Freehold Land, Resistance To Authoritarianism and Support for Democracy: Evidence from France

Sångsalen Session 5: Land and the political economy organized by Klas Eriksson


Adrien Montalbo


In this article, I provide an analysis covering 900 years of French history and study the long-term influence of free property of land on resistance to authoritarianism and support for democracy. To do so, I build on the work of historians who identified that, during the Middle Ages and until the French Revolution, rules on the property of land varied between French regions. Generally speaking, the eastern part of France adopted rules more favourable to free property of land, ensuring landowners with a greater protection against the local or national authorities. Free property was qualified as alleu (allods) and the land was then said to be allodial, meaning that lands owned as such were estates over which the allodial landowner had full ownership and right of alienation, and which were independent of any superior landlord. These properties could be either hold by noblemen, religious organisations or commoners. I identify to which area municipalities were belonging as regards the local legislation on land ownership, based on the information available in these legislations. I complement this measure by two others based on the old and actual toponymy of French municipalities (or places within the boundaries of municipalities) to identify areas where the allodial property was common from the Middles Ages to the nineteenth century. Then, I directly link the concentration of free ownership to the long-lasting influence of Roman law, which was stronger close to the cities that were granted the ius italicum. This Roman law granted cities outside Italy the same rights as if they were located on the Italian soil, namely that people born in the city would be considered as Roman citizens, able to fully own property, to buy and sell it. Having done so, I investigate the influence of free property on the resistance to the implementation of absolute Monarchy in France. Building on a new dataset covering 200 years of rebellions (1600 to 1800), I identify that municipalities where freehold land was legally possible more strongly resisted the implementation of the new national and autocratic regime. A municipality located in areas favourable to land property, or whose toponymy showed signs of free property, was more likely to be characterised by rebellions against both local authorities, feudalism and national authorities during this period of time. Subsequently, I evaluate the impact of free ownership of land on the democratization process in France, showing a stronger support for democracy during the elections which saw the progressive implementation of democracy in France in areas of free land property. Freehold land, inherited from the Roman law, was therefore a strong determinant of resistance to authoritarianism in France and later contributed to its democratisation.


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