Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter viii: The Condition, Customs, and Temper of the People - An Account of Denmark, With Francogallia and Some Considerations for the Promoting of Agriculture and Employing the Poor
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chapter viii: The Condition, Customs, and Temper of the People - Robert Molesworth, An Account of Denmark, With Francogallia and Some Considerations for the Promoting of Agriculture and Employing the Poor 
An Account of Denmark, With Francogallia and Some Considerations for the Promoting of Agriculture and Employing the Poor, Edited and with an Introduction by Justin Champion (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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The Condition, Customs, and Temper of the People
All these do so necessarily depend upon, and are influenced by the Nature and Change of Government, that ’tis easily imagined, the present Condition of these People of all Ranks must be most deplorable; at least it appears so to an English Man, who sees it, possibly more than to them that suffer it: For Slavery, like a sickly Constitution, grows in time so habitual, that it seems no Burden nor Disease; it creates a kind of laziness, and idle despondency, which puts Men beyond hopes and fears: It mortifies Ambition, Emulation, and other troublesome, as well as active qualities, which Liberty and Freedom beget; and instead of them affords only a dull kind of Pleasure of being careless and insensible.
In former Times, and even till the late Alteration in the Government, the Nobility or Gentry (for they are here the same thing) lived in great Affluence and Prosperity; their Country Seats were large and magnificent, their Hospitality extraordinary, because their Plenty was so too; they lived for the most part at home, and spent their Revenues among their Neighbours and Tenants, by whom they were considered, and respected as so many petty Princes. In times of Convention of the Estates, which ordinarily happened once a year, they met their King with Retinues almost as large as his; they frequently eat, and drank at the same Table with him, and in the debate of Publick Affairs, their Suffrages were of greatest weight, and usually carried the Point: For the Commons were willing in a great measure to be directed by them, because they much depended on them. In process of time this Excess of Power, as you have heard, made most of them grow insolent, which was the chief occasion of their fall, together with the loss of the Liberties of the whole Country. So that now they are sunk to a very low Condition, and diminish daily both in Number and Credit; their Estates scarce paying the Taxes imposed on them: Which makes them grind the Faces of their poor Tenants to get an Overplus for their own Subsistence. Nay, I have been assured by some Gentlemen of good Repute, who formerly were Masters of great Estates, that they have offered to make an absolute Surrender to the King of large Possessions in the Island of Zealand, rather than pay the Taxes; which offer, though pressed with earnestness, would by no means be accepted. And upon my further enquiry into the Reason of it, I have been informed, that Estates belonging to those Gentlemen, who made this offer, lying in other places, which had the good Fortune to be taxed less than the full value of the Income, were liable to pay the Taxes of any other Estate appertaining to the same Person, in case that other Estate were not able; so that some have been seen with a great deal of joy declaring that the King had been so gracious as to take their Estates from them.
Through these, and several other means, many of the ancient Families are fallen to decay; their Country Habitations, which were like Palaces, being ruinous, they are forced to live meanly, and obscurely in some corner of them: Unless it be their good Fortune to procure an Employment, Civil or Military, at Court, which is the thing they are most Ambitious of; it being indeed necessary to secure to their Families any tolerable Subsistence, or to afford them some shelter from the Exactions, and Injustices of the Collectors. The Civil Employments are in no great number, nor of great value; as they seldom are in a poor Country governed by an Army; so that few are provided for this way: The greatest part patiently enduring their Poverty at home; where, in a short time, their Spirits, as well as their Estates, grow so mean, that you would scarce believe them to be Gentlemen, either by Discourse or Garb.
Ancient Riches and Valour were the only Title to Nobility formerly in this Country; the Nobles and Gentry being, as I said before, the same thing. None took either their Degree, or Patents of Honour from the King: But of late years to supply the want of Riches, some few Titles of Baron or Count, and nothing higher, have been given to Favourites; who enjoy not the same Privileges by those Titles, as our Lords in England do, but content themselves with a few Airy insignificant ones, which distinguish them from the Common People; there are not many, even of this kind of Nobility, I believe fifteen or twenty are the most; these are such, who are most easie in their Fortunes, and are obliged (that they may preserve them) to keep in with the Court by all manner of ways; as indeed all are, who have a mind to live and eat Bread.
’Tis only this kind of Nobility with Titles, that have liberty to make a Will or Testament, and thereby to dispose of any Estate otherwise than as the Law has already determined, that it shall fall of course: Unless such Will be during the Life of the Testator, approved of and signed by the King; and then it shall be of force, and valid.
’Tis almost needless to mention that there is no buying, or selling of Land here; for where an Estate is a Charge, there will be few Buyers. Neither do I remember any one Alienation of Lands for Money, during all the time I stayed in that Country, except some Estates, which the Queen purchased; where she paid after the rate of 16000 Crowns for that which Thirty Years ago was valued at 60000 Crowns. There were indeed some Persons, who took Lands from the King in lieu of Money, which they had lent the Crown; and among these I remember to have heard of two, Monsieur Texera a rich Jew of Hamburg, and Monsieur Marseilles, a Dutch Merchant, who was formerly established at Copenhagen. These were forced to take Lands, or Nothing, for their Debts, which amounted to some Hundred Thousands of Crowns; yet did these Lands yield them so little Income, by reason of the Taxes imposed on them, though they were vast Tracts of fertile Ground, that they would willingly have parted with them (as I was informed) for one fifth part of their Principal.
However, in case it should happen that one who has a mind to transplant himself to another place, could find a Purchaser for his Estate, the Law is, That one third part of such Purchase-Money shall accrue to the King; and indeed if there were not such a severe Law against Alienations, it is possible most of the present Possessors would quit the Country the first Opportunity.
The King assumes to himself the Power of disposing of all Heirs and Heiresses of any Consideration, as it is practised in France: Not that there is any Law for it, but upon pain of his Displeasure; which here is too weighty to be born.
Military Employments are mightily coveted by the Native Gentry, almost as much as the Civil; and purely for the same reason that the Priest’s Office was among the Jews, viz. That they may eat a piece of Bread. For it is a sure way to find Soldiers (as long as there are Men in a Kingdom) to imitate the French King’s practice in this particular, make the Gentry poor, and render Traffick unprofitable or dishonourable, Men of Birth must live, and one half of the Nation, by giving up themselves to Slavery, will contribute their Assistance afterwards to put Chains upon the other.
Yet in Denmark the Natives are considered much less than Strangers, and are more out of the Road of Preferment, whether it be that the Court can better trust Strangers, whose Fortunes they make, than the Posterity of such whose Fortunes they have ruined: Or whether they think their very Parts and Courage to be diminished in proportion to their Estates and Liberty, (which appears to be plainly the case of their common People) or for what other reason; certain it is, that all sorts of Places, Civil and Military, are filled more by Foreigners than Gentlemen of the Country: And in their disposal of Offices it is remarkable, that such as are of ordinary Birth and Fortunes, are much sooner preferred than those of contrary qualities: So that here may be found several in the most profitable and honourable Employments who have formerly been Serving-men, and such like; and these prove the best Executors of the Will and Pleasure of Arbitrary Power, and therefore are caressed accordingly. There is one further advantage in the promotion of these kind of Men; that after they are grown rich by Extortion, and have sucked the Blood of the Poor, when Clamours grow loud against them, the Court can with ease squeeze these Leaches, laying all the blame of its own Oppression at their Doors; and this without the danger of causing the discontent of any of the Nobles, upon the score of Kindred or Alliance.
The difficulty of procuring a comfortable Subsistence, and the little security of enjoying what shall be acquired through Industry, is a great cause of Prodigality, not only in the Gentry, whose Condition is more easie, but also in the very Burgers and Peasants: they are sensible that they live but from Hand to Mouth, and therefore as soon as they get a little Money they spend it. They live to day as the Poet advises, not knowing but what they now have may be taken from them tomorrow. And therefore expensiveness in Coaches, Retinue, Clothes, etc. is no where more common, nor more extravagant in proportion to their Income, than in this Country. Parsimony is often, not only a cause, but a sign of Riches; the more a wealthy Man has, the more he endeavours to acquire, and to encrease his stock: But here the Courtier buys no Land, but remits his Money to the Bank of Amsterdam, or of Hamburgh; the Gentleman spends presently on himself and his Pleasures all that he can get, for fear he should have the Reputation of being Rich, and his Money be taken from him by Taxes, before he has eaten or drank for it; the Merchant and Burger do the like, and subsist purely upon Credit; there being very few of this sort in the King’s Dominions that can be called rich, or worth 100,000 Rix Dollars. The Peasant or Boor, as soon as he gets a Rix Dollar, lays it out in Brandy with all haste, lest his Landlord, whose Slave he is, should hear of it, and take it from him. Thus Torva leaena lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam.18 The Trading Towns and Villages, (if we except Copenhagen, whose Situation and Haven make it thrive a little in spite of ill usage) are all fallen to decay. Those Burroughs which formerly lent good Sums of Money to the Prince upon extraordinary Publick Occasions, and furnished the Hollanders yearly with ten or twelve great Fly-boats Lading of Corn, being now not in a condition to raise 100 Rix Dollars, or to Lade one small Ship of Rye; as may be instanced in Kiog, once a flourishing little Seaport-Town, twenty Miles from Copenhagen, which in King Christian the Fourth’s time raised for that King’s Service, in four and twenty hours time, 200,000 Rix Dollars; yet upon occasion of the last Poll Tax, I heard that the Collectors were forced to take from this and other Towns (in lieu of Money) old Feather beds, Bedsteads, Brass, Pewter, Wooden Chairs, etc. which they violently took from the Poor People, who were unable to pay, leaving them destitute of all manner of Necessaries for the use of Living.
Some Manufactures have been endeavoured to be introduced, not so much with a design of benefiting the Publick, as private Courtiers, and great Men who were the Undertakers, and expected to profit thereby: particularly that of Silks and Drinking glasses; but in a little time all came to nothing; it being a very sure Rule, that Trade will not be forced in a place where real Encouragements and Advantages are not to be found, and where Property is not secured; the very Credit of the Subject being as slender as his Riches are uncertain.
If this be the Case of the Gentleman and Burger, what can be expected to be that of the poor Peasant or Boor? In Zealand they are all as absolute Slaves as the Negroes are in Barbadoes, but with this difference, that their Fare is not so good. Neither they, nor their Posterity, to all Generations, can leave the Land to which they belong; the Gentlemen counting their Riches by their Stocks of Boors, as here with us by our Stocks of Cattle; and the more they have of these, the richer they are. In case of Purchase, they are sold as belonging to the Freehold, just as Timber-Trees are with us. There is no computing there by numbers of Acres, but by numbers of Boors, who, with all that belongs to them, appertain to the Proprietor of the Land. Yeomanry, which is the strength of England, is a state not known or heard of in Denmark; but these poor Drudges, after they have laboured with all their might to raise the King’s Taxes, must pay the Overplus of the Profit of the Lands, and their own Toil, to their Landlords, who are almost as poor as themselves. If any of these Wretches prove to be of a diligent and improving Temper, who endeavours to live a little better than his Fellows, and to that end has repaired his Farm-house, making it convenient, neat, or pleasant, it is forty to one but he is presently transplanted from thence to a naked and uncomfortable Habitation, to the end that his griping Landlord may get more Rent, by placing another on the Land that is thus improved: so that in some years ’tis likely there will be few or no Farm-Houses, when those already built are fallen through Age or Neglect.
Another Grievance is, the Quartering and paying of the Soldiers.19 Those that know what a vexatious thing it is (over and above the Charge) to be constantly plagued with insolent Inmates, who Lord it whereever they dwell, will soon allow this to be a Mischief scarce supportable.
And although this Country have a tendency to be extremely populous, the Women being exceeding fruitful, which is sufficiently proved by the vast Swarms that in former Ages, from these Northern parts, over-ran all Europe; yet at present it is but competently Peopled; vexation of Spirit, ill Diet, and Poverty, being great Obstructions to Procreation. Within Man’s Memory the Peasants lived very happily; there was scarce any Family of them that was not Owner of a large piece of Plate or two, besides Silver Spoons, Gold Rings, and other odd Knacks, which they are fond of to this day, (and whenever they have any Money, will lay it out in such-like things, because they dare not trust themselves with the keeping of Money, the inclination to spend it presently is so general) but now it is a great rarity to find in a Boor’s House any thing made of Silver; or indeed any other Utensil of Value, unless it be Feather-Beds, whereof there are better, and in greater plenty than in any place I ever saw; and which are made use of, not only to lye upon, but also to cover with instead of Blankets.
Among all the Hardships which are imposed on these poor Peasants, that which seemed to me one of the greatest, was the Obligation they lye under to furnish the King, Royal Family, and all their Attendants, their Baggage and Furniture, with Horses, and Travelling Wagons, whensoever he makes any Progress (which he often does either to Jutland or Holstein) or takes any lesser Journey in Zealand; nay, although it be only to his Country-Houses of Fredericksburg and Yagersburg. In these Cases all the Peasants that lye near the Road, or in that District, are summoned to attend with their Horses and Wagons at certain Stages, where they are to relieve each other; and this they often do, always at their own Charges for Man’s, and Horse-meat, for two or three days together, no regard being had to the Season of Harvest, (which is the usual travelling time) or to any other Conveniency of these poor Wretches. I have frequently seen them with hundreds of Wagons in a Company, attending the Arrival of the Court, bewailing their sad Condition; and as soon as the King came up, and his Coaches, with those of the other Persons of Quality, were fitted with six or eight Boors Horses each, (for they are little bigger than Calves) then every Lacquey seizes on his Boor and Wagon, for his own proper use; at which time, unless his Pleasure be in all things complied with, the poor trembling Peasant (who drives on, and takes all patiently, without replying one word) is so beaten and abused, that it has often moved my Pity and Indignation to see it. Neither is it only when the King himself travels, that the Boors are put to this trouble, but whenever he pleases to give his Warrant to any Person of Quality, or Officer, that has a Journey to make, they are obliged to this Service and Attendance.
Apoplexies and the Falling-Sickness are the Epidemical Distempers here; one shall hardly pass through the Streets of Copenhagen, without seeing one or two poor Creatures grovelling on the Ground in a Fit, and foaming at the Mouth, with a Circle of Gazers and Assistants about them: I know not what to impute this to, unless to the ill Diet of the Common sort, which is generally Salt-meats, Stock-fish, and such-like. Apoplexies among the better sort, often proceed either from excessive Drinking, or from Discontent; it being very usual here to have them die of a Slacht, as they call it, which is an Apoplexy, proceeding from Discontent and Trouble of Mind. But by way of amends for these ugly Distempers, there are few or none that are troubled with Coughs, Catarrhs, Consumptions, or such like Diseases of the Lungs; so that in the midst of Winter in the Churches, which are very much frequented, there is no noise to interrupt the Attention due to the Preacher. I am persuaded their warm Stoves, with the Plenty and Pureness of their Firing, (which is Beechwood) contributes as much to their freedom from these kinds of Maladies, as the grossness and unwholsomness of our Coals in London does to our being so universally troubled with them; notwithstanding the ingenious Sir William Petty be of another Opinion: for in all other respects of Air and Situation, we have much the advantage of them.
The Tables of the better sort are usually well furnished with Dishes, yet I cannot commend the Cheer; because the Flesh is generally lean, and (except the Beef and Veal) ill tasted, especially the tame Fowl, the fattening of which is an Art not known by above two or three, who have been taught it by an English Poulterer, lately set up at Copenhagen. Wether Mutton is very scarce, and seldom good. Wild Ducks hardly to be eaten; and Plovers never. Here are no wild Pheasants, Woodcocks, Rabbits, or Fallow Deer. Red Deer there are, but they are the King’s Game, and not to be bought for Money. The Hares are good, and the Bacon is excellent. Now and then you meet with a Cheureuil, or small Roe Buck in the Market, but it is generally lean. Sea-fish is scarce, and not good, but the River-fish makes amends, here being the best Carp, Perch, and Craw-fish that are to be found any where. One cannot expect extraordinary Fruits thus far North; yet the Gentry do not want such as are very tolerable, being extremely addicted to Gardening; and several of the Nobility being so curious, as to have Melons, Grapes, Peaches, and all sorts of Salads very early, and in great perfection. The Butter is very good, but the Cheese stark naught. In general, their way of Cookery would hardly be pleasing to an English Man.
They are much addicted to drinking; the Liquors that are most in vogue with Persons of Condition, are Rhenish Wine, Cherry Brandy, and all sorts of French Wine. The Men are fond of them, and the fair Sex does not refuse them. The poor People, who are able to indulge themselves, do it in bad Beer, and Danish Brandy, which is made of Barley.
The Gentlemen and Officers go very fine in their Dress after the French mode; but the Ladies Winter-dress is Danish, very becoming, and convenient. The Burgers, Servants, and even Peasants, are neat and cleanly; they love [a] change of ordinary white Linen, which is here made cheap; the Women-kind employing their leisure time in Spinning. All these People have a degree of Vanity; Pride and Poverty being often Companions to each other.
Their Marriages are usually preceded by Contracts, which will last sometimes three, four, or more years, before they proceed to a publick Wedding by the Minister; though often the young Couple grow better acquainted before these Formalities are dispatched. The Gentry give Portions with their Daughters; but the Burgers and Peasants, if they be able, give Cloaths, some Household stuff, and a great Wedding Dinner, but nothing else till they die.
Sumptuous Burials and Monuments are much in request with the Nobility; and it is usual to keep the Corps of a Person of Quality in a Vault, or the Chancel of some Church, for several Years together, till a fit opportunity to celebrate the Funeral. The poorer sort are buried in great thick Chests; and in the Towns, there are about a dozen of common Mourners belonging to each Parish, who are obliged to carry, and attend them to their Graves.
The Common People are mean spirited, not Warlike in their Tempers, as formerly; inclined to gross Cheating, and to suspect that others have a design to cheat them; therefore unwilling to go out of a road they have been accustomed to: insomuch that if you offer them great profit for a thing which they have not been used formerly to sell, they will refuse to part with it, as suspecting that you see an advantage in such a Purchase, which as yet is unknown to them, but which they hope to find out. I remember one instance: Seeing great Flocks of Green Geese in the Fields near the Town, I sent to buy some, but they being never used to sell, or eat Geese, in that Country, till they are big and old, it was not possible to persuade any body to part with one of them, though double the price of a big one were offered for each. They asked what we desired to buy them for? What we would do with them? etc., for they could not be persuaded, any one would be so foolish as to eat them whilst young, or little; after a Week, an old Woman, to whom Money had been offered for a dozen, came and brought four to sell, saying, That neither she, nor her Geese, had thriven since she had refused to sell them at a good price; for the Kite had the night before kill’d eight of her stock, and that now the remaining four were at my service. Thus the Superstition of this old Woman procured us the first Green Geese that I believe were ever eaten in Denmark; but after that they had taken notice that we fatted and killed them for eating, they furnisht us with them as often as desired. I would not omit this silly Story, because it gives a more lively Idea of the Temper of the Common People, than any Description I could make. In their Markets they will ask the same price for stinking Meat, as for fresh; for lean, as for fat, if it be of a kind. And the sure way not to obtain, is to seem to value, and to ask importunately, a thing which otherwise they themselves would desire should be done. This last Remark is not peculiar to the Common People only.
I do not see that they are good at imitating the Inventions of other Countries; and for inventing themselves, I believe none here, since the famous Tycho Brahe, ever pretended to it. Few or no Books are written, but what some of the Clergy compose of Religion. Not so much as a Song, or a Tune, was made, during three Years that I stayed there. Their Seasons of Jollity are very rare, and since the fatal Opera about four years ago, wherein many hundred Persons were burnt together in the old Queen’s House,20 they content themselves with running at the Goose on Shrove-Tuesdays, and taking their pleasure upon Sledds in the Winter, well wrapped up in Wool or Fur. A Divertisement much in request in this Court, and among all kinds of People. Perhaps it will be thought too nice here to remark, That no body presumes to go in a Sledd, till the King and Court has begun; That the King passes over a new Bridge the first. And that the Clocks of Copenhagen strike the hours after the Court Clock.
’Tis a difficult matter for Strangers to find conveniences of Lodging or Eating in Denmark; even in Copenhagen are few or no Lodgings to be Let in private Houses; and in the Taverns one must be content to Eat and Drink in a publick Room, into which any other Company may enter, and do the like at another Table; unless one pretends to higher matters than ordinary. The Language is very ungrateful, and not unlike the Irish in its whining complaining Tone. The King, great Men, Gentry, and many Burgers, make use of the High-Dutch in their ordinary Discourse, and of French to Strangers. I have heard several in high Employment, boast that they could not speak Danish. Yet very many of the Monosyllables in this Tongue are the same with the English; and without doubt we owe the Original of them to the Danes, and have retained them ever since they were Masters of our Country.
[18. ]Virgil, Eclogue 2, line 64: “The fierce lioness pursues the wolf, and the wolf in turn the goat.”
[19. ]Note in margin: “This was once known in England, when the Lord Dane or Danish Soldier, quartered in the English Yeoman’s house and domineer’d to purpose: whence came the nick-name of Lazy Lordane.”
[20. ]The 1738 edition notes in a lengthy comment that on April 19, 1689, 200 to 280 people perished in the fire that destroyed the entire castle and its contents.