SweGGate Facts Society (Soc Sec)

Social Security in old Sweden

General Undantag - Födoråd Fattigvård


Undantag - Födoråd

Undantag: = exception or more precisely "something set aside".
Födoråd from föda = food or in a wider sense - (v) to provide for

Undantag is used as a noun in two meanings
1: part of a farm, often a small house (torp or backstuga) sometimes with a small piece of land for a kitchen garden or grazing.
2: a social situation as in sitta på undantag (explained below)

Early pension scheme
In the old Swedish society (before the 20th century) there was no pension system except for some government employees and a few private initiatives. For a farmer who could, for any reason (old age, illness/injury etc), no longer earn his living there was no pension system available. He could sell his farm and live off that cash as long as it lasted but this would almost always mean that his heirs would not get the farm since they could usually not raise the cash needed. A very common practice was to draw up a födorådskontrakt - a contract between the owner of a farm and his successor with the following content: where the farm owner transfers the ownership to the other person on condition that the "receiver" provides board and lodging to the (former) owner and his family.
The "board and lodging" was usually detailed in the contract, sometimes in great detail stating the exact amounts of different foods, seeds, hay, fire wood, clothing etc, room / rooms / cottage to live in and sometimes also a small amount of cash.

The contract was usually registered at the district court so genealogy researchers can consult these archives (domböcker) to find them.
The obligations that the new owner had could be linked to the farm itself so that if he sold the farm the next owner would then have to provide for the "first" owner.

The person / family receiving the board and lodging were named födorådstagare or sometimes the more generic term undantagsman or backstugusittare were used.
Undantagsman is used for a person who lives on a farm without taking any significant part in the work.
Undantagsenka = a widow who is in an "undantag" situation.
Backstugusittare is used about a person on undantag but living in a backstuga - a small cottage.

Fattigvård  (poor relief / public assistance)

(I use the term socken here since this was an undertaking of the secular organization corresponding to the parish)

Every socken had a committee of trusted men handling relief for the poor. Any person living in the socken could be eligible for support if he/she did not have the means or ability to support him/herself. Such a person was commonly "classified" as fattighjon. Another term for basically the same condition was husarm or husfattig. The latter two terms were mainly used to signify that the person was exempt from taxation. The church law of 1686 states "(kyrkoherden skall) tilsee, at the huusarme och Tiggiare i hans sochn, eij lemnas oförsörgde" = (the vicar) shall see to that the poor and beggars in his parish are not left without basic sustenance.
Full support from the socken could be given mainly  in two ways: through the rotehjonsystem or through utackordering. For people needing only partial support fattigunderstöd was used.

These systems are known since several hundred years and constitute an early form of social security funded by all members of the socken in solidarity. In the last century the systems were taken over by national institutions and government insurance schemes.


The rote is a division within a socken, usually including one or a few farms. The division was used for several purposes, among those for poor relief and soldier recruitment.

A practice for supporting poor and disabled in need of full support within the socken was used for several hundred years. Each needy person was assigned to a rote either by voluntary agreement or by tossing. The rote was responsible for full support, i.e. housing and feeding, for that person for the next year. Within a rote the needy person(s) could be rotated. If the person could work he / she should do so according to ability. The "receiving" person was called rotehjon and he/she was said to "gå på rote". Since these people did not have a fixed residence they were listed separately in every volume of husförhörslängd (clerical surveys), usually at the end of the book. Heading "Socknens rotehjon" or simply "Rotehjon". Sometimes they are registered on the page for the farm where they stayed as well.
Common abbreviation "rotehj."
Note the different meanings of the terms fattighjon, denoting a person's status as poor / without means of support, and rotehjon used only for people who were assigned support by the rotehjonsystem.


Needy persons, who, for some reason, could not "gå på rote",  a public auction was arranged and responsibility for supporting the person was awarded to the LOWEST bidder. This method was often used regarding orphaned children to provide a longer lasting relation to the foster family. As with most other public meetings about socken matters this was held at kyrkbacken (the open area in front of the church entrance) after Sunday mass. The payment was made by the socken  in kind (usually grain from the sockenmagasin) or, in later times, in cash.
For 2 boys, 12 and 14 years old, the socken paid the guardian family 2,5 barrels of oats for each boy and year. (Östervallskog, Värmland, 1826)
For a piga (farm hand) the hosting farmer was paid 8 Riksdaler Banco per day. (Östervallskog, Värmland, 1826)


This form of support of the poor and needy was used as a supplement to people who could partially support themselves. Support was almost always given in kind, i.e. in basic goods like grain, fire wood, clothing etc. The grain was collected as a local tax in each harvest season from all farms to a sockenmagasin (the "socken barn/storehouse") and distributed from there by the committee. Farmers in need could also borrow grain from here for sowing and pay back with a small interest from their harvest.
An example from Töcksmark, Värmland, 1826:
Fattighjonet Anders Eriksson på Lös (the poor man A E who lived on the farm Lös) was so weak that he could not endure to gå på rote (i.e. changing housing often). As a temporary measure he was awarded 26 kappar (old measure = 4,58 liters) for the next 26 days for him and his wife - i.e. almost 1/2 an imperial gallon of grain per person and day.

People receiving support in this form were often noted in the HFL (clerical survey) as "understödstagare" or "und.st.tag" or similar abbreviation. Sometimes the note reads "Erh. understöd" or "Erh. und" (=receives "understöd"). They were listed in the normal place, i.e. in the village where they lived.

Understöd (support) could also be paid as a one-time assistance in special situations, e.g. a poor farmer who lost his only cow but was otherwise able to support himself.
If a poor family lost their house by  fire the socken could proclaime a one-time taxation from all other taxable farms to provide material and work-force to help the family build a new house.

Support for the poor by other than the socken

In many socknar where there was a larger industry the sockenstämma often ordered the industry to provide support for their employees who were in need or pension for the retired. This could be arranged in exchange for reduced taxation of the industry.

Government insurance, national social services, personal insurance and pension funds are all creations of the 20th century.

There will be further articles on the subject coming up. You can influence the content by sending questions / requests to me.

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Last updated by F Hae 2005-05-04 11:03 © Fredrik Haeffner, 2001-3