How did freeholders in medieval times get their land?

Hello friends!

As far as I can tell, the defining characteristic of mature pre-industrial societies is that it’s almost impossible to make any money through labor. You make money either through capital (ownership of land or commodities) or by sucking up to people in power (which I suppose is a form of labor!)

I mean it’s more complicated than that, of course. Master craftspeople notionally made money through labor, but it cost significant capital to buy your way into the business. But the basic point is, if you had no money, it was almost impossible to get some. Whatever surplus you produced with your labor was taken from you by taxes or rents, so you could never accumulate wealth.

But this begs the question, what about freeholders? Independent peasants who owned their own land? Where did they get the money to buy the land?

I’ve been reading a book on the Byzantine economy. It’s essentially a textbook, but it’s very short and highly readable. The most fascinating and underappreciated part of the Byzantine empire is the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries (let’s call it 650 to 900). During this period, the Byzantine empire initially lost most of its territory, and between 650 and 750 the city of Constantinople was under siege by Islamic forces no less than four times. And then the empire stabilized. It started to grow and expand, taking back most of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and becoming the dominant regional power until the Seljuk turks defeated them at the Battle of Manzikert in 1077 and sent the empire into decline again.

Essentially, the Byzantine Empire did what the Western empire had done several times (most notably during the Tetrarchy) and it reorganized itself and stabilized.

Reading about this period, the book said that all of the trade networks were disrupted. The Byzantines lost much of the interior of Anatolia. It essentially became a network of affiliated city-states on the Mediterranean and Black Sea costs, along with the Balkans, Greece, and some of Italy. And reading this book, it was like, blah blah blah, most of the land was farmed by small freeholders.

At that point I did a double-take. How is that possible? At this point Anatolia had been settled by strong states for at least 2500 years (since the Hittites). How could an ordinary peasant own any land?

And yet it was true. A significant portion of the land in the Byzantine empire was owned by small freeholders who held formal title to the land. Indeed, after 900, a lot of this land was purchased by elites, and the peasants often became tenants on the same land (a development that is blamed for weakening the Byzantine state).

But how did they get the land in the first place???????

My book doesn’t cover anything before 500, so I was left adrift. But the Roman Empire was not known for small independent landholders. In large parts of the empire, small landholders didn’t really exist.

That made me wonder, when the land first came under formal title, who owned it? And how did they get it?

Well that led me back to the beginning of state formation. Anyway, I spent hours reading about this, and what I’m going to say probably isn’t very accurate, but first of all, for a long time people thought that in early states (at least outside Greece) there was no private ownership of land. That in Mesopotamia, particularly, the temples and kings owned all the land, and everyone else was either a tenant or slave. But apparently that wasn’t true. There was significant private ownership of land.

Which is obvious if you read the Bible. Like, remember in the book of Kings when Ahab appropriates Naboth’s vineyard? Naboth was clearly a regular guy who owned a vineyard and the King just wanted it, and he had the power to take it, but he was also trespassing some kind of ancient property right that Naboth possessed.

Okay, so I guess there are several theories on how small-holdings came about. The first is that initial settlements tended to be collectives, where individuals communally farmed the land. But over time, the collective assigned lands to certain people, and those property rights got codified. There were almost always laws against selling your land, or laws that required you to have the permission of your family, neighbors, or village before you could sell the land. That tended to keep holdings from changing hands. In the records of land transactions in Mesopotamia, they can see that often the parcels stayed in the same family for hundreds of years, and even when they were sold it was often to the same family. When it came to dividing the property between kids, the girls were given their wealth in moveables (dowry) and you tried to give the younger kids their property in moveables too, or to farm the land communally as a family, to avoid plot sizes shrinking.

So that’s one source of freeholds. Another source is the clearance of new land. What if you just go out and clear a new field and put it under cultivation? Again, it’s complicated, because most of the nearby land is often under cultivation. That’s why Greek cities would send out colonies. You just go to some uninhabited spot and put land under cultivation and then set up title to it. This seems to be how things worked in Israel too. It’s also, I think, why everyone had vineyards–because you could set up a vineyard on marginal, uncultivated land nearby without leaving your current holding.

The problem is when you have a large state, the elites usually lay claim to all the uncultivated land, so if you put some of that land under cultivation, you become a tenant on their land (you might work out a fair deal with them in the short run, but eventually this will lead to your descendants coming under their thumb). Lots of large states have strong tenancy laws, so you often get a hereditary right to that land, but that still isn’t the same as owning it. However, to the extent you were in an area not dominated by a large state (like Israel, at many points, or Italy / Black Sea coast during the time of Greek colonization), you could get land this way.

This doesn’t really work though when all the usable land in a region is already under cultivation. But sometimes there are exogenous population shocks that take land out of cultivation. This is kind of like what happened in the late 7th century in Byzantium. The plague of Justinian meant the population was much lower than its peak, and the political system was in disarray. Land was shifting back and forth between empires, and a lack of security meant a lot of it was falling out of cultivation.

What’s kind of interesting though is that if you’re a freeholder you can’t just have anarchy–you also need a state capable of protecting your property rights. Like in Western Europe while the state was withering away, for a while villages were left without landlords, and they were allowed to self-govern, choose their own crops, keep their own surplus. But then nothing kept some guy with a sword from coming by and saying “I’m your landlord now” and extracting surpluses from them. You need a state that’s capable of saying, “No, these people own this land.”

This is what Rome often did too. If Rome conquered your region, it could choose to either recognize the existing settlements as res publica, independent towns, in which case it would respect their property rights and they would have self-government and pay taxes directly to the state, or it could just ignore those villages / settlements, in which case they were often given into the hands of large landlords who essentially turned those people into tenants and extracted rents from them.

So, the first way of getting land was to essentially be the first person to farm it AND to do so in the context of a state that was able / willing to protect your property rights.

But why would the state do that? Why would it care whether you, some peasant with twenty acres, has any ability to keep the surplus from and make independent decisions about your land?

WELL, in many cases, the state had its own interests which were different from those of the local elite. In the Byzantine Empire, for instance, I get the impression that around 650, the military just took over and shoved aside the civilian government completely. Soldiers flooded into Anatolia from the rest of the Empire as it fell, and meanwhile the Empire was becoming progressively poorer and less monetized. This means it was very difficult to collect taxes, because the administrative apparatus, which requires a large educated elite, was withering, and because people literally didn’t have the coinage to pay. Elites also died or became poorer, so villages gained more autonomy. The soldiers intermarried into the local population, and because they had power in the military organization, they strengthened the hand of local peasants, who were able to gain title to a lot of the land they’d been farming.

I’ve been taking here about ‘freehold’ which is essentially when you own the land in perpetuity, but there are lots of ways that even peasant tenants could improve their situation vis a vis landlords. Usually states were reluctant to engage in wholesale land redistribution, but oftentimes they were willing to improve tenancy rights and to make tenancy hereditary, so you could afford to live and improve the land you worked, or even to sell or transfer your right of tenancy to someone else.

Of course, at around this point, being a soldier also became hereditary! So if your father had been a soldier, you had to be a soldier too. But the government couldn’t afford to pay you, so you needed land to support yourself. The difference between here and Western Europe is that enough of the administrative state remained that it was possible for small-holders to have a direct relationship with the state (i.e. they could owe taxes and service directly to the state). There was no need for an aristocratic intermediary, and in fact that was undesirable, because it would lead to more fragmentation.

The impression I get, at least when it comes to the Byzantine Empire, was that there was kind of a muddle. The military was taking over. Land could only be farmed if it was defensible, the population was lower and there was free land, and the boundaries of everything shifted in an ad-hoc way, without regard to the preexisting property rights (and in any case many of the previous landlords were now dead or gone), and when the ground settled, a lot of people just didn’t have landlords, had never had landlords, didn’t remember having landlords.

Furthermore, because the primary tax was a land tax, paid directly to the state, they had evidence, because they’d been paying the land tax, that they owned their own land. And in the process of taking that land tax from them, the state confirmed their ownership.

And that’s how they got land. I think. Although I still am not totally sure.

Now when it came to another very related question “How did English yeomen get their land?” I remain very confused, but I think it was a similar process. The King in England was historically very strong and had a push-and-pull for power with the nobility, so they had an incentive to empower small-holders, who they used to fill most of the administrative offices, because in England the King tended (at least at times) to govern the people directly, rather than through the intermediary of the aristocracy.

However I still don’t fully understand how this translates into some part of the peasantry actually gaining title to the land. I don’t really believe the official story I read online, which is that the yeomen were in the retinue of powerful nobles, who granted them gifts of land. That doesn’t entirely make sense, because the nobles must’ve known that the yeoman class was more loyal to the king than to them. Although maybe it happened before this dichotomy began.

There was also a freeform time in England’s history, before 1200 A.D., when most of the nobility still cared much more about its estates in France than those in England. Maybe that’s when freeholds were codified. It’s also possible that freeholds are some vestige of the Anglo-Saxon times, when there tended to be many more small landholders. It just seems difficult to believe that they could’ve kept their land even after the conquest. But who knows?