23: The prison

Birkedommerfængsel i Den Fynske Landsby.

Vindue i birkedommerfængslet i Den Fynske Landsby.

Udsigt fra cellen i Den Fynske Landsbys birkedommerfængsel.


The prison (no. 23) originates from Ravnholt Birk. Until 1849 it was possible for nobel landowners to set up a private judicial district called a 'birk'. Within this 'birk' the landowner was very influential.

Very little is known about the prison's history. Hans Haastrup had it built between 1813 and 1846.
The prison is 9 x 8 bays. It was built as a kind of high cellar with a loft. The cellar is constructed of large, in some cases split, granite boulders. The walls are about one metre thick. The walls of the loft are timber-framed. They are one panel high and the timber is oak. The roof is thatched with reed with a kragetræ ridge.
There is access to the loft through a door above the stairs leading down into the cellar. The cellar is laid out with a relatively large, dark anteroom and a small cell with a window. It would have been dark, cold and damp in the cell. Hopefully, people were not there for long. The functions of the anteroom and the loft are unknown. Presumably they were used for storage.

The Judicial District Court or “Birke” Prison originates from Ravnholt Birk. Ravnholt was, and still is, one of Funen's largest manors.
A birk was a kind of private judicial district which the manors could set up on their properties.

The legal system was built up around town courts, herredretter (a type of inferior court) and birker. There were as many as 22 birker on Funen during the 19th century. The last one was abolished in 1919.

Ravnholt Birk functioned from 1633 to 1874. Within this jurisdiction the landowner could rule. The Birke Prison symbolises the enormous influence which the landowners had over the rural population until about 1800. And on many estates this even continued up until about 1920. The landowners owned more-or-less all the agricultural land and all the farms, and after 1660 they also had many public rights and duties relative to the rural population on behalf of the autocratic king.

The district court judge The landowner had for a long period as a privilege and a duty “power over life and death”. In practice, this was the right to catch and retain people with respect to prosecution by another court, in cases of serious crimes. There was also the right to inflict corporal punishment and the right to impose fines for more minor offences. The landowner appointed a district court or Birke judge. In the case of Ravnholt, Hans Haastrup was appointed in 1813. He was a lawyer, which was an innovation for the manor. He carried out his duties until his death in 1846. In addition to his work as a district court judge, Hans Haastrup also ran the farm which in 1844 was of considerable size with more than 7 tønder hartkorn.