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What was “Serwituty” in Poland

Serwitut, serwituty were peasants’ rights to use manor meadows, pastures and forests, originating from the feudal period. In Polish lands, they were mostly liquidated by the end of the 19th century. The issue of servants was regulated by the Act of May 7, 1920 on the liquidation of servants in the former Congress Kingdom and the President’s regulation of February 1, 1927.

Servitudes, also called easements, were a type of property law. Servitutes were based on unilateral acts (e.g. privileges granted to village settlers by Polish kings), oral agreements or customs. Initially, servites concerned royal or courtly property, later, as the owners of the forests changed, also private or state property. In the Prussian partition, servitudes were abolished by a regulatory act issued in 1823 by the authorities of the Duchy of Poznań.

For example, in Podhale, service rights included:

  • the right to graze cattle, sheep and horses in designated seasons, freshly forested areas were excluded from grazing;
  • the right to drive cattle, sheep and horses through the forest and to travel along designated roads;
  • the right to take a certain amount of wood from the forest for firewood and for fences, sometimes also for the construction of houses and other buildings, sometimes it was also allowed to take litter

Magnates indicated the months in which peasant “farm carts” could enter the forest, and determined the frequency of these visits. The schedule usually looked like this: from October to March, one peasant cart per week could enter the forest to collect building wood, and in mountainous regions two carts, while in the remaining months one cart once every two weeks. The contracts also specified the number of carts taking dry firewood, leaves and litter. If farmers did not have carts with “cattle” at their disposal, they could only take as much wood from the forest as they could carry.

The same happened with pastures and meadows. Magnates determined the number of cattle, horses and sheep that could graze in the pasture on a given day. They marked the routes for driving them, making sure that the animals did not destroy the lord’s crops. They were often circuitous and long, which ignited endless disputes between the village and the manor. Peasants could also collect blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, mushrooms, nuts, herbs and flowers to dry. The use of easements was most often free of charge, but there were symbolic fees in the form of roosters or eggs. In the event of natural disasters, fire or flood, peasants had the opportunity to receive an additional portion of building wood, but they had to work off this extraordinary allocation or pay for it so as not to forget who owned the forest.