Modern ideas about population management reached the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 18th century, prompting the very first universal census in 1790 to take stock of the realm's subjects.
In the second half of the 18th century, ideas of cameralism and the science of statistics that spread in the Age of Enlightenment had a substantial impact on the changes in the principles of rule in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The ideas of cameralism called for the creation of a unified and strong state as well as for a stronger control over many areas of social life. In turn, the science of statistics, which became a separate subject in European universities from 1746, suggested the concentration of efforts at the financial analysis of the national economy aimed at balancing the budget and improving state administration.
A number of proposals on how to reform the financial system were put forward both in Poland and Lithuania. The proposed solutions included raising taxes, introducing strict stocktaking of households and inhabitants.
The most radical proposal to the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792) came from Fryderyk Moszyński, the Grand State Secretary of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He advised taxing household incomes rather that households themselves. This is how he intended to reveal the level of economic capability of each individual household.
After the Sejm rejected his project, Moszyński worked hard to reach the approval of the law on the first general census that would encompass all layers of the society, excluding noblemen and the clergy. The names of the noble landowners had to be collected in the landowners’ book.
From gardeners to beggars
The resolution on the general census of households in the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was passed by the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on June 22, 1789. The resolution says that while conducting the census in cities and rural areas, the officials must record the number of people in each household.
The census was commenced by the commissions collecting the donation tax. The census was completed by the civil commissions of military order established in all districts by the law passed by the Sejm on November 24, 1789.
Special schemes were prepared for the census in Poland to classify the population into several groups: land-working peasants, gardeners paying the land tax, inmates, merchants, fabricants, craftsmen, innkeepers, free hands, and beggars.
In Lithuania, the household lustration books were used to complete the census. They included records of villages, homesteads and towns owned by noblemen. To the left of the name of a location would be entered the number of households, while to the left the number of inhabitants, divided by their age into five groups: from one to 16 years old, from 16 to 30, from 30 to 45, from 45 to 60, and 60 and more years old.
Moreover, people in each age group were divided by gender. The books indicated separately the number of Jews and Karaites in particular locations.
The census in progress
Beginning in 1790, two civil commissions of military order carried out the census. They had to select special workgroups of commissioners, each group consisting of at least two persons to cover the whole parish of a district and to complete the task in two months.
The commissions had the duty to deliver the tally of the total population and natural resettlement every year.
Local parsons had to provide the number of people within their parish, as well as data on marriages, births, and deaths to the civil-military commissions at the beginning of each year.
The ones daring to disobey the obligation against the civil military commissions would face a fine of 100 golden złotys.
The collected data was used to register all inhabitants of a district with individual lists for Christians, Jews, Tatars, and Karaites. The records would eventually be presented to the Treasury Commission of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which, in turn, had an obligation to inform the Sejm on the demographics of the country.
Late responses were a common occurrence. In the Upytė district, the group of commissars set up on May 18,1790, performed the lustration of households in accordance to the scheme delivered by the Treasury Commission and prepared a list, or the so-called tariff, one month later than it had to.
The commissars of the Upytė district claimed they did not complete the job in time “due to the late arrival of the instruction as to how to describe the economic capacity of the households”. Lustration in Upytė was performed by 18 commissars, members of the civil military commission, led by the marshal of the district, Michał Straszewicz.
The civil commission of military order of the Rechytsa district was among the first to send in the consolidated tables of the general census, on February 16, 1791. The commission in Brest completed the task on March 20, 1791, in Navahrudak on October 10, 1791, in Braslaw on October 17, 1791. In the Šiauliai repartition of the Duchy of Samogitia, the task was completed as late as January 16, 1792.
Result of the census
The surviving data of the general census from eleven Lithuanian districts, which represent half of all the country’s households, reveal that in terms of social groups, peasants were an absolute majority, accounting for 80 percent of the country’s population.
The nobility accounted for 6 percent countrywide and 7.3 percent in the district of Trakai, 9 percent in the district of Šiauliai, 8.6 percent in the district of Navahrudak, 3.7 percent in the district of Reczytsa, 2.6 percent in the district of Mazyr.
Jews made up 5.3 percent of the entire population, while Christians living in towns accounted for 5 percent of all people.
According to the census data, 52.8 percent of all people were male and 47.2 percent were female in 1790. Infants, children and teenagers under 17 accounted for 42 percent of all male Christians in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while people older than 50 made up 10.4 percent.
The nobility usually outlived the peasants. In the district of Šiauliai, for instance, peasants older than 50 accounted for 8.8 percent of all the people of the group,, while the percentage of the nobility was higher, 13.8 percent.
A total of 55,800 children were born in the eleven Lithuanian districts in 1790, or almost 40 newborns for every 1,000 of the population. The average birth rate stood at 39 babies for every 1,000 inhabitants at that time in Europe.
The death rate in Lithuania was the highest among people younger than 18, at 51.5 percent of all deceased that year, with infants accounting for most of the deaths.
The natural growth of the population in the eleven Lithuanian districts in 1790 was just over 13 men and women for every 1,000 of the population.
In all, about 3.6 million people lived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1790.
The story is part of the Orbis Lituaniae project by Vilnius University