Place concepts in Swedish agrarian society, c. 1700–2020
In historical studies of Swedish agrarian society, scholars often use terms such as by (hamlet) and gård (farm) either unproblematised or with a stipulated definition, instead of utilising their contemporary connotations. In this article I turn this around, dealing with the shifting meanings of the term herrgård – literally the gård belonging to a herre (lord or gentleman) – relative to other terms over the course of three centuries, thus observing how people have categorised their surroundings in historical time.
The study shows that herrgård and related concepts were used in the eighteenth century to refer to the defined sum of all buildings used by the same economic unit, but slowly took two separate directions in the nineteenth century so that by the twentieth century it referred to both a farm property in its widest sense, covering all the ground used by the economic unit, and to the main building used as the primary residence. This two-way shift may be considered analogous to the contemporary division between home and workplace.
The study also shows that farm properties, whether seen as built units or areas of land, were linguistically categorised in a variety of ways, and that a binary distinction between normal and better, the latter often expressed as herrgård, successively acquired dominance. This division was more persistent than its causes. In the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth century the better properties were those which attracted tax relief, and the owning of such properties was a formal privilege of the nobility. In the nineteenth century, when the privilege had been abolished, other common characteristics of such properties challenged the causes of the distinction. In the twentieth century, the binary distinction between better and normal had connotations of the past, its denotation being regarded as a historical artefact. At the same time, use of the term herrgård increased and outcompeted its synonyms, raising the possibility that seemingly important contemporary concepts were ex post facto constructions, making this type of study all the more necessary.
Knowing this, we can now look at Swedish agrarian society in a new way, allowing not only scholars’ retrospective construction, but also contemporary views to guide our understanding first of spatial organisation then of other aspects of society.