Projects - "Common Rules"

"Common Rules". The regulation of institutions for managing commons in Europe, 1100 - 1800



Our present-day society is highly regulated and institutionalized: formal agreements are made at various levels within society to make things run smoothly: from driving a car, to disposing waste, to taking part in local and national elections, whereby breaching a rule usually carries a sanction. However, if rules are simply added without attention to the internal coherence of the regulations, contradictory situations may emerge within the regulations and rules may become ineffective: they may no longer be understood by the stakeholders, or simply be ignored (‘freeriding’), with sanctions no longer being applied. In order to avoid inertia of the institution, adequate action to reduce complexity and complementarity are needed, as in e.g. the Dutch “Programma Regeldruk en Administratieve Lastenvermindering”, which aims at reducing superfluous regulation for government professionals in the field of a.o. education. Today’s examples of over-regulation, both at state and local administrative level, are the result of a long-term development whereby rules have been added, without sufficient attention to coherence with pre-existing regulations.


This project aims to understand how efficient and effective regulation can be developed, executed by well-functioning institutions. We focus on commons, a type of institutions for collective action which existed in the European countryside for centuries, and were set-up to regulate the collective use of natural resources (grassland, woodland, water) for large parts of the rural population. Although the Western European commons largely disappeared under governmental pressure, especially during the liberalization wave of the nineteenth century commons are still omnipresent in many developing countries – such e.g. India (see – and still survive in many parts of Europe today. Our project concentrates on the historical regulation of commons in Western and Southern Europe (middle-ages until today), examining the internal structure and changes of rules on various commons, in relation to a number of independent variables such as population growth, changing land use (e.g. the balance between arable and waste land), climate, etc. 


Within the confines of our project, we compare regulation from four different countries in Europe: The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy. For each country we intend to study at least ten cases in depth, whereby we primarily look at cases that managed to survive for several centuries. Some of the cases we study go back to the early fourteenth century. Our cases are normally concentrated in specific areas, in order to make their regulation somewhat easier to compare with other cases in the region. All regulations of all cases are entered in a common relational database (for a snap shot of the entry form of the database, click here).


The map underneath shows the location of all the cases that are currently being entered in our database.

Participants in this project

(For information on the respective researchgroups click on name of researchgroup or click here)


Utrecht University (UU)

Dr. Tine De Moor

René van Weeren

Dr. Jaco Zuijderduijn


Public University of Navarra (UPNA)

Dr. José Miguel Lana Berasaín

Dr. Gloria Sanz Lafuente

Mercedes Bogino


Lancaster University

Dr. Angus Winchester

Dr. Eleanor Straughton

James Bowen

Frances Kerner



Also closely involved in this project is Claudio Tagliapietra of the University of Bologna.

Projectcode Utrecht University


Extended version

 Click here for the extended version of the project description (PDF)




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