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Wasteland: Buffer in the Medieval Economy

Wasteland: Buffer in the Medieval Economy

By Willy Groenman-Van Waateringe

Actes du Ve Congrès international d’Archéologie Médiévale, Volume 5, Number 1, 1996

British Library, Harley 2702 f. 2.

Abstract: In this paper I will try to discuss the function of wastelands in medieval society. Firstly I will give a short survey of the different types of wasteland, their origin and general utilisation. This part of the lecture should be seen as an introduction to the themes dealt with by my colleagues in this section, who will go into far more detail with their particular subject.

Secondly I wish to explore two specific aspects of the use of wasteland: hunting and gathering. Closely connected with these two themes is the use of woods and forests, particularly their edges, although in my opinion these do not belong to the “territoire rural non cultivé”, the non-cultivated rural area in the strict sense.

Thirdly I will try to evaluate the role of the wasteland in the economy of medieval society.

Introduction: The period under discussion saw important changes in Europe. We may begin with the aftermath of the Roman occupation, which, for large parts of Europe, had been for many centuries the decisive factor. With the withdrawal of the regular armed forces and later with the severing of trade relations and other contacts between the native population and Rome, the entire economy had to be reorganised.

New entities were formed, eventually leading to the formation of a few states, now, in contrast to the Roman period, much more integrated within the native population. The existence of feudalism, the different roles played in the economy by the nobility and the church, to mention only the aspects of landownership and the control of markets and hence, must be considered in this regard.


The gradual emergence of urbanisation in northwestern Europe is of profound importance. The economic consequences of this, such as the concentration of a section of the population in towns, no longer self-sufficient, but forced to rely, at least partly, for their daily food on the production of the rural part of the population, were immense. As we will see there is evidence that during each of these major changes the non-cultivated rural area played an important role. In times of economic expansion it could be used for intensification of agricultural practices, in times of scarcity it provided for the poor the possibility of a fall-back, because of its own natural products.

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