Living off the Land? An Empirical Investigation of Land and Lease Distributions in Central Holland, 1600-1700

Bram Hilkens, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Horrific as the hardships of epidemics may generally be, epidemic mortality had until recently been heralded for its equalizing effects to struck societies. This notion, however, has come under scrutiny. The current paper attempts to add to the state of the art by systematically assessing wealth inequalities in an underexplored, yet important area and time span, namely seventeenth century Holland. It will reconstruct distributions of land and align those with mortality spikes, assessing the mechanisms informing the makeup of these distributions and fluctuations over time. Thus, rather than accepting a general law of epidemic mortality leading to greater equality, the current paper attempts to explore the mechanisms that inform preindustrial inequality and the role epidemic mortality plays in it. This paper aims to explore the role of land in the agrarian economy of seventeenth century Holland, asking questions on the importance of land for subsistence, its market mechanisms, and the factors influencing the importance of land ownership and leaseholds over time, including risks of loss of (access to) land. It attempts to do so by reconstructing land ownership and leaseholds across seventeenth century Holland. Its main argument is that the role of land ownership vis-à-vis tenure in Holland’s agrarian economy in the seventeenth century evolved non-linearly, and was mostly affected by a combination of reactions to and preparations for market pressures, demographic fluctuations, and institutional arrangements. The paper serves as an elaboration on the workings of land distributions and land markets, as to provide a solid base for assessing the effects of epidemic mortality on land- and lease distributions. In other words, before zooming in on the direct effects of demographic fluctuations on land distributions and institutional transition, we first try to understand general trends and patterns in land distributions and leaseholds in the region and period under investigation.

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 Presented in Session 71. Rationalizing Land Use I (1600-1918)