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Improved conditions for peasants fuelled agricultural revolution

A peasant-friendly policy combined with opportunities to buy freeholds. According to a history thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, these were the two key reasons for the major agricultural developments in Sweden during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Most researchers agree that the agricultural revolution was a crucial phase in the history of Europe and Sweden. A considerable amount of land reclamation took place over a period of two hundred years. New cultivation systems and new crops were introduced, while farming techniques developed at a considerable pace. But the reasons behind the major agricultural transition have been interpreted in several different ways.

Pablo Wiking-Faria has examined a number of different theories put forward by historians in northwestern Europe and Scandinavia about the motivating forces. For example, his research questions whether prices and markets were as significant as some researchers have suggested in the past. His work also casts doubt on the perception that all progress came from the top down, from landlords and the nobility.

Pablo Wiking-Faria concludes instead that the peasant-friendly policy that was pursued in Sweden from the year 1720 onwards was the motivating force behind the progress. When farmers no longer risked tax hikes for increased production it gave them more of an incentive to develop their farming methods.

But not all categories of peasant felt the benefit. Peasant tenants on noble land had to pay rent that could be raised at any time.

"The most constructive development in agriculture occurred when peasants became freeholders. The buying of freeholds took place to some extent during the 18th century and then took off from 1800-1860. The transition to freeholds really fuelled developments," says Pablo Wiking-Faria.

Pablo Wiking-Faria's research is very specific: For example, it was possible to develop Swedish native breeds of cattle without interbreeding; that the fertilising method known as soil marling was probably ineffective, and that widows were just as good at running farms as their male colleagues.

The study is based on source material from the Swedish province Halland, which means that it can be used as a kind of regional history of the development of rural Halland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Meanwhile the main purpose of the thesis is to offer more general explanations.

"All rural communities in northwestern Europe and Scandinavia went through roughly the same process. The results of the agricultural revolution were in principle the same everywhere," says Pablo Wiking-Faria.

Contact: Pablo Wiking-Faria, tel: +46 (0)340 82836 (work)

Helena Aaberg | idw
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