Court record books as a source for early modern agency and work

This post is from Petteri Impola,  a doctoral student and member of Early Modern Morals – a research center at the Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä. His thesis-in-progress entitled: “The Agency and Intangible Capital on the Edge of Estate System in Sweden during the Age of Greatness (c 1620–1720)”, examines the connections of agency, work, and estate and social status in 17th century Sweden. The focus of the thesis is on types of agency that were not attached to one single estate status in early modern everyday life, even though estate-based society and the profession privileges associated with it ideally demanded a strict distribution of work.


Petteri Impola (University of Jyväskylä)

Estates formed the foundation of most societies in early modern Europe. In Sweden, for example, it was the four estates that formed the basis of the society: the nobility, the clergy, the burghers, and the peasants. These categories functioned as legal and political hierarchies, but were also essential in the process of distributing work. Most of the privileges employed to regulate work and trade in mercantile societies were based on statuses derived from the estate-based order.

Even if the distribution of work was in general based on estates, certain professions were carried out by individuals belonging to different estates and of different social statuses. Trade, for example, was traditionally the privilege of the burghers but was practiced, though illegally, by agents from all of the estates. There were also forms of agency, like legal representation, which was not privileged to one estate, and every capable man could participate. Moreover, certain groups of people remained outside the formal estate-structure, as is the case with groups such as vagrants and soldiers. Hence, a significant amount of early modern work took place on ‘the edges of the estate-based order’.

Therefore, in my thesis I examine early modern agency not just from the perspective of gender but also by the intersections of estate position and social status. I compare three different (semi-)professions, which cannot be explained through estate-based privileges: cunning folk, self-educated midwives, and legal representatives. Legal representation, for example, was an emerging profession because of the developing legal system, and almost every man with some reading, writing, and legal skills could help others in the courts. There were sons of clergy and burghers, soldiers, clerks and other low-level civil servants and even peasants working as representatives. The skills and reputation of the agents were crucial for their agency, not just their ancestry.

If such subjects are studied merely through normative documents, such laws, statutes, and privileges, we ignore the complexities of everyday life. Thus, it is reasonable to study informative normative materials, but above all sources which originated in everyday actions. In my thesis the main source used to analyse everyday agency is the lower court record books, which are very detailed and have survived in large numbers in Sweden and in contemporary Finland, which was eastern part of the Swedish-Finnish realm for centuries[i].

The court record book of Town Court of Oulu, on 6 February 1678. Digitalized sources make research little bit easier, save time and preserve the original documents. The National Archives of Finland.[ii]

The lower court records were transcribed (aka “renovated”) by local clerks and crosschecked by the Court of Appeals. In the basic cases, the transcriptions are rather compact and contain only the most basic facts of the cases, but fortunately, the more unusual the cases were, the more informative and descriptive the court records are. In such cases, the records contain many details about everyday conditions, descriptions of work, the basis of agency, relations between people etc. For example, the lawsuits of cunning folk accused for witchcraft were extraordinary cases for the lower court clerks and they did not always know what information the Court of Appeal needed to judge the final sentence. Thus, they included almost every detail in the court record. That information could tell researchers a lot about the basis and skills of working as a seer or healer. Such court records often describe what was considered to be forbidden agency and hence also sheds light on what contemporaries perceived to be acceptable.

It is not my task, as a researcher, to judge whether the accused were guilty or not, to assess the validity of the sentences or take a stand on, for example, whether people could really have magical skills. It is more important for analysis, to understand that contemporaries believed that one´s agency could hypothetically be based on the supernatural. Neither I am interested in assessing the professional capabilities of the self-educated and unofficial midwives (officially educated midwives slowly emerged in Sweden since 18th century). The evidence that people with different backgrounds and of different estates could all be midwives is intrinsically the source information that matters.

Locating such agents, their social status and basis of their agency is not an easy task. Finding such information requires intensive reading of old manuscripts and obscure scripts. The agents I am examining are not signalled clearly or at all in the sources. The work of cunning folk and midwives rooted centuries back to the past and many dialectical titles were used for them. Similarly, there were just a few official and academically trained legal advocates in the biggest towns and Court of Appeals, while most of the legal representatives with various non-academic backgrounds could not use explicit titles like advocate or procurator. However, if someone was repeatedly representing people in their legal matters, we can assume that he was making a living as a legal representative.

I have recovered the names of around a hundred such agents from these court record books and now I am compiling a prosopographic database of the information about them[iii]. This database enables me to analyze quantitative patterns within these (semi-)professions, such as factors related to gender, age, estate and social status, intentions for agency, demand for agency etc. I can also connect that quantitative information to biographic details of these agents, which enables qualitative analysis. Additionally, the most detailed court record cases allow micro-level case studies. Thus, my endeavor is to use these sources to produce a balanced combination of both quantitative and qualitative approaches when analyzing early modern agency and work from the perspectives of the estates and gender.




[i] About the court record books of early modern Sweden as a source in general, see for example, Harry Lönnroth (ed), Domboken som filologiskt och historiskt forskningsobjekt [With a summary: The judgement book as a philological and historical research object]. Nordiska texter och undersökningar, 30. Uppsala Universitet 2007, see especially its article, Petri Karonen, Perspektiv och metoder inom domboksforskningen i Sverige och Finland circa 1990–2005, 25–43. That study is in Swedish but includes summaries and useful references in English.

[ii] The National Archives of Finland, Town Court of Oulu, u:4, 6th February 1678, 5v-6r, The National Archives of Finland has been digitalizing early modern sources in recent years and work continues. The main page of archives:

[iii] About using the court record books of early modern Sweden as a source of early modern work and gender, Maria Ågren (ed), Making a Living, Making a Difference. Gender and Work in Early Modern European Society. Oxford University Press 2017. Compared to that pioneering study and its large database of verbs and mentions of work, the database of my thesis is based around the agents and their biographical information merged with mentions of their agency.


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