The mining peasants were farmers who, alongside their agricultural work, also carried out mining and produced pig iron from ore. During the 17th century, mining in Sweden was organised through specific rights. The period prior to 1810 featured a clear division of labour between mining peasants and ironworks. The mining peasant’s job was to break up the ore and produce pig iron. The pig iron was then processed at the ironworks to produce malleable bar iron, which for many years was Sweden’s most important export product. Beginning in 1810, these restrictions, rights and freedoms started to be eroded, and were eventually dissolved during the years leading up to 1860.
We already know about the social structure from previous research. What is new in Linus Karlsson’s study is his attempt to explain in detail which conditions formed the basis for the wealth accumulation of the minority and the decline of the majority. According to Karlsson, one of the most important factors in this context was the fact that the liberalization of the 19th century resulted in the mining peasants coming into contact with a freer market, in which streams of credit and goods became interwoven in a new way, creating a network in which certain mining peasants succeeded in positioning themselves at key points.
“Many mining peasants became dependent on credit and ended up deep in debt, while a few were able to profit from their social equals,” explains Karlsson.
The circumstances of industrialization are one of the biggest questions facing historical research. In his thesis “Bergsmän och tackjärnspatroner” (“Mining peasants and pig iron merchants”), Karlsson analyses the conditions behind the industrialization of the iron industry in Lekebergslagen in Western Närke. He questions a number of earlier conceptions about mining peasants, ironworks and the industrialization of the iron industry, taking the different regional conditions that existed in the area now known as Bergslagen as his starting point.
Karlsson shows in detail how the mining peasants gradually lost control of both iron ore mines and pig iron production after 1810. The mining peasants in Lekebergslagen were forced instead to buy the ore needed for pig iron production from ironworks and ore merchants within the framework of a specific credit system.
“Mining peasants were a cost-effective feature of the Swedish iron industry right up until the modern credit institutions and corporations made their breakthrough in the mid-19th century,” adds Karlsson. “The ironworks and the pig iron merchants benefited from maintaining the mining peasants’ production.”
At the same time, the ironworks laid the foundation for the rapid industrial breakthrough that occurred in connection with the extension of the railways into Bergslagen. Prior to 1860, they had already bought up the majority of Bergslagen’s main mines, and the assets of the ironworks grew through buying up land. In this context, the growing indebtedness of the mining peasants played a significant part. After 1860, the age of the mining peasant was largely over.
“Instead, they became woodland farmers who devoted their lives to their own farming, as well as to forestry and transportation for the new industries,” concludes Karlsson, whose thesis helps to improve our knowledge of the fundamental conditions behind the origins of industrial society and the economic and social structure of Bergslagen.