Shared Patterns in Long-Term Dynamics of Commons as Institutions

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* Article: Farjam, M., De Moor, T., van Weeren, R., Forsman, A., Dehkordi, M. A. E., Ghorbani, A., & Bravo, G. (2020). Shared Patterns in Long-Term Dynamics of Commons as Institutions for Collective Action. International Journal of the Commons, 14(1), 78–90. DOI:



"We present an analysis of regulatory activities in historical commons offering a unique picture of their long-term institutional dynamics. The analysis took into account almost 3,800 regulatory activities in eighteen European commons in two countries across seven centuries. Despite differences in time and space, we found a shared pattern where an initial, highly-dynamic institutional-definition phase was followed by a relatively long period of stability and a final burst of activities, possibly in an attempt to respond to new challenges. In addition, most of the initial regulatory activities focused on resource use, while towards the end other activities prevailed. Our approach allows for a better understanding of institutional dynamics and our findings also provide important insights about how to regulate the use of current natural resources."


The Dutch Commons: The 'Marken'

Tine De Moor et al.:

"The Dutch commons included were all known as marken, a type of common that could be found in particular in the eastern and northern part of the Northern Netherlands (Beekman and Commissie voor den Geschiedkundigen atlas van Nederland 1913; Van Zanden 1999), which was highly self-governed. Although uncultivated, this land was owned by either private landowners (free farmers, but also local noblemen) or by institutions (e.g., the nearby town or village, or by the church) (Slicher van Bath 1957). Entitlement to use the common was predominantly linked to being a legal inhabitant of the area the common belonged to and/or the possession of land or real estate in the area concerned. Decisions about the daily use and governance of these commons were taken by the commoners power at the general assembly (markevergadering or holtink), in general held annually, but also held ad-hoc in urgent matters. Voting rights in this assembly were mostly directly linked to the ownership of specific farms and estates within the area, the so-called ‘gewaarde erven’ (Van Zanden 1999); when an owner sold this estate, his voting rights were transferred to the new owner. The rules established at these meetings were laid down in writing in specific registers (markeboeken), of which the oldest examples date back to the fifteenth century; some of these markeboeken included copied texts from even considerably older documents, like the markeboek of the marke Berkum from 1648, which started off with a 1648 copy of a (lost) set of rules dating from c. 1300 (Marke Berkum 1648). Formulation, adaptation, and repetition of these rules was performed by the assembly of commoners without interference by regional formal authorities. The task of surveying the implementation of these rules and the sanctioning of trespasses was also primarily up to the commoners themselves; to this purpose, specific commoners were appointed as guardsmen (schutters, literally ‘enclosers’, referring to the main task of enclosing animals found wandering astray or animals confiscated from trespassers) that brought trespassers to justice, in cooperation with the chairman of the assembly of commoners (markerichter; this position was either obtained via election (gekozen or gekoren markerichter) or related to the possession of the estate the chairmanship was linked to (erfmarkerichter)).

The first archival sources of the majority of the marken in the Northern Nederlands date back to the late Middle Ages or early modern times, as was the case in the selected Dutch marken included in our research (De Moor et al. 2016). It is suspected however that the first rules laid down for such a common often already existed among the commoners, but that an increasing population and hence increasing pressure on resources were incentives for laying down these rules in writing. Examples from other types of commons elsewhere in Europe, such as the gemene weiden in Flanders (northern part of Belgium), seem to support this idea: the oldest written rules of the commoners of the Gemene and Loweiden in Assebroek (near Bruges), for example, state explicitly that the rules laid down back then were based on rules agreed upon ‘from immemorial times’ (De Moor 2003).

The first marken emerged in the current province of Overijssel, close to small rivers that provided both good pasture land and a relatively small risk of flooding, in the 8th and 9th centuries (Slicher van Bath et al. 1970). Throughout the following centuries, the spread of marken extended all over the current provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel; although marken in the current province of Drenthe also already existed in the thirteenth century (Van Zanden 1999), an increase of markegenootschappen in that area coincided with the start of extensive commercial exploitation of the extensive peat bogs present there. Although the marken were located in the less populated areas of the Northern Netherlands (Slicher van Bath et al. 1970; Van Zanden 1999), the soil conditions and availability of resources could vary per common. For example, in most of our cases peat was available in a limited amount and hence a scarce resource of which harvesting should be regulated strictly, whereas in the Drenthe marken peat was available in abundance, but good pasture land was a scarce good.

Nine out of our ten Dutch commons were located in or just outside the current province of Overijssel. The geographical outlier in our dataset is the marke Het Gooi, which was located near Hilversum, in the far southeast corner of the current province of North-Holland. All were located on sandy, sometimes silted soil in a predominant rural area; only the marken Berkum and Coevorden were located within the vicinity of larger towns, i.c. Zwolle and Coevorden. Only a small part of the land was suitable for growing crops and pasture land. The major part of the areas the Dutch commons concerned uncultivated land, mostly grown with heath, sods, or covered by extensive sand drifts. Until fertilizers were introduced in agriculture emerged in the course of the nineteenth century, the sandy soil was mixed with sods harvested from the uncultivated land, that were fertilized with the manure from the grazing cattle. As fertilizing one area of land required the use of sods of twenty equivalent plots of uncultivated land, the area of land used for agriculture increased at a very slow pace, leaving most of the land uncultivated and used as common land (Slicher van Bath et al. 1970).

Although the lifespan of marken varied per case, most commons survived for at least several centuries. For our study we selected cases that all had a lifespan of over two hundred years, in order to make sure we were focussing on examples of successful commons. We defined the beginning and the end of a commons’ ‘life’ by the first and the last regulatory activity, being the first or the last rule that was noted in the archival documents. The start of a common is often hard to identify exactly as the archival records do not always go back to the very beginning, forcing us to rely on references to the first mentioning of a rule. The year of dissolution, to the contrary is usually much clearer, as this was often the consequence of an official enclosure procedure which could also be found in other official records kept by local and national governments. Towards the nineteenth century, increasing industrialization, agricultural use of artificial fertilizer, and increasing population pressure were incentives for the national government to attempt to dissolve the commons. Legislative measures issued before 1810, exempting newly cultivated land from land tax and assigning ownership to individual commoners, initially did not have much effect. Legislation issued in 1837 and 1848 made it possible for single commoners to start the process of formal dissolution of the common (Demoed 1982). Combined with the strongly increased possibilities for extensive cultivation of formerly uncultivated land by the use of artificial fertilizer, these led to a ‘wave of dissolutions’ among the markegenootschappen: between 1830 and 1880 all but a handful of them were dissolved (with just a handful of them surviving until the twentieth century, among which one of the selected cases, i.c. the common Het Gooi)."

The English Commons

Tine De Moor et al.:

"The English commons selected for this article shared similar characteristics: located in the northern regions of England (Lake District, Pennine area), they all were located in a predominant rural area without neither large rivers nor large towns close by. All belonged to larger manorial territories and were located in hilly terrain.

As was the case in the Netherlands, English commons also varied in soil and location. All commons however had in common that they were located in areas that were less suitable for agriculture: wooded lands, rocky terrains, sand drifts, etc. The institutional situation of the English commons however differed essentially from the Dutch commons. Whereas the Dutch commons were self-governed by the respective assemblies of commoners (markegenootschappen), the English commons had always been formed as part of manorial land, governed and managed by the lord of the manor. The English commons therefore had the status of ‘manorial waste’, that is, waste land belonging to a manor or landed estate, ownership of which had been vested in the lord of the manor since 1235. On these commons, the rule-making process and sanctioning was conducted through the manorial court, a seigniorial court with a jurisdiction limited to the boundaries of the manor: in contrast to the Dutch cases, which were independent institutions, each governed by an organization especially created for the purpose of the management of the collective resources and solely responsible for that, the regulation of the local common was part of the governance of the manor to which it belonged. Notwithstanding these differences in the rulemaking procedure, commons as resource governance regimes did go through similar phases (De Moor et al. 2016). The difference in legal context may however explain the difference in the role of sanctioning that was found between the Dutch and English cases (see above). With commoners having less control over their rules and the making thereof, as was the case in England, they may have found less opportunities to meet and discuss the need for specific restrictions of their resource use and other measures taken. This may have affected the degree to which the commoners ‘internalised’ the rules and realised why they should not freeride. With a lesser involvement of commoners in the actual management of the commons, as in England, there may have been a higher need for sanctioning, in order to prevent freeriding.

The difference in legal status of the commons between England and the Netherlands also explains the survival rate of commons throughout the course of time. In the Netherlands, nowadays only a single common has survived until today, notwithstanding present-day efforts to reinstate some characteristics of the commons (De Moor 2019). In England, the main threat to the commons already existed earlier because of the practice of enclosure, in use from the thirteenth century onward, where pieces of open land, open to common use by all entitled users, were enclosed by fences and subsequently befell to the private use of the person who enclosed that part of land. This use was promoted by consecutive governmental Inclosure Acts between 1773 and 1882 (Slater 1907). The status of the land as part of the manorial land however prevented complete dissolution of all commons. Although significantly smaller in surface (Winchester 2015), there are numerous commons still ‘alive’ in England.

The difference in legislative status between the English and Dutch commons also shows in the way the regulations were recorded. In the Dutch cases, the oldest regulations preserved often concern a list of basic rules regarding the management of the commons and the use and governance of its natural resources; in some cases it was made clear that these already pre-existed before they were noted down in the registers that were kept by the chairman of the marke assembly. Decisions about new rules or adaptation of existing rules made at subsequent meetings were noted down in the same registers, either explicitly stated as new rule, or implicitly included in the minutes of the meetings. Sometimes a new list of rules was drawn up, integrating the prior regulation with the adaptations that were made throughout the previous years; in other cases however, the commoners apparently were satisfied with only noting down the decisions without composing a revised list of rules.

The initial rules of the English commons consisted of rules laid down by the manorial courts. These lists, known as ‘pain lists’, were far more concise and more focused on the sanctioning part (hence their name) than the Dutch markeboeken. These pain lists were often drawn up as a single document that stayed in force for a considerable amount of time. Adaptations were made far less frequently than in the Dutch regulations; changes were often included in new pain lists being drawn up (De Moor et al. 2016)."

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