Dishonest Surveyor and Plowman Legends

Folktales about dishonest surveyors
and plowmen who encroach upon their neighbors' fields,
translated and edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2021

Contents

  1. The Cursed Land Surveyors (Germany).

  2. The Displaced Boundary Stone (Germany).

  3. Jörle Knix (Germany).

  4. The Dishonest Plowman (Germany).

  5. The Seven Steps (Germany).

  6. Land Plowed Away (Germany).

  7. Punishment for Removing Land-Marks (Denmark).

  8. The Glowing Surveyor (Netherlands).

  9. The Boundary Wrongdoer in Siggenthal (Switzerland).

  10. The Boundary Stone (Italy / Austria).

  11. Commentary.


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Cursed Land Surveyors

Germany

Will-o'-the-Wisps that glide back and forth along river banks and the edges of fields are said to have been land surveyors who dishonestly measured the plot boundaries. After death they are therefore condemned to wander around and keep watch over those very boundaries.




The Displaced Boundary Stone

Germany

A ghostly spirit in the form of a man is frequently seen in the fields surrounding Eger. The people call him "Squire Ludwig." It is said that a man by this name formerly lived here, and that he deceitfully moved the field's boundary stones. Soon after his death he began to wander about, appearing to many people and frightening them.

This was experienced in more recent times by a girl from the town. One day she walked through the town gate by herself and happened into the infamous area. At the place where the boundary stone had been moved to (as was claimed), a man approached her. He had the appearance of the evil squire, as he had been described. He walked toward her, took hold of her breast with his fist, and then disappeared.

She ran home in shock, and said to her family, "I'm done for!"

They saw that her breast had turned black where the spirit had grabbed her. She immediately went to bed, and on the third day afterward she died.




Jörle Knix

Germany

In Schmalkalden there once lived a man by the name of Jörle Knix. During his lifetime he repeatedly encroached upon his neighbors' adjoining fields by moving the boundary stones, thus dishonestly enlarging his own lands.

After his death he was denied eternal peace, and until the present day Jörle Knix can be seen in his field as a fiery man with his head under his arm and a glowing hoe on his shoulder. There, without pause, he jumps over the boundary stones that he moved.




The Dishonest Plowman

Germany

In Ehringen, a village between Wolfhagen and Volkmarsen, there once lived a peasant who was hated and cursed by everyone, for it was his custom to plow one or more furrows into his neighbors' fields whenever he plowed his own lands, thus enriching himself. However, after his death he was punished for these acts. Every night he is now damned to wander about the fields that dishonestly enlarged in this manner.




The Seven Steps

Germany

On the main road from Nenndorf to Hannover in the vicinity of the village of Eberloh, right next to the road, there can be seen seven upright stones spaced like footsteps. They have been carefully preserved even to this day. They are called the seven steps, and the following legend is associated with them:

Many years ago two peasants came into conflict about the boundary between their adjoining fields. The one accused the other of plowing away some of his land. The accused man swore with an oath that he was innocent. Later the accuser wanted to prove that his neighbor had perjured himself, and invited the court to see the fields for themselves.

The person who had sworn the oath appeared as well, and said, "If I have sworn falsely then may God grant that I take no more than seven steps." With his seventh step he disappeared, and was never seen again.




Land Plowed Away

Germany

In Klein-Paaren there was once a peasant who, during his lifetime, plowed away the edges of his neighbors' fields, then afterwards moved the boundary stones. Heaven punished him for this. He had scarcely died before he began appearing in the night at the place where he had sinned. He was seen there busily digging at the land he had plowed away. He was also often seen panting and carrying a heavy boundary stone about. He would call out in misery, "Where shall I set it down? Where shall I set it down?"

This was often heard at midnight until finally the preacher went out to that place and said, "In God's name, set it back down where you found it."

He did that, and since then he has not been seen again. It may be that he has found redemption.




Punishment for Removing Land-Marks

Denmark

Before the permanent allotment of lands, to every peasant, in sowing time, so much of the field or mark was assigned as was just and appropriate, and boundary posts were driven between his and his neighbor's allotment. Whoever removed such marks, though he might escape punishment in this world, could find no rest in the grave, but by way of penalty must plough every night on the spot where his sin lay hidden.

Of such plowmen it is said, that when any person came near, they compelled him to drive their horses; and if any one were so forced into their service, there was no other way to get free again than to take notice of the place where he began, and after the first turn to cast away the reins. He might then pursue his way unscathed.


Near Skive lies the manor of Krabbesholm, where there once dwelt a lady who wished to appropriate to herself an adjacent field, and therefore caused her overseer to put earth from the garden at Krabbesholm into his wooden shoes, with which he went to the field in dispute, and swore that he stood on the soil of Krabbesholm.

The field was adjudged to the lady, but afterwards the overseer could not die before she had given it back; yet he, nevertheless, every night still goes round the field with earth in his wooden shoes.


Three men belonging to Spandet, in North Schleswig, swore away the beautiful meadow of Elkjser from the village of Fjersted; in lieu of which the villagers got the inferior one of Sepkjser. They had also put earth in their shoes. After their death they were long to be seen wandering about the meadow, wringing their hands and crying:

Med Ret og Skjel,
Det ved vi vel,
Elkjær ligger til Fjersted By,
Sepkjær ligger til Spandet.
By law and right,
That know we well,
Elkjær belongs to Fjersted town,
Sepkjær belongs to Spandet.

Near Ebeltoft dwelt a peasant who possessed land and cattle in superabundance, paid taxes both to church and state, brought his tithes at the right time, gave to the poor, and went every Sunday to church; yet, notwithstanding all this, there was not an individual in the whole neighborhood that placed any real confidence in him.

He died and was buried, but after having lain in the earth until harvest time, he was heard at night crying piteously over the field, "Boundary here! boundary there!"

Now people discovered how in his lifetime he had acquired his wealth.




The Glowing Surveyor

Netherlands

A surveyor near Farsum was very dishonest during his lifetime. Whenever he measured a plot of land he accepted a bribe in order to make the plot larger than it should have been. For this reason he was cursed, and after his death he has to go about as a glowing man with a glowing surveyor's chain. Thus is he is measuring land every night, even to this day.




The Boundary Wrongdoer in Siggenthal

Switzerland

If someone plows away land from his neighbor, then after his death he appears every night as a fiery skeleton on the stolen land. And if one looks out a window at midnight, the skeleton will come up to the eaves, just wanting to be spoken to, for then he would be redeemed.

In this regard they tell about the following event in Siggenthal:

One night around midnight a traveling tailor was at work in a customer's house when his light went out. A fiery skeleton was standing just outside the window, and it moaned over and over again: "A hoe! A hoe!"

The tailor wisely did not answer, but instead called the household together and asked them to give the skeleton what he wanted. They fetched a hoe and threw it out the window. The next morning they found it lying outside. The hoe's handle was badly burned, and the iron was still glowing.




The Boundary Stone

Italy / Austria

In Ulten there is a meadow called the "Schwemm." There is a crucifix in this meadow, and the old-timers tell the following legend about its origin and meaning:

Two farmers formerly owned this meadow. One of them was not satisfied with with his portion and began a dispute about the boundary. He claimed that the boundary originally had been almost in the middle of his neighbor's current portion. He said that the boundary's location had been forgotten through the carelessness of the shepherds. The dispute was brought before a judge. Because neither party could present witnesses, the judge did not have an easy decision.

Finally the accuser's greed drove him to swear an oath: "I swear that I have told the truth. If I have told a lie, then may my head serve as a boundary stone!"

The other farmer was terrified by such godless speech, and he said: "Neighbor, upon your oath I grant you the meadow. The future will show whether or not you have spoken the truth!"

A short time later the untruthful farmer died, and the following day the shepherds found his head lying on the old legal boundary. They immediately recognized it as the head of the unjust neighbor. News of this soon spread down to the village.

The dead man's body had already been buried, and in order to clarify matters, the grave was re-opened. In the coffin the body was indeed lying there without a head. The head was buried again with the body, but immediately it appeared back in the meadow. Prayers and blessings did not help. The head kept returning to the meadow until it finally decayed and fell to dust.

The living neighbor once again took posession of his part of the meadow. He had a crucifix erected at the place where the head had formerly lain.




Commentary

The fear that one's land might be stolen by a neighbor moving boundary stones or plowing into an adjoining field must have been fairly common in pre-industrial Europe, for there are many accounts, similar to the ones above, that assign dire supernatural punishment to those who attempt such dishonesty.

An important literary treatment of this deception (but without the supernatural consequences) is contained in the novella Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (A Village Romeo and Juliet) by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller. Click here for a link to this text (in German): Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe.


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised January 17, 2021.