Land Tenure

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Land Tenure

I. IntroductionDaniel P. Biebuyck


II. Agricultural TenancyJohn F. Timmons


III. Land ReformPhilip M. Raup



Under the general and confusing label “land tenure” we are concerned with the complex relationships that exist between categories of individuals and groups in reference to land, water, and their respective products. These relationships can be analyzed in terms of sets of rights and obligations held by these categories of people with regard to the acquisition, exploitation, preservation, and transfer of specific portions of terrain and products. Some of these rights and obligations are highly formal and have little practical bearing. Some are part of a well-established system of legal rules, while others have their foundations in de facto situations. Rarely do these rights, in practice, have an absolute or fully exclusive character. They are, in other words, subject to certain limitations and modalities that are contained in various principles of social organization, situational contexts, ethical principles, and rules of etiquette. Such factors as reciprocity, gift exchange, attitudes toward food and labor, prestige, and recognition contribute to give a special overtone to these rights and obligations.

Patterns of landholding

In order to gain a complete idea of the complicated issues involved, an abstract enumeration or a static view of rights and obligations cannot suffice. To show their content and scope, their practicality and bearing, and the range of entities and social personalities concerned, these rights and obligations must be viewed against a background of highly variable and varying activities and situations. These rights are held in reference to specific parcels of land that can simultaneously be the object of many activities: planting, harvesting, clearing, trapping, hunting, food collecting, building, passage, grazing, etc.; the particular situations and social context in which these activities are performed may differ according to occasion, person, purpose, and time period. These rights are not merely concerned with exploitation, disposal, or control of land, but include also the sharing of products, the levying of tribute, the inauguration of economic activities, the performance of rites, and the claim to settle disputes.

All peoples subdivide the land on which they live for particular purposes of exploitation and residence. This does not mean that all the land on which a given people live is actually subdivided or that there is only one way in which it is subdivided. In all societies there exists a set of minimal regulations that determine the nature of these subdivisions and the kind of groups or categories of individuals that are associated with them. The vast deserts and steppes inhabited by Arab, Persian, or central Asian nomads are not res nullius. These peoples have well-defined ideas about tribal, state, sacred, and personal lands. They have (and respect) fixed patterns of movement and seasonal migration over well-known routes, which are conceived in such a way as to provide each of the groups associated with them with a complete range of seasonal necessities. The point is not that these peoples may be more interested in the products than in the land that provides them, but rather that there exist recognized zones of land control associated with defined human groups.

The principles of land tenure are correlated with various interlocking historical, ecological, demographic, technological, sociopolitical, religious, and psychological factors. The multiple ways in which these factors operate together or against each other render difficult any attempt to set up types of correlations. Generally, in the societies studied by anthropologists, everybody is entitled to obtain land for specific purposes of exploitation and residence. Individuals achieve this by a fairly simple method through membership and/or residence in local kinship groups, villages, bands, tribes, and less frequently, through more involved contractual relationships such as purchase, pledge, loan, lease, clientship, or service. Population density in these societies is, for the most part, low, and this enhances the possibilities for generalized access to land and resources. Landless individuals and groups are thus an exception; indeed, in many societies, land is the single most significant patrimony held by groups of people. This does not, of course, mean that everybody holds equal title to, or equal amounts of, land, nor does it imply that everybody secures these rights in the same manner, under the same conditions, or with the same implications. Even in societies where land is plentiful, marked competition for land and its resources may exist, which is often expressed in rigid demarcation of certain boundaries, highly individualized rights in regard to some types of exploitation, and concurrence of apparently multiple antagonistic principles of land tenure. Population concentrations within certain parts of an otherwise sparsely inhabited region, different qualities of soil and diverse seasonal necessities, local availability of specific animal or plant resources that are highly rated in the value or food systems, and the religious significance attached to select stretches of land account for this situation. The presence of oases or permanent water holes in desert country, forest galleries amidst poor savanna country, natural palm groves in forest or savanna, alluvial soil or rich marsh-land, the occurrence of seals’ breathing holes, etc., provide ample scope for intensive exploitation and rigid delineation of rights in an otherwise flexible context.

There has been a tendency to correlate some patterns of landholding with the basic economic systems of food gathering, hunting, agriculture, and pastoralism. Most of these simplifications have proven to be of little value. The greater portion of known populations are at the same time involved in multiple and complementary forms of land exploitation. If not, they are embedded in a broader community in which highly different economic activities that definitely influence attitudes toward land are carried out by various populations (that is, the many instances of complex contacts between pastoral and agricultural societies or those between Pygmies and Bantu- and Sudanic-speaking populations). But more significantly, these basic economies can and must be broken down into a wide variety of activities, patterns, and technological components. There is no simple category of hunting rights; there are several methods of hunting (with bow and arrow, with dogs and nets and spears, with traps, etc.), a fact that may imply participation of highly diverse categories of people and multiple forms of interaction. There are many kinds of animals hunted, some scarce and some common, some royal or sacred and some not, some economically valuable and others not, some nomadic and others rather sedentary. Again these feaciples of land tenure. Furthermore, the purposes of the hunt vary greatly, some hunting parties having tures are not without profound effect on the prin-a magical character or being connected with seasonal ceremonies or initiations, others being linked merely to subsistence. Trapping rights, which are but one aspect of hunting, have to be analyzed in terms of types of traps, durability, degree of specialization, and nature of environmental alteration.

In different societies, individual rights in land, water, and their products are most commonly secured through membership in tribes, bands, local kinship groups, and villages; descent, residence, marriage and broader affinal relationships, friendships, and political allegiance are basic criteria in establishing this membership. Contractual relationships based on gift, sale (often conditional), lease, tenancy, and pledge are most certainly present in many societies but have often been incorrectly related to the broader social framework. It is clear that in the majority of societies, the bulk of land rights are secured through membership in local kinship groups, but again, for a number of evident reasons, there is no way of drawing simple correlations. The very principles on which these groups are built up—their internal structure, the character of their connections with other similar entities within the larger community, their degree of permanence, and the extent to which affinal and friendship relationships operate to shape residence patterns—leave ample room for a wide range of patterns of rights in land and products. The nature of land control exercised by political officeholders makes patterns all the more unpredictable. In politically centralized societies, kings or paramount chiefs may lay claim to all the land occupied by their subjects. This claim may be expressed by a continued manipulation of land, the giving and withdrawing of it being dictated by political necessities and whims; it may merely manifest itself in the levying of tribute on certain products, or in the right to settle disputes over land, or the right to resume and reallocate unoccupied land. The claim may be purely theoretical and overshadowed by the chiefs duties to insure the fertility of land and everything living on it or by his obligation to see to it that everybody has sufficient land. In other politically centralized societies, chiefs and other subordinate political officeholders may have claims only to specific tracts of land or to vacant land; in still others, they have no claim whatsoever in land, or their rights simply are similar in scope to those held by any lineage head.

Nature and function of landholding . The strictly structural and functional approach to the study of land tenure fails to account for a number of vital questions, the answers to which may be found in the ethnohistorical traditions of particular groups. Thus, in many cases, peculiar features of land tenure result from the history of migration or of settlement and occupation of a given territory, from subsequent contacts between groups of similar and dissimilar cultures, or from the internal history of segmentation, fission, and fusion in local kinship and political units. Furthermore, different elements of folk taxonomy and linguistic classification dealing with land, water, and products shed considerable light on the nature of rights and the entities with which they are associated in a specific social and geographical context.

In virtually all societies, various forms of communal, joint, familial, and individual rights in land and its resources are intricately interwoven with one another. In many cases either the individual or joint aspects of these rights and obligations are emphasized, or are at least most clearly manifest, but this does not automatically lead to the absence of the other aspects. Thus in pastoral tribes, where grazing rights are normally vested in larger entities such as the tribe itself, restrictive claims to certain pastures or wells are seasonally or permanently enhanced. In hunting and food-gathering societies, where control over defined tracts of land is associated with bands or local kinship groups, certain forms of exploitation on smaller portions of the general domain are restricted to segments of bands or to families and individuals. In simple agricultural societies, where general control of a given land tract is vested in a local kinship group or in a village, individualized rights in fields, agricultural products, trees, trapping sites, etc., do exist.

Many authors, apparently without full ethnographic validation, have tended to stress the imprecision and casualness of the rules relating to control over land. The rules are precise and well known, but they are multifaceted and flexible and can therefore be fully grasped only within the broadest possible framework of the above-mentioned interconnecting factors. We must realize that in any given society multiple systems may be simultaneously at work. The group controlling land for agricultural purposes is not necessarily the same as the group controlling it for hunting or trapping or food-gathering activities, which again allow for differences in degree and nature of control in terms of their many technological aspects. In addition, within a given society it is not necessarily true, as is so often implied in the literature, that the same type of group at the same level of segmentation is necessarily associated with a given land tract. Nor can we exclude for a precise under-standing of rules of land tenure such less frequently mentioned features as virgin versus occupied and fallow land, geographical remoteness of parts of the estate, cyclic differences in quality and quantity of food supplies caused by variable amounts of rainfall, etc. To illustrate this point, among the Nyanga living in the east of the Congo Republic the resident members of local clans are in direct control of the virgin parts of a well-defined territory (where several forms of hunting and food gathering take place), whereas segments of these clans and extended families control specific, but not necessarily contiguous, tracts within it as trapping sites and fallow or cultivated land. Hunting and gathering rights are much less rigidly sanctioned for the most remote parts of the virgin tract than they are for the more accessible ones; in years of abundance, explicitly recognized by the Nyanga, great permissiveness is allowed with regard to the collecting of natural products and even the harvesting of cultivated ones. At all times, the pygmoid groups surviving in the country are permitted to take freely, but not overtly, certain species of cultivated bananas. All these and many other permissive types of behavior prevail in an otherwise rigid code of rules pertaining to land control.

The many tedious speculations as to whether or not ownership of land exists as a legal and philosophical concept are largely irrelevant, since they are culture-bound and fail to account for the originalities of non-Western thought systems. The question must be placed in a different perspective and can be solved only to the extent that we are willing to get rid of certain stereotypes, such as alienability or absoluteness, thought to be diagnostic elements of land ownership. A better grasp of linguistic concepts and folk classifications would greatly contribute to leading us out of this impasse. In some central African populations, all rights pertaining to land and its products are covered by one single concept, which in the minds of the people means as much as “to be with . . . ,” and are therefore thought to be basically similar to each other in their legal implications. However, any given category of persons is always rigidly said “to be with” a well-defined entity, so that the scope of the rights, and the extent to which they bear, are fundamentally distinct. Thus women are said “to be with” crops, married men residing with their kinship group are said “to be with” gardens (or rather banana groves), extended families residing on land traditionally associated with the local clan of which their heads are members are said “to be with” ndimo (land under cultivation and fallow land, which is also the object of intensive gathering and trapping), etc. The bearing of every right is well circumscribed in a specific context, and the rights cannot be reversed. The connotations of “being with” are clear to these people; for the outsider they are understandable only in full reference to ties of kinship, marriage, residence, and friendship; to ideas about solidarity, reciprocity, and etiquette; and to concepts about incorporation of labor that prevail among these people.

Regarding the critical concept of land alienation, the transfer of certain rights is definitely a well-known phenomenon. However, in many instances, we are unclear as to the exact scope and content of the rights transferred. It is clear that in traditional subsistence economies alienation by outright sale of land is extremely rare. This is understandable since land is quite plentiful and the methods for using it securely are relatively simple and multi-fold; there also exists a series of alternatives for obtaining it. Furthermore, land is vitally linked with the perpetuation of groups of people and with their autonomy, solidarity, and cohesion. Most commonly the rights transferred bear on specific usages, are subject to many modalities (including reversibility), and operate within a well-defined social framework (for example, transfers are restricted to certain categories of persons, excluding nonincorporated strangers). Transfers are either an exception or occur only in cases of dire necessity. It is also true that very often portions of land are not transferable at all because of religious values connected with them or because of their high productivity. Alienation of land through direct conquest or gradual peaceful expansion has, of course, been a widespread occurrence. Here again, the conquerors have not necessarily occupied all the land or claimed full title to it, and there has been a marked tendency in many societies to consider, as is often expressed in various ritual arrangements, that the ultimate title to the land remains with the original settlers.

Sociocultural change . Under conditions of sociocultural and technological change, land tenure systems, which are so intimately bound to many facets of culture and environment, are due to undergo many modifications, but the outcome is un-predictable. Under the impact of new factors such as increase in population, development of more intensive agriculture, cash cropping, and money economy, the bulk of the rules of land-tenure systems may be nevertheless perpetuated. A variety of responses can result from this. Rights in land may become more exclusive, litigation about boundaries and the nature of titles may increase, landlessness and tenancy may develop, rights of political officeholders may emerge more strongly, groups of people may be compelled to emigrate, and so on. In this process the unity and cohesion of traditional land-controlling units may be disturbed or consolidated. Increased demand for land may lead to fragmentation of holdings, and new concepts of alienability may emerge, with the corresponding un-economic implications of conflict situations. Often traditional systems, when exposed to a multiplicity of new factors, have proven to be slow in adjusting themselves to the new necessities and demands. It is then that various legislative measures have had to be taken with regard to consolidation, resettlement, reallocation, and redistribution of land and people. Likewise, conflicts of law have paved the way to greater complexity of the problems involved and to difficult social situations, which have sometimes found only uneasy solutions. The creation of secure individualized title, the correlated registration of titles, the organization of successoral systems, and the introduction of new attitudes toward land without a corresponding radical transformation of the social system have proven to be very complex, often producing problems insoluble in the traditional contexts. Entire populations, or sections of a population, have failed to recognize the validity of modern types of land transactions and land titles, and adjustments between widely divergent values and laws have been slow to come.

As far as problems of research are concerned, a theoretical, precise framework for dealing with land-tenure systems and a cross-culturally valid and applicable method of investigation are badly needed at all levels of descriptive and comparative analysis, It is particularly important that we get rid of some of the stereotypes about ownership and set up a well-founded system of terminology. Comprehensive anthropological descriptions that view single land-tenure systems in a multifaceted way are still very necessary. In this respect, an exhaustive analysis of the linguistic concepts and taxonomic categories that various peoples have devised in regard to their environment, their land, their water, and the products obtained from them could shed new light on our methods and concepts. The exact connotations of issues such as alienation and other types of transfer and the precise scope of various forms of permissiveness and exclusiveness would have to be more thoroughly investigated and clarified. The exploration of land tenure has all too often been a subsidiary interest, casually treated and camouflaged behind a number of classic categories for analysis. There must be a distinctive, and hopefully rewarding, way of looking at relationships between groups and categories of persons with land, water, and their products as a referent.

Daniel P. Biebuyck

[Other relevant material may be found inAfrican society; Asian society, article OnSoutheast asia;Land, article onclassification.]


Crocombe, Ronald G. 1964 Land Tenure in the Cook Islands. Melbourne: Oxford Univ. Press.

Food AND Agriculture Organization OF THE United Nations 1955 Bibliography on Land Tenure. Rome: The Organization.

Food AND Agriculture Organization OF THE United Nations 1959 Bibliography on Land Tenure: Supplement. Rome: The Organization.

Gluckman, Max 1959 The Technical Vocabulary of Barotse Jurisprudence. American Anthropologist New Series 61:743–759.

Goodenough, Ward H. 1955 A Problem in Malayo-Polynesian Social Organization. American Anthropologist New Series 57:71–83. → See Volume 58, pages 170–176, for comments by Charles O. Frake and a reply by Goodenough.

Herskovits, Melville J. (1940) 1952 Economic Anthropology: A Study in Comparative Economics. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Knopf. → First published as The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples.

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International African Seminar, Second, Leopoldville, CONGO, 1960 1963 African Agrarian Systems: Studies Presented and Discussed. Edited by Daniel Biebuyck. Published for the International African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Liversage, Vincent 1945 Land Tenure in the Colonies. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Pospisil, Leopold 1965 A Formal Analysis of Substantive Law: Kapauku Papuan Laws of Land Tenure. American Anthropologist New Series 67, no. 5, part 2: 186–214.

Sonius, H. W. J. (1962) 1963 Introduction to Aspects of Customary Land Law in Africa as Compared With Some Indonesian Aspects. Leiden (Netherlands): Universitaire Pers Leiden.

White, Charles M. N. 1958 Terminological Confusion in African Land Tenure. Journal of African Administration 10:124–130.


Nearly three-fifths of the world’s 3,100 million people derive their livelihood from agriculture. Of this estimated 1,860 million people within agriculture, most do not own the land on which they live and work. Instead many purchase rights of cultivation and occupancy from others. In return for hired rights in land, these people pay the landowners, or their intermediaries, a share of the produce, a fixed amount of produce, a fixed amount of money, personal services, or some combination of these payments. These people are tenants.

Throughout the world tenants and their families probably constitute as many as two-fifths of the population engaged in agriculture. Thus, as many as 700 to 800 million people over the globe work and live under conditions of agricultural tenancy.

Most tenants aspire to ownership of their lands. Therefore, tenancy may well be appraised in terms of how well it provides tenants with opportunities to gain experience, acquire capital, and make decisions in the process of acquiring landownership. On the other hand, many tenants are not likely to become owners in the foreseeable future. Hence, for them, tenancy must be appraised in terms of additional objectives, including increasing the productivity of their labor, capital, and land resources and improving their living conditions. These objectives are consistent with the pursuit of ownership and are equally appropriate for tenants who never become owners, either through choice or lack of opportunity.

In the United States. Within the United States, about 20 per cent of the farmers are full tenants, who rent all the land they operate (U.S. Bureau of Census… 1963, pp. 1008–1013). An additional 23 per cent of the nation’s farmers rent part and own part of the land they operate; they are termed part owners. The remaining 57 per cent of the nation’s farmers hold ownership to all the land they operate and are designated full owners.

The proportion of farms in the United States operated by tenants in 1959 (20 per cent) was the lowest in 80 years. It represents a drop from 24 per cent in 1954 and from 42 per cent in 1930, the highest percentage on record.

Throughout the United States much variation exists in the prevalence of tenancy. The proportion of farms operated by tenants in 1959 varied from 6 per cent in the eastern states to 22 per cent in the north central and southern states to 12 per cent in the western states.

Nearly 50 per cent of all farms operated by tenants were in the southern states and 42 per cent were in the north central states. In the South, the tenant-operated farms were concentrated in the cotton- and tobacco-producing regions.

Six subclasses of tenants are identified in the United States (U.S. Bureau of Census … 1963, p. 1003). Cash tenants pay a fixed cash rent for the use and occupancy of their land. Share-cash tenants pay part of their rent in cash and part in a share of the crops and/or livestock and livestock products. Crop-share tenants pay a share of the crops only. Livestock-share tenants pay a share of the livestock and/or livestock products; their rent may or may not include a share of the crops. Croppers pay a share of the crops, a share of the livestock and livestock products, or both, but usually work under the close supervision of the landlord or his agent, who furnishes all the work animals or tractor power. Data for croppers are restricted to the 16 southern states where the cropper system developed following the Civil War. In other states, croppers are included with share-tenants. Other and unspecified tenants include those farmers who hire their land under various other arrangements.

Tenants in the United States are made up of 27 per cent crop-share, 18 per cent share-cash, 16 per cent croppers, 15 per cent cash, 12 per cent livestock-share, and 12 per cent other and unspecified (ibid., p. 1010).

During the 1950s important changes took place among several classes of tenants in the United States. The proportion of tenant farms operated by croppers decreased from 24.0 to 16.4 per cent between 1950 and 1959. The proportion of tenant farms operated by livestock-share tenants increased from 8.0 to 11.7 per cent during the same period. The proportion of tenant farms operated by crop-share and by cash tenants remained fairly constant during this period.

Changes in proportions of farms operated by tenants in the United States are associated with the changing character of American agriculture (ibid., p. 1016). Between 1950 and 1959, the number of farm operators dropped from 5.4 million to 3.7 million, a decrease of 1.7 million farm operators. In 1964, the number of farm operators was 3.2 million, a drop of 0.5 million from the 1959 figure (U.S. Bureau of Census ... 1966, p. 2). During the 1950–1959 period, tenant operators decreased from 1.4 million to 0.7 million, a drop of 0.7 million, or a 50 per cent decrease. By 1964, tenant operators had decreased to 0.5 million, a drop of 0.2 million more. Because of their younger age and lack of ownership of land, tenants are more mobile than owner operators and more readily shift to jobs outside agriculture. Also, associated with the increase of farm size from 215 acres per farm in 1950 to 303 acres in 1959 and to 352 acres in 1964, tenant-operated farms have been combined or have been added to owner-operated farms, thus reducing opportunities on farms for tenant operators.

The 0.5 million tenant operators in 1964 constitute the least number reported in a census since 1880, the first year tenant operators were counted in the United States (U.S. Bureau of Census ... 1963). The 1964 count of tenant operators is 2.3 million less than the number of tenant operators reported in 1935, the year of peak tenant numbers.

Variations throughout the world. Throughout the world wide variations exist in the prevalence of tenancy. In Scotland 77 per cent of the farmers are tenants, while in Denmark the percentage is as low as 5 (Food and Agriculture Organization ... 1953 a). In England and Wales the percentage is 65, while in West Germany it is 5. In the less-developed countries, similar variations exist. In Cambodia, the proportion of tenant farmers is around 5 per cent, while in India the percentage is 53 (Food and Agriculture Organization . . . 1955). Within other countries variations in the proportion of farms operated by tenants exist just as in the United States. For example, in the Philippines the proportion of tenancy varies from 2 per cent of all farmers in the mountain section of Luzon to over two-thirds of the farmers in central Luzon.

Tenancy fulfills the objectives of productivity, levels of living, and progress to ownership in varying degrees throughout the world. In Britain, tenant farmers possess security of occupancy, are productive, and share in living conditions equal to other groups. In other areas of the world, tenancy is associated with human exploitation, low productivity, lack of opportunity, and substandard living conditions. In some areas of Latin America, the tenancy system represents the continuation of a feudal structure wherein the tenants remain virtual serfs of the landlords and agricultural development is severely retarded (Food and Agriculture Organization ... 1953b).

Advantages and problems. Tenancy per se is neither good nor bad. The nature of tenancy structures is the key to its utility. Tenancy may serve well the needs of a progressive agriculture, as it is doing in Britain and in mid western United States, or it may impede agricultural development, as it is doing in several Latin American and Asiatic countries. Tenancy can provide the means by which landowners and the landless may join their respective resources in a productive and complementary manner. The landowner, in addition to some management, furnishes his land and possibly capital; the tenant furnishes his labor, ability, and some operating capital. In the process the tenant gains experience, accumulates capital, and improves his living conditions; the landlord receives returns from his investment. Under tenancy the tenant may invest his limited capital in working stock rather than in fixed assets of land. Usually, working capital returns more than fixed capital in land for each unit of investment.

As a result of this combination of complementary resources, the productivity of farm operations is enhanced, creating a larger income to be distributed between the resource contributors, landlord and tenant. On the other hand, defects within tenancy structures may block the achievement of these objectives.

Uncertainty of expectations may arise, so that tenants do not possess assurance that they will reap the benefits from their efforts. The tenancy arrangement may discourage tenants from making investments in improvements necessary for a productive agriculture. The bargaining position between tenants and landlords may be such that all additional productivity of the tenants’ efforts will flow to the landlord. Lack of operating capital or capital obtainable only at excessive cost may pre-vent the tenant from adopting improved production practices and from enjoying better living conditions.

The size of holdings may be so small, particularly under “minifundia” conditions, that the value productivity of the tenants’ labor approaches zero. High fixed costs of rents may both preclude needed production investments and prevent improving the family’s level of living. The tenant may not possess adequate legal protection to enforce the laws which have been developed to protect his interests in the farm and its income.

Remedies. In developing remedies for the problems tenants face throughout the world, there are certain objectives that appear desirable. First, the tenant farmer must be provided with incentives to improve his economic and social position through increasing his productivity. Second, the tenant must be provided with sufficient certainty of expectations of receiving the returns from the investments which he must make to increase the productivity of his resources. In this sense his planning horizon must equal the optimum planning period for the investments. Third, the tenant must be provided motivations to save and to create capital as his productivity increases in order to provide seed capital for further increases in productivity. Fourth, the tenant must have access to sufficient land, capital resources, technological knowledge, and management aids to enable him to increase the productivity of resources under his control.

In achieving these objectives, an essential function of tenancy improvement is to provide a structural framework in which individual tenants and landowners can work together to improve their own financial and social positions and, at the same time, to improve the position of the nation in which they live. A second essential function of tenancy improvement is to provide a basis whereby productive resources of landlord and tenant can be combined to provide for the most economic allocation of combined resources and, in accordance with the productivities of each of the combined resources, for the equitable distribution of returns.

In addition to these two essential economic functions, there are social and political aims in the development of tenants. These are to enable the tenant and his family to improve their social, as well as economic, position and to participate in community activities and public affairs. In many less developed areas of the world, tenancy has been a major cause of social and political unrest (Jacoby 1949). Thus, improvements in tenancy conditions may be expected to facilitate the achievement of political stability, as well as social development and economic growth.

There exist three major alternatives for tenants to improve themselves. One approach is through policies which encourage ownership of their land. This approach has been followed successfully in Denmark, Japan, and the United States. Another approach is group tenures, wherein tenants join together and share in the resources and the productivities of their common resources. The ejido in Mexico, the proportional profit farm in Puerto Rico, the kibbutz in Israel, the cooperative in Poland, and the recognized Indian community in the sierra of South America are examples. The third approach consists of improvements within the tenancy structure (Timmons 1957). England, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and India are examples of nations which have emphasized improvements within tenancy structures.

Improvement of structure. Within this third approach of improving tenancy structures, countries have taken steps toward providing tenants with security of expectations for remaining on the farm and for developing their resources over relevant planning periods. Particular provisions used in these countries include (1) written lease pro-visions, (2) long-term leases, (3) minimum (in years) lease terms, (4) minimum periods for termination notices and automatic renewals, (5) heritability of leases, (6) restrictions on transfer of leased land, (7) permanent occupancy and use rights which cannot be violated by owners, and (8) compensation to the tenant for the unexhausted value of improvements made by him in case he leaves the farm before receiving full value of the improvements which he has made or in case the landlord wishes to operate the farm himself. In addition to these eight provisions, leasing arrangements have also been designed to provide compensation to the landlord for unnecessary waste and deterioration of his resources caused by the tenant. Within these provisions, adjustment in the kind and amount of rental payments in accordance with types of production and productivity of resource inputs available to the tenant and his land-lord is necessary in order to bring forth a maximum net return for the combined resources.

Under the provision for compensation, which has been developed most highly under the provisions of the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1948 in England, the tenant has a statutory right to compensation for (1) long-term improvements (2) medium-term improvements, and (3) rights of occupancy. In computing compensations for improvements or deterioration, three methods of assessing values for improvements are used: compensation may be based upon (1) the original cost of the improvement, (2) the replacement cost of the improvement, and (3) the added return the improvement is expected to yield.

As pointed out earlier, tenants may pay landlords in a number of ways for the hire of land. Although most tenants pay a share of their product or a service payment as rent for their land, the cash rental or fixed price rental has a number of advantages in encouraging individual initiative and operation of the farm at a maximum level of production. The cash rental automatically satisfies two necessary conditions for maximizing the productivity of factors (Hurlburt 1954). The requirement that variable cost be shared in the same proportion as output is satisfied since the tenant is responsible for all variables under the cash rent arrangement and in turn receives the full value from additional output. The condition that the tenant pay the same share of the value of each product is also satisfied, since the cash rental may be considered a fixed cost for all products and charged in the same pro-portion to each (Benedictis & Timmons 1961). Under the cash rent form of lease, the tenant has maximum freedom to develop his management ability.

The cash rent system, however, does possess certain difficulties, in that the tenant is required to assume the costs of many risks and uncertainties, which under the share arrangement are shared with landlords. Also under the cash rent system, the tenant must have access to sufficient capital to operate the farm with no financial aid from the landowner.

Another direction of tenancy improvements includes the regulation of levels of rental payments. Inasmuch as the level of rents determines the landlord’s as well as the tenant’s income and the amount of capital available to the tenant for crop and livestock production, levels and rigidities of rental payments are important in tenancy improvement measures. Rental rates frequently exceed two-thirds of the production in the less developed countries. Measures taken to bring rental payments into line with productivity have included the establishment of rental ceilings such as the 37½ per cent Rent Control Law in Taiwan; the setting of minimum levels of tenant income; and adjustments of rents to income changes resulting from productivity, cost, and price trends (Chryst & Timmons 1955).

In addition to rents as payments for land hire, there exists in numerous areas throughout the world the practice of extra rental payments in the form of usurious interest rates, excessive charges for processing and marketing services, and feudal dues and services to landlords. Improvements in these defects in rental structures have been instituted in a number of countries in the form of (1) abolition of feudal dues and services, (2) maximum processing and marketing charges, (3) maximum interest charges, and (4) access to public credit.

All these potential improvements in tenancy structures may come to naught unless they are implemented by legislation, administration, education, research, and judicial processes. The problem of implementation of tenancy improvements is serious and must receive adequate attention or the tenancy improvements contained in laws and government reports will never be extended into practices that benefit rural people and their communities.

John F. Timmons


Benedictis, Michele de; and Timmons, John F. 1961 Identification and Measurement of Inefficiencies in Leasing Systems. Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station, Ames, Research Bulletin 490:39–72.

Chryst, Walter E.; and Timmons, John F. 1955 Adjusting Farm Rents to Changes in Prices, Costs and Production. Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station, Ames, Special Report 9: 1–44.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Agriculture Division 1953 a Agricultural Development and Rural Reform in Denmark, by F. Skrubbeltrang. FAO Agricultural Studies No. 22. Rome: FAO.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 1953 b Report on the Latin American Seminar on Land Problems, Campinas, Brazil. FAO–ETAP Report No. 205. Rome: FAO.

Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations 1955 Report of the Center on Land Problems in Asia and the Far East, Bangkok, Thailand. FAO–ETAP Report No. 393. Rome: FAO.

Hurlburt, Virgil L. 1954 Farm Rental Practices and Problems in the Midwest. Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station, Ames, Research Bulletin 416:78–120.

Jacoby, Erich H. (1949) 1961 Agrarian Unrest in Southeast Asia. 2d ed., rev. and enl. New York: Asia Publishing House.

Timmons, John F. 1957 Improving Agricultural Tenancy: An FAO Land Tenure Study. FAO Agricultural Studies, No. 35. Rome: FAO.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Agriculture, 1959 1963 General Report. Volume 2: Statistics by Subjects. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Agriculture,1964 1966 Preliminary Report of U.S. Summary. AC64–P1. Washington: Government Printing Office.


In its simplest meaning, land reform has meant the breaking up of large holdings and redistribution of the land to peasants, cultivators, or landless workers. Documented reforms of this type took place in the sixth century B.C. in Greece and in the second century B.C. in Rome. Modern land reforms in this classic pattern characterized the revolution in Mexico after 1910, Egypt in 1952, and Bolivia in 1953. A common feature was dispossession of former landowning classes coupled with changes in size of farm operating units.

A related class of reforms has emphasized change in land tenure relationships without substantial change in size of operating units. This was the principal outcome of land reforms accompanying the French Revolution after 1789. Twentieth-century examples include the Japanese land reform of 1946; reforms in western India after independence, beginning with the Bombay Tenures Abolition Act of 1949; and land reform on Taiwan after 1949. Principal goals have been abolition of feudal tenures or servitudes and rent reduction or conversion of tenants into owners.

Land reform in this traditional pattern reflects a striving for political equity and social justice. While agricultural technology was dominated by custom and tradition, little thought was given to land reform as a device to promote technological advance or output increases. Marxian thought contributed to a major break with the classic tradition of land reform by combining a doctrinal stress on socialization or nationalization of land with emphasis on presumed economies that could be achieved through large-scale production.

A third class of land reforms has resulted, in which peasant yearning for land has been used as a political vehicle for the initial achievement of tenure reform, often accompanied by land redistribution. Subsequent reforms in farm operation have then created large managerial units, under a variety of forms of communal, cooperative, or collective tenure, or state ownership. The pattern for this trend was set by events in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1931, repeated in a compressed time dimension in eastern Europe after 1944, in mainland China after 1949, and in Cuba, 1959–1963.

Confusion has been introduced by use of the term “agrarian reform” In countries with Latinbased languages, reference to agrarian reform carries a connotation that may or may not involve major land tenure changes. Some agrarian reform programs in Latin America, for example, have emphasized agricultural modernization, extension work, and land settlement.

In order to maintain integrity of relationships between means and ends, land reform is defined here as a basic change in land tenure arrangements —in relations among men with respect to land— together with supporting measures necessary to achieve its objectives. The nature of these objectives has undergone substantial change in the past century.

Historical background . Evolution of land reform in its modern meaning traces from the emancipation of serfs in imperial Russia in 1861 and of slaves in the United States in 1863—two disparate versions of land reform with a common emphasis on personal freedom, equity, and social justice.

Although widely different in setting, scale, and consequences, abolition of serfdom in Russia and of slavery in the United States dramatized the inadequacies of land tenure systems in which men, rather than land, were owned and in which labor was the major component of agricultural capital. Over a century later, traces of tenure in men rather than in land still exist in portions of Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. One dimension of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States is the attempt to bring to an end any form of political dominance over men that is rooted in control of land or in restrictions on freedom of occupational choice.

This goal characterized many rural land reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular, Irish struggles to abolish absentee ownership after 1870, the triumph of the Danish small holder movement in 1901, and the Stolypin reforms in Russia between 1906 and 1911. Political considerations were dominant, with a focus on creation of a middle class of small peasant proprietors.

Urban land reform movements, also a feature of the late nineteenth century, were greatly stimulated by publication of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty in 1879. George argued for a “single tax” that would recapture any land value increases not justified by the labor and investment of the landowner or land user. Rapid urbanization accompanying early industrial growth made this a particularly appealing argument in emerging industrial centers. Land reform long had a predominantly urban connotation in Germany, for example, reflected in urban housing and homestead (small house and garden) proposals of the German Land Reform League, organized in 1898 under the leadership of Adolph Damaschke, an ardent disciple of Henry George.

Nineteenth-century views of land, including those of Karl Marx and Henry George, were dominated by a belief in the physical limits of land supply. Disappearance of frontiers of settlement, the limitations revealed by geographical explorations of hitherto unknown areas, and the first wave of population increase brought about by improvements in medical care and public health all fostered a belief in the inevitability of growing population pressure on a fixed resource base. Land policy prescriptions took the form of demands for land redistribution, in the name of equity. Alternatively, land nationalization was advanced as the only feasible method of securing equal access to land resources for all the people. Elements of both prescriptions characterized almost all of the twentieth-century land reforms that occurred prior to World War II.

The current era of land reforms was introduced on two fronts: by the Soviet Union after 1944 in eastern European states dominated by the Red Army, and by the Japanese land reform of 1946, enacted under the tutelage of United States occupation forces. Further impetus to this trend was given by the breakup of colonial empires, most prominently by the British grant of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947, and by the conquest of the Chinese mainland by revolutionary communist forces in 1949. Between 1945 and 1950, some type of land reform was begun in countries that together account for slightly under half of the world’s population.

During the 1950s the center of land reform activity shifted. Latin America emerged as an area in which land redistribution was most needed—and most vigorously debated. Since 1960, 14 Latin American states have enacted some type of land reform legislation.

Impact of technological change .After 1945 a major change occurred in economic thinking regarding land reform and was manifested in 1950 when the topic came before the General Assembly of the United Nations. In later discussions in 1951 before the Economic and Social Council and the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization, it was emphasized that the concept of land reform should be expanded to include more than the breaking up of large estates or the consolidation of small holdings. It was defined to include opportunity for land ownership, improved conditions of tenancy, agricultural credit at reasonable rates of interest, reform of exorbitant rents and taxes, and facilities for obtaining agricultural supplies and marketing agricultural products, with emphasis on cooperatives.

This shift in emphasis reflected the impact of the technological revolution in agriculture that began after 1910 with perfection of the internal combustion engine and the tractor. Contemporary advances in fertilizer production, seed varieties, and agricultural chemicals greatly expanded the range and potential of purchased inputs available to modern agriculture. Parallel advances in marketing, storage, and processing called for increasing attention to the demand side of the agricultural supply and demand equation. It was no longer sufficient to focus on production alone in promoting agricultural advances, or to regard only land and labor as the major agricultural inputs. In more advanced economies, access to purchased production requisites became as important as access to land. And access to markets was of growing importance in all economies, from the simplest to the most complex. Land reform limited to land tenure change alone was an obsolete concept.

A fundamental shift also occurred in attitudes toward fixity of land supply. Faster and cheaper transport brought more land within the reach of national and world markets. Fertilizers, chemicals, hybrid seeds, and better cultivation practices made infertile lands productive and augmented the output of fertile lands. Improved techniques of dam building, irrigation, drainage, and water management greatly increased intensities of land use.

As a result, motives that propel land reforms in the second half of the twentieth century go beyond those of equity and social justice. Output increase becomes a third goal. With growing commercialization and monetization in even the most primitive agrarian economies, social justice is increasingly measured in terms of patterns of income distribution. And the consequences of land reforms must be judged in terms of the extent to which they can expand internal markets. Output increases, more equitable income distribution, and internal market expansion emerge as the major tests of modern efforts at land reform.

Potentials of land reform . One criterion of land reform is the degree to which it can promote capital formation and investment. This can be judged in the private sector at the level of the farm firm, and in the public sector at the level of the rural community.

Much private capital in agriculture is the result of slow processes of accumulation. Examples include increases in number and quality of livestock; development of tree crops; improvements in buildings, fencing, or drainage or irrigation systems; and better soil management. On peasant-type or family-sized farms much of this investment is accomplished at the expense of what might otherwise have been leisure time.

Because of the dispersed and biological nature of agricultural production, it is difficult to concentrate it either in time or in space. Waiting—for crops to ripen, for trees to grow, or for animals to mature—is a major cost. On the best-organized farms there are time periods when labor must be present but cannot be fully employed. The incentive structure that can maximize capital formation is one that will promote productive use of this seasonally or cyclically underemployed labor.

One test of a land tenure system thus becomes whether it can provide incentives for productive use of the total rural labor supply. On big farms, estates, or plantations it has been difficult to devise labor-wage and supervisory systems to maximize accretionary processes of capital formation. Land reform that creates viable peasant or family-type farms may increase the likelihood that leisure time will be converted into capital at minimum cost.

In the public sector, it is an almost universal experience that land taxes can be collected more readily from many relatively small landowners than from a few large ones. If land taxes are spent locally on schools, roads, or welfare, the benefits are apparent to every taxpayer. Large landowners often succeed in tax evasion or in holding tax rates low. Land reform that promotes tax reform can thus provide a climate of civic responsibility in which local taxation can be used for public capital formation. If local infrastructures must be financed by the central government, costs may be higher and the quality of services lower, and taxpayers may lose a sense of identification with processes of government. Good rural school systems are as much a hallmark of sound land tenure structures as are productive farms.

Land tenure systems also affect rates of techno-logical change. Older histories of agricultural advances were cast in a heroic mold, with a few great names associated with new discoveries, inventions, and innovations. After 1945, the rebirth of interest in processes of economic development led to a critical re-examination of this interpretation of history. Evidence from three sharply different economies—England (Mingay 1963), Colombia (Hagen 1962), and Japan (Sawada 1964)—points to the importance of innovation and experimentation by small farmers, tenants, and actual land users in general in early periods of agricultural development.

Contemporary data suggest that large-scale agricultural units in developing countries are best suited to application of known technology involving a comparatively small number of repetitive tasks per production cycle. The Soviet Union’s experience with collective and state farms is paralleled by performance records of sugar and coffee plantations in Latin America and rubber production in Malaysia. Crops once classed as plantation crops are increasingly produced on peasant-type farms (Wickizer 1960). Large, centrally directed units apparently discourage flexibility. Scarce capital must be committed in large amounts, and innovation is inhibited by bureaucratic rigidity or political risk. Managers are often unwilling to accept the high costs of technological change. [SeePlantations.]

The most rapid and lasting advances occur in agricultural systems characterized by a mixture of farms of different size and type. Farm units need to be large enough to permit risk taking and capital accumulation. But an agrarian structure composed of a relatively few large farms may introduce rigidity, reduce the opportunity to acquire experience in small doses, and increase the cost of mistakes. This is one of the lessons to be learned from the British groundnut scheme in Tanganyika after 1945 and the Soviet virgin lands program after 1953. A major task of land reform is the creation of an agrarian structure that can maximize opportunities for innovation, experimentation, and selective retention of new technology.

Problems of land reform . A management gap typically results if former landlords or managers are replaced by new owners, who often lack managerial skill or experience. This was a major defect of the Bolivian land reform in 1953 and the Syrian and Iraqi land reforms of 1958. In Bolivia and Iraq agricultural output fell by over 50 per cent after the reforms. After independence Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia encountered similar difficulties in replacing the managerial skills of departed or evicted French entrepreneurs. A notable feature of the Egyptian land reform of 1952 was the accompanying effort to deal with this management gap through creation of supervised cooperatives that could take over functions formerly performed by the landlords (Warriner 1962).

Removal of a former landowning or managerial class can result in equally serious problems of public management. Where land reform is a critical issue, it is not only ownership of land or men that is in question but also “ownership” of government. Realization of potential gains from land reform may call for a new generation of farm managers. It will almost surely require reform in the structure of local government.

Efforts in many countries to introduce communal, collective, or cooperative types of farm organization can be re-examined in this light. Large-scale collective-type farms may have their greatest value as proxy forms of local government rather than as efficient forms of farm production organization. The average collective farm in the Soviet Union in 1964 was approximately the size of the average rural township in the Midwest of the United States. The average state farm was the size of half a county in the United States.

In many functional respects, the Soviet farm is the minor civil division of local government. It has been responsible for road building, health, sanitation, and welfare within the farm area. Cumbersome inefficiency as a production organization may be partially offset by relative efficiency as a unit of local government.

Failure to fill the governmental vacuum left by destruction of rural political power structures centered on a few landowning families has been a weakness of many land reforms. It does little good to provide capital, fertilizers, or farm advisers to new landowners without corresponding attention to reconstruction of local government.

The management gap following land reform has a close parallel in the credit gap. In many traditional land tenure systems the landowner often provided production credit, thus opening the door to labor exploitation. A cycle of advances to cultivators, crop mortgages to insure repayment, usurious interest rates, and perpetual indebtedness has been distressingly frequent, especially in Asia (Jacoby 1961). If former landowner-creditors are dispossessed, one of the most pressing needs is for replacement credit.

Provision of credit is not enough, although it is essential. A more intractable problem has been to persuade new owners to use credit wisely and to regard it as a production tool rather than as a supplement to income. Attitudes toward debt in traditional rural societies have identified it with disaster, celebration, or moral degeneracy. One of the most significant functions governments can perform in the wake of land reform is to provide cultivators with credit under sufficient supervision to insure that they use it wisely.

The credit gap is compounded by defective land title and survey systems in most developing countries. Land reform legislation in Iran in 1960 set a maximum limit in hectares on the land any one owner could retain. A hasty effort was needed to redraft the legislation when it became apparent that necessary land survey records were lacking. The resultant law of 1962 provided that a landlord could retain only one village, without specifying size.

The attempt by Iraq in 1958 to pattern its land reform on the 1952 Egyptian model failed in part because Egypt had a system of cadastral survey records, and Iraq did not. Prompt execution of the relatively modest Pakistan land reform after 1959 was aided by good land title and survey records. Contributing to the success of land reform on Taiwan after 1949 were the Chinese tradition of careful attention to land records and meticulously complete land surveys compiled by the Japanese.

Latin America and the Philippines inherited defective land survey and title systems from the era of Spanish rule. Landowners, merchants, and religious leaders often discouraged systematic land surveys. It was thought easier to control serf-like labor, maintain trade hegemony of coastal cities, or promote orderly settlement if survey was done piecemeal. The result has been illegal squatter settlement, acute problems of latifundia and minifundia, disregard for law and order, and defective bases for tax assessment and credit extension. Crash programs are under way in a number of Latin American countries to construct cadastral survey systems, preparatory to land reforms.

Much agonizing indecision has surrounded African fears that a too hasty provision of land titles might lead to repetition on a continental scale of past histories of individualization of title, mortgage debt, and foreclosure. Squatter settlement is growing, and monetization is leading to land speculation. Pressure for individualization of land titles increases. New African states south of the Sahara are relatively free of land tenure problems represented by large estates, absentee landlordism, and excessive concentration of land ownership. Emphasis in Africa falls heavily on development of land tenure systems, rather than on their reform.

Compensation to dispossessed landowners has generated acute problems of policy. If reform abolishes private ownership of land, the compensation question is an aspect of welfare policy, or social security. The Cuban land reform after 1963 expropriated private landholdings above stated limits but specified that owners who had tilled or managed their lands personally were to receive monthly payments of 100 to 200 pesos for ten years, depending on the amount of land owned.

Cash payment for large landholdings is beyond the financial capacity of most developing countries. Recent approaches to this problem were influenced by the Japanese experience after 1946, when inflation reduced compensation to nominal amounts. The subsequent Chinese land reform on Taiwan after 1953 compensated landowners 70 per cent in bonds pegged to official prices for rice or sweet potatoes and 30 per cent in shares of denationalized businesses. Philippine land reform legislation of 1963 provided for compensation in 25-year bonds, with the option of taking up to 30 per cent in Land Bank preferred stock, exchanging bonds for shares in corporations, and several other alternatives.

Valuation of land for purposes of compensation to old owners or sale to new owners has posed a dilemma. Past histories of labor exploitation can lead to land price levels far above any productivity values based on equitable labor returns. Payment of compensation at these unrealistic prices has appeared to be a reward for past exploitative practices. Denial of compensation, on the other hand, has cast doubt on the validity of new land titles and on security of property rights in general.

Land reform through tenant protection legislation has been attempted in parts of India and in the Philippines. Rent reductions or rent ceilings in the Chinese (Taiwan) and Egyptian reforms affected larger areas of private land than were directly concerned in land redistribution. Although a number of countries have tried tenancy reform as a substitute for more comprehensive attacks on land tenure problems, it has generally failed unless coupled with thoroughgoing efforts at land redistribution. Threat of loss of land has apparently been a necessary precondition for an attack on tenancy problems. Even this threat has been ineffective in densely populated countries, where demographic pressures make it out of the question to promise land to all the landless.

Lessons of land reform . Where there are large populations of landless workers or subtenants, land reform may not be a sufficient tool for the solution of rural poverty problems. It may be impossible to give land to all claimants without creating farms that are too small. This realization has sometimes inhibited attempts at land reform. A distinction is needed between problems of defective incentive structures that can be attacked through land reform, and problems of endemic rural poverty that must be attacked with other tools.

Land reform has frequently left untouched problems of domestic petty landlordism. Upper limits on permissible holdings can create new structures of inequity. Small landholdings held by absentee landlords have been difficult to bring within the land reform framework, and bootleg tenancy appears. In Colombia, for example, existing land reform legislation leaves small absentee owners untouched (although the cost of absentee ownership has been increased through threat of expropriation at declared tax values), thus exerting indirect influence on land use intensity.

The economic consequences of land reform depend very much on whether or not market forces are to be allowed to operate in determining combinations of resources, choices of enterprises, and scale of operation. Can land be transferred? Will market prices influence allocation of land to different uses or influence shifts in size of firm? Are farmers bound to their lands by new bonds that restrict occupational choice?

Release of productive potential is one of the greatest promises of land reform. It is in this sense that experiences in Japan, Taiwan, and Egypt are most significant. Agricultural productivity was already high when these three countries undertook land reform between 1946 and 1952. Yet in Egypt the index of gross agricultural output (1935 = 100) rose from 106 in 1951–1952 to 135 in 1962. In Japan the agricultural productivity index (1934 = 100) rose from 106 in 1940 to 157 in 1964. In Taiwan the aggregate agricultural output index rose from 100 in 1951 to 221 in 1964 (to 184, for crops only). Many factors contributed to these performance records, but there is general consensus that land reform was one of the most powerful driving forces.

Philip M. Raup

[See alsoAgriculture, especially the articles onCapital, DevelopingCountries, andProduction; Communism, EconomicOrganizationOf, article OnAgriculture; Credit, article OnAgriculturalCredit.]


Conference ON World Land Tenure Problems, University OF Wisconsin, 1951 1956 Land Tenure: Proceedings. Edited by K. H. Parsons, R. J. Penn, and P. M. Raup. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Dore, Ronald P. 1959 Land Reform in Japan. Oxford Univ. Press.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas 1960 Economic Theory and Agrarian Economics. Oxford Economic Papers New Series 12:1–40.

Hagen, Everett E. (1962) 1964 On the Theory of Social Change: How Economic Growth Begins. London: Tavistock.

International Labor Office 1965 Agrarian Reform With Particular Reference to Employment and Social Aspects. Report 6, Forty-ninth Session, International Labour Conference. Geneva: The Office.

Jacoby, Erich H. 1961 Agrarian Unrest in Southeast Asia. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Asia Publishing House. → The first edition was published in 1949.

Meade, James E.(1964) 1965 Efficiency, Equality, and the Ownership of Property. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Mingay, G. E. 1963 English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge.

Sawada, Shuiiro 1964 [A Book Review of] Bruce F. Johnston, Agricultural Development and Economic Transformation: A Comparative Study of the Japanese Experience. Rural Economic Problems 1, no. 2:88–92.

Tuma, Elias H. 1965 Twenty-six Centuries of Agrarian Reform: A Comparative Analysis. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

United Nations, Economic And Social Council 1966 Progress in Land Reform, Fourth Report. New York: United Nations.

Warriner, Doreen 1962 Land Reform and Development in the Middle East: A Study of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. 2d ed. Oxford Univ. Press. → The first edition was published in 1957.

Wickizer, V. D. 1960 The Smallholder in Tropical Export Crop Production. Stanford University, Food Research Institute, Food Research Institute Studies 1: 49–99.

Land Tenure

views updated May 14 2018


Liana Vardi

Types of property and patterns of landownership might, on the surface, seem to belong less to social history than to economic history, describing the distribution over time and space of small and large farms, or to legal history as a branch of contract law. Land tenure, however, is woven into the very fabric of society, reflecting concepts of property, hierarchy, and individual rights. Describing changes in land tenure thus involves describing changes in the society at large. This makes understanding land tenure both interesting and challenging.

Land tenure in preindustrial Europe has long been the focus of historiographical debate. Painstaking research into landholding has been driven by more than antiquarian curiosity. The resulting information has figured prominently in scholarly debates about distribution of land and about peasants' need for and attachment to the land. Those who equate country life with rural idiocy might not view the peasants' dispossession of their land with as much distress as those who imbue rural life with rustic virtues. If owning land is linked with independence and dignity, then dispossession will seem a cruel blow. The study of land tenure has thus been able to evoke strong feelings: a desire to do justice to the dispossessed; a drive to understand the process of modernization, associated (until recently) with large-scale farming and treating small properties as hindrances to progress; and a wish to go beyond generalizations to recover the full complexities of the past with its variations, exceptions, negotiations, and multiple agencies. Until the 1970s, historians tended to equate country life with land, meaning that gradations in landownership were taken to represent gradations in wealth, disregarding the import of secondary or alternate sources of income. Thus, forms of property and tenure were profoundly intertwined for much of European history. In fact, in its simplest and most reductive form, the history of land tenure in much of Europe might be taken as the emergence and eventual victory of private property over previous forms of tenure.

As the defining feature of rural life, land tenure holds much less sway than it used to. Historians used to fasten on the constraints that antiquated land tenure imposed. They attached importance to both legal and cultural constraints. First, the excessive "surplus extraction" by lord, church, and state left the peasant with the bare minimum. Second, the terms of tenure were so rigid that they allowed peasants and farmers little room to innovate, and should they manage to get around those, they would be trapped by the demands of communal farming and grazing. Third, peasant value systems were geared toward family survival rather than economic profit. To that end, peasants were always struggling to get more land or to hold on to their small properties, rather than concentrating on making these commercially viable.

Late-twentieth-century scholarship focused more on how peasants, be they freeholders, or long-term or short-term tenants, took advantage of economic opportunities, negotiating loopholes or disdaining constraints altogether. The collection, The Peasantries of Europe (1998), edited by Tom Scott, is a case in point. Its authors view the organization and accessibility of markets as far more important than legal categories and treat peasants as responding to market forces, by choice or of necessity. Rare is the author who still clings to the notion of a downtrodden peasantry crushed by feudal oppression or to a "romantic" view of the past with its moral economy of mutual aid and communal institutions. In the same way, gone is the notion that peasants were backward and routine-bound, living in self-sufficient worlds (even if they paid state taxes) or "part-societies" (a term favored by rural anthropologists in the wake of Robert Redfield and updated by Eric Wolf ).


Any discussion of land tenure involves by implication a discussion of feudalism and seigneurialism (manorialism for British historians, Herrschaft for German ones), for they imparted to land tenure much of its complexity, including a superfluity of attributes that centuries of practice and resistance whittled down and finally abolished. The history of land tenure in Europe must therefore begin in the Middle Ages, when these systems originated.

Land has always been important, of course. Until the mid-nineteenth century, because of its low yields, agriculture was the major occupation of Europeans and 80 percent of the population, and in some cases more, were engaged in the cultivation of the fruits of the soil, edible and nonedible. To own land, therefore, meant the ability to feed, house, and clothe oneself and one's family. It also meant creating the surpluses that allowed other social groups to survive without working the land, be they nobles, churchmen, or city dwellers. Except in extreme circumstances, agriculture was always capable of producing such surpluses so that the possession and marketing of this produce was a profitable proposition. Ownership and control over land therefore provided the most obvious form of wealth and prestige, and this is why it was not left to the people who worked it.

In the Middle Ages all the land in any given country belonged in theory to the Crown, although actual ownership had devolved, via land grants, to the nobility in return for military services, to the church in recognition of its spiritual services, and to commoners by dint of immemorial possession that no one chose to contest and that the Crown, at some point, agreed to recognize. Such full-fledged peasant owners were always a minority. Noble recipients of land granted domains to other nobles, in turn, so that the countryside became a patchwork of properties of different sizes, whose possessors were arranged hierarchically and linked by a chain of allegiance. Land thus expressed one's place in society. It symbolized, first and foremost, military might as lords were required to support their superiors in battle, and, likewise, to protect the people who worked their land against aggression. This was the primordial contract struck between lord and commoner. Just as the priest was meant to pray for his salvation, so the knight was meant to offer him protection, in return for which the peasant granted both a share of his produce. For some historians, this contractual relationship was real and all benefited from the arrangement. Others argue that the relationship was exploitative and rested not so much on mutuality as on an unequal distribution of power.

In addition to military power, land signified access to economic resources, and ownership brought with it administrative, judicial, and policing powers. When a lord obtained a tract of land (a seigneurie), sometimes in one large chunk, sometimes in several, he also obtained rights of justice over it. The peasants who were settled and working the land, or whom he brought to the land, were under his jurisdiction and subject to his law. Even if the lord could not act totally arbitrarily and was bound, to some extent, by customary or civil law, he had the right to judge, fine, and condemn his peasants as if they were his subjects. Where the state remained sufficiently organized and strong, the peasants could take their cases before this higher authority. But the devolution of power from the Crown to the lords in the Middle Ages reduced that capacity, until that time when the state began to reconsolidate and reclaim these rights. The high point of the seigneurial system in any given country was when most peasants fell under its dominion.

Before the Middle Ages some peasants had owned land outright, but, except for a few pockets where such independent owners survived for centuries (this land being known as alodial), most peasant owners eventually came under the control of a lord, and had to pay him a fee in recognition of his superior ownership of their properties. In one way or another, then, most peasants were tenants and owned tenancies. The full-fledged owner or seigneurial lord was not necessarily a nobleman. The Crown, the church, and wealthy burghers also owned seigneuries.

Besides the judicial and military powers it conferred, a seigneurie was viewed as an income-producing unit, subject at all times to fluctuations in prices, and the vagaries of supply and demand. Although landowners did not subscribe to some medieval version of the Financial Times, they were acutely aware of where profits lay and eager to make the most of them. Thus, depending on the region, they might view it as more sensible to lease as much of their land as possible, or on the contrary to hold on to it or "buy" it back from the peasants (whether peasants were coerced into selling or driven to sell by poverty and debt remains open to debate). A landowner might hire laborers or, even better, retain a steady supply of workers by granting them some land and demanding, in return, that they work his land three, four, and even in extreme cases six days a week. Feudalism granted the lord the power to enforce such decisions, which is why feudal economics cannot be separated from power.

Western European lords, as a rule, did not till their domains themselves. Their estates were divided into two distinct parts: the demesne, that part of the land that remained under their direct control, and tenures allocated to peasants. When the lord divvied up his domains or settled peasants on new land he insured himself a ready supply of workers who either worked part-time on his fields, or paid him a rent with which he hired servants. In Germany this system was called Grundherrschaft to distinguish it from Gutsherrschaft (most common in eastern Europe), where most of the estate remained under the lord's direct control.

Late medieval tenures were either long-term or perpetual leaseholds (emphyteutic), where the peasants received one or several plots, a garden, orchard, perhaps vineyard, or any combination or fraction of these to treat as their own and pass on to their heirs or even sell in return for a number of fixed dues, services, and fees that they owed the lord. The peasants were the de facto owners, having the use value of the land, but the lord remained the final proprietor and peasants continued to owe him dues and/or services in recognition of that fact.

Under the most oppressive conditions of tenure, serfdom, peasants were bound to the estate and forced to work the lord's domain in return for their allotments. Their servile status could be based on personal bondage—known as Leibeigenschaft in German, mainmorte in French, Remença in Spain, and neifty in England—or it could be a condition attached to the land, meaning to the peculiar demands of tenure on a seigneurial estate: the type of relationship that the English called villenage. In western Europe as of the later Middle Ages, personal bondage had been superseded by land based bondage and greater personal freedom. Labor services were commuted to cash, hold on tenures became more secure, and some of the more humiliating seigneurial rights were dispensed with. Peasants recovered their mobility, their ability to bequeath or to marry outside the seigneurie without the consent of their lord. Most important, most tenures became hereditary. Whenever possible, the lord converted previous constraints into payments. Thus, seigneurial relations were transformed into primarily economic transactions. Personal serfdom, on the other hand, was introduced into eastern Europe at the time when it was disappearing in the West, a process known as the second serfdom.


Most peasants and serfs, that is free and unfree rustics, possessed tenancies. The terms and nature of tenancy varied. They ranged from quasi ownership to full-fledged economically based rentals. Along with emphyteutic leaseholds, which were either perpetual or lasted up to ninety-nine years, there existed tenures of one to three lives (that of the husband, the wife, and their son, who could upon their death renegotiate for himself three further lives), medium-length tenures of eighteen to twenty-four years, and short-term rentals of one, three, six, or nine years; multiples of three were the most common for they reflected the three-field rotation cycle. Shorter leases were, much like modern rentals, gauged economically on the basis of market prices—in England this was called rack rent—rather than having the fixed fees of hereditary rights of tenure. The tenant-farmer typically paid a high entry fee (or fine) and an annual rent based on the anticipated returns from the land during the length of the lease. From the late Middle Ages onward this became the most common way of leasing the demesne, that part of his domain that the lord did not parcel out as tenures, especially in continental Europe (except east of the Elbe). From the demesne the practice eventually spread to other tenures as lords tried to increase their profits by reducing the number of emphyteutic tenures and making peasants pay returns proportional to their produce. This might happen, for example, when bad economic conditions coupled with high state taxation drove peasants into debt and forced them to relinquish their holdings. The lord might then buy the plots and rent them back under new terms. The progression in the types of tenancies, that is, the changing demands and needs of lords, can be reconstituted through surviving leases, grants, litigation, and sometimes legislation.

Rentals came in two basic forms: the fixed rents described above, which were adjusted with each new contract, and sharecropping agreements, where the landowner and renter supposedly shared the produce equally, hence the terms métayage in French and mezzadria in Italian from the words meaning "half." Although this terminology was most common, sharecropping agreements might only involve the payment of one-fifth or one-third of the produce, fitting better the Spanish usage of the term aparcería, or partnership. But in Spain also sharecropping ranged from one-third to equal shares in the produce. Sharecropping prevailed in some parts of Europe but not in others. It was, for example, unknown in England and much of northern Europe, but common in Italy, France, Spain, and parts of the Rhineland throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

Sharecropping contracts have generally been taken as a sign of poverty: the tenant, being unable to furnish any capital, relied on the owner to provide the seeds, animals, and running capital to work the farm, in return for which he offered his labor and tools and handed over half his produce. Sometimes, the landlord agreed to pay state taxes. In parts of north and central Italy, where sharecropping emerged in the twelfth century as a substitute for serfdom, small landholders with a few parcels took on sharecropping contracts, which augmented what they grew on their own plots (this combination of ownership and rental seems most typical of Piedmont). These farms of about ten to thirty hectares produced a little of everything: cereals, fruits, vegetables, and wine. As S. R. Epstein explains, this arrangement suited landlords, whose main concern was to reduce labor costs. Unlike specialized cash crops, the mixed production kept the workforce busy all year round, but was also less profitable in the long run. In Lombardy and in the south, where farms were much bigger, from 50 to 130 hectares, tenant-farmers (masseri) either hired laborers or sublet the less fertile parts of their land. By the eighteenth century tenant-farming had become more common in north and south Italy than sharecropping, which however survived in central Italy until the nineteenth century. Another arrangement that became widespread was the grouping of farms under common management (fattoria) worked either by tenant-farmers or day laborers. Sharecropping was slow to disappear from areas where it had existed for centuries. For example in 1862 there were still 400,000 tenant-farmers and 200,000 sharecroppers in France.

In the later Middle Ages, peasants did not lease for brief periods but had hereditary rights to tenancies, which were recognized by customary law (or the custom of the manor, hence in England peasants were known as customary tenants). As territorial states began to consolidate in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, rulers upheld this customary law. In the case of England, unfree peasants came to be called copyholders because they were given a copy of the documents attesting their right to their tenure. The revival of Roman law, favored by centralizing rulers, was at first detrimental to peasants because Roman law defined much more bluntly the difference between free and servile status, and serfs were forbidden recourse to public courts and were left at the mercy of their masters.

Yet, because it was not in the long-term interest of most rulers to relinquish control over vast numbers of their subjects, territorial lords sided with peasants against seigneurial lords. Where once a "contract" had bound lord and peasant, with the first protecting the second in adversity in return for labor and rent, now the state inserted itself as the protector of the peasants against the demands of the lords. The Germans had a name for it: Bauernschutzpolitik, peasant protection policies. Peasants could once again appeal to public courts, and were liberated from the most onerous of seigneurial exactions. Instead they became liable to the public fisc. In France, as of 1439, the king forbade seigneurs from levying taxes and replaced them with his own. To put it bluntly, in this "trade" one bloodsucker replaced another. Seigneurial payments had not all been extinguished and continued to be a drain on peasant incomes. The demands of the state, however, represented the most onerous fiscal burden from then on.


Hereditary tenures owed periodic, usually annual, payments in cash or kind. The amounts were fixed at the time of the agreement. By the twelfth century inflation had reduced cash payments to insignificance, even if they were supplemented by a capon or some eggs. Where an additional rent was paid in kind (in France this was called a champart or terrage) it could be onerous: as much as 8 percent of the peasant's crop in France (likewise in Spain) levied right after the harvest. In the Middle Ages, lords derived as much as 90 percent of their income from various seigneurial payments. This amount diminished substantially over the next centuries, as lords came to depend primarily on rents and on income from royal and princely courts. By the late eighteenth century, seigneurial payments commonly represented 15 to 30 percent of revenues, although in some Germanic lands they might still amount to 50 percent, as they had in 1500. Payments varied from place to place because tenures were created at different times under different circumstances. No one can do justice to the multiplicity and variety of fees that might be asked of European tenants. Jerome Blum reports that a seigneurie in northwest Germany listed 138 different obligations. Such a variety defies generalization, and few scholars attempt it. Faced with a baffling array of incommensurable data, they are more likely to focus on dynamics within a specific region.

Lords not only charged a quitrent, or fixed fee, they were also entitled to collect a series of incidental fees, called casualties. Some related directly to their "eminent" possession of the land and were levied when a tenant sold his tenure (these went by different names: lods et ventes in French, laudemium in Latin, Lehnsgeld in German) or when he bequeathed it (in English, heriot). This fee might be trivial or rise to one-quarter of the value of the holding. Other payments had once signified the peasants' servile status: their lack of mobility, their inability to marry out of the seigneurie without the lord's consent (the fee known as marchet or formariage), or their obligation to support the lord's expenditures in war, contribute to his ransom, or help pay for his daughter's wedding. Lords could reclaim the land if a peasant died intestate, and had the right to forestall a sale (retrait seigneurial). In Catalonia, lords went so far as fining servile peasants whose wives committed adultery (cugucia). Paul Freedman has reminded us how deeply peasants resented such degrading payments, how hard they fought for their abolition, and how much they spent on manumissions, that is, the release from bondage. The bundle of offensive payments known as mals usos (bad customs) were rescinded in Catalonia in 1486 after a successful peasant rebellion.

By the eleventh century lords throughout Europe charged fees for the use of various services they monopolized: flour mills; bread ovens; wine and olive presses; local markets; passage on roads, bridges, and rivers; weights and measures; and forests or fishponds; and they fined anyone found poaching or bypassing their facilities. Casualties and banalités (seigneurial monopolies) were a way for lords to get additional moneys from their tenants, especially those tenants who had secure holdings with fixed rents, which brought lords little revenue. These payments could be changed or increased at will, although they tended to be governed by the custom of the manor/seigneurie. Labor services, which had been the hallmark of serfdom, were generally commuted into rent. Where they survived into the early modern period, they amounted to two or three days' labor a year, although sometimes as many as fourteen. Service days fell at harvest time, and peasants highly resented this interference with their own farming. But for the most part, payments that pertained to servile status were either abolished outright or withered into insignificance as part of the liberties western European peasants gained in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. That made payments directly linked to land and various banal monopolies all the more important to lords. These survived for centuries in most of continental Europe, to disappear only in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century.

Despite the clear coercive power of lords, the balance of power between them and their tenants was also governed by economic forces and demographic factors. The support of the state played an important role, and peasant resistance should not be underestimated. Rural communities fought excessive seigneurial exactions with lawsuits and uprisings. Moroever, seigneuries did not always coincide with villages, but could be spread over several, or cover only a part of any given village, depending on how and when they had been constituted. Thus, most peasants lived in villages with multiple owners and lords. As time went on, peasants could also appeal to a reconstituted central state. Everywhere, there were multiple, competing authorities, and peasants learned quickly how to play one against the other.

Although there is no uniformity, scholars estimate that by the eighteenth century peasants paid half of their net profits to the state in taxes, to the church as tithes, and to the seigneurs in rents and dues. In Germany, 60 percent of peasant payments went to the state (representing 25 percent of average output), 30 percent to the lords, and 10 percent to the church. In the mid-eighteenth century the French physiocrat François Quesnay believed a similar distribution to be true of France. Taxes, dues, and tithes might take from one-third to one-half of peasant produce in France and Spain, but only one-third in Switzerland and Austria. These figures sometimes include rent and sometimes not. State taxation increased everywhere, rising to intolerable amounts in wartime, and hitting peasants especially hard since they bore the brunt of the burden. Rents also fluctuated depending on economic circumstances. They rose during the eighteenth century, cutting into tenant-farmer profits. The difficulty in assessing the weight of such exactions is not merely that demands might fluctuate from year to year, but that no one can say for certain how much peasants produced. Payments were either tendered in coin or kind, meaning primarily wheat, the most valuable of cereals. Average yields in Europe before the agricultural revolution have been estimated to lie anywhere between 2:1 and 10:1, although 4:1 seems the most likely. Peasant expenditures have been calculated on that uncertain basis. Given the uncertainty about peasant incomes, estimates reinforce both bleak and sanguine views of the peasant estate.


Historians assess the factors that were most significant in altering agrarian relations in the fourteenth century differently. Some (Annales school historians in particular) have emphasized demographic factors. Others (particularly marxists) have argued that the crisis was political and signified a long-term transformation of the feudal economy and its mode of surplus extraction into its absolutist version. These arguments were particularly ferocious in the 1970s, culminating in what is known as the Brenner debate, after Robert Brenner's attack on neo-Malthusian interpretations. Research on peasant resistance in the 1980s and 1990s has bolstered the Brenner side of the debate by fastening on local power relations. While few contest the significance of the demographic crises of the fourteenth century, they disagree about the peasants' ability to profit from them, which, not surprisingly, varied from place to place.

The late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed population explosion, land hunger, and rising prices with concomitant declining wages, followed by a series of catastrophes—crop failures, wars, and epidemics, of which the worst was the Black Death of 1348. These disasters drastically reduced population, lowered demand for food, collapsed agricultural prices, and raised wages. While lords had been eager to take advantage of favorable economic conditions to regain control of the fields, peasants after the plague were able to improve their lot significantly. Lords who had acquired vacated farms were looking to rent them. Depopulation put peasants in a position of strength, and many won freedom from serfdom, reduced rents, and secure tenures from lords eager to attract them. This was not the universal response, however.

Lords, conscious of their power, tried at first to compel peasants to remain on their land by reinstituting a harsh serfdom that severely restricted their mobility. They failed in this because peasants fled to more welcoming terrain or openly rebelled. Lords were successful in England and Catalonia, where serfdom was reintroduced with the support of temporarily weakened states. By the late fifteenth century, however, serfdom had been officially abolished in Catalonia and had disappeared from England. Italy also underwent a form of refeudalization between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, which consisted primarily in the landowners' recognition of the overlordship of territorial states rather than in the enserfment of the peasants.

In eastern Europe, which is a case apart, serfdom was successfully introduced in the sixteenth and seventeenth century by lords who controlled large estates and wanted them worked by compulsory labor services. In Germany east of the Elbe, Hungary, Bohemia, Poland, the Danubian Principalities, and Russia, serfdom became the norm at a time when it disappeared almost completely from western Europe. In those regions, lords' control over a servile population was ratified by state legislation and survived until abolished in the nineteenth century.

The reinstitution of serfdom in England and Catalonia in the fourteenth century, and later in eastern Europe, was achieved with the collaboration of recreated territorial states, whose rulers needed the support of their nobilities, and whose royal decrees upheld seigneurial law. State formation had two major consequences: the introduction of civil law that competed with customary law, and taxation that vied with the lord's exactions.


One factor that made tenure so complex was that no owner or renter in pre-modern times had the exclusive usufruct of his property. All land had a communal dimension, and most villages also owned land communally. These should not be conflated.

Villages consisted of arable fields and pastures and areas that were considered too sterile to till—wastes, swamps, roadways, and fields that had been abandoned and never reclaimed. Often, the barren lands were turned into communal meadows; in some places they belonged to the seigneur, in others to the village community by dint of immemorial possession or documentary evidence. In northern France where the adage "nulle terre sans seigneur" (no land without a lord) obtained, the land was presumed to belong to the lord unless the community could prove otherwise. In the south the opposite was true, for there it was the seigneur who needed to show proof: "nul seigneur sans titre" (no lord without a title). This distinction became especially important in the eighteenth century, when both seigneurs and villagers claimed to own such communal land or "commons." This land was used primarily for grazing cattle and, while extremely important to all peasants, was crucial for smallholders who had no other way to pasture their animals. A vast literature examines that question for England during the period of enclosures, when the commons vanished. Communal properties were important in Spain, Italy, Alpine regions, and elsewhere where pasturing was a major activity. The privatization of the commons in early modern Europe (usually by state decree), to feed a growing population, went hand in hand with an expansion of the arable at the expense of pasture.

Besides this unclaimed/communal land, all land became at some point communal, notably in regions of open-field farming. The village arable was divided into large sections—two in the case of biennial rotation and three in triennial—that were planted at the same time with the same crop or left fallow. These fields, either when fallow and overgrown with weeds or after the harvest, would be turned into grazing grounds, primarily for sheep. Given the lack of fodder, grazing on the stubble made the possession of animals possible. Also, manure was the principal form of fertilizer before the advent of chemicals, making pasturing a necessary part of farming. All land was declared "open" to pasturing after the harvest, including artificial meadows where the community shared in the second crop. The lord, whose estate might be separate from or mingled within the peasant fields, was also entitled to graze his flocks on the stubble.

It was long presumed that lords were opposed to communal forms of farming and wished them replaced with enclosed private properties; but by the eighteenth century it was they, more often than not, who profited most from communal lands. Villagers benefited from the quid pro quos such as the right to scavenge for berries or wood in seigneurial and communal forests. As long as one was a village resident with some land, whether owned or rented, one was entitled to send one's animals on the communal grazing grounds, be they fallow or waste (the number of animals that could be pastured was sometimes prorated), and to share other use rights. For this reason, "closed" villages in Germany and Austria carefully controlled residence and membership in the village community.

Such seasonal devolution of fields into the common domain, such rights of pasture (which, if they spread beyond the village boundaries, were known as intercommoning), and the entire series of use rights came under severe attack in the eighteenth century, and they were replaced—sometimes easily, sometimes after a hard struggle—with enclosed farms and individual property rights. French Revolutionaries who decreed individual property rights and abolished feudal tenures as of the summer of 1789 could not agree about the fate of communal properties, and allowed Old Regime practices to stand. In Spain and Italy, restrictions on property rights eroded in the early modern period as communities sold their commons, usually to settle communal debts. Liberal reformers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made privatization a byword for liberty and progress.

In England, where philosophers had linked independence with individual property since the late seventeenth century, agricultural development was equated with big compact farms liberated from communal servitudes, where each farmer could grow what he wanted, when he wanted, without interference. Land was removed from common cultivation and enclosed as of the sixteenth century, though the pace quickened in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. English scholars continue to argue the benefits and drawbacks of enclosures, assessing its effects on productivity and on a small peasantry deprived of communal grazing grounds. Elsewhere in Europe, the survival of communal practices into the modern period was taken, until recently, as a sign of economic backwardness.


A farm of twenty to twenty-five hectares had since the Middle Ages been taken as the basic unit of taxation, going by the Latin name of mansus, or "hide" in English, Hufe in German, mas in Spanish, and manse in French (but also charrue as the unit of land that could be cultivated with one plow). Smaller properties were assessed as proportions of the basic unit. Whether owned or leased, this was the amount considered necessary for self-sufficiency, for living off farming alone.

Yet, as of the twelfth century fragmentation became the norm, and the majority of peasants lived on far less, putting their survival at risk in times of dearth. The drop in population in the fourteenth century allowed the reconstitution of larger farmsteads but the process of fragmentation began as soon as population rose once more. That is why some seigneurs and territorial rulers insisted on impartible inheritance, which maintained viable farms and thus more secure bases for taxation and dues. In England, as in Catalonia, nobiliary models of primogeniture, favoring the eldest son, spread early to the peasantry (in Spanish, hereu). In the rest of Spain, however, all heirs shared in the inheritance. In the Hohenlohe region of Germany, the counts in 1562 and again in 1655 forbade peasants to divide their holdings. Regimes of impartible inheritance governed four-fifths of Germany, much of Austria, and a few regions of France. There, the child who inherited the farm had to compensate siblings with cash. In areas of partible inheritance, such as Castile, most of France, southern Germany, and Italy, patrimonies were split among all surviving children, although, there too, one heir could opt to buy out his siblings by common agreement. Peasant choices depended on family strategies for survival.The more one delves into what peasants actually did with their properties, the more complicated things look. One should keep in mind that the amount that peasants owned was not necessarily the amount they farmed. Early modern European peasants owned about one-third of the land directly, either as freeholders with full property rights or as seigneurial tenants with de facto ownership. But they tilled the remainder by leasing it from noble, ecclesiastical, and absentee urban landlords. The most successful, as we shall see, were the tenant-farmers of vast estates. But below them were plowmen (laboureurs in French, labradores in Spanish, and what Germans usually mean by Bauer) with some land of their own, and the farming implements (plows, horses, or oxen) to take on additional rentals. In most places in Europe, the best land had been granted to the privileged, so that rentals were generally more fertile and thus more profitable than peasant plots. Even peasants with only a few acres might rent a plot or two from other villagers—those too old to till it themselves or those who had moved away while keeping property in the village—or from the parish church. This land was not usually of high quality, but it provided a supplement. A mix of property and leasehold was therefore quite common.

Nonetheless, there was evident growing fragmentation and in the early modern period land tenure became more and more polarized between big holdings on the one hand and small or even tiny tenancies on the other. Demographic upsurge accounts for increased fragmentation at a time when it was no longer possible to extend the arable by cultivating the wastes or by clearing and colonizing new land. Several mitigating factors might explain why peasants would be willing to subdivide tiny plots: access to the commons, the availability of rental property, supplementary work on large estates, the option of planting vines (which necessitated little land for a decent return), and cottage industry. Although the result could be pauperization and eventually "proletarianization" as peasants made do with only a house and selling their labor, it is wrong to think of peasants as lemmings, accepting misery as their lot.

Everywhere, near-landless peasants became a majority. Spain in 1792 reported 16.5 percent peasant owners, 30.5 percent renters, and 53 percent day laborers. In early modern Italy, farms in the central regions covered 10 to 30 hectares, whereas in Lombardy they ranged from 50 to 130 hectares and were surrounded by subdivided smallholdings, as were the latifundia in the south and in Sicily. In England, near-landless squatters and cottagers made up 20 to 90 percent of the rural population, depending on the region; overall they amounted to 20 to 30 percent in the sixteenth century, but close to 50 percent in the seventeenth century. The same was true of France where three-quarters of peasants tilled less than 5 acres (2.2 hectares). Fragmentation occurred even in areas of compact farms. In Austria in 1600, big, middling, and small peasantries represented respectively 9, 61, and 31 percent of the rural population. By 1700 the proportion was 18, 29, and 53 percent. In Saxony full holdings fell from 50 percent of tenures in 1550, to 25 percent in 1750, and 14 percent in 1843.

While tiny peasant holdings multiplied, large farms increased in size. In France, especially around Paris, tenant-farms grew from an average of 50 hectares (or two charrues) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to 80 hectares in the seventeenth century. The disruptions of the Fronde, the demands of the fisc, and the long drop in prices in the late seventeenth century caused havoc among middling peasants. Their abandoned holdings were integrated within existing farms, so that the average farm covered 135 hectares by the second half of the seventeenth century, and 210 hectares in the eighteenth century. Farms were much bigger in England than in France. In the eighteenth century, a large English estate was reckoned at 10,000 acres, or 4,000 hectares—ten times the size of the biggest French equivalent. In France, Jean-Michel Chevet reports, farms of 50 to 100 hectares grew at the detriment of farms in the 10 to 50 hectare range or smaller. The ranks of middling peasants thinned everywhere, although they fared better in Germany than elsewhere. There, rich farmers grew richer and poor ones poorer, but some middling peasants managed to hold onto their family farms, often with the help of landlords who extended them credit in difficult times.

Farms increased in size as lords consolidated their domains in order to profit from price rises (or, as happened in England, Spain, and parts of Germany, to convert their estates from arable to pasture when food prices dropped, and then back again to cereals when market conditions changed). In Italy, France, and England, the richest peasants were not substantial landowners in their own right. Rather they farmed the new, enlarged demesnes for the lords and owned only a few plots of their own. Such tenant-farmers prospered, especially where they managed to stay in place for generations. They intermarried, controlled village councils and vestries when they could, collected dues for the seigneurs and tithes for the church, acted as moneylenders to other peasants, and marketed grain on distant markets or dealt with urban grain merchants. Nicknamed coqs de village in France, they were a tight-knit oligarchy and for eighteenth-century agronomists they figured as the acme of rural society and hopes for future developments.

Historical revisionism has not downplayed the importance of rich tenant-farmers. Rather, scholars have examined more closely the "losers" in this trend toward bigger and bigger farms: the middle and small peasantry. In doing so, they have altered our picture of agrarian change. Thus, Robert C. Allen has argued that the agricultural revolution in England owed much to the middling groups of landowners (the yeomen) with 60 to 100 acres (25 to 40 hectares). They prospered in the sixteenth and especially the seventeenth century, introducing new crops, doubling their productivity, and laying the ground, so to speak, for the eighteenth-century large-scale improvements on big estates. Yet, by the eighteenth century large farms had the clear advantage over middling and small peasantry, although many more survived into the mid-nineteenth century than had been supposed.

Not too long ago, farm size was taken as the indicator of economic health: the bigger, the more efficient. The European ideal had once been the small, intensive, and highly productive family farm of medieval and early modern Flanders. By the eighteenth century this model had been superseded by the extensive farming (preferably of a specialized sort) using hired laborers—full-time servants, seasonal migrants, or local small peasants—which prevailed in Britain. This version governed analyses of economic growth from the eighteenth century onward. England was the model, France and other European countries poor replicas. Few people contest that the agricultural revolution began in England (though they disagree as to when) but they balk at the implicit value judgements. Local studies have shown that English progress was slower and more sporadic than once thought. Studies have also demonstrated that open-field farming could be as productive as enclosed properties. Concomitantly, research has revealed far more complicated and often advanced patterns on the Continent. The common understanding is that there was no right or wrong way to "modernity," but rather a multiplicity of paths. Regions once considered backward (Spain, for example), appear to have been as responsive to economic stimuli as "capitalist" England. If historians now uncover blockages in the way of economic growth, it is more in state taxation and the organization of markets than in seigneurial exactions, customary constraints, or forms of land tenure.


Land tenure, the historian Jerome Blum argued, can be divided into "good" and "bad." Good tenures made the least financial demands on peasants and their hold on them was most secure; bad tenures were accompanied by high demands for labor or rents and were revocable at will. Michael Bush has challenged that view, claiming that the best tenancies were in fact those that owed labor services, since peasants could spare the extra hands, profit from the security of tenure, be spared the fluctuations in prices, and avoid the dispossession of disinherited siblings that most western Europeans suffered. It is perhaps safest to say that peasants both lost and profited from agrarian regimes. The advent of private property in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which abolished feudal eminent possession and made peasants the true proprietors of their holdings, freed peasants from irksome and sometimes onerous payments. At the same time, the concentration of land in a few hands—which progressed at different rates in different regions—meant that small and middling peasants were unable to compete in the long run, and had to abandon for good the small-scale part-time farming that had ordered peasant lives for centuries.

The mechanization of agriculture at the end of the nineteenth century, the important capital outlay that it required, and the vast properties that made it worthwhile transformed the European countryside yet again. Peasants, unable to compete, sold out, though in some parts of Europe not until after World War II. In Eastern Europe collectivized farms were imposed by Communist regimes, and briefly attempted by left-wing governments in the West, for example in Spain in the 1930s. Yet, it was the resilience of small-scale mixed farming that saved some Third World countries from total destitution in an era when foreign experts and the World Bank imposed on them the model of large-scale cash cropping. Such realizations are bound to complicate further our approach to and understanding of land tenure in the West.

See alsoThe Annales Paradigm; Marxism and Radical History (volume 1); and other articles in this section.


Allen, Robert C. Enclosure and the Yeoman. New York, 1992.

Aston, T. H., and C. H. Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe. New York, 1985.

Audisio, Gabriel. Les français d'hier. Vol. 1: Des paysans XVe–XIXe siècle. Paris, 1993.

Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1978.

Bloch, Marc. French Rural Society: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978.

Brewer, John, and Susan Staves, eds. Early Modern Conceptions of Property. London and New York, 1996.

Bush, M. L., ed. Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage. London and New York, 1996

Chevet, Jean-Michel. La terre et les paysans en France et en Grande-Bretagne: Du début du XVIIe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1998.

Epstein, S. R. "The Peasantries of Italy, 1350–1750." In The Peasantries of Europe from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. Edited by Tom Scott. London and New York, 1998. Pages 75–108.

Freedman, Paul. The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Medieval Catalonia. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500–1850. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Poussou, Jean-Pierre. La terre et les paysans en France et en Grande-Bretagne aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Paris, 1999.

Redfeld, Robert. Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Chicago, 1956.

Ringrose, David. Spain, Europe, and the "Spanish Miracle," 1700–1900. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Rösener, Werner. The Peasantry of Europe. Translated by Thomas M. Barker. Oxford, 1994.

Scott, Tom, ed. The Peasantries of Europe from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. London and New York, 1998.

Vassberg, David. Land and Society in Golden Age Castile. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Wolf, Eric. Peasants. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966.

land tenure

views updated May 14 2018

land tenure. Land could be held in a number of ways. Theoretically all land was owned ultimately by the crown, but most of it has been ‘sold’ to private individuals or public bodies. Since the disappearance of feudal tenure in the Middle Ages, most land has been ‘let’ to tenants, in a variety of different forms. Of these the best known is ‘rack rent’, in which land and buildings are let by the owner to a tenant for what is agreed by both parties to be a fair economic rent, reflecting its real value. However, this has been universal in England only since the abolition of copyhold in 1926, and prior to that time various other forms of tenure existed, usually based on time (three lives, 99 years, lifeleasehold)—or type of holding (copyhold, customaryhold). Under both systems the tenant paid a nominal rent but ensured the continuance of the holding through fines and other dues, enjoying virtual security of tenure as a result. These tenancies were particularly suited to non-inflationary periods and to estates over which the landlord wished to exercise little or no supervision. By the 18th and 19th cents. they were gradually being abolished, usually by the landlord refusing to insert new lives in a lease, or to accept payment of the traditional renewal fine. However, they remained in place through much of northern and western England well into the 19th cent., and on the estates of institutions such as Oxbridge colleges.

In Scotland, two forms of land-leasing were common: co-joint tenancy in which all the tenants on a farm were responsible for its cultivation and rent payment; and an alternative system in which several cultivators of a single farm each had a separate lease (or ‘standing’) for which they were responsible. The latter was the multiple tenancy farm. The early 18th cent. saw a decisive move, particularly in the Lowlands, towards the single tenancy which made enclosure and related innovations easier to obtain.

John Beckett


views updated May 29 2018

socage a feudal tenure of land involving payment of rent or other non-military service to a superior. Recorded from Middle English, the word comes from Anglo-Norman French soc, a variant of soke.


views updated May 21 2018

socage (hist.) tenure by service other than knight-service. XIV. — AN. socage, f. soc SOKE; see -AGE.