The way of life

A household could use a certain piece of land — the farm — that was cultivated and for which the family had to pay rent to the manor and do a certain amount of corvée. This piece of land provided all the food and also the raw materials for the clothing that the household needed. A part of the production was sold in order to buy those things that could not be produced on the farm. New generations were born and raised on the farms and parents taught their children the skills necessary for surviving in life. From the second half of the 18th century onwards children were also taught to read at home.

The members of a household were either related to each other or connected by power relations and quite often the two kinds of bonds were intermixed. The owner of the farm was the head of the household and his family formed its nucleus. The extended family included a wife and children and also some other close relatives, and altogether they were referred to as the family. Besides the family there were usually some people from outside the family and some remote relatives living on the farm. These were the farmhands and the maids, who usually did the corvée for the household and did not participate very much in the farmwork. The hired workforce moved around a lot and was not associated with any particular farm for long: people were often hired for a year or only for the summer months.

In every household the division of tasks was very explicit. Men took care of the fields, forests, carting tasks and tended the horses; in the coastal areas fishing and seafaring were also done by men. Women traditionally took care of cooking and clothing and they also tended the cattle. Raising the children and teaching them to read and write were also women's duties.

Cultivation of land
Agriculture was the most important occupation for centuries. The oldest form of arable farming is assarting, i.e. cutting down and burning the trees in a forest so as to turn it into arable land. Another form of farming where a field was tilled for a few years and then left fallow for a while is very old as well. Arable farming in Estonia dates back to the8th–10th centuries BC. The three-field system was probably already known in the 13th century. On one part of the field rye was grown, on another summer crops and the third part was left fallow (i.e. the piece of land was left unplanted for a year).

The oldest crop in Estonia is barley: it has been cultivated for about 4000 years. A real breakthrough took place in the 11th–12th centuries in connection with the spread of rye cultivation which produced considerably better crops in fields fertilised with manure. Rye became the main grain for making bread and remains so to this day.

After the conquest of Estonia in the 13th century, more and more lands of local farmers were expropriated for the establishment and expansion of manors. The hereditary right to use the land remained but that was not guaranteed by law, everything depended on the largesse of the owner of the manor. From the end of the Middle Ages until the middle of the 19th century, payment of land rent in labour (corvée) prevailed. A peasant had to do a quarter to one third of his labour on the manor field. That is why additional farm-hands, young men and women were hired. About a quarter of the crop was preserved as seed, another quarter had to be given away to the manor owner and the remaining half was to feed the family. This system changed only in the middle of the 19th century when peasants were given the opportunity to buy their farms. It should be mentioned, though, that until the second half of the 19th century, Estonians tilled the land with the same tools as in ancient times — wooden plough-shares and harrows to which iron tips were later added.

Cattle-breeding was closely connected with arable farming. In Estonia a piece of land can be continuously cultivated without losing its fertility only if it is fertilised on a regular basis. The main fertiliser was manure, and cattle was primarily kept for working the fields. The cattle were so numerous that enough manure accumulated over the winter to fertilise the fields. The number of animals in a farm was one of the main indicators of the farm's economic status. The existence of beasts of burden was especially important since that determined how much land the farm was able to till.

One of the most important sub-branches of agriculture in Estonia, especially in South Estonia, was bee-keeping.

Conditions for fishing have been favourable in Estonia due to our abundant seacoast and plentiful rivers and lakes. Besides hunting and gathering, the first inhabitants of Estonia made their living mainly from fishing. Together with improvements in arable farming and cattle-breeding, people moved away from the water ways and lakes to better farming lands.

During the post-conquest centuries fishing waters were declared to belong to the landowner and a fee had to be paid for the right to fish. Most of the inhabitants of coastal villages carried on both farming and fishing and fishing was considered a side-line activity. These coast dwellers, who made their living mainly from fishing, exchanged fish for corn. The exchange took place on the coast where the peasants from inland villages came for that purpose during fishing season.

In Ruhnu and Kihnu, less so in Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, seal hunting was also spread. Seals were mostly hunted for their fat and skin, their meat was eaten only by the hunters themselves.

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