The Origin of Property in Land

by FUSTEL DE COULANGES (1890 / 1927)
With an Introduction by Sir William Ashley.


The Essay by the late M. Fustel de Coulanges, here translated, appeared in the Revue des Questions Historiques for April, 1889. It seemed especially suitable for translation; since it presented in a comparatively brief compass all the main arguments of that great historian against the various attempts which have been made to support the theory of primitive agrarian communism by an appeal to historical records. The translation has been made with the consent of Madame Fustel de Coulanges; and it has benefited by the suggestions of M. Guiraud, an old pupil of the author, and now “Charge de Cours” at the Sorbonne. The presentation of the Essay in an English dress has been deemed a suitable occasion to estimate the bearing of its arguments on early English social history, and to review in the fight of it the evidenco now accessible as to the origin of the English manor.
W.J. A., Toronto, M. A., January, 1891.

This translation of M. Fustel’s Essay has for some time been out of print; but there has, in recent years, been a growing demand for it from students of History and Economics, and it seems worthwhile to reissue it.

When the translation was originally made by my wife, the doctrine as to the transition from late-Roman to early-Mediæval conditions, which had been worked into a system in Germany by Maurer, Waitz and Brunner, and accepted in England by Stubbs, had become very firmly rooted. M. Fustel’s arguments, and my attempt to apply his conclusions, with the help of Mr Seebohm’s contemporary writings, to early English conditions found little acceptance. The works of Sir Paul Vinogradoff, instructive as they certainly were in some directions, had nevertheless the effect of postponing a fundamental reconsideration of the whole problem. There are, however, now many indications that English students are prepared to make a really fresh start in the examination of the evidence. In Germany a new stage has been opened in the discussion by the very thorough work of Professor Alfons Dopsch of Vienna, Grundlagen der Europäischen Culturentwicklung (second edition, 1923-24).

The problem of the development of classes and economic conditions in Western Europe, including Britain, during the half-millennium between a.d. 300 and a.d. 800, is no mere subject of antiquarian interest. It is of the first importance if we are even to reach a trustworthy conception of the origins of our existing social order.
William Ashley, Canterbury, November, 1926.

Introductory Chapter. The English Manor (by Sir William Ashley)
The Origin of Property in Land (see below):
I. The theory of Maurer as to community of Land amongst the Germanic Nations
II: M. Viollet’s theory as to community of Land amongst the Greeks
III. Mommsen’s theory as to community of Land amongst the Romans
IV. On the application of The Comparative Method
V. Community of Land amongst the Gauls
Conclusion (see V.)

Please Note:
1) Text in Latin has not been proof-read,
2) Text in Greek is in square brackets. [nnn[. Not retyped….


During the last forty years a theory has made its way into historical literature, according to which private ownership in land was preceded by a system of cultivation in common. The authors of this theory do not confine themselves to saying that there was no such thing as private property in land among mankind when in a primitive or savage state. It is obvious that when men were still in the hunting or pastoral stage, and had not yet arrived at the idea of agriculture, it did not occur to them to take each for himself a share of the land. The theory of which I speak applies to settled and agricultural societies. It asserts that among peoples that had got so far as to till the soil in an orderly fashion, common ownership of land was still maintained; that for a long time it never occurred to these men who ploughed, sowed, reaped and planted, to appropriate to themselves the ground upon which they laboured. They only looked upon it as belonging to the community. It was the people that at first was the sole owner of the entire territory, either cultivating it in common, or making a fresh division of it every year. It was only later that the right of property, which was at first attached to the whole people, came to be associated with the village, the family, the individual.

“All land in the beginning was common land” says Maurer, “and belonged to all; that is to say to the people.”[1] “Land was held in common” says M. Viollet, “before it became private property in the hands of a family or an individual.”[2] “The arable land was cultivated in common” says M. de Laveleye; “private property grew up afterwards out of this ancient common ownership.”[3]In a word, the system of agriculture was, in the beginning, an agrarian communism.

This theory is not, strictly speaking, a new one. Long before the present century, there were thinkers who loved to picture to themselves mankind living together, when society was first formed, in a fraternal communism. What is new in this, what is peculiar to our own times, is the attempt to rest this theory on a foundation of historical fact, to support it with quotations from historical documents, to deck it out, so to speak, in a learned dress.

I do not wish to combat the theory. What I want to do is only to examine the authorities on which it has been based. I intend simply to take all these authorities, as they are presented to us by the authors of the system, and to verify them. The object of this cold and tedious procedure is not that of proving whether the theory is true or false; it is only to discover whether the authorities that have been quoted can be fairly regarded as appropriate. In short, I am going to discuss not the theory itself, but the garb of learning in which it has been presented.