The Peasantry

The condition of the peasants in the duchy should not be viewed in simplistic terms. On the one hand, from the time of the order there was still quite a large stratum of free peasants on the properties of the duke, in addition to which there were many who had been given their freedom by the dukes. On the other hand, the Pacta Subiectionis, the Privilege of Gotthard and especially the 1617 code of Courland law (Statute of Courland) reinforced the lords' power over their peasants. Fugitive peasants were to be returned to the owner, no matter how much time had passed, but the owner had to take care of his peasants, and could not punish a peasant by death without a court sentence. In addition, the peasants of the duke's manors had the right to complain about their lords. In 1622 the diet forbade the peasants from keeping guns, with the exception of manor hunters, whereas a decision of 1638 allowed the peasants to celebrate weddings for two days, while town citizens were permitted to celebrate only one day. And, just as at the present day, the law was often broken. The peasants would celebrate weddings and other festivities much longer than permitted, and maintained illicit practices of their ancestors, in addition to which they often dressed and behaved inappropriately to their social rank.


1. Document on the freeing of a peasant, issued by Duchess Anna. Mitau/Jelgava, 13 November 1584. Parchment. LVVA, Collection 5561, Inventory 4, File 680.

The document certifies that, at the insistent request of Georg Spurre, peasant of Grünhof/Zaļenieki, Anna has freed him and his descendants for all time from manor labour and dues. For this, he must provide about 8.4 kg of honey to the duke's court every year and the same amount of wax, and in case of need must serve as a courier within the borders of the duchy.

2. Document by Duke Frederick. Mitau/Jelgava, 19 August 1609. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 1126.

Duke Gotthard and Anna had already granted Michel Dragen, peasant of Grünhof/Zaļenieki, the status of a free peasant, for which he was to pay a certain sum of money every year and provide the dukes with a rider to accompany him on journeys abroad. Now, at the request of Michel's three sons, Duke Frederick was granting them more land, for which they were to pay 200 marks in money every year and must place two manservants with good horses at the disposal of the duke whenever required.

3. Description of the boundaries of the land of the Dragunen family, approved by Nikolaus Kettler and Johaness Wölcker, secretary of the Goldingen/Kuldīga Court. 7 October 1627. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 1133.

The free peasants Dragunen had purchased a plot of land from Duke Frederick, paying for it with two bulls and about 17 kg of wax. On the instruction of the duke, the officials inspected the land, marked the boundaries and presented it to the Dragunen family.

4. Oath of loyalty for serfs compiled by Wilhelm Moritz von den Brincken, owner of Wensau/Vendzava-Manor, or by his secretary. Circa 1630s. LVVA, Collection 6999, Inventory 39, File 99.

I, N.n., swear before God and His Holy Word and before my honourable master and his children that I do not wish to step outside of this state as a fugitive or give my servant dishonourable hope of fleeing, and should I do so then let God make me wilt like the dry sod on which I stand barefoot, and that my body should so become as dead as the stone I hold under my arm, and that my life should die out like the flame does when I blow out a candle, and that it should run out like water does when I pour it from a jug, so help me gracious God and His Holy Word.

5. Gift document by Friedrich Behr, owner of Schleck/Zlēkas and Laidsen/Laidze Manors. Schleck/Zlēkas, 24 March 1638. LVVA, Collection 1100, Inventory 1, File 42.

In his own name and the name of his wife Emerentzia Benigna, F. Behr grants his servant Werner Wilcken, in gratitude for honourable and diligent service, the serf Jahn Bridack, along with his wife and children. Wilcken and his descendants may dispose of the peasant as they wish: use him for labour, re-settle, mortgage or sell him.

6. Report to Elisabeth Magdalena from Michael Sergest, the duchess' secretary. Schwethof/Svēte, 6/16 April 1638. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 194.

He reports that a judicial investigation has been carried out against a certain Appell and Sile, who had been accused of witchcraft by Ilse Ruters before the latter had been burned at the stake in Bauske/Bauska. The two refused to admit their guilt even after repeated torture. Zīle related that she could cure livestock using salt prepared using magic words and denied that she was doing anything evil. But, since in the view of the judges incantations could be effective only with the help of the Devil, Sile has been burned at the stake. In the case against Appell, it was decided to interrogate the Mesoten/Mežotne innkeeper Ewert, on whom he is said to have cast an illness, subsequently curing him. If Appell is found guilty, he will be burned at the stake, too.

7. “Maiden of Courland”. Circa 1600. Drawing in the memorial album of Johann Hieronymus Rörscheidt. LVVA, Collection 5759, Inventory 2, File 1403.