Redistribution and access to land in response to epidemics. A longterm perspective from a seventeenth-century rural community

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationAcademic


Recent literature suggests that epidemics have often historically acted as ‘levelers’ – equitably redistributing wealth
and property – although empirical evidence to support that view is still scarce for the pre-industrial period, and especially for the countryside. We are confronted with two challenges. First, it is rare to find markers for distribution of
wealth or property shortly before an outbreak and shortly after an outbreak – a basic requirement for establishing the
epidemic-redistribution link. Second, it is often difficult to distinguish between outright ownership and use rights – an
issue revealed in the rural world by the fact that farmers, peasants and laborers often accessed resources necessary for
their welfare via lease, rent or collective-pooled agreements. We suggest that distribution of land at the user level is
arguably a more relevant indicator of inequality within pre-industrial rural communities – and yet, up to now, has been
ignored. This paper makes an empirical contribution to help solve these problems by presenting a new large database
of land distribution over time within a village, Oudenbosch, in seventeenth-century Brabant (Dutch Republic) using the
veldboeken. The value of this source is that (a) we reconstruct land distribution across a long period (1611–1697) with
few gaps, (b) we provide annual assessments, zooming in with more temporal precision on the redistributive effects of
epidemics, and (c) we are able to systematically separate owners and tenants, allowing for an entirely novel long-term
reconstruction of land distribution at owner- and user level. We integrate another rare source – serial household census
information (hoofdgeldkohieren, 1639–1702) – to more accurately estimate the proportion of landless within the community, and how that changes over time. Overall, the effects of epidemics seem modest – inequality in landownership
declines after most outbreaks (through estate fragmentation), though it is not substantial or lasting. The Gini coefficient
is almost the same at the start of the century as the end. One barrier to post-epidemic redistribution is that many larger
landowners already dispersed much of their estate to other family members, gradually and incrementally, intervivos. At
the user level, for some epidemics, we see a different trend – a small temporary rise in inequality, caused by the polarizing effects of vacant tenancies consolidated by acquisitive farmers combined with some land going out of cultivation for
difficulty of finding new tenants. Women inherited land (as owners) and tenancies (as users) but within 1–2 years had
passed this property onto a man, possibly through remarriage.
Period22 Jun 2022
Event titleRural History Conference 2022, Uppsala
Event typeConference
LocationUppsala, SwedenShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational