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Violating conjugal norms could have cost one their head in the 18th century

Engraving depicting Estonian peasantry in the 19th century.
Engraving depicting Estonian peasantry in the 19th century. Source: Estonica

While people often prefer not to register their cohabitation these days, marriage and weddings occupied a prominent position in Estonian folk culture. Wealthier peasants' wedding celebrations spanned a week, while violating conjugal norms could earn one a beheading, Merili Metsvahi, assistant professor of Estonian and comparative folklore at the University of Tartu, said.

"Historians have written about laws and regulations, while real life has taken a back seat. We can study the latter using descriptions of peasant customs and folklore," Metsvahi explained. She added that the peasantry considered nuptial celebrations and paying suit more important than church weddings. Swedish church law that regulated cohabitation and other walks of life concentrated on the engagement and wedding.

Suitors and night visits

Paying suit consisted of three parts in the 18th century. The first was a visit by a matchmaker who tried to get a feel for whether the master's daughter or daughters were interested in suitors. The second visit was by the suitor himself for whom it was customary to bring vodka. "The young man then spent the night with the girl, which did not mean intimate contact. They simply slept together in the same bed," Metsvahi said.

These courting customs baffled members of the clergy. Põltsamaa minister August Wilhelm Hupel, who is among the most prolific sources of peasant customs in the 18th century, described the ritual of spending the night as incomprehensible.

The third visit was again by the suitor and was often immediately followed by the engagement. Metsvahi points out that suitors often used allegory when courting, for example, asking whether a lost animal or bird's tracks led to the girl's farm.

Paying suit followed so-called night visits (ehalkäimine). The practice saw young men in the village meet on Saturday and go all over the village. "Every outbuilding had a girl waiting for one of the boys who knew the young men were out that night. The girl had to decide whether to let the boy in or not. This first acquaintance was verbal, while it also included an element of lying on the bed together. The boys gathered again before dawn and went home," Metsvahi described.

The second stage saw the boys go out alone and in secret. "Those visits were more specific, the young man promised to marry the girl and the youngsters spent the night together," she said. Boys from neighboring villages would also try to visit girls and had to be warded off by the locals. Young people had to have undergone confirmation before they could partake in night visits.

Rift between church law and everyday reality

Even though church law provided the general framework, there were many things it did not regulate. "The peasant customs of Estonia and Livonia were characterized by the importance attached to weddings and wedding rituals and their long duration," the assistant professor said. Metsvahi added that most wedding celebrations took place in November and December when people still had enough food.

Orders and regulations concerning all social groups were read out in church. This included rules for weddings, such as how much alcohol can be consumed and how many alms the bride can give. "Members of the peasantry sometimes burst out laughing when the regulations were read aloud that demonstrated the gap between official guidelines and real life," Metsvahi described.

Between paying suit and the wedding celebration, couples had to be wed in church that required them to know the catechism. "Peasants often had trouble in this regard, with the bride and groom unable to understand everything the minister said."

Peasant weddings were colorful and drew interest from the outside. "It is known that the king of Sweden visited peasant weddings as a spectacle to behold. Every element had a symbolic meaning. For example, weddings songs were very important," the researcher said. She added that wedding rituals were rather centered on the bride for whom it was the most important day of her life and something she had been preparing for her whole life.

The local Baltic German landlords had their own rules and affected the lives of the peasantry perhaps even more than church law. The activity of the landlord considerably influenced the number of nature of marriages.

Violations punishable by the death penalty

It was a widespread practice among farmers for a widowed man to wed his former wife's sister. "This was not to the church's liking. Having a sexual relationship with one's sister-in-law before marriage could have even earned one the death penalty. The latter also applied in cases where foster parents developed sexual relations with a foster child. Beheading was the preferred mode of execution, with the body later burned on the stake. The punishment remained in use until the end of the 18th century," Metsvahi commented.

A widowed man had to wait six months before they could get married again, while a woman had to wait a year. Metsvahi said that the rule was broken quite often. The search for a new spouse became especially frantic when the widow had underage children.

Divorce was a complicated process that peasants did not wish to go through. This meant that separations were usually not made official. Punishments for adultery were quite mild in the 18th century. "The punishment for working on a Sunday could have been worse than that ordered for adultery," the assistant professor said.

The paper was published in the Nordost-Archiv: Zeitschrift für Regionalgeschichte magazine.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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