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Social Decline

In general, a high status offered protection against at least dramatic social decline, which was the main concern for noble and entrepreneurial dynasties. As we have seen earlier, just 9 per cent of the members of noble families in Sweden experienced social decline (von Willebrand 1932, 147-57). It is impossible to estimate the corresponding proportion for clerical families, but as far as we know social fall was not common. I focus here on the Wegelius family to elaborate the dynamics of this decline from generation to generation.

At the same time as many of the first Henrik’s descendants were building their own solid clerical line, some other relations were creating a genealogical history of an entirely different kind. The ancestor of one such line was Johannes (1708-55), the first Henrik’s (1672-1719) younger son, who entered the priesthood, as did his elder brother, the second Henrik (1707-80) (Wegelius 2001, 128). In the second generation, then, we again have two brothers named Henrik and Johannes. Professionally, their life careers followed a similar pattern: both were priests, although Henrik was a vicar and Johannes a vicar’s assistant, which meant that his was a lower status in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. They also settled in parishes that were far away from their original home parish in the Bothnia province. Otherwise their lives took very different paths.

Johannes, who moved to Tohmajarvi, a parish in North Karelia, Finland’s most peripheral eastern corner, ran into serious trouble as Russian troops invaded North Karelia in 1742 (‘Lesser Hate’). His house was burned down and his property destroyed. Since then the family lived in poverty, which was further deepened by Johannes’s premature death at the age of 47. Henrik, the more fortunate brother, was ordained vicar in Sodankyla, a Lappish parish, which was even more remote and peripheral. However, Henrik did not remain there all his life, but moved southwards to Mikkeli, a small town in south-eastern Finland. Before that, he schooled his six sons all by himself to secure their admission to university. This kind of private schooling was common in the eighteenth century: over half of the boys who entered higher schools had been educated by their fathers or tutors, a convenient opportunity for fathers who lived in localities far from gymnasia, trivial and cathedral schools, which numbered no more than five in total in eighteenth-century Finland (Wirilander 1974, 458-9). In contrast to Henrik, his brother Johannes stayed in his peripheral parish. Moreover, he did not educate his sons; neither did he send them to gymnasium, even though he lived long enough to be able to school two of his eldest sons. The editor of the family’s social genealogy refers to unfavourable conditions, albeit in a roundabout way, when describing the fate of Johannes’s branch. He states that due to the circumstances, the Tohmajarvi branch merged into the local rank and file (Wegelius 2001, 69).

Johannes’s different life course, though originally almost identical to his brother’s, had fatal consequences for his children—or so we can assume after studying the heyday of the family’s most clerical lineage. While three of the more fortunate of Henrik’s six sons joined the priesthood (the three other sons chose other professions, but they remained unmarried), Johannes’s three surviving sons made entirely different choices. Two sons, Johan (1737-1805) and Arvid (1742-1810), became smallholders, whereas the third son Gabriel (1746-90) earned his living as a parish clerk, but remained unmarried. So, Johan and Arvid merged into the mass of smallholders, from which the priests in Henrik’s clerical line kept themselves apart, at least as far as marriages were concerned. Johan and Arvid, the two farmers, married daughters of local farmers, their social equals. They and their descendants mostly continued to live in Tohmajarvi, where Johannes had once arrived to serve the parish as a vicar’s assistant. Their decision to remain in their locality was the same choice that had been made by the two Jarnefelt brothers, who pushed their noble family onto a path of social decline. The Jarnefelts and their descendants in three successive generations stayed in the Savolax Regiment, where they adhered to a bastardy-prone social enclave. It was quite common for clergymen to remain in the same locality, which increased the tendency to marry relatives. This, in turn, increased the propensity of feeble-mindedness and drunkenness and, as a result, social downgrading, as Suolahti (1919, 20-1) dramatically interprets the drawbacks of remaining in the same locality for generations. Unfortunately, he offers no statistical evidence on the incidence of this.

Johan and Arvid Wegelius’s entry into the peasantry marked the first step on their road to social decline, which deepened in the next generation. Johan’s only son and Arvid’s three sons became lodgers, in other words, they were relegated from the peasantry, the Fourth Estate, to the growing social segment of the landless population. There was one exception to this tendency, Arvid’s youngest son Karl (1783-1841). He lived as a house son-in-law in his wife’s parents’ house, but then after acquiring the farmhouse in his possession elevated himself back to his father’s freeholder status. Three surviving sons from this marriage held to the same status, as did their sons. Karl’s branch was thus like a revived peasant branch of the Uppa family. The descendants of Karl’s brothers in the next generation earned their living as tenants, crofters, lodgers or farmhands, but they also moved from one position to another during their lifetime, indicating that tenants, crofters, lodgers and farmhands were socially close to one another.

There were two other branches in the Wegelius family that faced similar extensive downward mobility. Both of these branches were downgraded from the peasantry to landless tenants, crofters, lodgers or farmhands. Their social fall started in the late eighteenth century, whereas for the said Johan and Arvid decline began one generation earlier, in the mideighteenth century. In all these cases the sons who became smallholders spent their childhood in very clerical families: both father and brothers were priests. Social decline from the peasantry took place in the next generation or the next after that: with one exception, the sons of smallholders became tenants, crofters, lodgers or farmhands. These kinds of findings warrant the conclusion that entry into the peasantry or another lower occupation such as a parish clerk in a family where the father and other sons persevered in the clerical profession in compliance with the family tradition had fatal consequences for the descendants.

One external mark of social decline was the lack of schooling. Once that materialized, it would fatally direct the sons’ life courses in later generations. Marriage to an uneducated woman worsened the situation and made it extremely difficult to break out of such a downward cycle. This is clearly demonstrated by the statistics: only 1 per cent of university students as late as 1870 came from tenant families (Wirilander 1974, 355). As to Tohmajarvi, the North Karelian parish where the said vicar’s assistant Johannes’s descendants lived as tenants, crofters, lodgers and farmhands in the nineteenth century, only one tenant entered university between 1810 and 1867 (Waris 1940, 270). The statistics do not tell us his name, but he was certainly not a Wegelius. Kustavi, the home parish of the Abrahamssons, whom we met in Chap. 4 when discussing local entrepreneurial dynasties, was no different from Tohmajarvi: only one student from Kustavi between 1810 and 1867 was a craftsman’s or a peasant’s son (Waris 1940, 265).

Just as no Wegelius in tenant, crofter, lodger and farmhand branches produced a priest, so no son married a priest’s daughter; neither did any daughter marry a priest. However, most tenants, crofters, lodgers and farmhands in these Wegelius branches married peasants’ daughters, whereas daughters, whether they were daughters of peasants, tenants, crofters, lodgers or farmhands, tended to marry not peasants but tenants, crofters, lodgers or farmhands. This difference between sons and daughters was quite systematic. It was possibly due to the same factor as in noble families: the bearers of the family name benefited more from their nobility than noblewomen, who in other respects too were dynasti- cally inferior to noblemen. The family name was a sign of status more for men than it was for women who, when they got married, married into someone else’s family.

Furthermore, mixed marriages between tenants, crofters, lodgers and farmhands as well as the fact that men were alternatively tenants, crofters, lodgers or farmhands, even during their lifetime, indicate that landless rural people were not very distinctly ranked (see also Alapuro 1994, 147-8). Landlessness in the context of agriculture was least esteemed because the extent of landed property determined one’s status. In this kind of status hierarchy, landless people were ranked lowest. Based on an examination of marriages, we can conclude that smallholders were part of this landless social segment. This was true more generally as well: smallholders who owned a small plot of land stood in the margins of the peasantry, just a step away from the landless population (Jutikkala 1958, 171, 273). In the upper echelons of the peasant status hierarchy there was also a degree of elasticity to the range of status equivalence: mixed marriages were quite common between middle-ranking peasants and high- ranking rusthall peasants, but the size of the estate decided who married whom. The rusthall peasants with the largest landed property were most endogamous: the Aijala rusthall peasants with large estates in southern Finland are a case in point (Alhopuro 2010). Two-thirds of their marriages were contracted among rusthall peasants, while only one-third of the owners of smaller rusthall estates married rusthall peasants. Marriages thus materialized at both ends of the status groups: those who belonged to the combined entity of lower ranks and those who formed the combined whole of higher ranks in the peasantry.

Once the train of social decline had started moving, the lowered status of the man in the family usually affected the whole family’s status, making it socially coherent. But even clerics’ daughters could start the process: this would happen when they married clearly beneath their birth family’s status, or if they gave birth to an out-of-wedlock child. In the family of Chaplain Edvard Swan (Arjava 2010, 254-9), who was married to Charlotta Wegelius, the said Vicar Jacob Wegelius’s daughter, the eldest daughter Susanne married a soldier sometime in the 1850s. This happened against his father’s will. The groom candidate was rejected by her family, apparently because of his low status, but also because of his irregular way of life and drunkenness. He did not support his family, into which ten children were born. Three children died in infancy; the rest became workers, servants or journeymen. Besides, one of them was sentenced to life imprisonment. As in many other similar cases, the children’s status was determined by the father’s status, in this particular family the soldier’s low status, which was further lowered by his irregular life. In this situation the wife’s higher family background was of little consequence. The social genealogy sheds no light on the lives of Susanne’s descendants, whereas her brothers’ and sisters’ lives are followed in successive generations. Susanne remained in contact with her brother Gustaf by letters, in which she deplored her miserable destiny, but also reminisced wistfully about their happy youth in their father’s parsonage.

In his letter to his son-in-law, Chaplain Johan Stenback (1809-61), Vicar Jacob Wegelius confesses that heavy drinking has been a curse in the Wegelius family (Arjava 2010, 167-8). He tells of this in order to warn his son-in-law against drinking too much, as he had done to the disappointment of his new family. Jacob had himself set limits to his own daily drinking, though his limits, three to four drinks a day, seem quite high by today’s standards. No out-of-wedlock children are recorded for the Wegelius clerical families. By contrast, the declining branches of many members had out-of-wedlock children, typically in tenant, crofter, lodger and farmhand families. And women, too, bore illegitimate children. For instance, lodger Johan (1776-1823) had three surviving daughters, all of whom bore out-of-wedlock children. The eldest, Elin (b. 1812), who was a servant, married a farmhand. Their marriage was childless, but after her husband’s death Elin bore two children, who were given the surname of Vigelius. Maja (1815-79) remained unmarried but bore a son, who was given the surname of Wigelius. Anna (1818-49) also remained unmarried and had a daughter, who bore Vigelius as her surname. Name changes were not uncommon when single mothers were of higher social origin or, as in these particular cases, related to a respectable clerical family. To avoid damaging the family name, the wish was that the child’s surname be changed. Most commonly, however, because out-ofwedlock children were borne by single mothers of humble origin, these children bore their mother’s surname. All in all, in three generations, when social fall reached its nadir, that is, in the nineteenth century, 40 per cent of the children died in infancy, 20 per cent remained unmarried and 40 per cent got married. All these figures are close to those counted for the two branches of the Jarnefelt noble family that faced social fall.

Finally, we have the question of the heyday of the branches that faced social decline. If we consider the growing number of family members in the same occupation in successive generations, the heyday would have started in the fourth generation, when their number increased to seven. But clearly, seven tenants, crofters, lodgers and farmhands is different from seven priests or councillors. The plain truth is that the family’s possible rise to its heyday was ultimately determined by status. Moreover, the downgraded branches also lacked other characteristics that I identify with the family’s heyday: there were no cousin marriages (as also reported by Kuper 2009, 18), and no marriages into higher-ranking families, not to say noble families. The insurmountable effects of the status hierarchy also separated members of downgraded branches from their related priests, playing down the influence of genealogical proximity and socially mixed cousin marriages. It is clear from exclusions of this kind that status equivalence very much determined the composition of social circles, to some extent even within a family. The lodgers Johan, Arvid, Karl and another Johan were the second cousins of the said Vicar Jakob Wegelius, the protagonist of the Wegelius family chronicle, but there is no mention of interaction between him and these four second cousins. Even the lodgers’ names are absent from the book. Moreover, Jacob’s correspondence, which is held in the National Archives, includes no letters to these second cousins (Arjava’s interview). On the other hand there was lively i nteraction between other Wegelius second cousins, as attested by the marriages contracted between second cousins.

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