Two types of Lithuanian agriculture: before and after the Volok reform

In 1557, Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus instituted the so-called Volok law according to which the agricultural reform, which had no precedence in Europe of that time, was started to be carried out. All farming land of the ruler’s estates and small rural districts was measured in voloks (depending on the quality of land – 21,3–23,5 ha each). Each volok was offered to a single peasant household. Until the end of the 60s of the 16th century all holdings of the Grand Duke in the western part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were measured in voloks and distributed: in Lithuania, Samogitia, the present Western Belarus and Palenkė (a total of 1,7 million ha). The reform was still slowly carried out in the larger part of Belarus in the 17th century. If we want to understand the significance of this reform, we have to assess the condition of the Lithuanian village before the Volok reform was started to be carried out. 

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Homesteads, slash-and-burn agriculture and a slow way of life were characteristic of the ancient Lithuanian village. It was only after the Volok law adopted in 1557 that large open fields that had been cleared off the trees and shrubberies rarely seen before appeared in the landscape of Lithuania. Sociality of the peasants revealed itself in the cultural landscape, village self-governance formed, and the importance of the estate in the life of the peasants increased.

“Islands” in the wood were a peasant’s ancient world

In the Middle Ages Lithuanian peasants were owners of alods: they farmed the lands that they had inherited from their ancestors in the ways tested by their ancestors. Personal freedom and abundance of natural resources did not make the farmers get tied to growing corn, which required hard work and did not ensure good results. In those days, forests fed the people like a field. Farming fields appeared from a forest.

In the middle of the 16th century Alexander Guagnini desribed the ancient agricultural habits of the Lithuanians in the following way: “At first soil is prepared like that: around the feast of St. Apostles Peter and Paul, in summer, until the feast of the Assumption, forests and bushes are cut, and those cuttings are usually called glades. If a forest is dense, they spread straw all over and leave everything for winter. When spring comes, right after Easter, when the sun shines and warms the earth for several days, they lift the straw in that cut area, set fire to it and turn everything into ashes because where earth did not burn nothing would grow. (…) They sow everything in such soil for the whole six, and sometimes even for eight years, without any manure. If there are tall and thick trees in the forest where it is planned to sow corn, for example, pine trees, ash trees, birches and the like, they are not cut, only their branches and young shoots are cut off so that they should not obstruct the sunlight”.

Farmers did not create large farming fields. Their land-tenure consisted of a homestead site and plenty of small ploughed fields and meadows scattered in islands. By the way, these islands belonged to different owners. Farmers seem to have carried out rotation of farming land plots constantly: one year they did not farm them, farmed other plots of land anew and several years later their returned to the abandoned ones again. Even the homesteads of the farmers were moved from one place to another. There are many hints in the sources about apidėmės (abandoned homestead sites). Because of this mobility of the farms Lithuanian farmers lived in homesteads, and villages were formed around the courtyards of the noblemen only.

Customary order and administrative chaos

In the 13th–15th centuries, Lithuanian Dukes imposed regular tithes and duties on most farmers turning them into their peasants. When the rulers gave peasants to the nobility and the Church in the 15th century, the Lithuanian village turned into a chaos of ownership rights. The State (the Ruler), the Church and the nobility managed not only the land but also the tithes and duties paid by the peasants. The obligatory unit there was naturally formed service. In some places it was made of an individual family only, in other places it was the large family (several branched generations of relatives) and other people who were not relatives but were attributed to the family – sėbrai. It was quite often that peasant services belonging to different owners at the same time formed a single old community of the allod owners with common land-tenure.

The peasants had no close relationship with their masters whom they sometimes gave part of their harvest.

They continued farming individually, used traditional methods and inventory. This procedure was natural for the peasants, but their masters did not approve of it because it did not allow the land of the peasants that belonged to them to be delimited from the lands of the peasants belonging to other owners. Disputes over property often arose and the peasants were involved in them. Sigismund Herberstein who travelled across Lithuania in 1517 noticed that and wrote as follows: “Everyone who has many servants has the right to enter the house of any peasant, do whatever he wants there without fear, seize, damage the things, which are needed in everyday life, even to beat a peasant badly”. Peasants of homesteads were too weak to oppose to this compulsion, and their master lived too far away to help them to defend themselves.

The Church and the nobility, which had larger estates, changed that condition. As far back as the end of the 15th century they created polivarks, in individual cases measured land of the peasants’ farms and demanded tithes and duties according to their size, transferred the peasants to villages. From the beginning of the 16th century the State took the same road. All measures taken, however, did not try to reorganise land-tenure that became established naturally a long time ago. It was only from 1547 that voloks in the Ruler’s lands were started to be gradually measured. The income derived from these lands proved the efficiency of the measure of restructuring this economy. Therefore in 1557, the Volok law, which had to be implemented in all estates of the ruler, was issued.

Economic benefit and cultural traumas

In measuring land in voloks the lands of the Ruler of Lithuania and the State were separated from that of the estates of the Church and the nobility. The lands of the Ruler and the State constituted only 1/3 of the whole fund of the farming land of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The reform did not have to affect the private landowners directly, however, it did affect them.

It hit the small nobility most severely. The plots of land of the peasants of both the Ruler and the nobility were arranged in a mixed way, therefore seeking to increase the efficiency of land the Ruler unilaterally announced about joining the lands of his subordinates into large open fields. Actually this was possible to do only after land-tenure of the nobility or their peasants that was in those fields had been appropriated.

According to the Volok law, land in another place was given as a compensation for the appropriated one. However, most often that land was of a worse quality or in more remote places. Land surveyors most often measured all larger field lands in voloks. If there was a farm of a small nobleman in such a field, the nobleman had to prove that the land belonged to him legally. If noblemen had no documents of land ownership, they left with their land in that field but were treated as Volok peasants only.

Land measuring was followed by a transfer of peasants from the homestead to the volok villages. These two actions changed the landscape of the Lithuanian village. Large open fields cleared off trees and shrubberies, which earlier were rarely seen, revealed themselves. On one edge of the field, more often in the middle, a linear village was established. The village was formed along the road: peasants’ houses were built on one side of the road and outside building were constructed on the other side. Three fields of a similar size stretched behind the gardens and plots of land of the peasant homesteads. The division of the fields was determined by the crop rotation of three phases: spring crops, winter crops and fallow. This system provided for a three-year cycle, winter crops were sown in each field in one year and in the following year summer crops were sown in it, and in the third year the field was left unsown. This is called a three-field system, which, seems to have been developed in small fields in a pre-volok villages too. Each field was made of narrow strips that ran along the field with one or several strips in different places of the field belonging to separate farms of the peasants.

Transferring of peasants to the volok villages was the turning point in Lithuania’s agriculture: the peasants became ploughmen torn away from the forest, the areas of slash-and-burn agriculture decreased in size, duties of the peasants were made uniform and their size became dependant on the area of farming land, sociality of the peasants increased, village self-governance appeared. Simultaneously the importance of the estate in peasants’ life increased. Palivarks (outside buildings of the estate) in which the peasants who received voloks had to do their work duties. The volok law recommended demanding 2-day work (corvee) per week from each volok of the peasants. Stewards of the estate, however, ignored that and at the end of the 16th century they demanded 6-day corvee per week in many places, leaving free only Sunday, which was devoted to God rather than to a peasant.

Upon seeing the benefit of the Volok reform, in the second half of the 16th century the nobility also measured their lands in voloks in many places. The average nobility most often could not follow this example because they failed to come to agreement with the neighbours on exchange of the border lands. But the nobility created palivarks too, most often when the Ruler of the nobleman presented them with land or sold them the land that had already been measured in voloks. The reform of state-owned land changed the private estates too.

Literature: Jerzy Ochmanski, Senoji Lietuva, 1998.

Eugenijus Saviščevas