When you go through the land books you may be sometimes extremely lucky and find a document that goes far beyond what you would expect to find in a land book. I had such luck with the land book for a place named Víska belonging to the Lnáře Estate. Among its pages, I found a loosely inserted leaf containing a letter of Duchoslav Běle in which he bitterly complained about his brother Jan who happened to be my direct ancestor. Contrary to all probability, the letter has survived, being freely inserted in the land register, and we can read it with all the imperfections of its language.
Both Duchoslav and Jan were sons of Zikmund Běle, a farmer on one of the six farms in Víska, a tiny village in Southwest Bohemia. Jan, the older one of both brothers, was born about the year 1646. Duchoslav was born twenty years later in 1666, last but one child in the family. When Jan married in 1677, Duchoň, as the younger brother was also called, was only 11 years old. After his marriage, Jan no longer lived with his father on the family farm but was helping other people in exchange for a place to live with his family (as podruh), however still remaining in Víska. After the death of his father Zikmund, Jan returned to the family farm in Víska and apparently seized the farm at the expense of his younger brother Duchoslav who had hoped to be a farmer after him.
It had to be an experienced scribe who wrote the letter by hand for Duchoslav, because it is written legibly in a way, which Duchoslav, even if he could write, could not achieve. The letter was dated 25 September 1720 and it was addressed to Lord Peter Ignatius Fragner, burgher of the royal town of Klatovy, who was the enacted inspector for Lnáře, Bězděkov, Pole and Týniště Estates. The inspector used to be an economic function entrusted by the owner of the estate to an external person, otherwise not involved in the administration of an estate, to regularly inspect the management, condition of the estate and other enterprises, and to make recommendations to the owner. It was a person experienced in management, with legal or economic education, often in another official position, thus earning extra income next to their official salary. This was probably the case of Petr Frágner from Klatovy.
Let us translate the lines of Duchoslav Běle’s complaint from September 1720 by which he hoped to change his destiny.
25. 9bris 1720
Noble and valiant vladyka, Lord Inspector,
highly respected by me, a poor person. That I obediently dare to bother highly respected Lord Inspector with this humble writing, I obediently beg for forgiveness. I put forward that I, with my late father, had farmed on the farm in the village of Víska twenty-four years ago, me being the youngest son, while my other brother Jan had been in service with other people.
When the Lord God called [my] father out from this world, he [= Jan] returning from the service he took over [the possession of] the farm, in which [farm] I stayed as farm helper for over twenty years. He [= Jan] did not give me anything for my service, only in two or three years he gave me a coat or underpants, not very good, for my service and he used to dismiss me that no doubt when I get married, I would get the grunt.
After a short time, getting to the horses of the gloriously remembered His Noble Countal Excellence Lord Lord Count Tomáš, the Holy Roman Empire Count Černín of Chudenice, by that time our Gracious Vrchnost, by which [horses] I remained for six years and then one year. Coming back from Vienna, my [now] late brother who was [by then] on the farm of my deceased father asked me to lend him some money for Contribution [ = taxes]. Taking pity on him I lent him five gold pieces. I also bought [for him] three strychy of oats for seeding. I have not got a single coin back. When I was released from the service, I got married and stayed for a half-year with the said brother. However, as our wives could not get along with each other I had to find a living with other people [podružství]. I built a cottage on the municipal land by which I have only a field with [acreage] less one měřička, being the tenth [in such position].
Vojtěch, my nephew, son of my late brother Jan, having in use my own grunt, strives to deprive me of my inheritance, [claiming] that nothing belongs to me. Yet, I, being the youngest son, can not forfeit it.
For this reason, I am applying to the highly revered Lord Inspector in the deepest humbleness and humility [and] I obediently ask that I get paid everything which I lent to the deceased brother Jan Běle, from his son Vojtěch /: because he inherited everything with the farm: /. And I also ask that [the Lord Inspector decides that] I can take over the same farm. I expect great mercy from the highly respected Lord Inspector and await pleasurable resolution. I remain to be
Highly Respected Lord Inspector’s
Duchoslav Běla from the village of Víska
The letter is interesting in many aspects. First, it says a lot about the character of both brothers. Jan is portrayed as a ruthless predator who took every opportunity to seize the farm, get rid of his brother, whom he had mercilessly exploited for a long time, even drawing some money from him. Duchoslav, on the other hand, acts as a simple-minded person who is unable to learn from his experience, although he repeatedly pays for John’s cunning. However, it is only the first impression. The owls are not what they seem.
In a critical assessment of the document and the information, we should take into account the form in which Duchoslav asserted his right. The letter to the inspector of the Lnáře Estate was the most irregular form that a subject in the early 18th century should follow. He should primarily turn to his vrchnost and seek justice from it. Another fact that we should not miss in the evaluation of the entire situation is the time gap in which Duchoslav presented his complaint. A quarter of a century has passed since the death of Zikmund, and also Jan was already dead when the complaint was made and the claim was raised.
We may notice that the letter was written by the same hand that kept the land books of the Lnáře Estate. May there be an office scribe who could not remain silent in front of such injustice and advised Duchoslav to whom to turn and prepare the request for him? Or was there someone else as the driving force behind the events, perhaps Duchoslav’s wife, who convinced him that he had a right to the farm and that Jan could not get over it? Could the „truth“ presented in the letter be just facts purposefully put together so that they fit Duchoslav’s narrative and support his goal (to expel Jan’s son Vojtěch from the farm) in the best way?
So what are the facts? If we were meticulous, according to the letter, Zikmund would work in touching harmony with his youngest son Duchoň until his death, while Jan was in the service with foreign people. According to Duchoslav’s account, it was self-evident that the farm would go to him as the youngest son, which was the custom at the time, yet it was not a rule set in stone. I will also omit a small time inaccuracy. Zikmund died in 1694, while according to the letter, Duchoslav worked with his father twenty-four years ago, in 1696, two years after Zikmund’s actual death. This can be easily attributed to the fact that it was not necessary to deal with accurate dating. Indirectly, it is also said that Zikmund never gave the farm to any of his sons during his lifetime and did not enjoy a well-deserved rest as výminkář. He worked until his death, when, according to his death registry, he was 70 years old.
According to the narrative, other events took place in such a way that after Zikmund’s death, Jan returned to the family farm and, with an unclear trick, seized the farm and turned Duchoslav into his farm helper (pacholek). To add insult to injury, Duchoň occasionally received only a coat and underpants of poor quality for his twenty-year service from his brother.
After twenty years of patient service, the luck smiled on Duchoslav and he found a position in the manorial service of the Černín nobility (then owners of the estate). He served with horses for six years and spent another year of service in Vienna. Then Duchoslav returned home and re-entered the service of his brother. As a man who “saw the world”, he was still persuaded to lend five golden coins to his brother and even bought seeds for his field. Duchoslav also married and spent some time with his wife at Jan’s farm, but because their wives could not stand each other, Duchoslav and his wife had to leave. He built a cottage on the municipal land, but since he had no more fields, he had to find a way to make a living. One of the ways was the debt from the old loan, but mainly it was the Duchovslav’s claim as Zikmund’s youngest son to the inheritance of the whole farm.
In his narrative, Duchoslav managed to squeeze at least twenty-six and a half years into the period that began twenty-four years ago. More importantly, he forgot that he had married his wife Anna already in 1696, more precisely on the last day of September in Kasejovice. One would get the impression from the letter that Duchoslav had only married after his return from Vienna.
All these little details make the letter less credible and one becomes more suspicious (especially when one is the descendant of Jan). Also when confronted with data from other sources, Duchoslav’s statement does not seem so convincing. There is not a single word in the land book itself about the circumstances under which the farm moved from Zikmund to Jan. The whole transaction got over with adding the words „now [the farm of] Jan“, his son to the title of the record. Just the third record in the order in the land book from the 1720’s states that Duchoslav is due an inheritance share of less than six golden coins from the farm.
It is certain that Duchoslav did not live up to his claims, whether real or supposed. The farm remained in the hands of Vojtěch Běla, son of Jan Běla. Duchoslav did not get his own farm until 1726 when he bought the farm in Víska from Matouš Linhart, but that is a different story.
This is a very brief explanation of some terms used in this post. Each is followed by a reference to a section in The Researcher’s Guide to the Czech Land Books which provides a deeper and detailed explanation.
Vladyka was the lowest nobility title of the Estates’ (stavy) hierarchy. See notes in Record 2.
Strych is a square or volume measure. See Chapter XII-4-i.