The Manorial System

The villages in which our ancestors lived in Lusatia were sites of manors.  These manors, or landed-estates, were in possession of noblemen for many generations.

The manorial system in Lusatia began as soon as the Sorbs lost their independence.  Armed attacks against the Sorbs started in 806 under Charles the Great (Charlemagne) of the Franks and were continued by the Saxon emperors, Henry the Fowler, Otto I, Otto II and Otto III.  Between 990 and 1000, the last Sorbian tribe, the Milceni in Upper Lusatia, was completely subjugated.  Some of the Slavic tribes toward the north were not subjugated for another 100 years.  Over the years, the German rulers rewarded their military leaders and upper noblemen with large areas of land.  Land of the nature was called a “fief” Lehen (Lehengut) and the person who held such land was referred to as a dominus, Latin for “lord,” in German, Herr.  In Prussia they were later referred to as Junker.  This lord was a vassal that owed his allegiance to the ruler and, among other things, paid tribute, served in the military when required, and furnished soldiers from his fiefdom in time of war.

The fiefdom of one such vassal was Gau MilscaGau in German means district and Milsca is the original Latin form of Milceni, the name of the Sorbian tribe that inhabited the area around Bautzen in Upper Lusatia.  In German, the land around Bautzen is often referred to as Milznerland.  To the north, in Lower Lusatia, the name of the tribe was Luzici.  It is from this tribe that Lusatia received its name.

This fief or vassal brought knights (Ritter) and lessor noblemen to the Bautzen area to take over the Sorbian villages.  The surface surrounding these villages provided the land for the manors, collectively called Herrengüter or landed-estates, of the lords.  There were some villages that were the seats of more than one manor, such as, Hochkirch and Pommritz.  Some of the knights and noblemen were of Slavic origin and fought against their own people.  The vassal that held Gau Milsca lived in Bautzen and reserved some of the villages or manors for the City of Bautzen.  Others were given to the cathedral in Bautzen, clergymen, to parishes, to noblemen, to knights, etc.  In the area east and northeast of Bautzen at the beginning nearly all manors belonged to knights, hence they were called Rittergüter (singular, “Rittergut”), that is, knights’ manors.

Soon after the Germans conquered the Slavic lands, the German Drang nach Osten (surge toward the east) began.  German settlers came from the west, the Rhineland, Flanders, the Netherlands, Swabia, Württemberg, Franconia, etc., to clear land for new manors.  There was an oversupply of rural people in the west and it was relatively easy to persuade them to go east.  It was similar to the “go west, young man,” westward movement, in America.  This expansion to the east lasted for many centuries.  It took waves of settlers, in varying numbers, to all of eastern Germany, Poland and territory now held by Russia.  Wiprecht von Groitzsch, a renegade Wend, who around 1100 ruled much of the territory the Germans took from the Sorbs, including the western Sorbs, brought settlers from Franconia and the eastern part of the Province of Saxony; however, these were settled in the region around Meissen, a considerable distance to the west  of Bautzen.   German colonization of  Upper Lusatia appears to have started in the 12th century.  It could not have started much before than that, because there are no records of German place names in the area until around 1200.  Most of the first colonists settled in the extreme southern part of Upper Lusatia, in the wooded areas not yet cleared.  However, settlers were also brought to the Old Sorbian area to the north.  These settlers, for the most part, were assimilated into the Sorbian population, because the language and customs remained Sorbian for centuries.  Also, some of the noblemen came from Bohemia, and some historians believe that these were less inclined toward Germanization of their Sorbian subjects than those from the west.

After the Thirty Years War many refugees or exiles, called Exulanten in German, came to the Protestant part of Lusatia after being banished from Catholic lands in the east.  These were also absorbed into the Sorbian population.

Manors were agricultural administrative units and had their own courts for dealing with lessor offenses and settling inheritances.  They were self-sufficient estates.  The size of these estates and the number of people who lived on them varied greatly.  The nobleman or his caretaker (many noblemen owned several manors) lived in the largest house of the manor.  The house usually had a large hall which served as a meeting place to handle administrative and judicial matters.  Most of the land of a manor was the lord’s demesne.  A small part of the arable land was held by peasants or tenants, who lived in the smaller dwellings surrounding the manor house.  Some of these houses were mere huts, Buden, in German.

In feudal times our ancestors were known as serfs, in German, Leibeigene, that is, people living in bondage.  Serfs were a servile feudal class, bound to the soil and subject to the will of their lord.  This agricultural economic system existed throughout eastern Germany and many other places of Europe.  People living under this system were, for the most part, midway between freemen and slaves.  They were patrimonial or hereditary tenants and their children had the same status as their parents.  They could own some property, such, as a house and some land, but they were subject to perform compulsory labor on the lord’s demesne and pay certain rents and fees.  Even though they were subject to their lord, they were free in legal relations to other peasants.

Peasants with land were ranked according to the amount of land they held within the manor.  The “hide,” in German, Hufe (also Hube), was employed for determining some of the ranks.  Generally, especially from the beginning, a hide of land was supposed to support a family.  A few were known as Hüfner, peasants who owned a hide of land, also known as, Bauer or Ganzbauer, farmers or full farmers.  Others were known as Halbhüfner, owners of a half of a hide of land, or Halbbauer, literally, half-farmers.  Then there was the Gärtner, which translates “gardener,” but actually was a peasant who owned about a quarter of a hide of land.  Last was the Häusler, a cotter, or cottager, which sounds better.  A cottager owned a small house and perhaps a small amount of land for gardening.  There were also ranks between these, too numerous and complicated to mention here.  Most of the Häusler, Gärtner, and Halbbauer followed a trade, such as, blacksmith, tailor, miller, carpenter, etc.  For instance, F. Jacob Moerbe was a Gärtner by rank and a tailor (Schneider in German and Krawc in Sorbian) by trade.

One thing that is hard to establish is the size of a hide of land.  The size varied according to the charter that was in effect in the area in which the manor was located.  In the Bautzen area a Wendish hide was 30 Scheffeln.  A Scheffel is a measurement similar to a bushel but was also employed in measurement of land.  A German hide was 40 Scheffeln.  It appears that the Sorbs had to be satisfied with smaller hides while the German settlers had to be given an incentive to come to the east.  Perhaps the noblemen determined that the Wends did not need as much to eat as the Germans.  Eventually, the productivity of the land played a much larger role in establishing the size of a hide.  A Saxon Scheffel, also called a Morgen, equalled .6834 acres, so that a Wendish hide equaled 20.5 acres, while a German hide equaled 27.34 acres.  In Prussia, a Morgen equalled .6305 acres, so that a Wendish hide was 19.05 acres, while a German hide was 25.4 acres.  In villages northeast of Bautzen, the “biggest” farmers on some of the manors had only one-half of a hide of land.  For instance, in 1750 there were five Halbhüfner at Baruth: Mietasch, Riech, Priebsch, Jurack and Mörwe (Moerbe).   Each one of these owned about 10 to 14 acres of land.   All the rest of the peasants owned less land.

As a rule, the method of farming used on manors in the Bautzen area was the three field system.  Arable land was divided into three large open fields.  Each year one field lay fallow, while the other two were cultivated.  The peasants’ land was distributed in “strips” throughout the three fields, alongside the land owned by the lord.  This system of crop rotation provided a defense against soil exhaustion.

Each smallholder had so-called “rights of common” in the pasture, meadow, woodland and wasteland of the manor, in proportion to the amount of land he held in the open fields.  A certain number of each tenant’s animals could pasture with the common herd on the wastelands, the fallow and on the stubble, after the crops had been harvested.  In the woodland he could collect brush and fallen trees for fuel and he was entitled to a share of hay from the meadows.

Peasants were required to perform servile or compulsory labor and services.  In German this is called Fronarbeit or Frondienst.  The Wends used the Slavic robota for it, that is, “forced labor.”  The English word “robot” comes from robota.  The type of work or services varied greatly and was tied to the property held by the peasant, not to the person.  Those peasants who did not have much land and no draft animals had to do hand labor.  Those who had draft animals, mostly oxen, were required to use them on the lord’s demesne.  The lord’s land was the first to be plowed, sowed and harvested.  This is why some of the peasants at times worked at night, when they and their animals were about to collapse.  A peasant was permitted to hire someone else to work in his place but most peasants could not afford to do this.

Manors also had peasants referred to as Gesinde (domestics, menials, laborers, etc.).  At Gröditz and many other manors these people lived above the barns in which the cattle were kept.  They were the lowest class on the manor and often lived in rank poverty.  They were the first to suffer in times of drought and crop failures.

Besides servile labor, there were also a host of rents or fees that had to be paid to the lord.  If a person wanted to marry and move to another manor a fee had to be paid.  When a peasant died there was either a fee to be paid or the lord could take an animal instead.  These rents or fees varied a great deal from one manor to the next.  It was not unusual for noblemen to live above their means.  To supplement their income, portions of the harvest of peasants were taken away by the lords or the amounts of fees, rents, etc., were increased.

The way peasants were treated by their masters varied greatly.  There were some lords who treated their subjects with relative fairness.  But there were also many peasants who were mistreated and, for the most part, were mere slaves.  There were a number of instances in Upper Lusatia when peasants staged uprisings.  One such uprising occurred in 1794, when the elector of Saxony ordered  that peasants had to perform servile labor on a religious holiday.  The peasants living in the parishes of Hochkirch, Gröditz, Nostitz, Malschwitz, Klix, Königswartha and Lohsa refused to work on 25 March, Feast of Annunciation, and the elector, after considering the outburst of resistance, reneged.  In other instances, peasants went after the lord with pitchforks, etc., but usually, the militia from Bautzen was called out and the rebellions were squelched.

Serfdom in Prussia was abolished in 1807.  The abolition in Saxony came in 1832, one of the last regions to abolish serfdom.  In the Saxon part of Upper Lusatia, it took another seven years before the final covenant was consummated to repeal servile hand labor and compulsory labor with draft animals.  It took another nine years before the final agreement was reached between the nobleman and residence of Guttau.  And even then, he wanted redemption payments over a 55 year period.  Because of conditions like these, many peasants left Lusatia for the cities,  even though it was illegal to leave.  Under the new economic (market or capitalistic) system there was an oversupply of farm laborers.  Many people had too little land to support their families and were forced to sell and seek their fortunes elsewhere.  The new system, together with the revolution of 1848, had a huge impact on the Wends.  It was a time of much unrest and dissatisfaction.  Because of this impact, plus a desire for religious freedom, many decided to migrate to Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United States and elsewhere.  It is estimated that between 1850 and 1859, 976,000 people from Germany arrived in the United States.  Of these, 215,000 arrived in 1854, the year of the large Wendish immigration to Texas.

As time went on, large landowners continued to increase their landholdings in the Bautzen area and elsewhere.  Many people, who remained in the villages after serfdom was abolished, did not have enough land to eke out a decent living and were forced to sell their property, usually to these large landowners, and move to the large cities or overseas.  The family of Count Schall-Riaucour eventually owned most of the land around Guttau, Brösa, Gleina and Wartha.  Their holdings in the County of Bautzen alone amounted to 3433 hectares or about 8500 acres.  This may not seem all that large according to American standards, but to landpoor Germany, it is extremely large.  There were other landholdings around Bautzen larger than that.  Many of the rural people, who remained in Upper Lusatia, worked on these large agricultural holdings, often for meager wages, until the end of World War II.

Then, in 1946, came the land reform of the communistic regime, which again affected the poor rural Wends.  The large landowners were dispossessed.  Their land, together with the small parcels of land owned by the peasant class, was pooled to form LPGs, which stands for Landwirtschaftliche Produktions Genossenschaften (agricultural production collectives).  Private ownership, as we know it, was abolished.  These LPGs varied in size and utility.  Some were devoted to wheat, rye and/or potato production.  Others were large dairy, beef or hog farms.  These collectives used large-scale farm machinery.  However, the production on these collectives was not nearly as good as was expected.  For one thing, there was a lack of crop rotation.  Land eroded because many of the fences and hedgerows were removed in favor of large open fields, many on rolling hills.  Manure was piled up at dairy, beef and hog collectives that should have been spread on the land.  Some East Germans just shrugged when this was pointed out.  Others said that every decision appeared to get hung up in bureaucratic red tape.  There must have been poor management, because the small west German farmers produced more per hectare than the East German collectives did.  (A hectare of land is 2.47 acres)

First the Wends lost their independence.  Then, most of their farm land was given to land-hungry noblemen.  Over the centuries what little land the individual Wends held was always subject to be taken away by their masters.  When they finally gained their freedom, the people’s landholdings were so small that many were forced to sell them for economic reasons.  Then, what little land they had at the end of World War II was placed in state-owned agricultural collectives.

The LPGs, formerly controlled by the East German government, for the most part, have been taken over by the employees who operated them before the unification of the two Germanys in 1990.  For the purpose of operating these former collectives they have formed private companies.  How this arrangement will work out remains to be seen.  Some people were able to reclaim the land they owned before the communists took over, but since they were unable to buy the machinery to operate the land they simply leased it back to the private companies.

Manorial estates in the County of Bautzen as of 1832  are shown on Map I.  This map also indicates the ownership or jurisdiction of each manor.


1 Wendish Hufe (hide) = 30 Morgen

1 Morgen = 27.67 AR (ARE) or 2767 square meters

1 ARE = 10 meters X 10 meters or 100 square meters

1 Hektar (hectare) = 100 AR (ARE)

30 Morgen = 83,010 square meters (1 Hufe or hide)

83,010 divided by 10,000 = 8.301 Hektar (hectare) (1 Wendish Hufe or hide)

1 Hektar (hectare) = 2.47 acres

1 Wendish Hufe (hide) = 20.50 acres

1 German Hufe (hide) = 40 Morgen

40 Morgen = 110,680 square meters

40 Morgen = 11.068 Hektar (hectare)

11.068 Hektar (hectare) X 2.47 = 27.34 acres

A Saxon Scheffel or Morgen was 0.2767118 Hektar (hectare)

30 Morgen = 8.30 Hektar (hectare)

8.30 Hektar (hectare) X 2.47 = 20.50 acres

40 Morgen = 11.07 Hektar (hectare)

11.07 Hektar (hectare) X 2.47 = 27.34 acres


1 ARE equals 100 Square Meters

Square Meters times 10.764 equals Square Feet.

Square Feet divided by 43560 equals Acreage Equivalent

Are    Sq. Meters          Sq. Ft.     Acre Equiv.

Baden           36.00     3600      38750      .8896

Bavaria          34.07     3407      36673      .8419

Hannover        26.21     2621      28212      .6477

Prussia          25.53     2553      27480      .6309

Saxony          27.67     2767      29784      .3837

Württemberg     31.52      3152      33928       .3789

The following is widely accepted: A MORGEN is a measure of land with local variation from 0.06 to 0.09 acres.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *