New Bachelor thesis: Knowledge and networks in the careers of 17th-century estate stewards

by Asger Wienberg

Which were the prerequisites for social mobility in the Early Modern period? What was the role of different forms of knowledge in this context, and how did this relate to the impact of personal relations? It is well known that the expansion of the Swedish Empire in the 17th century resulted in increased opportunities for social advancement within the expanding military and civil administration. A forgotten aspect of the social mobility of the period in question are, however, the aristocratic estates. The powerful position of the aristocracy and its large possession of land made it possible for some servants to climb the social ladder. Among these, the trusted estate stewards occupied a prominent position, and their opportunities for social mobility is the topic of my bachelor’s thesis in history, which focuses on count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie’s stewards – with the titles hauptman and befallningsman – at the estates Läckö and Höjentorp in Västergötland circa 1650–1680. The study is based mainly on the unpublished letters from the stewards to the landlord, but also other sources of biographical and genealogical nature.

                      Knowledge and social networks were intertwined factors in the social mobility. Knowledge is here to be understood in a broad sense and it can be separated analytically in theoretical, practical/interactive, and productive/instrumental knowledge. Interesting in this case is how the knowledge circulated and was transformed at the estate and how this impacted on the stewards’ opportunities. An important foundation for the circulation, which must not be forgotten, was the social network. Likewise, different kinds of personal relations, characterised by mutual exchange, were essential for the possibilities to advance, and simultaneously these connections were dependent on social competence. Accordingly, knowledge and networks are to be seen as prerequisites of each other and as components in the interplay which formed the basis of the social dynamics.

                      The knowledge that circulated at the estate and was obtained by the stewards concerned administration as well as social interaction and was thus of different kinds. Firstly, the stewards acquired theoretical knowledge of the appropriate behaviour from written documents, which they made use of in the competition with other servants, through which the theoretical knowledge was transformed into practice. Written instructions were necessary for obtaining local knowledge and knowledge concerning estate management, and the regular handling of law texts and judgments generated judicial knowledge. Secondly, the stewards built up practical knowledge as they performed their duties, for instance by acting according to prescribed social norms. Moreover, they obtained knowledge concerning the local community, estate management, and literacy as well as judicial and military activities through personal experience. Thirdly, the stewards’ practical knowledge could transform into productive knowledge, for example when knowledge concerning social interaction and literacy was used instrumentally.

                      All these kinds of knowledge were important factors in the social mobility. The stewards’ ability to act according to social norms served as a tool in the competition between servants. Local knowledge and knowledge concerning estate management generated economic opportunities regarding estate building and commerce, which in turn could lead to appointment as a leaseholder. Similarly, judicial knowledge could enable a career within the court system and was crucial when the stewards had to defend their own position in court. Stewards could make a career in the army thanks to their military responsibilities, and the latter was something that could provide economic compensation from the monarch. Additionally, the literacy skills were often needed in order to be appointed to higher offices, and they played a vital part in the pursuing of legal cases and the maintenance of personal relations.

                      The social networks of the stewards constituted an important infrastructure for the circulation of knowledge. Competition between the servants brought to the fore knowledge concerning the appropriate behaviour and put it to the test. Furthermore, experienced people at the estate could instruct newly appointed stewards thanks to their local and administrative knowledge. Local knowledge of different kinds could also be obtained from people in the area, peasants as well as groups with higher status. Likewise, the regular interaction with judicial and financial expertise resulted in the stewards having good opportunities to acquire knowledge on law and accounting. Finally, a good relationship to the landowner and patron De la Gardie could form a basis for the obtaining of knowledge, especially when the count provided the stewards’ sons with financial support for their studies and when he ensured that future stewards, or children of stewards, acquired practical training within the framework of the aristocratic household before they were promoted to hauptman, befallningsman or similar positions.

                      The relationship between knowledge and networks functioned in both directions. The knowledge often constituted a basis for the maintenance of the network ties, especially when it came to social competence. Obtaining sensitive information from people in the local community required subtlety. At the same time, knowledge of social interaction was needed to maintain good relations to creditors as well as the stewards’ financial credibility.

                      Social mobility in the Early Modern period must be understood in the light of both knowledge and networks, and how these factors worked together is a central issue. This is particularly evident regarding the stewards of the aristocracy, who had good opportunities to advance socially – if they managed to avoid the many pitfalls. It is apparent that the aristocratic household was a central arena for social mobility in the 17th century, even though it was no self-contained unit, but rather an integrated part of the dynamic patron–client system and the expanding administrative sphere of the Swedish Empire – in which knowledge mattered at least as much as personal bonds.

Asger Wienberg has a Bachelor of Arts in History from Lund University. He has worked as a project assistant in Svante Norrhem and Anna Nilsson Hammar’s research project The Household as Academy. The title of his bachelor’s thesis, written in connection to this project, is “Karriärer i högadelns hägn. Social mobilitet bland Magnus Gabriel De la Gardies västgötska förvaltare cirka 1650–1680” (“Careers under the Auspices of the Aristocracy. Social Mobility among Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie’s Stewards in Västergötland circa 1650–1680”).

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