Author: Piotr Zelny
Sources for genealogical research on peasant and townspeople families in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 15th and mid-19th centuries
(This is the first of a five-part article. This part introduces and describes the feudal system in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.)
Have you ever considered how to conduct your genealogical research when there are no vital books? Have you ever asked yourself about the possibilities of finding your ancestors living prior to the partitions of Poland? Have you ever thought about their conditions of work and everyday life? This article is for everyone who has ever asked themselves these kinds of questions.
Property inventories apart from commonly known vital records, are one of the basic sources (one of many) for genealogical research on the peasant family. Their genealogical value cannot be overestimated, as they contain registers of feudal obligations which list peasant families living in the particular localities. They occur in mass numbers, which is one of the reasons why they play such a significant role. It is believed that tens of thousands of such sources have survived to this day. The exact number is unknown. The oldest documents of this type, preserved to the present, come from the turn of the 15th and the 16th centuries. The registers of feudal obligations (containing lists of peasants) disappeared from the pages of the property inventories in the 1860s as the result of abolition of the feudal system. Since feudal obligations (serfdom and others) were abolished, there was no longer any reason to prepare the registers.
INTRODUCTION – THE FEUDAL SYSTEM IN THE POLISH-LITHUANIAN COMMONWEALTH
Since 1569 The Kingdom of Poland and The Grand Duchy of Lithuania constituted one united country which was commonly known as The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Commonwealth of the Two Nations or simply as Poland. The country covered a vast amount of territory in Central Europe and included territory now in contemporary Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus and Latvia. The highest authority was the King of Poland who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania, elected by the nobles ‘szlachta’. The country existed until 1795 when, as a result of the Partitions of Poland, it was dismembered and divided between its neighbours (Russia, Prussia and Austria) and disappeared from the map of Europe.
During that time, the prevailing social-economical-political system in Europe was feudalism. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships that were derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labor. Each European country had its own specific local system of feudalism. Also, the feudal system itself evolved over the course of centuries. In the Polish-Lithuanian state, feudal society was divided into four basic social classes. These were the nobility, the clergy, the burghers and the peasantry. However, each class was very diverse and divided into smaller social subgroups having their own rights, limitations and obligations. One of the most important rights was the right to possess land. At that time, the overwhelming majority of the members of peasant society had no right to possess land in its own right. A plot of land was allocated to peasant families by the possessor (owner or leaseholder) of the land (and/or of the village). The peasants were serfs and subjects of the landlord. As serfs who occupied a plot of a lord’s land, they were required to work (as serfs) for the landlord on his farms as well as pay him rent and tributes. As subjects of a particular lord, a serf’s freedom to leave the village (the estate property) belonging to the lord was highly restricted since moving to another village (belonging to another lord) would mean abandoning their current lord and the obligations owed to him. In return, subject peasants were entitled to protection, justice, material support and the right to build a house and cultivate their allotted field in order to maintain their own subsistence. The system existed deep into the 19th century when it was abolished in stages in the territories of the three partitioning powers. The abolition of the feudal system and the emancipation of the peasantry began in 1807 in the Prussian partition of Poland and the process lasted there until 1872; in 1848 in the Austrian partition of Poland; and in 1861 and 1864 in the Russian partition of Poland.
The feudal system recognized three basic categories of land property. These were: royal, ecclesiastical and noble properties. The lands that were part of the royal domain consisted of court counties, non-court counties (tenements), and economies. Ecclesiastical lands were the property of individual bishoprics, monasteries or parish churches. Noble lands were owned by individual noble families and great magnate houses. The land property (the royal, the ecclesiastical or the noble domains) comprised areas consisting of individual villages and towns or only their parts as well as agricultural and forest areas. They could form huge property areas numbering hundreds of villages and towns and covering many thousands of square kilometres as well as small, one village properties or properties covering only part of a village. The great complexes of properties had their own central administrative management. To make them easier to manage, they were divided into smaller and more convenient economic units (not to be confused with state or church administration units) called properties, estates, states, tenements, counties etc. Each of these units had its own local management office. The local managements supervised the farms located in the villages which belonged to the landlord (the king, the church, or a noble). Peasants living in these villages were subjects of the landlord, hence they were obliged to serve (feudal obligations) on the farms of their lord as well as pay him rent and tributes. The local management offices produced many types of documents. One type, property inventories, which includes registers of feudal obligations, is extremely important for understanding the feudal system of the time. Together with other types of documents property inventories paint a vivid picture of the relationship between landlords and their peasant subjects.