Why did peasants in old-regime Europe scatter their land in small strips within open fields? According to an influential theory advocated by Deirdre McCloskey, the system’s main aim was risk reduction. By spreading out land, peasants were less exposed to the caprices of nature: heavy rains, droughts, frost, or hailstorms. In a time when other insurance institutions were lacking, this approach could be a rational solution, even if, as McCloskey suggests, it could be achieved only at the expense of overall agricultural productivity.
Over the years, McCloskey’s theory has repeatedly been debated. Still, it has never been empirically established to what extent the open fields actually reduced risk. McCloskey offered only indirect evidence, based on hypothetical calculations from short series demesne level yields. Risks on enclosed and open-field land farms were thus never compared.
This chapter presents farm-level harvest variation series, including observations from both types of land. It is based on tithe records of 1,700 farms in Southern Sweden from 1715–1860. Results show that scattering had a limited effect on agricultural risk. The system did protect against small-scale local crop failures. It was less efficient, however, when it came to the large-scale regional harvest disasters that constituted a much more serious threat to peasants of the time. From this perspective, the inner logic of the open-field system is taken up for renewed consideration.
Among the persons who have offered support or inspiration in the writing of this chapter, I owe a special debt of gratitude to Henrik Svensson and Kristofer Jupiter. Svensson presented at the 2014 PECSRL conference, where he discussed the outcome of enclosures from the Scanian tithe material and also briefly commented on the issue of harvest variations. The initial plan was that we would write this chapter together, but in the end other obligations prevented him from taking part in the project. Jupiter presented a stimulating text at a seminar at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in 2017 to which I was invited as commentator. The seminar reconnected me with the classical debate about the open fields and became the starting point for this present investigation.
Earlier versions of the work were presented at Coping with risks in agriculture: what challenges and prospects? at UniLaSalle, Paris, February 2018, and at Transitions in Agriculture and Rural Society in Santiago de Compostela, June 2018. I am thankful for the comments put forward during these conferences and during the process of peer review. Thanks also to Rachel Pierce for language editing. Brandförsäkringsverket supported this research.
Nyström, L. (2019), "Scattered Land, Scattered Risks? Harvest Variations on Open Fields and Enclosed Land in Southern Sweden C. 1750–1850", Research in Economic History (Research in Economic History, Vol. 35), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 165-202. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0363-326820190000035008
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