilending', 'husmann' and 'innerst'? First of all it has to do with their rights to the farming land they used. Secondly, it depends on 'where and when' - geography and time.

'Selveier' (pl. 'selveiere')

A 'selveier' (many censuses use the abbreviation 'S.') is a person who owns the farm land he or she is using, and who has a registered deed to prove the ownership. This deed is both a security and potential danger. It's a property, and in a bankruptcy it can get lost to the creditors.

Back in history the Norwegian farm land was owned by the church, the crown or other landowners, but as early as 1660 a fifth of the farm land in Southern Norway had a 'selveier'. The next century the 'selveier' share of the farm land increased, and the 'selveier' system spread to Western Norway and Trøndelag. In Northern Norway this transition took place after 1850.

'Leilending' (pl. 'leilendinger')

'Leilending' (in censuses often shortened to 'leil.' or just 'L.') is usually translated to 'tenant farmer'. The 'leilending' didn't own the farm. The right to use the land was granted through a registered lease contract. The Norwegian word for this lease contract is 'bygselbrev', hence the word 'bygselmann', which is synonymous with 'leilending'.

The lease was valid for 'his or her lifetime'. This clause reveals a very important fact: A 'leilending' was usually a married couple. In contrast, there are many single persons in the 'selveier' group. Together 'selveiere' and 'leilendinger' constituted the class of farmers that used 'registered farm land units' (you can read more about these units on my page
...Norwegian Farm Names ). 'Selveiere' and 'leilendinger' should be treated as socially equal groups.

In most cases a 'leilending' couple could let married offspring 'inherit' the lease, but then a new lease contract had to be registered. If a bankruptcy occurred (and it often did!) the lease contract was not treated as a property, so in most cases the 'leilending' could continue to live there and use the land as before. The biggest threat was the death of either the husband or the wife. Since there had to be a couple on the farm, remarriages were very common in the 'leilending' system.

'Husmann' (pl. 'husmenn')

The English word for 'husmann' is cotter (crofter is also used). Behind this term you will find a very heterogeneous group, with great geographical differences and equal great changes during history. But some conditions seems to have been common for all the 'husmenn':
* The farm land they used - 'husmannsplass' (cotter's holding) - was never registered as separate units.
* Their houses stood on land that belonged to a 'selveier' or was leased by a 'leilending'.
* Their lease contracts ('husmannsseddel') were limited in time.
* In most cases a 'husmann' was a couple.

In censuses and church registers you may find other words for 'husmann' :
* A 'husmann med jord'/'husm. m/j.' (cotter with farm land) had houses and some land to use.
* A 'husmann uten jord'/'husm. u/j.' (cotter without farm land) had houses, but no land to use. However, the couple might own a cow and a few sheep.
* A 'strandsitter' (literally: shore dweller) is more or less the same as 'husmann uten jord'. Both groups had fisheries as their main source of income.

There was a social gap between the 'husmann' on side and the 'selveier' or 'leilending' on the other, but to a lesser degree along the coast than in the inland area. In Northern Norway this gap was almost nonexistent. There the fishery was the dominant economic factor, and a 'husmann' could be much better off than the 'selveier' on the same farm!

The 'husmann' class can be seen as the solution to a difficult problem: A growing population had to make a living in a country where the land resources didn't expand at the same rate. Many couples could get a farm, but not all. The last group became 'husmenn'. By and large the 'husmenn' had to their disposal the poorest land resources, and they lacked any kind of permanent rights to use them.

During the 1800's the 'husmann' group grew in numbers. Their means of living didn't get any better, most of them experienced harder times. Then came a new possibility - farm land in another country. The emigration to America was heavily recruited from the 'husmann' group.

'Innerst' (pl. 'innerster')

The 'innerst' is also called 'losjerende'/'logerende' - a couple or single persons who rented a room (or maybe rooms), often on farms. They could be:
* newlyweds waiting to get their own house or farm,
* people who moved from place to place, living of some craft (shoemakers, tailors etc.),
* seasonal workers on the farm,
* very poor, sick or old persons.

Of all the groups explained on this page, the 'innerst' class had the most temporarily character: The persons in this group were usually in transition, either to something better - or to something much worse...

There weren't any insurmountable barriers between these groups. A couple could during their years together pass these stages: From 'husmann' to 'leilending' and then to 'husmann' again, or as a pair of my great-grandparents did: From 'innerst' to 'leilending' to 'selveier'. They were farmers all the time, but their rights to the land they used changed very much.
Here's a summary of the main points in this text:

Land resourceContract typeContract timeHouses
SelveierReg. farm unitRegistered deedNo fixed limitOwn the houses
LeilendingReg. farm unitReg. lease contractLifetimeLeased the houses
Husmann med jordUnreg. farm landHolder's leaseLimited timeLeased/owned
Husmann uten jordNo farm landHolder's leaseLimited timeLeased/owned
StrandsitterNo farm landHolder's leaseLimited timeLeased/owned
InnerstNo farm landNo contractN/ARented rooms

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Other Pages on Norway by Johan I. Borgos

...Norwegian Farm Names
...Tracing Norwegian Immigrants
...Norwegian local history books
... Norwegian administrative units
... Norwegian Naming Patterns

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