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Agricultural Tenures and Tithes

David R. Stead, University of York

The Tenurial Ladder

Agricultural land tenures, the arrangements under which farmers occupied farmland, continue to be the subject of extensive study by agricultural historians and economists. They have identified a “ladder” of tenures broadly classified by the degree of independence each type offered the farmer. Some of the key features of the main forms of tenurial agreements are briefly described below. In practice, though, the characteristics of these different tenures shaded into one another and they often had their own particular local features, ensuring that the distinctions among them were frequently blurred.

At the top of the tenurial ladder was owner occupation, where the farmer owned and farmed his property as a peasant proprietor or capitalist producer. All other types of tenure involved a separation between the ownership and the use of land. On the next rung were hereditary tenures, which gave the occupant quasi-ownership of the farm. The hereditary tenant had a lifelong right to cultivate the holding, and was allowed to bequeath it to his direct heirs. However, his freedom of action was subject to various restrictions imposed by the superior landowner, whose permission may have been needed to adopt a new course of husbandry, for example, and who might have levied a payment when the farm changed hands. Under some circumstances the landlord could also possess the right to evict the hereditary tenant, for instance if the property was not kept in a good state of maintenance.

After owner occupation and hereditary tenures was leasehold, where the tenant occupied under a lease either lasting until a number of persons named in the contract had died, or for some certain term of years (for example, “tacks” for nineteen years were prevalent in Scotland around the turn of the nineteenth century). In the former case the names stated were often those of the farmer, his wife and son, and thus this kind of lease approached hereditary tenure. The typical leaseholder for years was charged a fixed cash rent per annum which was equal or close to the yearly economic value of the land (a rack rent). In contrast, the typical leaseholder for lives paid a small annual rent that was well below the rack rent, together with a much larger “fine” levied when the landlord granted a new lease or when the sitting tenant wished to add another name to the contract after an existing life had ended.

On a lower rung of the tenurial ladder was sharecropping (the modern preference is for “cropsharing”). Here, the landlord took the rent in kind, instead of in cash, as some share of the farm’s annual produce (predominately one half). The sharecropping landlord tended to be closely involved in the management of farming operations, and met part of the production costs. Tenancy-at-will was the next broad category of tenure. The farmer did not have a written lease but instead held from year to year at the will of the landowner, who in theory could evict the occupant at short notice for no reason. In practice, however, many landlords tended to leave tenants-at-will undisturbed so long as their husbandry was satisfactory. Changing tenants was costly for the landowner if only because the incumbent occupier possessed specialist knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the farm’s soil, which would take a newcomer time to learn.

Serfdom and slavery were on the lowest rungs of the tenurial ladder because under these tenures the farmer was compelled to till the soil and often received little of the returns from his labors. In the feudal system in medieval Europe, even servile peasants were not the property of their manorial lord (unlike slaves), but they were – to varying degrees – bound to the land because they usually could not move (or marry) without their lord’s permission. Feudal tenants were generally required to pay some form of rent and also render personal labor services to their lord, most commonly working on his land a few days a week. Over time, these labor services were gradually commuted to a money payment. Finally, it is probably not unreasonable to include most communal forms of land tenure near the bottom of the tenurial ladder. Where land was owned or used by multiple persons, as on the village common and under Soviet collectivization, the communal nature of decision-making must have curbed the freedom of action of the enterprising farmer.

Tenurial Choice

It is possible to identify, as a very rough worldwide generalization, at least three main changes over the centuries in the types of tenure employed. First, with the gradual decline or abolition of communism, feudalism and slavery, there has been a shift towards tenurial systems based on market relations rather than collectivism or coercion. The second change has been the progressive substitution of leases for lives with leases for years, and the third has been a move towards owner occupation and fixed rent leasing at the expense of sharecropping. These shifts have occurred at different rates in different regions, and the progression has not always been linear, but sometimes characterized by reversals. This has produced enormous variation in the popularity of the various tenures. For example, in the eighteenth century sharecropping was common throughout much of the European Continent but was almost unknown in England and Ireland. Indeed, it was not uncommon for multiple forms of tenure to co-exist in the same village at the same time. After the emancipation of slaves in the American South, for instance, a diverse mix of tenures was employed: the traditional assertion that sharecropping replaced slavery in the postbellum countryside is an oversimplification.

Of the tenures listed above, it is the choice of sharecropping that has most fascinated agricultural economists. Its popularity appeared puzzling after many eighteenth and nineteenth century writers argued that this arrangement acted as a check on agrarian improvement because the farmer did not receive the full amount of any increase in farm output. More recently, however, the benefits of share tenancy have been recognised. For example, by dividing the crop, the sharecropping landlord shared the risks of a bad harvest with the tenant, thereby providing partial insurance to farmers who disliked being exposed to risk whilst still preserving some incentive for the occupier to undertake improvements. (By contrast, the fixed rent tenant contracted to pay the same amount irrespective of whether the harvest was profitable or poor.) Another sharecropping puzzle was why the output split was predominately 50/50 – indeed the French and Italian words for share tenancy, metayage and mezzadria respectively, mean splitting in half – when it might be expected that the landlord’s cut would have varied far more from farm to farm. This “easy” and “fair” fraction appears to have been a natural focal point that landlords and tenants were drawn to, thereby avoiding potentially protracted haggling that might have scarred their subsequent relationship.

Tenurial choice over the past century or so can be described using the (albeit imperfect) available body of statistics. Table 1 provides benchmarks of the percentage of agricultural land leased by farmers in several western European countries since the late nineteenth century (land not leased was owner occupied). Almost all farmland in England and Wales and Ireland at the beginning of the period covered by the table was owned by large landowners who divided their estates into farm-sized pieces which were rented out. The farm tenancy sectors of the three Continental countries in 1880 were noticeably smaller. One common factor among the various possible explanations for this was the 1804 Napoleonic Code, introduced in France and the then French empire which included Belgium and the Netherlands. The Code created inheritance laws that split the deceased’s landholdings equally among all heirs rather than, as elsewhere, the eldest son inheriting the whole property. This legal pressure for the fragmentation of landownership helped to produce a sizeable class of small owner occupying farmers on the Continent.

Table 1

Share of Land Leased by Tenant Farmers
in Selected Western European Countries, 1880-1997
(% of total agricultural land)

Belgium England & Wales France Ireland Netherlands
1880 64 85a 40 96b 40
1910 72 89 n/a 42 53
1930 62 63 40 6 49
1950 67 62 44 5 56
1980 71 47 51 8 41
1997 68 33 58 13 34

Source: Swinnen (2002), table 2.
Notes: a figure for 1885; b figure for 1870. Land not leased was owner occupied.

The most striking change since the late nineteenth century has been the rapid shrinkage of the English and Welsh, and especially Irish, tenancy sectors by 1930. In England and Wales, higher taxation (including increased death duties) combined with the legacy of an agricultural depression and the deaths of many landlords or their heirs in World War One to produce a situation where numerous owners were forced to sell to tenant farmers who had profited during the wartime agricultural boom. The even more dramatic decline of tenancy in Ireland was chiefly due to a series of state legislation beginning in 1870 that provided subsidized government loans – made on increasingly favorable terms – to help tenants purchase their holdings: the 1923 Land Act made such sales compulsory. Since the Second World War, most of the countries covered by Table 1 have enacted legal changes increasing rent controls and especially the security of leases. These restrictions have made tenancy more attractive for tenants but more importantly less so for landowners, which helps explain the post-war shrinkage of the tenancy sectors in England and Wales and the Netherlands. By contrast, in France the proportion of land leased has risen in recent years partly in response to government policies encouraging leasing, such as lower taxes on land rents.

The general prevalence of owner occupation in the second half of the twentieth century suggested by Table 1 is supported by Figure 1, which gives a snapshot of the global situation in 1970 using data from the world census of agriculture. The first of each pair of columns shows the percentage of all farmland in each region held under owner occupation. Usually the majority of land was cultivated by its owner, although in Africa communal tenures were more widespread. The second of each pair of columns shows the proportion of land in just the tenancy sector of each region that was let under a sharecropping contract. Despite its traditional association with poverty, sharecropping remains persistently popular even in modern advanced farming sectors, notably in North America where nearly a third of tenanted land in 1970 was occupied by sharecroppers.

Figure 1
Percentage of Total Farmland Held under Owner Cultivation, and the Percentage of Tenanted Land Held under Sharecropping, Various Regions, 1970

Source: Otsuka et al. (1992), table 1

The Historical Role of the Lease

A number of contemporaries and historians have suggested that the lease played an important role in influencing farming practices. Short leases, especially tenancies at will, were loudly criticized by the eighteenth-century English writers Arthur Young and William Marshall on the grounds that these contracts did not provide the tenant with sufficient security to make long-term investments to the farm, such as draining the land. If the benefits from these types of expenditures were not fully realized until after the original lease expired, then there was a danger that the tenant would lose part of his investment returns if the landlord acted opportunistically by evicting him, or by renewing his lease but at a higher rent. Tenants may therefore have been wary of making large expenditures for fear of the later consequences, inhibiting agricultural improvement. How serious a problem the potential insecurity of short leases was in practice is a moot point. Landlords not lessees undertook much of the long-term investments, and for those expenditures that were made by tenants, legal or customary rights existing outside the tenancy agreement might have provided at least some security. Outgoing farmers, for instance, could be due compensation for their “unexhausted improvements,” as under Ulster (Ireland) and English tenant right, and some landlords might have been able to establish a reputation for not unfairly treating their tenantry. Furthermore, when the economic conditions faced by farmers were depressed or uncertain, many tenants actually preferred a short lease because this ensured that they were not tied to the holding if it turned out to be unprofitable.

Leases could have promoted innovative, or at least best practice, farming if the landowner had used these documents to insist on the tenantry adopting certain types of crops and crop rotations. Evidence from England during the long eighteenth century, however, indicates that the husbandry clauses written into leases were primarily designed to restrict tenants from engaging in a course of farming that would be deleterious to long-term soil fertility, rather than stipulating that the latest agricultural methods be employed. Thus instead of demanding that (say) turnips be cultivated, popular covenants in English leases included those prohibiting the growing of more than two successive cereal crops on the same field or the plowing of pasture land without the landowner’s prior written consent.


Landlords and tenants were not the only parties with a close interest in the produce of the soil. Farmers frequently had to pay tithe, a tax payable for the support of the church. Probably originating as a voluntary payment in early Christian communities, tithes became a legally enforced obligation in many countries – particularly in western Europe – during the Middle Ages. The tithe was supposedly levied at one tenth of the gross value of the farm’s annual produce and was traditionally paid in kind, whereby the clergyman would claim every tenth sheaf of corn (etc.). In practice, a complex combination of case law and custom exempted various types of land and products. Moreover, frequently the tithe owner was not actually a member of the clergy, often because a layperson had purchased church-owned land that had tithing rights attached to it. Many contemporary agricultural writers, not without some justification, criticized tithes in kind on the grounds that they acted as a disincentive to agrarian improvement because, as with a sharecropping agreement, the farmer did not receive the full amount of any rise in farm output. Payment of tithes in kind also offered substantial scope for friction between tithe payers and collectors, for example over whether new crops, such as potatoes, were titheable. To thwart those farmers who sought to under-report their produce, or give poor quality products as tithe (one milkmaid urinated in the tithe milk), the tithing man typically collected his due from the fields rather than allowing the payer to deliver it to the tithe barn.

On account of these disputes and inconveniences, tithes in kind were often commuted to a fixed or variable annual cash payment. Alternatively an allotment of land or a lump sum might be given in return for the church extinguishing tithes. Many of these substitutions were achieved under government legislation, such as the 1836 and 1936 Tithe Acts in England. Yet cash payment was far from being free from conflict arising, for instance, when the church attempted to annul a fixed money charge that, owing to inflation, had fallen to a trifling amount. The underlying friction peaked in so-called tithe wars, which were characterized by demonstrations by payers and varying degrees of violent clashes with collectors; examples include Ireland in the 1830s and England and Wales in the 1930s. In short, the multiplicity of tithing customs and seemingly endless disputes over payment suggest that some tithe owners at some times got closer to obtaining their tenth than others.


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Citation: Stead, David. “Agricultural Tenures and Tithes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 25, 2004. URL