Forests and Woodlands

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FORESTS AND WOODLANDS. Wood was far and away the primary source of energy for heating, cooking, and all industrial processes in early modern Europe. It was the central component in most parts of Europe in building construction, and for all means of transport (wagons, carts, boats), packing (barrels, boxes), agricultural and industrial production (plows, tools, canes, poles, fences, pitprops), and machinery. These uses required rather different qualities of wood or timber, and products were in demand to varying extents according to local conditions and needs. Wood was never an undifferentiated resource, but was required in many different forms for different and often competing uses. Shortages of wood in one form (such as curved timbers for shipbuilding) by no means meant that it was generally scarce. In western and central Europe, around 70 to 90 percent of wood was harvested in the form of young trees or coppice wood used primarily for fuel. In many regions perhaps the majority of trees stood in fields or hedgerows rather than woodland.

Woodland was not only a source of wood. Bark was used for tanning, sap for creating resin-based products, and woodlands were also a vital source of fodder. Leaves were systematically harvested, especially in upland parts of Europe, and the forest floor provided humus used as stall litter. More frequently, herds of cows, sheep, and pigs were brought into the woodlands to feed on grass, shrubbery, acorns, and beech mast. The most familiar of these uses is the masting of pigs, but this provided only a dietary supplement that added weight and improved the quality of the meat. Acorns and the nuts from chestnut and beech trees were, however, never able to provide a fully satisfactory diet for swine. Pasturing needs encouraged the development of very open woodland, with relatively few mature trees widely spaced to provide the mast and allow light to encourage lush grazing. In Mediterranean areas such as the Cévennes of France and upland central Italy, chestnut groves were harvested, the nuts ground into flour and used for making the staple bread. Some parts of Europe also had extensive populations of wild game, with the right to hunt them accorded almost exclusively to the nobility. Wild boar and deer were the most prevalent species, but in Iberia and eastern Europe wolves were also targets of the chase.

Determining the real extent of woodland across wide areas of Europe remains a problem for historians. This arises not only from lack of data, but also because of the variable quality of wooded land itself. In parts of the Mediterranean, especially southern Spain and Portugal, extensive savannahlike landscapes with scattered live or cork oaks existed, as well as denser stands of trees. At the end of the sixteenth century, around one-third of France, the German-speaking lands, Bohemia, and Poland were wooded. Most of northeast Europe and Scandinavia was somewhat more forested. Denmark had about one-quarter of its surface area under trees. Around 12 percent of Ireland may have been wooded, Britain a little less than a tenth, and the Netherlands less than a twentieth. Reliable figures for the Mediterranean lands at this time are not as yet available.

Given the universal need for wood, much woodland was divided into small patches on the less fertile soils in the vicinity of settlements, so that it remained easily accessible without excessive transportation costs. Depending on the local institutional framework, these woodlands were usually owned by local lords or by village communities, and the local population could exercise common rights of grazing and fuel gathering in them. Larger areas of upland forest were often claimed by rulers by regalian right, to control uncultivated or unused land. The Ardennes and Vosges, the Harz and Ore Mountains of central Europe, the Alps, Styria, and Carinthia in Austria, Swedish forests, and the Weald in southern England became centers of industrial processing. Iron, lead, silver, and copper production, potash and pitch making, saltworks, and glass manufacture required very large amounts of wood. These mining and industrial areas were far from marginal and often home to large settlements of skilled workers. In such regions large populations of charcoal makers and woodcutters supplemented the herders and forest wardens more usually found in village woodlands.

Complaints about wood shortages had already emerged in the late medieval period in a few parts of Europe. These grew in frequency and stridency with the expansion of population over the "long sixteenth century" (14501650) and especially after 1700. Inevitably, this was reflected in rising prices for wood. In many cases, however, these rose from an extraordinarily low base price, in a world where much wood was accessible for free as part of common rights. Very rapid price rises in centers such as Berlin reflected the very rapid expansion of those cities. The poor could be priced out of the market where wood was very scarce, so that they might be forced to rely on substitutes such as straw, reeds, and dried dung, or to go cold. London's expansion, and relatively easy access to the coalfields of northeast England, meant that coal became the cheaper and more popular fuel as early as the 1580s, despite reservations about its unpleasant smoke. The majority of England's heat energy needs were certainly met by coal before 1700. In this, England followed in the wake of the wood-poor Netherlands, whose western provinces predominantly utilized peat for heating throughout the period. The Netherlands and southeast England also imported huge quantities of timber for construction from Norway, Germany, the Baltic, and, by the later eighteenth century, the Americas. The bulk and relatively low value of wood meant it could only be transported far by water. Upland streams often had their flow regulated to permit the floating of logs downstream, which were then bound into rafts for long journeys to centers of demand. However, the market for wood was highly differentiated, and complaints about shortages of one form of wood, or indeed the relatively favorable price of fossil fuels, do not necessarily indicate a general shortage. In most parts of Europe, transport costs and the inaccessibility of deep seams limited coal use before the nineteenth century.

States and rulers responded to widespread concerns about wood shortage from the fifteenth century onward by passing legislation that often limited cutting and grazing rights in all woodlands, not just those owned directly by rulers. Often this legislation attempted to apply the best practices from private or communally owned woodlands, but implementation across the board proved slow, often caught between competing interests of woodland users who sought mature timber, firewood, or grazing. Much of the legislation responded to particular interest groups, and historians of France and Germany have disputed whether fears of "wood shortage" masked the appropriation of woodlands by the state for fiscal reasons or for industry, especially iron smelters, to guarantee cheap fuel supplies. Although this played its part, concerns for the welfare of the population were often genuine and well founded, and, in nearly all regions of Europe, domestic demand remained by far the largest part of consumption.

The acquisition of timber required for shipbuilding was a particular concern of maritime governments, especially for navies, although the merchant marine was far larger. This demand was small compared to that for other uses and did not, as has so often been supposed, prompt deforestation. The long time scale required to provide trees of the right type did lead governments, however, to attempt to protect such trees and encourage planting, as in Sweden in 1558, France in 1669, and Spain in 1748 (though the influence of shipping on these wide-ranging forest laws has been much exaggerated). Such measures sometimes prompted attacks on the protected trees from local peasants who could get no use from them, accelerating declines in supply. While many states had professional forest administrations from the sixteenth century onward, technical training in forestry did not appear until the mid-eighteenth century. Thereafter, woodland management increasingly became a theoretical and strictly applied art, leading to the dominance of "scientific forestry" under state guidance during the nineteenth century.

There is clear evidence of very extensive deforestation only from France, Ireland, and Denmark during the early modern period. However, yields in many areas were low. Eighteenth-century population expansion combined with large increases in iron production (which, because of technical difficulties, first began to use coal throughout the production process only in the 1780s) to lead to regional overexploitation and shortfalls of wood by the end of the ancien régime. This was compounded in turn by the desire of many states to remain self-sufficient in supplies. As wood was one of the few assets easily made liquid, financial pressure could lead to devastating and rapid felling of woodlands by both lordships and village communities during times of increasing military and fiscal burdens. In most places, a governmental right to regulate all woodlands was established in the sixteenth century, but extensive changes to woodland came only in the eighteenth. This saw limits on traditional woodcutting practices and especially grazing, the latter partly achieved by the transition of industrial areas from deciduous forests to faster growing conifer monocultures that restricted fodder growth. These changes led to increasing antagonism between foresters and peasants, expressed in widespread wood theft and intense conflicts that endured beyond the revolutions of 1848. State control over wood as a resource and centrally directed woodland policy remains a legacy of the period.

Wood and woodland played a significant role in the lives of most Europeans. As a literary topos woodland often remained, however, fixed in the (sometimes inverted) stereotypes of classical literature as mediated by the humanist movement. These presented woodland as outside of civilization, and the home of the wild, though equally the uncorrupted forms of nature. As part of the uncultivated "waste," woodland was frequently viewed negatively until the Romantic period, although certain trees, primarily the oak, stood as symbols of national valor, steadfastness, or liberty. It remains unclear whether woodland had a genuinely broad symbolic importance in European culture before the late eighteenth century.

See also Agriculture ; Enclosure ; Hunting ; Shipbuilding and Navigation .


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Rackham, Oliver, and A. T. Grove. The Nature of Mediterranean Europe. An Ecological History. New Haven, 2001.

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Paul Warde