Property Inventories. P.4. Assessment of the Source.

Author: Piotr Zelny

Generally, the property inventories are rated very highly by historians. These are sources that provide a lot of data on such a subject matter as the organization and functioning of individual villages and towns included in the particular properties, the size of individual settlements, their population, property, buildings and economic conditions and finally the relations between the feudal lord and his subjects.

Register of townspeople of Ustrzyki, 1758. AP Przemysl

These sources are generally reliable, although some data should be treated with caution and, if possible, compared with other types of documentation. As mentioned above, the inventories were drawn up by the hands of thousands of officials and scribes of various degrees of experience and levels of work and motivation.

In the case of property valuation for the purpose of sale, lease or division, the parties drawing up the document controlled each other, a situation which affected the credibility of the document. It was similar in the case of the taking over of the property by a new official from the hands of the former official. On the other hand, when inspections had been completed by commissioners overseeing the particular territories, local supervisors may not always have been willing to disclose true data regarding the condition of the property. If they managed them badly, such data could be embarrassing to them and so efforts were made to conceal or distort the information.

The peasants themselves, who were a main source of information, were usually reluctant and distrustful about disclosing their family and property data, fearing the imposition of higher feudal burdens. It also happened that villages which were considered too burdened, demanded the preparation of a new inventory and the introduction of a new order or the restoration of the older norms of the serf system.

Register of townspeople of Pińczów, 1769. AP Kielce

However, even the things which were theoretically written down reliably and truthfully on site, in practise often may not have corresponded to reality. The peasants tried their best to avoid the obligations of serfdom. In each village, there were so-called voids ‘pustki’, i.e. uninhabited and not cultivated plots. However, people were usually not interested in taking over these plots/voids for one’s own, because that would lead to an increase in the number of days of feudal service and other obligations. Local peasants could lease them for a relatively small amount of a rent. Hence, it was better to pay a relatively low fee every year and sow ‘nobody’s’ voids instead of taking them over and settling on them.

‘Komorniks’ (a landless peasants), who did not have their own houses or fields and thus theoretically belonged to the poorest class of the population, and did the lowest level of feudal service, in practice could have been at a much higher level of material position. Having a sufficient number of draft animals or hiring them and paying a relatively small rent, they cultivated empty plots (‘voids’), which brought them good profit, whereas their burden of feudal service and other taxes did not increase because these were not their own plots of land. It must also be remembered that inventories often did not present the real state of affairs, but the state of affairs which was to be introduced as a result of reforms.

Many problems may have resulted from very different terminology used in the property inventories by different officials and scribes. Such discrepancies occurred mainly in terms used to describe categories of population, jobs, works, tools, units of measure etc. Contemporary scientific compilations as well as dictionaries of older Polish language usage are necessary in order to interpret and analyze the documents properly.

Register of subjects and their feudal obligations of the village of Minkowice, 1642. AP Krakow

Surnames of peasants form an additional complication. As was previously stated, the oldest inventories date back to the 15th century. However, in that early period, peasant’s surnames appear rather rarely since usually only first names and nicknames were then in common use. Thus the value and use of such early registers is limited by the lack of permanent surnames.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a very large and diverse country compared to other European countries, especially those of Western Europe. The extreme diversity of the Polish State was typical of much of the area of Central Europe. The time when peasants’ surnames were formed was not uniform throughout the Commonwealth and varied depending on the region of the country as well as the social and the material status of the peasant family. However, peasant’s surnames began to appear on a massive scale at the beginning of the 17th century but the process of their formation and mutability lasted up to the end of the 18th and even into the early 19th centuries. It must therefore be assumed that the practical use of the inventories in genealogical research will be limited in most cases back to the 17th century.


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