Peasants into Stewards. Leasehold and Environmental Stewardship in the Late Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1400. 01/11/2021 - 31/10/2023

Abstract

The human relationship towards nature in the Middle Ages is often framed as basically exploitative, with ecological destruction as a result. Recent research already nuanced this view and pointed at the existence of practices aimed at a responsible exploitation of natural resources, most prominently in forest management and peasant subsistence farming. This research project investigates soil care and sustainable resource management in a more surprising 'field', connecting the modern concept of 'environmental stewardship' to the rise of leasehold between 1200 and 1400. In literature, short-term leasehold is primarily framed as exploitative, enhancing short-term profit seeking and risk-taking. But the introduction of leasehold also induced landowners and tenant farmers to negotiate new arrangements for the management of land 'at a distance', demanding 'good stewardship' from their lessees. Many lease contracts – though not all - contained clauses on the upkeep of natural resources and prohibited actions judged 'damaging' to the soil. Were these more than hollow phrases? When and where did environmental stewardship gain in importance? Was it connected to specific environmental, social or institutional features and triggered by population pressure or catastrophic events? A comprehensive study of lease contracts in the late medieval Low Countries will allow us to rethink both short-term leasehold and antecedents of environmental stewardship in the Late Middle Ages.

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Project type(s)

  • Research Project