Sources - Commons - Spain

Description of sources


Deeds of sale and privatization of commons

The best-studied aspect of the evolution of the commons has been the process of privatization. The Act of May 1, 1855 decreed the nationalization and sale by auction of the assets of the municipalities (Bienes de Propios), except those lands that were needed to feed work animals of the residents of the villages (dehesas boyales) and those that were free to be used by the whole community (bienes de aprovechamiento común). From that date on until 1924 a large number of plots, covering thousands of hectares,  went on sale. The process has been reconstructed through an official publication, the Provincial Sales Bulletins of National Assets (Boletines Provinciales de Ventas de Bienes Nacionales), and through the auction records preserved in the archives of the provincial delegations of the Ministry of Finance.


The privatization process began, however, much earlier. Distributions of farmland since 1766 in order to mitigate social conflict and raise the agricultural proletariat to the status of farmers, had continuity with the legislation passed by the Cortes of Cadiz in 1813. Since 1808, moreover, many municipalities were forced to sell part of its assets to cope with the extraordinary contributions required by the armies at war. The most reliable sources for studying this complex process is to be found in the notarial archives, which hold mortgage deeds, acknowledgments of debt, land sales, transfers, payments of accounts, etc. Also the municipal archives in many cases retain copies of these writings and records, made up in a context broader than just sales.


Vassberg (1983) studied in detail a process of selling property rights to communal land that had taken place at a far earlier date. This concerned the sales of wastelands (baldíos), conducted by the King during the sixteenth century, as a way to finance his war efforts. The process may be reconstructed from the holdings of the Archives of the Chancery of Valladolid and Granada (containing the lawsuits, known as pleitos), and the Hacienda Records section (the Averiguaciones of Philip II) at the General Archive of Simancas.


The most important source to know the dimension of communal heritage of villages in the preindustrial era is known as the Cadastre of Ensenada (Catastro de Ensenada). It was a prelude to an attempt at tax reform, which was finally out. Its purpose was to simplify the tax structure, replacing the complicated "provincial taxes" ("Rentas Provinciales") by a single-tax-system. In order to know the real income of the people, places and provinces of the Kingdom, it was necessary to perform a universal investigation of all goods of the subjects, without exception, preceding the implementation of this tax system. In 1756 the work was nearing completion, although some operations had to be done again. The main limitation of this source was its geographical coverage: the inquiry was limited to the territories of the Crown of Castile, therefore not including data from the Canary Islands, the Basque provinces, the Kingdom of Navarre and the whole territory of the Crown of Aragon (the kingdoms of Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and Mallorca).


The Cadastre of Ensenada consists of various documents. First, there are the individual declarations of goods made ​​by each taxpayer (each neighbour, the council on its own and the common property, foreigners with assets in place, ecclesiastical institutions). Records of these declarations are kept in the Provincial Archives. Moreover, the authorities of each village had to answer, in the presence of experts and witnesses,  a questionnaire containing 40 questions. The replies to these questions are known as the "General Answers" (“Respuestas Generales”), which were written down between 1750 and 1754. Four of the forty questions are specifically related to the common:


Nr. Original text of question Translation (EN)
23. ¿Qué propios tiene el común y a que asciende su producto al año, de que se deberá pedir justificación? What is the common property owned, and how much is been produced on this property annually, being the amount now being sought justification for?
24. Si el común disfruta algún arbitrio, sisa u otra cosa, de que se deberá pedir la concesión, quedándose con copia que acompañe estas diligencias; qué cantidad produce cada uno al año, a que fin se concedió, sobre qué especies para conocer si es temporal o perpetuo y si su producto cubre o excede de su aplicación. If the community enjoys any tax, excise or otherwise, should be asked to grant writing, keeping copy accompanying these procedures. How much to produce each year, for what purpose it was granted on which species to see if it is temporary or perpetual, and if the product meets or exceeds the application
25. ¿Que gastos debe satisfacer el común, como salario de Justicia y regidores, fiestas de Corpus u otras; empedrado, fuentes, sirvientes, etc., de que se deberá pedir individual razón? What expenses must meet the common budget, as wages of Justice and aldermen, religious festivals, paving, fountains, servants, etc..
26. ¿Qué cargos de Justicia tiene el común, como censos, que responda u otros, su importe, por qué motivo y a quien, de que se deberá pedir puntual noticia? What is the common charges, such as mortgages, to respond or otherwise, the amount, why and to whom, they should seek timely news


The General Archive of Simancas keeps complete certified copies of the Respuestas Generales of the 13,000 villages of the Kingdom of Castile in 545 books. In recent years, they have been and are being digitized and accessible through the Internet; examples are listed here.

Forest inventories

The first inventory of public forests general statistics for Spain was developed in 1859. Its aim was to delineate the land (as foreseen in the Confiscation Law (Desamortización) of 1855) for the purpose of  privatization by auction. The 'General classification of public forest' (Clasificación general de los montes públicos), published in 1859, recognized two types of land to be inalienable and exempt from sale, distinguishing each of those lands as belonging to the State, the people and civil corporations.


Since this inventarisation had been performed quite  hastily, the figures provided should be taken with caution. In the first concept of that inventory 'all public forests of any length, whose dominant tree species were spruce, fir, the pinsapo, pine, juniper, juniper, yew , beech, chestnut, alder, birch, oak, Turkey oak, the oak, holly and broom' were to be considered as exempt from the sale (GEHR 1991, 65).


Shortly after, this criterion was modified in a restrictive sense. Only  forests covering an area of more than one hundred hectares, and of which pine, oak, or beech were the dominant tree species, were to be considered exempt from sale. Therefore, it became necessary to reclassify the mountains and publish a new inventory (Catálogo) in 1862, in which mountains already having been considered as being alienable, were not included. This inventory determined the boundaries of the policy of privatization of communal land.


In the late nineteenth century there were further changes in concepts. In the Budget Act of 1896, it was stated that two types of mountain lands were to be exempt from sale:. The first exception concerned lands being exempt for 'reasons of public utility,'. These areas of land were to be used for the purpose of reforestation and remained under the supervision of the Ministry of Development. The second exception concerned lands being exempt 'for other reasons'. These lands came under the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance. In result, a new classification of the mountains was carried out and in 1901 a new Catálogo was published, including only the mountains being exempt for reasons of public utility.


Thus, we have three large forest inventories for 1859, 1862, and 1901, providing us with details on the location, size, ownership and vegetation of each of the Spanish public forests, although only the first inventory also included the mountains that were considered for privatization . The meadows for grazing the animals to be used for working the land (the dehesas boyales) and the 'mountains meant for common use' (montes de aprovechamiento común)”, also being exempt from sale, seem not to have been included in the inventories of 1862 and 1901.

Forest production statistics

Between 1861 and 1880, the Ministry of Development published a Statistical Yearbook containing the production data of the mountains. These are known as 'Statistics of production of public forests' (Estadísticas de la producción de los montes públicos, or EPMP). On the one hand, the yearbooks provide us the estimated total value of production of the alienable mountain areas as well as, in larger detail, the production figures of the mountain lands exempt from privatization. The figures concerning the latter were published in concurrence with a classification based on the ownership of the land. Thus, the statistics provide us details of the production value of the land owned by the state, the municipalities and public establishments, and also with production figures regarding the lands used to graze the cattle that was used for working the land (dehesas boyales) and the lands that were to be used as common land.


The yearbooks also offer a second classification: that of classification by type of use. The first two types of use relate to the types of use mentioned in the "Harvesting Plans" (Plan de Aprovechamiento), drawn up by engineers at the Forest Service:

  • regular harvesting, the harvest being auctioned and sold tothe highest bidder;
  • the free use, granted to the villagers.


Also included were three types of unexpected use:

  • trees felled by wind;
  • trees, destroyed by fire;
  • an estimate of resources harvested by fraudulent applications.


Between 1901 and 1933 the publication of harvesting figures was taken over by the publication of the "Statistics of production of the Public Utility Montains" (Estadísticas de la producción de los Montes de Utilidad Pública, or EPMUP), although these publications did not contain data on exploitation conducted in the alienable mountain lands. Since 1912 also specifications of the economic uses (timber, fuelwood, grazing, open range, esparto, resin, cork, land sown were published, expressing both the physical quantity and monetary value of the resources.


In addition to these publications, the Forestry section of the Archive of the Ministry of Agriculture, contain in manuscript a corpus of about 400 bundles that is considered to be of great importance for the knowledge of the use of the Spanish mountains. At the centre of this are the "Harvesting Plans", the main instrument of state intervention on the mountains of the villages, ranging from 1873 to 1914. These plans regulated the use of forest resources to the figures proposed by the forester in the province for the next year and also provide us with the explanatory report. The plans were submitted for the approval of the Advisory Board of Forestry (Junta Consultiva de Montes) and the Directorate General of Agriculture, Trade and Industry (Dirección General de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio). When the forest-management-year was completed, the engineer would report on the compliance to this Harvesting Plans. During this process, individuals could intervene by submitting their proposals or filing complaints. 

Regulations: Fueros, sentencias and ordenanzas

The regulations on the use of common resources can be classified into three types. In the medieval period we have letters of privileges (fueros and cartas pueblas), granted by kings to the towns and cities in order to attract settlers. They usually concern the granting of rights of ownership or use of land and other resources, sometimes also setting certain conditions. Many of these documents have been a critical issue of study by historians of Medieval Spain.


A second set of regulations are the arbitral verdicts (sentencias) handed down by judges or representatives of the monarch who were to mediate in conflicts between villages and communities. As well as the fueros and cartas pueblas, the arbitral verdicts were in its nature  top-down, though directly related to local demands and issues.


The third type of regulations that we find are local ordinances or byelaws (ordenanzas). The difference between the local ordinances and byelaws and the documents mentioned above is the fact that local ordinances and byelaws are not going beyond the local level and were rarely produced (though often confirmed) by an external authority. The lack of systematization of these ordinances and byelaws may be considered to be a distinguishing characteristic of all these documents. The content varies greatly, depending on the physical characteristics of the terrain, the types of resources utilized, and the model of social organization to which they refer. However, they reflect a degree of autonomy in defining the uses of resources and establish graduated sanctions for non-co-operative behaviour. Many of these ordinances can be found in local archives, notarial records and the holdings of the courts. The publication of such texts in books and journals, many of them local, will provide us a rich evidence base that as yet has hardly been exploited. 


It is easy to find accounting records of Community institutions (being whether municipalities or other groups) in local archives. The records concern both data on the revenues obtained from common property resources, the exploitation of these resources being  auctioned or granted in exchange for money. This exploitation could concern agricultural use (e.g., the lease of grazing pastures), forestry (e.g. the harvesting of wood, producing charcoal, hunting), industrial use (lime kilns, weaving mills, bakeries) or commercial use (tavern, inn, store).


Also, accounting records regarding the expenses are to be found in the archives: e.g., records concerning salaries paid to guards and officers appointed by the community and wages paid to hired shepherds to care for the collective herds. Also recorded are expenses related to works of collective interest that changed the landscape, such as roads, tree planting, terraces, river defenses, and so on. 

Municipality Books (Libros de concejo)

Municipal archives also contain books in which the deliberations and decisions of governing bodies were recorded , as well as books in which complaints, lawsuits and penalties issued by the community court were recorded. The first type of books are the 'Minute Books'(Libros de Actas ), the second the 'Books of Council Hearings'(Libros de Audiencias de Concejo)


The Minute Books are useful to know in detail the daily life of the community in its economic, social and political aspects. Decisions made by the community not only reflect their internal relations but also the relations of the community with external powers.


The Books of Council Hearings enable us to discover the internal conflicts and to check the effectiveness of compliance with the rules established by the ordinances. The main problem with such sources is that they are geographically dispersed, and analyzing them implies laborious work.


The maps allow us to identify and locate some of the communal lands. In the Spanish archives these documents are catalogued separately, so they are not difficult to locate. In many cases, the maps had been produced because of litigation about boundaries, ownership or use of certain land.


Some other maps were produced for taxation purposes and formed  part of larger documents. This is the case of maps made ​​for the project of the Cadastre of Ensenada. After the declarations of assets of the taxpayer and the recognition of the experts maps of each community were produced and then sent to the Board of the Single Tax. Some of these maps have been put on public view for the site of the Spanish Public Records (PARES), as can be seen in the examples listed here.

Agrarian Reform Institute (IRA) Commons Rescue Records

The Agrarian Reform Law, promoted by the parliamentary majority center-left in 1932, was intended for the re-distribution of farmland in Spain by expropriation of large estates and the settlement of rural families. One section of this law explicitly referred to the problem of the commons usurped and privatized in suspicious circumstances, and promoted the approval of a law entirely dedicated to the rescue of commons. The parliamentary process of accepting this  law was interrupted by the military coup that ultimately culminated in the Spanish Civil War. 


Meanwhile, hoewever, many municipalities and farm workers' unions had already submitted their ransom demands of communal lands to the Institute of Agrarian Reform (IRA) . The administrative records of these requests are being kept at the Archives of the IRYDA (Instituto de Reforma y Desarrollo Agrario) in San Fernando de Henares, under the custody of the MARM (Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, Medio Rural y Marino). These records contain a wealth of information: in many cases records cover claims based on medieval roots, and enable us to reconstruct the historic trajectory of a large number of communities. This documentation also illustrates the general public feeling experienced by many communities of having been robbed of their possessions. The proposed "bailout bill" was not completed but the  the related archival sources contain a vast treasure of  largely unknown and unstudied information.




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