Into the frontier: medieval land reclamation and the creation of new societies. Comparing Holland and the Po Valley, 800-1500
By Daniel R. Curtis and Michele Campopiano
Presented at the XVIth World Economic History Congress, 9-13 July 2012, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Abstract: One problem with scholarly research into land reclamation has been the tendency to overly focus on two questions – how and why did it happen? It has led to an over- emphasis on technological innovation and demographic and commercial pressures. Furthermore, it has obscured a far more fascinating and significant question – what were the social consequences of pre-industrial land reclamation? What kinds of societies emerged as a result of land reclamation? These questions are addressed through a comparative historical analysis of two cases of land reclamation in the medieval period: the peat lands of Holland (the Netherlands) and the Po Valley plains (Northern Italy). In the paper it is shown that medieval land reclamation led to the emergence of two very divergent societies, characterised by a number of different configurations; (a) power and property structure, (b) modes of exploitation, (c) economic portfolios, and (d) commodity markets. In the final section, a further question is considered. To what extent was either of these societies inherently better configured to negate the potentially disastrous effects of land reclamation on the natural environment?
Land reclamation or colonisation is the process by which people bring ‘unused’ or ‘waste’ land into ‘productive’ use. In the pre-industrial era, this meant the assarting of woodlands, the clearing of bushes, the development of irrigation systems, or the drainage of wetlands, in order to create new land for cultivation and settlement. Pre-industrial land reclamation now has a long historiography (particularly for Europe), but the research agenda is somewhat problematic. Scholars have focused on two questions – how and why did it happen, which has meant that research has often approached reclamation through the frameworks of technological innovation, demographic pressure, or market integration.