Who was the “husmann”?


The title “husmann” appear in all the sources we use in  Norwegian genealogy.

The title “husmann” is normally translated into English as cotter or crofter. Looking at definitions of this term found online, I see that the Norwegian cotter’s conditions were a little different from those in other countries.

The featured photo shows a cotter’s place probably situated in Sunndal, Møre og Romsdal. The persons are not known. Photo by Ole J Gravem d.e. Stiftelsen Nordmøre Museum License: CC ShareAlike

As I have used the term “cotter” and the term “cotter’s place – Husmannsplass” in many of my writings, I should perhaps have written this article first.

We may find this term in several sources as husmann, huusmand, pladsemand. This is the man in the family. The wife is normally described as huusmandskone or pladsemandskone. When it is talk about the couple we may find the term pladsefolk/plassefolk. Husmand is sometimes abbreviated to Hmd.

The term strandsitter may be used about cotters living by water.

There has been written several books about the conditions of the husmann so within the scope of this article I have to cover this topic in very general terms.

In short: The “social class” cotter (“Husmann”) was a person who lived on a piece of land that  did not appear as a separate entity in the land register. The owner had to pay the taxes on this land. The cotters rented this land and paid either in money or by working at the farm. Some cotters had land where they could do a little farming and keep a few animals (often a cow for milk). Other cotters had no land and had to rely on some kind of handcrafts to support their family. Cotters are often looked upon as very poor people. Some definitely were, but it is not possible to generalise, because the conditions from one cotter family to the next did vary a lot. There were also big differences from district to district. Cotters who performed some kind of handcrafts e.g. coblers, tailors etc. were able to earn a decent living.

The term Husmann was used as far back as in the late 1200’s. At this time and through the next centuries it referred to a lodger or a person who had no permanent employment and took odd jobs. Husmann could also be used about a man who had retired and was now supported by younger people, often his son or daugther’s family. Finally, husmann could be used about a person who cleared a piece of land and settled there (Prestesæter: 12-13).

These explanations though, are not relevant for the husmann we meet in the Norwegian sources from about 1700 and onward.

To understand the term cotter we need to look at the population growth that started in the early 1700’s

Going back to the middle of the 1300’s and the Black plague, we learn that in this epidemic 50 to 60 % of the population in Norway died (Wikipedia: Svartedauden). It took about 400 years for the population to grow to the number it was before the Black plague struck Norway (Wikipedia: Norges demografi).

There were different ways to meet the needs of the increasing number of households. The farms that were left abandoned during the black plague were inhabitated. There was an extensive cultivating of land that had not earlier been farmed. Some of the new households was provided for by splitting the old farms into smaller farm parts. There is, however, a limit to how small a farm can be and still provide for a household.  The most extensive splitting of farms took place in areas where one could get additional income. This was the situation on the coast where the fisheries provided income. Also in areas adjacent to mines or rich forestries there was an extensive farm splitting (Jones: 38).

Cotters were divided into two cathegories

  • Husmann med jord, i.e. the cotter had land where he could raise a crop and keep animals.
  • Husmann uten jord i.e. the cotter had no land and were dependent of an income from paid work or a handcraft.

The farms reasons for letting someone live as cotters on their land

  • Help out a son/brother to get an income. The oldest son inherited the farm, but another son could get a livelyhood by living as a cotter at the farm.
  • Extra income from rent
    • Monetary. This husmann’s paid money to rent for the land and his conditions were similar to the renter (leilending). He is sometimes called a Bygslingshusmann. If the cotter worked on the landlords farm, he would be paid for this work. This kind of agreements were often found in areas where the cotter had the possibility to earn some money on the side e.g. from or fishing, mining or forestry. Also a cotter who performed a handcraft e.g. tailoring, shoemaking etc. could pay rent for his cotter’s place.
    • Rent paid in natural goods. This is similar to the conditions of the sharecropper.
  • Have the needed seasonal help at hand not having to pay for year-round employed farm hands. Many cotter’s agreements stated that the cotter were to work a defined number of days at certain times of the year. Sometimes the cotter’s children were required to shepherd the landlords animals while they grazed in the forests/mountains.
  • Have more of the land cleared and farmed (rydningshusmann). Some husmenn rented a piece of land that had not previously been cleared. Their first task would be to clear the land and build houses. Most of the agreements stated that the land would go back to the farm when the cotter died. This would slowly increase the cultivated land of the farm. There were also landlords who accepted that the lease of the cotter’s place where handed down to the oldest son of the cotter.
By Benjamin Wegner/Ole Knudsen (Cotter’s agreement for Frognerseteren 1837) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Cotter’s contract

Prior to 1750 the cotters had very little protection in the laws. In 1750 regulations were put in place. These stated that the agreement had to be written. Also the regulations stated that as long as the cotter fulfilled the terms, the contract was valid in the cotter’s lifetime.

These regulations were amended several times (Lokalhistoriewiki).

The cotters agreements differed a lot. Here are some of the most common terms that was defined in these contract.

  • A description of the land (Cotter’s place) with boundaries.
  • A statement about the cotter’s duty to maintain the houses on the cotter’s place.
  • Which and how much of the farms resources the cotter were allowed to use, e.g. wood for building materials and firewood.
  • Grazing of the cotter’s animals on the farm’s outfield.
  • How the rent is paid. In work on the farm, in natural goods or in money (or a combination).

Hopefully this little presentation has helped you get an understanding of the “Husmann’s” condition. Like I have pointed out, their lives varied and it is hard to tell exactly how the life of your ancestor was.

I may come back in a later article and look at the husmenn in particular districts.



Jones, Michael Kulturlandskapets utvikling i Norge : mellomfagskompendium i historisk geografi Trondheim : Geografisk institutt, Universitetet i Trondheim, 1999

Prestesæter, Pål Husmannskontrakter og lovregulering : regulering av avtaleforholdet mellom husmann og gårdbruker 1687 til 1851 – særlig sett i lys av kontraktspraksis fra Toten. Institutt for offentlig rett, Universitetet i Oslo, 1998

Articles from Wikipedia:

Svartedauden https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svartedauden

Norges demografi https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norges_demografi

Lokalhistoriewiki Husmannslovgivningen

5 thoughts on “Who was the “husmann”?

  • September 7, 2018 at 12:45 am

    Fascinating to compare with the English husbandman, and the Northern English and Southern Scottish cottar. See Robert Burns’ poem, ‘The cottar’s Saturday night’. Farmers, even tenant farmers, usually had more social status.

  • November 28, 2018 at 5:17 pm

    This was a very useful article. Thank you. I am researching my ancestors and families in Aadalen and around Norderhov, so was very pleased to have information about the husmenn.
    I have also appreciated your articles on handwriting in the church books, as they are sometimes very hard to decipher!
    A very good resource for English researchers. Many thanks for making these articles available

    • November 28, 2018 at 7:51 pm

      Hello Helen
      Thanks for visiting and for the kind words. This blog is a labor of love and I learn a lot from writing it.

  • February 19, 2019 at 7:42 am

    Fascinating information. My great great-grandfather was a Husmann on the Oppem Farm in Nord Trondelag County (N/E of Trondheim). All four of his sons (the eldest was my great-grandfather) were tailors/cobblers in Norway and then came to Amerika in 1885 and worked as tailors. Family records just say that the brothers received training as tailors in Norway. I suppose that’s as specific of information I’ll find. But are there any sources that explain how a Norwegian who was the son of a Husmann could receive his tailor training? They apparently made enough money to travel 2nd Class accommodations to Amerika. I can only assume they were able to rise up to the Norwegian Middle Class?

  • February 20, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    Hello Matthew

    It was quite common that sons of husmenn learned a trade. They started as apprentices for a master and worked their way up. My G-Grandfather went to the nearest town and was trained as a cobbler. His forefathers was tailors as far back as I know (1780) They were all husmenn.


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