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Types of institutions for collective action - Commons
The term ‘Commons’ these days refers to resources that are used collectively according to certain rules. In literature such resources are also referred to as common pool resources. The main type of resource that is dealt with on this site is common land, in various forms, and in particular in the pre-modern history of Europe. A definition of common land can thus be: land that was/is used by several people or households during a certain period, in distinction to land that was used by only one person or household throughout the whole year.
Common land was a key component of early modern agriculture in many parts of Europe, and its disappearance in some areas was a key political issue at the time and has been the subject of considerable historiographical debate since. ‘Commoners’ exercised rights to use resources over large expanses of permanently uncultivated, or only temporarily cultivated, land the kind of open country such as heathland, rough pasture or woodland that we often associate with the expression ‘the common’ today.
Often however, such rights were also exercised over much (or even all) of the land that was normally cultivated and farmed individually. This usually took the form of ‘common rights’, most importantly the right to pasture livestock, being exercised during that part of the year when the land was not under cultivation. Such land was often part of a wider ‘agro-system’ that frequently embraced nearly all of the surface area. In many, though far from all, parts of Europe this system included the collective use of resources such as grazing over land that was for the most part ‘privately’ owned and managed.
(De Moor et al. 2002, 15-6)
Subtypes of commons
It has become clear that considerable scope for terminological confusion exists over the terms used to describe different types of common land in different parts of Europe. The three-fold typology presented here is based upon English usages (although these have not been consistently used by all English-speaking historians), and provides us with a typology of forms of common lands that allows local variation and peculiar characteristics of each region to be highlighted in a comparative context. As a broad guideline, common refers to the fact that this land was used by several people or households during a certain period, in distinction to land that was used by only one person or household throughout the whole year. The suffix (arable, meadow, woodland etc.) refers to the principal use of the land.
(De Moor 2002, 17-8)
All of the usages that are described in the subtypes refer only to the fact that common rights were exercised as use-rights over certain areas of land. Nothing can be inferred from this about the actual ownership of the land itself. Sometimes the owners were indeed the commoners themselves, or the institution into which the commoners were organized, or the local administrative body to which all users were subject. However, in the case of common arable and common meadow, the owners were private individuals or bodies. In the case of common waste, pasture, or woodland, the land itself was very often owned by private individuals or the state, and the commoners enjoyed specified use-rights over that land. In many parts of Europe nearly all of such land was 'owned' by seigniorial lords who also exercised other forms of influence over the commoners, such as landlordship or juridical powers. The dividing line between ‘lordly’ and ‘state’ power was often thin. Frequently the state was effectively another form of lordship but enjoying rather wider powers of intervention, and in some cases seigniorial lordship and state power were combined in one and the same person. The differing balance of these property relations and powers within local communities could prove important for both the management and the fate of common lands.
(De Moor 2002, 19)
Overview of subtypes
(click type for specific description)
|Common arable||Arable land||Private land||Open after the harvest/in years when the land was uncultivated
|Limits on commercial activity with resources obtained from the commons
Limits on the amount of resource units that users can take and the harvesting/use methods
Restrictions on the timing of access to the resources
Enforcement of collective exploitation/regulation of the management
|Common meadow||Grassland (producing hay)||Open to grazing after the harvest
|Common waste||Uncultivated land||Grazing, gathering wood, gorse, heather, bracken, peat...|
|Common woodland||Woodland||Grazing, gathering wood, other usages|
Commons per country
Although one might find similarities between the (historic) commons of various countries, the concept, history, and development of the commons may vary per country. Underneath you will find links to specific descriptions on commons per country.
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