Land Tenure

160613MarchLand tenure. The very words sound boring. Perhaps they conjure images of gray-haired men in tweed jackets with elbow patches picnicking beside a barley field. But stick with me for a minute here, because land tenure is an important thing to know about in understanding historical cultures and for building your own fictional worlds.

Land tenure is one of several terms historians use to describe the legal structures surrounding the control of land. (Technically, the term land tenure is only used in British common law. Other legal systems use different terms, but this is one you’ll see a lot of in English-language history texts.) The question of who controls a piece of land is always important, but it is especially vital in agrarian societies in which land, specifically farmland, is the basis of wealth. Land tenure is about figuring out who gets to use a piece of land and under what conditions.

In some cultures this isn’t an issue. Some legal systems allow only an either-or choice, you either own a piece of land or you don’t. Under other traditions, no one owns land at all. But in certain kinds of societies, the question of who controls a plot of land and under what conditions they hold it is at the heart of many conflicts.

It’s the same basic principle that applies today when you rent an apartment. As a tenant, you have certain rights in the use and enjoyment of the apartment, but the landlord also has rights they can enforce such as demanding rent and keeping the apartment in a usable condition. Landlords have good reason to want to keep as much control over their property as they can. They don’t want tenants messing things up and making it harder to rent the apartment profitably in the future, plus they want to be able to easily get rid of tenants who make trouble or don’t pay their rent. At the same time, renters also have good reason to want as much control as possible over their apartments. They want the security of knowing they won’t suddenly be thrown out and have to look for a new place and they want to know that no one’s going to be coming in and messing with their stuff. There is a tug-of-war between different interests and the balance of legal rights between landlords and tenants reflects the balance of power in larger society.

The same applies in agrarian societies with control of land. Kings, emperors, wealthy patrons, and other people with power need to be able to reward their loyal followers. Often, they also need to make sure that their followers can afford to equip and train military forces for them. When agricultural land is the main source of wealth, one good way of doing these things is to hand out parcels of farmland. But, like a landlord renting an apartment, why give away land completely when you can give it away conditionally?

There are an enormous variety of ways and conditions under which possession of land can be handed out. It can be for a fixed period of time or for the lifetime of the person receiving it. It can be given until the granter decides to take it back again. It can be for as long as certain conditions are met—such as providing military support when called upon. It can be dependent on paying an annual rent, or on paying a certain tax upon demand. It was in the interest of kings and patrons to get as much benefit for themselves as they could out of handing out parcels of land.

The people receiving these grants of land, on the other hand, had every interest in getting as much control over the land as they could. Who would want to have a farm encumbered with burdensome taxes that could be taken away from them at any moment when they could own it free and clear? Just like with landlords and renters, the balance of power in the tug-of-war over who controls land tells you a good deal about who wields the most real power in an agrarian society.

The problem of land tenure, though, is more complicated than just kings/patrons/landlords vs. followers/clients/tenants, because there are more than just two layers. Any follower important enough to get a grant of land from a patron is likely to have followers of their own whose loyalty they also need to keep, so someone who gets a grant of land under such a system is probably going to turn around and parcel that land out other people, who may well parcel it out to their own clients, and so on down the line. Many of the people involved in a complex land tenure system are both landlords and tenants and have interests on both sides.

This is not an abstract legal debate, either. In societies with complex systems of land tenure, such as ancient China and medieval Europe and Japan, many wars (especially internal conflicts and civil wars) were either directly sparked by or were connected to disputes about the balance of power in the control of land.

Not every society in history has handled land this way. For those who live in a culture of conditional landholding, though, much depends on their place in the network of landlords and tenants.

Thoughts for writers

As we all know, narrative thrives on conflict. The kinds of conflict we gravitate towards in our stories are (most of the time) personal conflicts of the “You killed my father, prepare to die” kind. Personal conflicts, though, are grounded in social context. Why did you kill my father? How were you and my father connected? What put you into conflict with each other? Where do you and I stand now that my father is dead? All of the intricacies of personal relationships intersect with social and economic lines of connection like those between patron and client, landlord and tenant, king and follower.

Land tenure may seem like a very impersonal source of conflict to write a story about, but even abstract things like land tenure have personal ramifications. They are part of the social world through which our characters move and which color the decisions they make. Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the prime mover of a lot of personal conflict. In a culture in which wealth equals land, the details of who controls what pieces of land and under what terms are no mere abstractions.

Image: March, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Bery via Wikimedia (1412-1440; paint on vellum; Limbourg brothers)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.