Some of your Danish ancestors were probably peasants, but as if it wasn't already difficult enough to understand the Danish records, there were more types of peasants. To help you, I will define the three main types: husmand, bolsmand, and gårdmand.
The Danish Word Husmand means Cottager
A husmand was a peasant who lived in a small cottage, often on someone else's land. They were typically poor and owned only a few animals to supply the family itself. Some cottagers had a little land for agriculture or breeding, but many had no land, except a vegetable garden for their own supply. A rule of thumb says that a cottager had up to four acres of land.1 The cottagers, who lived on the land of someone else, would perform various tasks for the landowner, such as farm work or other manual labor.
Previously, the word was most often written with a capital H and double u, as in Huusmand. The plural of husmand is husmænd.
The Danish Word Bolsmand means Smallholder
A bolsmand was a farmer who owned a small amount of land and a few animals. A rule of thumb says that a smallholder had about four to six acres of land.2 They were typically a step above husmænd in terms of wealth and status. They would often work their own land or breed animals and sell the produce that was not needed for themselves.
Previously, the word was most often written with a capital B and sometimes an e after the o, as in Boelsmand. The plural of bolsmand is bolsmænd.
The Danish Word Gårdmand means Farmer
A gårdmand was a farmer who owned a relatively large amount of land, and if it was a breeding farm, he owned many animals. A rule of thumb says that a farmer had more than six acres of land, and on average they had about twelve to fourteen acres.3 They were typically the most influential peasants in their communities and often held positions of power, such as parish bailiff. They often employed others to work the land or help with the livestock.
Previously, the word was most often written with a capital G and double a, as in Gaardmand. The plural of gårdmand is gårdmænd.
Were the Peasants Owners or Tenants?
The words husmand, bolsmand, and gårdmand do not by themselves say anything about the ownership of the land and buildings. It is a common misconception that gårdmænd and bolsmænd were landowners and that husmænd were tenants. However, they could all be either tenants or owners. To determine the ownership of the land, you must examine land records.
Differences in the words can reveal information about the ownership. If the word begins with fæste, as in fæstehusmand, fæstebolsmand, fæstegårdmand, the peasant was a tenant. If the word is not husmand, bolsmand, or gårdmand, but rather husejer, bolsejer, or gårdejer, then the peasant was the owner of the place. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the details of the word.
Why Does it Matter Which Type of Peasant an Ancestor was?
The terms are important to understand as they provide valuable information about an ancestor's occupation, wealth, and social status. By understanding the terms, you can get a clearer picture of the life of your Danish ancestors.
- Jørgen Green and Michael Green Schmidt, Slægtsforskerens ABC [The Genealogist's ABC], 3rd edition (Denmark: Forlaget Grifo, 2011), p. 188, sub verbum Husmandssted. It has come to my attention that the word cottager can have non-genealogy connotations in British English. That meaning does not apply to the word husmand.
- Green and Schmidt, Slægtsforskerens ABC, p. 50, s.v. Boell – Bolsted - Boelsted.
- Green and Schmidt, Slægtsforskerens ABC, p. 179, s.v. Gård.
- The image at the top of the post shows a Danish cottage. Unidentified photographer from Varde, photo of "Bondegård, Sandager Nørmark, 1912," 1912 or 1913; image copy, the National Museum of Denmark, Nationalmuseets Samlinger Online (https://samlinger.natmus.dk/dnt/asset/459144 : accessed 7 February 2023). License: CC-BY-SA.