Jahrbuch für Geschichte des ländlichen Raumes 12 (2015)

RHN 43/2015 | Publication

Jahrbuch für Geschichte des ländlichen Raumes 12 (2015)

Collective Use of Resources in the European Agrarian Economy

Editors: Niels Grüne, Jonas Hübner and Gerhard Siegl


Table of Contents:

Niels Grüne/Jonas Hübner/Gerhard Siegl: Rural commons. Aims and key issues of the volume

Research trajectories and new orientations

José-Miguel Lana: From privatisation to governed nature. Old and new approaches to rural commons in Spain

The last decades have witnessed a shift in the studies on Spanish rural commons, in line with changes in the international social science and historical literature as a whole. The focus in the 1970s was on the privatisation process referred to as desamortización (disentailment), being considered one of the essential steps in the transition to capitalism. The recent revival of attention to rural commons has been concerned less with privatisation than with the real functioning of commons institutions and the social relations surrounding them. A further thrust of interest has been the interaction between rural society and the state, mainly with respect to forestry policy and its effects on different regions. A third flourishing field of research is the emergence of conflicts around rural commons – not only those of a distributive nature but also environmental and political ones. Accordingly, these new approaches go beyond the old image of a fatal destiny in order to profoundly analyse the environmental and social dimensions of rural commons’ dynamics.

Jonathan Healey: Co-operation and conflict. Politics, institutions and the management of the English commons, 1500–1700

A large proportion of the English population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had some access to common land. This brought inevitable conflicts over shared resources and led to attempts to limit and police the access of commoners, and to exclude outsiders, usually undertaken through local manorial courts, but also resulting in a complex ‘politics of the commons’. This politics also encompassed political action ranging from gossip through petty acts of violence up to engagement with central law courts and outright rebellion. This article discusses the key conflicts associated with English common lands – highlighted as the need to maintain sustainable usage and the need to exclude outsiders – and the institutional framework linked with managing these conflicts, before going on to describe the political tactics deployed in commoning disputes.

Sylvain Olivier: Rural commons in Mediterranean France from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries

Based on local case studies, the aim of this article is to outline the specifics of rural commons in Mediterranean France. Between the Pyrenees and the Italian frontier, the garrigues (scrublands) and other rocky slopes cover major parts of the rural areas. Since the seventeenth century and until the mid-twentieth century, the communes owned most of them or at least claimed some usage rights to them. The issue of access to common-pool resources was complex and evolving, with resources open to all when they were abundant and less coveted, but managed by a more or less limited number of entitled users. Common land provided many resources for the rural population: Though primarily used to feed livestock and for the improvement of agriculture, they were also places for hunting and for gathering vegetal or mineral resources. Local situations differed significantly according to environmental conditions. The scope of the various common-pool resources seems incalculable, because even though land surveys are recorded in large numbers for the southern regions of France, they only deliver data on arable land, not on common waste.

Stefan Brakensiek: Traditions and recent trends of German research on the history of rural commons. A survey

While commons of the past are widely studied in western Europe, German historiography has not developed a distinct research focus on this important topic. Therefore, it is challenging to give a review as relevant observations cannot be found in surveys dealing with this particular issue, but instead in a greater number of studies on various subjects. The article starts with a summary of insights into the old-established research on rural communities, which has been deployed in plenty of regional studies and source-editions. This branch of historiography offers a sophisticated picture of norms and customs governing the commons of single villages and the so-called Marken that stretched over wider areas. More recently research has been done on rural conflicts between (or within) the peasantry, the nobility and the emerging territorial states. Some current findings of regional and local studies are presented, which include delineations of such struggles. These publications are of particular interest since they focus on the agency of commoners from different strata of rural society. Finally, specific results of the histories of rural environment, landscapes and forests are recapitulated. On the one hand they emphasise the disputes arising with the emergence of administrations regulating woods, waters, agriculture and rural industries. On the other hand they are concerned with markets for forestal and agricultural goods and their impact on common property regimes.

Piotr Guzowski: The commons in late medieval and early modern Poland. An unattended historical phenomenon

Although historians have long been aware of the economic significance of rural commons, Polish historiography has barely been concerned with this issue and has not produced any monographic or synthetic studies. The earliest information about the commons comes from thirteenth-century sources documenting conflicts between rural communities and feudal lords. The most important elements of Polish rural commons were central squares, meadows and pastures with open access to water and forests. Direct management of the commons was in the hands of sołtys (village leaders), who consulted their decisions with other members of the community. Unfortunately, since the commons were not taxed, they were not included in inventories and tax records. Thus, it is very difficult to estimate their size. Some forms of the commons survived in the Polish lands until the second half of the twentieth century.

Eduard Maur: Common land in Bohemia from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. A stocktaking and some new approaches in research

Utilising common land, especially open fields and forests, was an important part of the Bohemian village economy until the nineteenth century. Common land played several roles: First of all, it was used as pasture for cattle. Part of the land was rented to peasants; another part was a crucial land reserve for building new houses, whose inhabitants made their living as day labourers or in the proto-industry. Revenues from the sale or lease of land helped to cover the community expenses or were divided among the local citizens. As part of the reforms of enlightened absolutism, around 1770 the state issued a decree on the division of pastures and conversion into arable land, which was, however, successful only to some extent. Obstacles included the conservative attitude of estate owners and insufficient attention paid to the real needs of the village communities. The growth of the rural population led, on the contrary, to increased interest in common pastures for subsistence. This also caused numerous disputes over pastures and common land in general between wealthy and poor villagers. Such conflicts were reflected in the petition movement during the 1848 revolution and culminated in the second half of the nineteenth century after the new communal law – widely rejected by wealthy peasants – had extended the number of common land users. The disputes faded as late as 1919, when a new legal definition of common land was adopted, and ceased for good with the socialist collectivisation after 1948.

Antal Szántay: Rural commons in eighteenth-century Hungary

The aim of this article is to summarise the main results of earlier and recent research, and to identify different types of collective use of agrarian resources and their functions in eighteenth-century Hungary. The overview of property rights concludes that a certain type of collective ownership prevailed during that period while there was also considerable institutional change from co-ownership towards divided, individual rural property. The same shift is observable in land use, due to increasing population pressure. With the changing value of resources, three constellations are observable simultaneously: (1) free use, (2) common use, and (3) individual use. The paper describes the characteristics of these constellations, mainly constellation one and two being typical in eighteenth-century Hungary, in different ecological and socio-economic settings. Specific examples are provided for arable land and herding in the Hungarian Great Plain area, forest clearings in mountain regions, the regulative efforts in the later eighteenth century, the compossessoratus of noble and privileged Székely communities, and the very delicate ecological characteristics of fishery and wetland agriculture. Furthermore, vineyards show the specific pattern of individual property and use under strict collective control and regulation.


Local and regional case studies

José A. Serrano Álvarez: Commons and poor relief in pre-industrial societies. A case study on northwest Spain (León), 1850–1950

In the mid-nineteenth century province of León in northwest Spain, traditional agrarian organisation depended on the use of commons. As in other places in Spain and Europe, these common lands were subject to complex exploitation and regulated by a detailed set of common-law rules. The agrarian societies of the province of León were relatively egalitarian and strongly united. One of the reasons for this was that communal institutions guaranteed stability both with regard to exploitation of resources and to income distribution among the different social sectors, which continued until more or less the middle of the twentieth century. The aim of this article is to examine the role played by common land in relation to the poorer members of the community, as there are many authors who, in one way or another, claim that the commons were essential for the formers’ survival. The province of León has been chosen as a geographical frame in order to study peasant solidarities in this rural area between 1850 and 1950. The analysis focuses on three aspects. The first is related to the use of common property and to the question of whether the poor were the main beneficiaries of common land exploitation. Secondly, we consider whether peasants’ rights and free exploitation were synonymous with egalitarian access. Finally, we examine the moral dimension of common law and those practices and obligations of ‘solidarity’, which had been institutionalised to ‘help’ the needy.

Anne Marie Granet-Abisset: Natural territories, cultural territories. Tensions and conflicting challenges surrounding French high Alpine real estate since the nineteenth century

Since the development of high Alpine valleys as tourist destinations in the nineteenth century, first for the urban elite and then, in the twentieth century, for a new leisure society, not only have their territories become visible but they have also become objectified as real and symbolic appropriations. The remaining public lands, now serving as playgrounds for tourists (partly emigrated natives who take up a secondary residence), cause tensions with complex antagonisms such as: tourist practices and pastoral customs, individual and common property, reforested lands assigned to the prevention of natural risks since the 1960s, and protected areas. This study uses contemporary practical examples from the Dauphiné Alps (situated in the departments of Isère and Hautes Alpes) to approach and understand the situation and to evaluate what is at stake. However, it will be necessary to root this reflection in the progressive construction of the contradictory functions assigned to these common lands since the end of the nineteenth century.

Evi Pechlaner: Agrarian communities and rural commons in South Tyrol. Reflections on the field of tension between Austrian and Italian legislation

In South Tyrol, which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War One, common properties had played an important role in livestock farming and forest management since the Middle Ages. A large part of these common lands were possessed by rural communes. But there also existed collectives of farmers called ‘neighbourhoods’ which claimed special rights (‘from time immemorial’) to use a part of the common lands as their own. In most cases the Austrian legislation of the nineteenth century acknowledged the rights of these neighbourhoods. As a consequence of the peace treaty of Saint-Germain (1919) South Tyrol became part of the Italian kingdom. In 1927 the Italian government enacted a law in order to regulate the use of rural commons in a homogeneous way. The common lands were assigned to the rural communes by special decrees. But the lands of the neighbourhoods were in many cases also declared as common lands and assigned to the rural communes. Only after the commencement of the so-called First Statute of Autonomy, which permitted legislative competence to the provincial government of South Tyrol (Bolzano province), was it possible to re-establish the neighbourhoods and to restore their collective property.

Luca Mocarelli: Managing common land in unequal societies. The case of the Lombard Alps in the eighteenth century

It is well known that commons played and still play a leading role in mountain economies, since the most important natural resources – pasturages, meadows, woods, water – belong to the communities and are used by the inhabitants. This contribution deals with the management of common land in the Lombard Alps in the eighteenth century with a special focus on the features of local societies. The research question examines in which way unequal societies, such as those of mountain areas, managed common land. In the Lombard Alps there was a double inequality regarding the use of common resources. Firstly, there was a clear distinction between the antichi originari (inhabitants settled there at least for a century) who had access to resources and management of common land, and the forestieri (strangers) who had not. Secondly, there were also great disproportions in income between originari and forestieri as well as among the originari. Consequently, the article focuses on the way in which such social and economic structures affected the management of the commons, with a particular emphasis on the access to and use of pasturages and woods. It demonstrates that in some cases the collective use of commons was not the best solution in terms of equality.

Jonas Hübner: Social inequality in an early modern rural resource regime. The ‘Essener Mark’ in the region of Osnabrück

Framing rural commons as ‘institutions for collective action’, recent historical research has consistently stressed the efficiency and flexibility of common management institutions and has attributed their resilience and longevity almost exclusively to their internal organisation in terms of economic utility, ecological sustainability and social equity. This positive perception of the potential of commons to manage resources successfully, however, tends to blend out certain classic research interests of social history: Social inequality, exclusion and conflicts are mostly dealt with in the context of their institutional containment – as tacit structural preconditions or peripheral features of historical commons. By contrast, this case study of an early modern common in northwest Germany exposes the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as a ‘tragedy of exclusion’: Embedded in a society of harsh estates-based inequality, the ‘Essener Mark’ was a rural resource regime that excluded a vast part of the population from the appropriation of common-pool resources, whose allocation was brokered by a complex corporate power structure of local noblemen and the big farmers. As an integral and durable part of that structure the commons regime absorbed conflicts, fostered exclusion and reinforced social inequality for more than 300 years.

Teresa Massinger: Conflicts over common land and territorial rule in the Franconian-Swabian territorium inclausum. The struggle for sovereignty in the Dinkelsbühl region in the community of Aufkirchen-Gerolfingen

The article explores the conflicts within the complex entanglement of commons’ regulation and territorial rule around Hesselberg mountain in south Germany during the early modern period. It focuses on the typical problem of sovereignty (‘Landeshoheit’) in the territorium inclausum of Swabia and Franconia – in this case between the margraves of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the princes of Oettingen, the free imperial city Dinkelsbühl, the dukes of Württemberg, the Teutonic Order and other, smaller dominions. On a local level, it investigates the development of the communal district Aufkirchen-Gerolfingen, its regulations of common lands and the latters’ segregation by a contract of 1779 between Brandenburg-Ansbach and Oettingen. In particular, the paper examines the changing administration of rural commons (pasture, woodland, ponds) under the impact of growing state interference. The article reveals that Brandenburg-Ansbach and Oettingen managed to disable other rulers and to assert their exclusive sovereignty in the eighteenth century, especially after their contract about jurisdiction and sovereignty in 1746. Furthermore, they succeeded in dismantling the autonomy of both the communes Aufkirchen and Gerolfingen in the use of common land.


Problem-specific analyses and comparisons

Tine De Moor/Annelies Tukker: Survival without sanctioning. The relationship between institutional resilience and methods of dealing with free-riding on early modern Dutch commons

In the early modern period, much rule-making took place on the local level, also within institutions for collective action such as commons. The term ‘commons’ stood for both a wide range of natural resources and for the institution itself, which was characterised by self-governance and self-regulation. Recent literature on the regulation of collective resources puts much emphasis on the role of sanctioning in order to prevent freeriding among those who are entitled to use the commons, and by those who have no rights but try to benefit. Another branch of the literature searches for the ‘holy grail’ of institutional success and tries to find out which ‘recipe’ works best for making commons sufficiently resilient to changes (e.g. population growth, economic crises, ecological change). The detailed study of eight Dutch commons of varying longevity in this article brings together, for the first time, both debates within a historical framework. Our study demonstrates that the longer an institution survived, the less energy its rule-makers spent on creating sanctions. Contrary to our expectations, not all rules were accompanied by a sanction. Moreover, the type of sanctioning changed over time according to a specific pattern. Some types of sanctions were only used in extreme cases, when nothing else worked. This article provides a much deeper understanding of how freeriding could be dealt with in an institution for collective action in order to ensure its survival.

Jesper Larsson: Crises, commons and collective action. The changing use of woodlands and mountains in seventeenth-century upland Scandinavia

This article explores the changing use of commons in seventeenth-century upland Scandinavia. The main hypothesis is that the use of commons in many upland regions increased during the early modern period due to a higher demand for natural resources from the commons. In Sweden, this development had started in the sixteenth century but accelerated during the seventeenth century when many crises befell the peasants and other users. This paper demonstrates how these crises were turned into development by changing the use of the commons. The changes required more collective action and transformed the ways in which peasants and other users worked together and created new institutional settings and organisations. The article provides four examples of production areas: Sami reindeer nomadic pastoralism, tar distillation, charcoal burning and a transhumance system (summer farms). The seventeenth century is known as the ‘age of greatness’ in Swedish history. However, for peasants, the period can be described as a crisis. The crisis had three main causes: (1) wars, (2) increased taxes and (3) a cooler climate. The change in uses of the commons lasted for more than two centuries and proved essential to the users’ economies into the early twentieth century. The more intense use of the commons had an impact on institutions, organisations, labour division, land use and settlements.

Christoph Pöll: Transformation processes in Alpine dairy farming during the late nineteenth century. The introduction of hard cheese making on common mountain pastures of the ‘Unterland’ in Northern Tyrol

The paper deals with the impact of hard cheese production on the management of common land in Northern Tyrol during the late nineteenth century. Compared to other Alpine regions, especially to Switzerland, hard cheese making emerged comparatively late in Northern Tyrol, but was established within a few decades. This resulted from the rural structures evolved by the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly the existence of large Alpine pastures. In illuminating central features of the transformation process, the article focuses on the integration of hard cheese production into traditional modes of Alpine farming, the development of new forms of cooperation among peasants and the rise of a specialised, exclusively masculine labour force (‘Schweizer’). Furthermore, the flexible resilience of the common property regime on the Alps in an increasingly commercialised environment attracts particular attention. On the whole, it is shown that hard cheese making was more than a simple addition to Northern Tyrol’s livestock farming. By using statistics and newspapers as indicators it becomes apparent that this expanding sector changed the economic and social structures surrounding common pastures profoundly.

Anne-Lise Head-König: Common land and collective property in pre-Alpine and Alpine Switzerland. Tensions regarding access to resources and their allocation (Middle Ages–twentieth century)

Today, a large area of upland Switzerland is still collectively owned, especially in the central and eastern parts of the country, but due to different political conceptions. The size of the land owned by rural corporations varied and still varies enormously depending on the period in which they were created and their capacity to acquire common land over the centuries. The resources were by no means limited to grazing land, meadows, wood and forest but could also include vineyards, peat, sand pits and quarries, roads, rivers and lakes. Due to the marked growth in population since the sixteenth century a number of rules limiting the access to these common-pool resources were progressively adopted. They were at the root of enduring conflicts right up to the end of the nineteenth century. They concerned the beneficiaries of the commons – originally only those who possessed local citizenship and not even all of these – that in turn led to a restrictive policy towards those who did not belong to the traditional group of users. Within the rural corporations, tensions arose with regard to the use of the so-called valley common land, which was periodically reappraised according to the economic situation. But there were also latent tensions between neighbouring corporations, as nearly all corporations had a policy of increasing their common land when they could, and this often meant encroaching on the property of their neighbours.

Niels Grüne/Gerhard Siegl: Contrasting persistence of rural commons in Tyrol and the Baden Palatinate (eighteenth–twenty-first centuries)

Particularly in German-speaking agrarian historiography, research on rural commons has long been under the spell of their dissolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a result, the continuance of such institutions well into the twentieth century or even to the present has remained poorly elucidated. This theme is picked up with respect to northern Tyrol and the Baden Palatinate, which provide an illuminating case for contrasting comparison, since they owed the persistence of commons beyond the alleged watershed around 1800 to rather different natural, settlement, economic and political-juridical conditions. The two regions are first portrayed separately in relation to (1) resource systems and institutional arrangements, (2) processes of change and potentials for conflict and (3) forms of inclusion and exclusion. The last part provides a discussion of parallels and peculiarities along these three dimensions. It becomes clear that both extensive livestock-farming (Tyrol) and cash-cropping (Baden Palatinate) or certain combinations with industrial labour could contribute to the maintenance of collective ownership until the mid-twentieth century. Afterwards, however, the developments diverged starkly, not only due to market forces, but at least as much due to government intervention.

Hein van Gils/Rohan Mark Bennett/Martin Hipondoka: Of pastures and tourism. A comparison of Tyrolean and Namibian commons institutions

We compare institutions of pastoral-cum-tourist commons in Europe (Tyrol) and southern Africa (Namibia). Membership of European pastoral single village commons was less than one hundred enumerated farms. In Namibia, membership was more numerous, unregistered and open-ended. Tyrolean commons included huntable game, owned by either the collective or the municipality. Namibian commons, inclusive of huntable game, were national property. Tyrolean commoners privately held enumerated pastoral rights, whereas the stock numbers of Namibian commoners were open-ended. While herding in Europe is undertaken collectively, Namibians herd individually. Tyrolean commoners’ collectives were public law associations of ancestral farm-with-field owners with a statute prescribing internal democracy. Namibian pastoral commons operated under local, unwritten, customary law. In Namibia, conditional use rights for huntable game was recently devolved to public law associations of commoners, that is, Conservancies. Namibian Conservancies hold use rights for game without jurisdiction over land, similar to hunting associations in Tyrol. Capital investment in tourism on Tyrolean commons was from within the village, in Conservancies (inter)national. Unlike definite commons boundaries in Tyrol, Namibian equivalents are often disputed.


Niels Grüne/Jonas Hübner/Gerhard Siegl: Institutions and practices of the collective use of resources in the European agrarian economy. Comparative reflections and research perspectives

The last contribution sums up the major results of this volume. It adopts a comparative perspective by relating the various observations to each other and by placing them in the wider context of the recent relevant literature. It makes a case for the German notion ‘ländliche Gemeingüter’ as an umbrella term analogous to ‘rural commons’ in English. The following core section of the synthesis is organised according to the analytical framework laid out in the preface. The first part deals with ‘resource systems and institutional arrangements’; we then turn to ‘inclusion and exclusion’ and to corresponding cultures of conflict and consensus; afterwards, the political sphere in the narrow, state-centred sense is illuminated under the heading ‘constitutional structures’; we close with a review of those factors which fostered or hampered ‘processes of change’. In light of such considerations, we finally identify five dimensions of the study of rural commons that deserve more attention in the future: (1) language and terminology; (2) micro-dynamics and vertical interaction, especially prior to the mid-eighteenth century; (3) the effects of exclusion from common resources on conflicts and social inequality; (4) an agenda beyond the paradigms of tragedy and sustainability; (5) regional research disparities.


Nachruf Markus Cerman (1967–2015)