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Norwegian farms - some background information

by John Follesdal


    As you search for your ancestors in various Norwegian records, you will soon find yourself focusing on specific farming communities in the rural areas of Norway. The reason for this is quite simple: Norway's population has historically lived in rural areas. One historian has estimated that in 1801 approximately 80 - 90% of the Norwegian population lived in rural areas. While the percentage of farmers decreased over the following decades, farmers still constituted 75% of Norway's population in 1865. [1]  Thus, even if you find that your ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. lived in a city when they left Norway, chances are pretty good that their parents or grandparents lived on a farm.
    Fortunately, researching Norwegian ancestors in farming communities is fairly easy: almost all rural communities in Norway have published a bygdebok. (See my article on bygdebøker). These books contain a treasure trove of genealogy information and are fairly easy to use even if you do not speak Norwegian.  Once you have read my article on bygdebøker, you should be able to read the portions of a bygdebok that pertain to your family without too much difficulty as long as you have a good Norwegian-English dictionary. (I would recommend Einar Haugen's dictionary, probably the best Norwegian-English dictionary currently available.  You can purchase this from your local bookstore or through the  Ancestors from Norway bookstore.  You can also print out a copy of my Norwegian-English dictionary to use as a supplement to Einar Haugen's dictionary). Unfortunately there are some words in bygdebooks, probate records and other sources that dictionary definitions fail to explain adequately: landskyld, matrikkel, jorddrotte, leilending, husmann, and strandsitter are some examples. I have therefore decided to include this article on my web site in order to provide a more in depth discussion of these words.

The leilending (tenant farmer)

    In the middle ages almost all Norwegian farm land was owned by the king, the church, and a few wealthy land owners. The church, for example, received considerable real estate as gifts in return for agreeing to provide a requiem mass in the memory of the donor. In an article on the medieval history of Nordnes (near Bergen), Helen Ravnanger provides an example of such church ownership:
As far as we can determine, the Munkeliv monastery was the wealthiest monastery in Norway in the high middle ages. Torward the latter part of the 1100's the monastery owned 97 farms in the western part of Norway. During the middle ages its land holdings increased such that in 1427 the monastery owned 330 farms, most of these in the western part of Norway. By European standards this was a relatively small holding, one could say almost poor, but by Norwegian standards it was a substantial land holding. Most of the income from these farms ended up in Bergen [where the monastery was located].[2].
    The income that Helen Ravnanger discusses in her article was called landskyld. It originated in the late Viking ages to the early Middle ages and referred to the yearly payment that a leilending (a tenant farmer) would pay to the jorddrotte (a land owner who leased out his land to tenant farmers). The word leilending is made up of two words: the verb leie (to rent) and the noun land (land). The word jorddrotte, i.e., the landlord, is made up of the two nouns jord (soil) and drotte (king or chieftain). The term landskyld is also made up of two nouns: land (land) and skyld (a fee).  In bygdebøker and other sources the word landskyld is often abbreviated as landsk. while the word leilending is often abbreviated L.  (Note: the abbreviation l. (lower case l), on the other hand, is frequently used to refer to the old measurement laup).
    The landskyld was payable in goods that the tenant farmer produced on the farm, i.e., cow hides, butter, fish, etc., and historians believe that the landskyld was originally set at 1/6th of the gross annual production of the farm. (It is important to keep in mind that the landskyld was based on the productivity of a farm and not directly on the size of the farm.  It is generally not possible to calculate the size of a farm simply by using the landskyld). Historians have not been able to establish with certainty the exact date that the landskyld system first came into use, but they do know that the system was mentioned in King Magnus Lagabøte's law from1274.
    Originally farms would be leased out under the landskyld system for one year at a time. Later on the term of the leases increased to three years. This did not mean that a tenant farmer would have to move every three years: it simply meant that the landlord had the right to take the farm back at the end of the lease term. In addition to the yearly landskyld a tenant farmer also had to pay a fee for førstebygsel ved brukerskifte (an additional fee each time a new tenant farmer took over a farm), and a tredjeårstake (a fee for renewing the lease every three years).
    By using my Norwegian-English dictionary you should now be able to figure out what the following sentence from a bygdebok means: Landskylda var i 1626 1 l. 21/2 pd. smør og 1 sau. [3].

The selveier

    The concentration of land ownership in Norway did not last long.  In the century following the Black Death, the landskyld decreased sharply due to market forces and both the king and the church began to sell their land holdings to maintain their income.  As one bygdebok author has noted:
Then came the Black Death in 1350. Perhaps 2/3 of the population in Norway died. Later on, in the 1300's and 1400's there were other plagues, so the population didn't really recover. But the farms lay there, abandoned. Most probably, those who survived moved onto the best farms in the center of their communities..... The result of this was that the land owners had to decrease the landskyld in order to rent out the farms. It has been established that the landskyld in Gudbrandsdalen in 1430 had decreased to a point where it was only 17% of the old landskyld, and that it decreased even further down to 13% around the year 1500. It remained at that level until the 1600's. This decrease in income to the landowners, the nobility, and the church, is perhaps the most important explanation as to why Norway was almost a province under Denmark for such a long time period - there was no economic base for a separate Norwegian governmental system. [4].
    By 1660 the king and the church had sold off a great deal of its land holdings, and in southern Norway, for example, almost a fifth of the land was owned by individual farmers. Helen Ravnanger explains that a key economic reason for these land sales was the Black Death: "The crises in the late middle ages led all landowners to suffer a dramatic decrease in the income they received from leasing out their land. Despite its wealth, the Munkeliv monastery also experienced such problems, which says something about what other monasteries and landowners must have experienced. Like other landowners, the Munkeliv monastery experienced a sharp decrease in its income due to the drastic decreases in the population and in productivity that the Black Death brought about." [5].  Thus, a nationwide survey of land ownership conducted in 1661 revealed the following ownership structure of land in Norway [6]:
Land owner:
Percent of land owned:
 King (krongods) and the church (kirkegods)
 Nobility (adelsgods)
 Farmers (bondegods) (where the owner farmed his own farm)
 Absentee owners of farms (borgergods / bondegods) (where the owner, who was either a farmer or a businessman, rented out his farm to a leilending)

In his book on Norwegian history, Knut Mykland writes that this survey revealed an important fact about land ownership in Norway:

    From 1661 to 1721 more and more farmers purchased their own farms, and in a study on this issue, another Norwegian historian, Ståle Dyrvik, has also noted that the percentage of such ownership varied widely from region to region [8].  Commenting on the findings of this study, Knut Mykland writes:
In northern Norway the percentage of land owned by the farmers who were farming their own land increased from 3.9% to 4.9% during the time period 1661-1721.  In Trøndelag and Møre it increased from 6.5% to 12.6%, and in western Norway and Sunnmøre it increased from 12.5% to 22.4%.  In the northern and western part of eastern Norway it increased from 26.1% to 46.8%.  In Agder, where such ownership had been common already in the 1660's the changes were quite small. [9]
There were three important reasons that allowed farmers to increasingly purchase their own farm:
  1. the increasing use of mortgages which allowed farmers to borrow the purchase money.  (The farmers would buy the farm, log the timber on the farm, and sell the timber to obtain money for mortgage payments.  Absentee landowners, of course, were not interested in doing such logging themselves);
  2. the increasing willingness of landowners to sell their land because they could invest the capital in the shipping industry and receive a higher rate of return; and
  3. a law passed in 1684 that limited the amount that a landowner could charge for the førstebygsel ved brukerskifte (the fee payable each time a new tenant farmer took over a farm), and the tredjeårstake (the fee for renewing the lease every three years).
    As your genealogy research progresses you will soon come across references to the old landskyld system and the gradual emergence of land ownership by individual farmers. When you read through a bygdebok, for example, you will find an entry for each farm in the community, and each such entry starts with the oldest known facts about the farm, i.e., the landskyld and whether the farm originally belonged to the king (krongods or in nynorsk krungods), or the church (kirkegods or in nynorsk kyrkjegods). You may also find that the land could have belonged to a specific monastery: Monkelivsgods (land that belonged to the Munkeliv monastery), or Apostelgods (land that belonged to the Apostel Church) are examples of this.  As an aside I should mention that a second major land sale occurred during the time period 1723 - 1730 when all of the land owned by the church and all of the churches across Norway were auctioned off to individuals or to congregations.  (The churches in northern Norway were exempt from these sales because the income from these churches and the land they owned had been transferred to the "Misjonskollegiet" in 1716 to finance missions to the Sami people and to finance schools in northern Norway through the "Nordlandske Kirke- og Skolefond").
    The land that the farmers themselves owned and cultivated came to be called bondegods, i.e., farmers' land, and a farmer who owned his own farm was called a selveier (from the words selv - self and eier - owner).  In census records, etc. the term selveier is frequently abbreviated as S.  Although a selveier no longer had to pay landskyld, or rent, he now had to pay real estate property taxes.  But at least he did not have to worry about being evicted for not paying rent, and if ownership of the farm stayed in the family for a long time it would become odelsgods.
    The term odelsgods is another word that you may come across when you research your Norwegian ancestors.  If a farm stayed in the same family for a sufficiently long time it became known as odelsgods because of the unique legal rights that attached to the farm under the law called odelsrett. The origins of the odelsrett stretch back into the Viking ages. Basically it is law that allows a family member to redeem a family farm that has been sold out of the family.  Under the ancient Norwegian Gulatings law, a farm had to be in the family for six generations before the odelsrett attached to the farm.  King Magnus Lagabøte'slaw from 1274 decreased this time period to sixty years, and Christian IV's law from 1604 decreased the time period to 30 years.  Finally, in 1687, Christian V's law decreased the time period to 20 years, and this time period is still in use today.  If a family farm that had acquired odels status was sold out of the family, the descendants of the owner that sold the farm could redeem the family farm within a specified time period.  (There were strict rules as to which descendant had the right over other descendants to redeem the farm).  In 1811 the time period for redemption was 5 years, and in 1857 the time period was reduced to 3 years.  The redemption was made by filing a law suit (called an odelssak) in which the plaintiff would have to prove that the farm had been in his family’s ownership for the required time period.  If the law suit was successful, the plaintiff could redeem the farm by paying the assessed value of the farm.  Needless to say, an odelssak is an invaluable source of genealogical information, and you will frequently see references to such law suits in a bygdebok.

The Matrikkel and the Matrikkelskyld

    To finance various wars and the day to day operation of the government, many different taxes were heaped upon our ancestors. While these taxes must certainly have caused our ancestors a great deal of grief, the information gathered in connection with these taxes is very useful for our genealogy research. As you go through old Norwegian tax records you will find several tax related census records that were taken in connection with such taxes as the Kopfskatt (a tax on persons in 1645) and the Ekstraskatt (a tax on persons, on wealth, on income, on horses, and on wagons from 1743).  (For more information on such tax related census records see my article Norwegian census records ).  Taxes on real estate were also collected, but prior to 1620 these real estate taxes were only demanded at irregular time periods.  From 1620 and onwards, however, real estate taxes were payable each year, and these real estate taxes (called landskatt) were in large part determined by the landskyld.
    In 1661 a commission called the Landkommisjon was established to create a jordebok (real estate register) over all real estate in Norway, with detailed information about each farm, including the landskyld, the name of the owner, and the name of the leilending on the farm if the farm was being leased out.  The commission was also charged with adjusting the real estate taxes so that these would be calculated more fairly, but this work was not completed.  The Landkommisjonensjordebok, however, was finished and contains valuable genealogy information. (The commission's work did not include Finnmark, and the material for Troms is missing).
    Four years later, in 1664, a new commission was established to adjust the real estate taxes, and the result of this commission's work is found in the matrikkel (real estate list) from 1665. For each farm the 1665 matrikkel gives information about the old and the new real estate tax.  The commission used the various goods that had been used to pay the landskyld to calculate a new value for each farm expressed in tunge (flour and wheat), butter, or fish. This new value came to be known as matrikkelskyld and was used as the basis for determining the real estate tax.  Unfortunately, this recalculation only occurred in Hordaland (then called Søndre Bergenhus) and Sogn og Fjordane (then called Nordre Bergenhus).  In the rest of the country the matrikkelskyld simply used the existing landskyld without any recalculations.  Thus the old landskyld came to be the basis for calculating real estate taxes for most of Norway. The matrikkel also states the name of the owner, the name of the leilending (if the farm was rented out), the size of the harvest, the number of farm animals, etc.  Unfortunately the matrikkel from 1665 does not include six court districts in Østlandet (eastern Norway) and also does not include Voss, Helgeland, Vesterålen, Andenes,and Senja.

The Matrikkelnummer

    In the early 1700's each farm in Norway was assigned a matrikkelnummer, i.e., a unique identifying number, and this numbering system was used in the matrikkel in 1723, which once again adjusted the real estate taxes. You will also see a farm's matrikkelnummer used in other records, such as census records.  Each farm kept its unique matrikkelnummer until 1838, when a new system ofmatrikkel nummer was introduced.  This new system assigneda unique matrikkelnummer to each main farm, and any bruk (smaller farm that had been subdivided out from the main farm) was assigned a løpenummer.  In this way, each bruk could be uniquely identified by its matrikkelnummer followed by its løpenummer. If a bruk was subdivided, the new bruk would be identified by the matrikkel nummer followed by its løpenummer and the letter a, b, c, etc.  For example, if a bruk with løpenummer 10 was subdivided, the old bruk would be numbered 10a, and the new bruk that was created would be numbered 10b. The 1838 matrikkel also introduced a new way of measuring the real estate tax, using the skylddaler.  1 skylddaler was set equal to 400 speciedaler (an old currency), and 1 skylddaler was divided into 5 ort or 120 skilling so that an accurate tax could be assessed on each farm. The 1838 matrikkel contained both the old and the new numbering system for each farm, and thus serves as a cross-index between the new and the old numbering system.
    The matrikkel from 1886 also contains such a cross index.  The 1886 matrikkel once again changed the numbering system: each farm was assigned a gårdsnummer (farm number)and a bruksnummer (bruk number).  This matrikkel has been made available on the Internet by the Registreringssentral for Historiske Data (RHD) at the University of  Tromsø (in Norwegian only).  In addition, RHD has scanned in a sample page from the 1886 matrikkel .  On the top left hand side of that page you can see how the 1886 matrikkel cross references the new gårdsnummer and bruksnummer with the old matrikkelnummer and løpenummer:

(Gaards-No. = Farm number, Brugs-No. = Bruk number, Tidligere= Earlier/Prior, Matr. No. = Matrikkel Number, Løbe-No.= Løpenummer, and Gaardens Navn = The name of the farm)

The 1886 matrikkel also changed the way the tax was calculated. Instead of using skylddaler, the 1886 matrikkel set the total real estate tax for all farms in Norway equal to 500,000 skyldmark, and set 1 skyldmark equal to 100 øre.  The value of each farm was then determined in terms of skyldmark.

The husmann and the husmannsplass

    As I mentioned earlier, a farmer who owned his own farm, i.e., a selveier, did not have to pay any landskyld, but he did have to pay real estate property taxes.  A leilending, on the other hand, did not have to pay any real estate property taxes, but instead had to pay landskyld to the jorddrotte (the owner of the farm).  There was one person, however, who paid neither landskyld nor real estate property taxes, and that was the husmann - a person who rented a husmannsplass.
    The best way to define a husmann is by reference to the matrikkel.  A husmann was a person who leased a small cottage on someone else's farm, where the small cottage did not have its own matrikkel nummer i.e., it was not assessed separately from the farm for real estate tax purposes.  The husmann could rent just a small cottage without any land, in which case he was referred to as a husmann uten jord (a husmann without land), or he could rent a small cottage with a small plot of land, in which case he was referred to as a husmann med jord (a husmann with land).  In eastern Norway it was common for a husmann to pay his rent by providing a few hours of labor (arbeid) each month to the farmer.  This type of husmann was therefore called a arbeidshusmann. On the west coast of Norway, on the other hand, it was common for a husmann to pay his rent in cash, and this type of husmann was called a bygselshusmann, and the place he rented was called a bygselsplass.  Frequently the bygselshusmann on the west coast of Norway was a shoemaker or perhaps a tailor, whose occupation gave him a source of income with which to pay rent for his little bygselsplass.  (Along the coast of Norway you can also find references to a strandsitter. This was a husmann who earned his living from the sea and who rented a cottage down by the shoreline).
    Although a typical husmann was not wealthy, this did not necessarily mean that he was worse off than a farmer who owned his own farm.  As the historian Hans Try has pointed out:

The Inderst or Losjerende

    One other term you may find as you search through old Norwegian records is Inderst or Innerst.  This term was used to refer to a lodger - a tenant who rented a room or a bed in the home of a leilending or a husmann, but who did not receive board, i.e., not room and board, but room only.  You may also see this person referred to as a losjerende or logerende (a lodger). The inderst could be a seasonal worker on the farm or could be self-employed as a tailor, shoe-maker, etc.  


    Reading old Norwegian census records, probate records,and real estate records requires us to have some background information about how the ownership of farms in Norway changed during the centuries. Genealogy is not only about collecting as many names and dates as possible, but also learning more about how our ancestors lived.  I hope this article has provided some information that helps you in your quest to learn more about your Norwegian ancestors.

John Follesdal


1. Mykland, Knut [Ed.] Norges Historie, Bind 11, To Kulturer en Stat, 1851-1884, p. 253 (Oslo: J.W. Cappelens Forlag,A/S, 1979) (quote translated by John Follesdal)

2.  Nordnes i middelalderen (mellomfagsoppgave), Universitetet i Bergen, 1997, translated by John Follesdal)

3. The landskyld was in 1626 1 laup 2 1/2 pund butter and 1 sheep.

4. Kjelland, Anfinn Bygdebok for Lesja, Gards- og slektshistoria, Bd.1. Innleiing translated by John Follesdal)

5. Ravnanger, Helen, supra

6. Mykland, Knut [Ed.] Norges Historie, Bind 7, Gjennom Nødsår og krig, p. 221 (Oslo: J.W. Cappelens Forlag, A/S, 1979) (quote translated by John Follesdal)

7. Ibid, page 221-222 (quote translated by John Follesdal).

8. Dyrvik, Ståle Overgangen til sjøleige i Norge.  Nokre nye data for 1700-tallet in Historisk tidskriftbd. 56. Oslo (1977)

9.  Mykland, Knut, supra at p. 229 (quote translated by John Follesdal)

10. Mykland, Knut, supra at p. 341 (quote translated by John Follesdal)

This page was created on 04 September 1998
Last modified: 12 August 2000
Copyright, 1998  JohnFollesdal

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