Bo Fritzbøger: "Thou Shalt Not Steal" Does Not Apply in the Forest:  An Historical Assessment of Eighteenth Century Forest Thievery in Denmark and Sweden

Danish text here

This is a short presentation of one of the participating projects in the nordic project Cultural Processes in Nordic Woodland Communities

In oral historical traditions recorded in the Danish countryside during the late nineteenth century, cunning forest thiefs play a conspicuously prominent role. All available post-1850 evidence, however, indicates that forest thefts no longer formed a prevalent political problem. Hence, the tradition primarily relates to an interpretation of the past (eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries). Interestingly, this motif was almost totally absent from the folklore collected during the same period and published in Sweden, where hundreds of forest thiefs were annually convicted.
 Some scholars feel that the apparently contrasting popular traditions regarding woodland management and property rights in Denmark and Sweden did not only stem from the fact that the quantity, distribution, and utilization of forest resources were dissimilar in the two Scandinavian countries.  Since the seventeenth century, Denmark had been a net timber importer, its own highly fragmented, deciduous forests permitting only a restricted, local supply of fuelwood and minor timber. Sweden, on the other hand, with its abundant coniferous woodlands, consituted one of the world's most prominent early-modern wood producers and exporters. The character and extent of forest thefts as well as the legislation and administration of justice in the two countries was, nevertheless, in general, comparable. The only significant difference seems to be that corporal punishment was a common feature in the feudal Danish society, whereas it seems to have been absent in a rural, Swedish society generally dominated by freeholders.
 Rather than existing in the relatively distant past described by oral tradition, the reason for the different impact of the forest thief motif is found in the present and immediate past of late nineteenth century ethnography.  During the land reform period of the early nineteenth century, Denmark and Sweden experienced two very dissimilar paths of development. In Denmark, previous tenants acquired their farms as freeholds, thus the growing class of cottagers and laborers never suffered poverty to the extreme found in other parts of Europe. In Sweden there was a traditional dominance of freeholds, but there conflict between peasantry and the landless was sharpened. Thus, late nineteenth century Danish peasants with newly acquired property-rights sought to construct a self-image dissociating themselves from the old, recently abandoned feudal order. This objective was, however, relatively irrelevant for a Swedish peasantry dominated for centuries by freeholders, who ardently continued their long-standing struggle against the forest thefts perpetrated by the ever increasing
class of unpropertied.

Bo Fritzbøger
E-mail: Telefon: +45 35 32 82 75 Fax: +45 35 32 82 41
Postaddress: Københavns Universitet, Institut for Historie, Njalsgade, DK-2300 København S

This page was updated on July 11, 2000