Dora B. Montefiore, New Age September 1905
Source: New Age, p. 570, 7 September 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
I have not forgotten my promise to some of my correspondents to write about land tenure and agricultural institutions in Denmark, but have waited till my return to England to sort out the notes I made and the literature I collected on the question. As an introduction to the subject I may quote an inscription on the monument set up in a prominent spot in Copenhagen commemorating the final freeing of the peasants and allotment of the land, on January 1st, 1800. “The King commanded that Villeinage should cease, and that the law relating to agriculture should be put in order so that the free peasant might become a brave and enlightened, diligent and good, honourable and prosperous subject.” The language and habit of thought may be archaic, but the fact remains that the people, having once got hold of the land, soon grew so enlightened and prosperous that in 1849 they demanded and obtained a Constitution, and have, by 1905, succeeded in establishing throughout the length and breadth of their land a most remarkable co-operative farming movement, which is likely to be an object-lesson to agriculturists all over Europe. A man of Danish peasant extraction but now lecturer at Dalum Agricultural College, writes: “Just as the struggle for self-assertion in the face of over-bearing neighbours roused the nation, so the peasantry were roused to a life of activity by a somewhat similar struggle against the domineering ruling classes at home, fighting against privilege and for recognition in political life, not only at the ballot-box but the ploughfield, the dairy and the school.... Our advance is a movement of the people, the whole host of farmers advancing together, and the leaders to be found in all ranks, even down to the smallest crofter with but three acres and a cow.”
Just as the industrial worker, first in England, and later throughout the Continent, found that his only chance of standing up against capital was solidarity and organisation, so the agricultural worker in Denmark found that his only chances of standing up successfully against privilege was solidarity and organised co-operation. The first co-operative dairy was started by quite a small group of farmers and crofters in an out-of-the-way corner in the north of Denmark; the basis of the venture was strictly democratic in its nature, no one being allowed more than one vote in the business management of the undertaking; so that the poor man with one or two cows had as much to say as the richer man with fifty or a hundred. I visited two cooperative butter factories, and the figures relating to one (which may be taken as of average size and organisation) are as follows: 230 farmers send in the milk of about 1,400 cows. The milk is first heated and pasteurised, then separated and cooled; the cream is then churned and the butter made, entirely by machinery. The separated milk is then returned to the farmers for the feeding of their calves and pigs. About 3,000 lbs. of the best quality of butter is made in a factory of this size every week. The great advantage of these butter factories is that the butter produced throughout Denmark is of the same quality; and if consumers in England wish to be sure of securing this quality, they should see that they buy none but the brand stamped on the boxes and paper wrappers representing two intertwined musical horns. The brand represents a Danish national musical instrument, and the co-operative farmers have taken it as their distinctive butter mark. Bacon curing is also carried on in large co-operative factories, and the greater part of these really first-class dairy products are exported to England, where, as a contrast to the increasing agricultural development of Denmark, two million people have, during the last ten years, left the country for town.
Mrs. Browning once wrote: “It takes a soul to move a body”; and whilst studying this most interesting phenomena of the rapid development and standing forth in the light of day of a peasant population – a population, generally speaking, the most traditional, conservative, and hard to move of any section of the people – one was continually asking from whence came the dynamic spiritual force which conquered peasant inertia and set the seal of collective endeavour on this traditionally individualistic body. The answer came when we heard the story of the remarkable intellectual and spiritual impulse which founded, about 40 years ago, what is known as the “Danish High Schools,” or, as we should describe them, Schools where the Humanities are taught to the peasantry and small farmers. Of these schools Jakob Lange, from whom I have already quoted, quoted, writes: “To the majority of the ‘educated classes’ the idea of lecturing on history and poetry to milkmaids and ploughmen seemed highly ridiculous: they could not think of spiritually feeding such people – if feeding them at all – but on leavings and bones from the upper table. That ‘for the people the best is not too good’ was an idea totally foreign to our ruling classes. Even a movement for transforming the schooling of the children was bitterly fought by office-holders, lay and clerical, who clung to the time-honoured method of cramming the children’s heads with catechism and raw lumps of Scripture, and assisting their digestion with the rod. The new ideas of feeding the mind of the child with suitable food, and giving room for the natural development of the mind at first only found support and took root within the peasantry. You will realise from all this that our advance is not a thing manufactured, but rather a natural growth – that it has not, in the first place, been created by benevolent legislation for the people, but springs from wells deep in our national life.” This is the true test of every real movement, that it should come in response to a real live demand on the part of the people, and that it should have its roots deep down in national life. This, in a period of outside peril and loss to the country from the encroachments and annexations of Germany, was the vital demand within of the people for self-development and solidarity – which demand resulted in the establishment of the Danish National High School system. The scholars at these schools are the sons and daughters of the farmers and peasant proprietors; all over 17 years of age, and most them under 27. The headmaster of the school is considered the host and head of the family; and the various teachers are chosen, with more regard for their personal teaching qualifications and their power of stimulating thought, than for the number of their degrees and diplomas. The students pay about 33s. a month, which includes all boarding and teaching expenses; and in the case of poor students, who have not been able to save the necessary sum, the Government pays about two-thirds of the costs. The term for the young men is from November till March; for the young women from May till August. The course of study includes a programme for two years, but some, of course, are only able to attend for one year. History, poetry, and biography are the principal subjects taught; and the aim of the teaching throughout is to rouse intellectual life, and point out the course and working of evolution. More than 6,000 peasant students in Denmark attend these High School courses every year; and as time goes on the system, which was originally sketched out on somewhat dogmatic and sectarian lines, has grown in breadth and in width; the curriculum has been enlarged – taking in sociology, constitutional history, anatomy, arithmetic, surveying, English, and German whilst many of the most promising of the University students of the day are preparing themselves for becoming teachers and lecturers in the National High Schools. These schools are the soul which is moving the whole body of freed, landowning peasantry in Denmark, and is making of it, slowly but surely, a wise, self-governing, self-respecting democracy.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE