Gerson Digital : Denmark


1.5 Denmark and the Age of Enlightenment

In the severely Lutheran Denmark of the 18th century, in which church and monarchy joined to repulse new ideas, only Pietism, being a spiritual deepening of Lutheranism, was able to gain a foothold. Christian VI (1699-1746) converted to this spiritual movement, so that the repercussions for the population were far reaching. Church attendance and confirmation became mandatory, as did school attendance for the young. Particularly this last measure was most unpopular because it cost the nobility money and deprived farmers of their sons at harvest time. Nevertheless this schooling provided the way by which the new ideas of the Enlightenment began to seep into Denmark. The old cathedral schools, which were fashioned after medieval models, were not at all receptive to this change. Especially the School Act of 1814, which made state funded schooling mandatory, gave education a tremendous impulse. That the results were not always apparent until well into the 19th century, was largely due to a lack of adequate teachers to realize ambitions.

One of the great accomplishments of the 18th-century Enlightenment was agricultural reform. During the three preceding centuries the rural population had been completely subservient to the nobility and monarchy, which had blocked each and every improvement in the lot of common people. Now this began to change, ‘stemming from a happy combination of philanthropy, a period of increasing prosperity, an enlightened monarch, and perhaps a touch of Rousseauist idealism […]’.1 No longer was the population tied to the soil, nor could land owners arbitrarily insist on financial compensation, exact unpaid labour or impose physical punishment. With time the rural population came to own farms instead of leasing them. In 1781, in addition, a law regulating land consolidation took effect (which was not fully implemented until hundred years later), opening the way to agricultural reform. From 1800, prosperity grew with leaps and bounds, in part because Denmark became the supplier of grain, fresh produce and dairy products to England, which was undergoing its Industrial Revolution. In addition Denmark captured a substantial portion of the trade with the Baltic coast at the expense of Holland. As far as area was concerned, however, Denmark had become only a shadow of its former self.


1 Glyn Jones 1986, p. 23

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