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Was the Spanish Mesta an obstacle to the modernisation of the Spanish agriculture?

Santiago Escribano Murillo Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Finance & Accounting (bilingual option)


Abstract: The “Mesta” was an organization which guaranteed the transhumance of animals in Spain during the 13th century. Although it can be considered as one of the factors that helped to develop the economical situation of Spain by that time, the negative long terms effect it caused in the agricultural sector can still be noted today. In this paper we will be discussing what the “Mesta” did wrong and how Spain suffered to recover from it even after its disappearance.

Introduction We are in las Navas de Tolosa, 1212. One of the most epic battles in history has taken place here recently. Nearly the whole Iberian Peninsula is under the rule of the Muslims. The Christians have defeated the Almohad Empire, reconquering the territories formerly owned. But reconquering does not mean occupying. And here is the problem because the Christians were not too much and also they were not prone for doing this, leaving their homes and families. Probably this is the most reasonable explanation that could be given for the creation of the Mesta. Why? Because there is not better occupancy than thousands of shepherds with their flocks and cattle doing transhumance around all the territories owned. Not counting all those, think also about all the people involved with all this: farmers, blacksmiths, innkeepers … but before focusing on the reason of its creation, we must explain another question: what is the Mesta?

The Mesta (its complete name was Honrado Concejo de la Mesta) “was a society composed of all the sheep raisers of Castile, in Spain, formally recognized by Alfonso X

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(the Wise) in 1273”1. It´s function was, as I´ve said before, to guarantee the transhumance of the animals. It´s so important to say, however, that this is not another institution that passes around Spain´s history. For proving this, the only thing that has to be done is to check all the privileges that the Crown gave to this society (notice that the Mesta depended on the Spanish Crown). Some privileges were, for example, exemption for the military service, special use for a special kind of walks (“ Royal sleepwalks”), rental and fiscal advantages, and the one that we are going to develop, privileges over the agriculture, but we will discuss this later.

The “Mesta” and its privileges But why this special treatment? Why the Spanish Crown was so interested in developing the Mesta? Well, of course, the revenues that they got from taxes that had to be paid by the shepherds was an important reason. But the main one was all the incomes that Spain received from the wool obtained from the sheep’s, due to the international prestige that it had. This caused an overprotection over the Mesta that expanded over the years, until one moment when the interest for the wool disappeared. What happened then? That Spain found itself in an economic model based completely on the Mesta, so when it stopped being profitable, Spain discover that for just focusing on the Mesta, it has disregard other fields like agriculture, causing some serious problems that even today last

Now that a little summary has been done, let´s explain why and how this worked. We have reached the conclusion that the Crown was so interested on the success of this association. So for making sure that all the laws and orders were followed, they designed some persons called “alcaldes entregadores”2, that were the responsibles of “taking care”                                                                                                               1 2

Definition according to Encyclopedia Britannica, searching for “Mesta” Pérez, Joseph “La revolución de las comunidades de Castilla (1520-1521)” pp 2930 , for more information

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of the Mesta. By taking care I mean defending the Mesta against everything that could make damage to it. And what kind of things could hurt this powerful institution? Basically all the decisions related to land possession and distribution. The existence of the Mesta only required one thing: huge extensions where the flocks could stay. So if the land is occupied, there is no chance for agriculture to exist. So the farmers complain. They demand more land, because they can´t survive with the one they have. But when this complain was formally expressed against the Mesta, the “alcalde entregador” (with the help and support of the Crown) managed to get the Mesta victorious. The Mesta was against plowing new lands because then, less space for the animals would have existed, making bad for the business.

The distribution of land is still a problem nowadays. Big extensions in the hands of very little are the problem for agriculture in Spain. In times of the Mesta, big Lords obtained more profits with the flocks and cattles than by dividing their territories in little plots where farmers can plow their land. And as I have said before, is still a problem in Spain today.

Looking for an example that could explain the consequences that the Mesta brought, I found an extract of a nun, explaining what the Mesta has done to the Spanish agriculture. In fact, it does not say nothing that has not been explained yet, but proves that most of the people was against the measures benefiting the Mesta (remember that nuns in Spain where basically the representatives of the Spanish people). He textually says that “…the Mesta, how was established, was the public enemy of Agriculture, because it did not allow thousands of people that could have enriched this sector.”3                                                                                                               3

Antón Ramírez , Braulio, “Diccionario de bibliografía agronómica y de toda clase de escritos relacionados con la agricultura”, pp 510, for more information about agricultural thoughts of people in that time, 1765

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However, we are not going to deny that the Mesta played an important role in the Spanish economic situation of the moment, and if the prices of the wool would have not decreased, Spain will have succeed in such a great way4. But when the demand of Spanish wool decreased drastically due to the offer of the same product by other European countries, Spain stopped getting transactional profits, and when this happened, no other way for enriching the country existed because they hadn’t taken care of the development and status of the agriculture. There has been not improvement in techniques of fertilizing, plowing and conservation of seeds. The instruments used were too rudimentary also, and some things like the antique roman plough were still in use, while in the rest of Europe new instruments or improvements had been developed or were in use.

The Mesta also caused a great deep impact on the agricultural landscape, not only for all the damage that millions of animals in continuous movement can make to the environment, but for the especial infrastructures built for it. With this I mean for example, “Cañadas Reales”, which were huge roads that could only be used by the shepherds with their flocks and cattles, for doing the transhumance around Spain.5 Other things like bridges were built also for helping the shepherds on it´s labour. It´s also important to mention the deforestation caused by all the animals that spend their dairy live over the pastures.

Now that the question that the reader may have is “why nobody did anything for trying to mend the situation when things started not working?” Well, of course so many efforts were done for doing it, but the problem was that by that time the members of the Mesta have                                                                                                               4

Information extracted from De Heredia, V Beltrán, “Cartulario de la Universidad de Salamanca, Volumen 3”, pp.21, 5 Marín Barriguete, Fermín, 1987.” La Mesta en los siglos XVI y XVII: Roturación de pastos, cañadas, arrendamientos e impedimientos de paso y pasto”.

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gained so much power, and snatch it to them was so difficult. That´s why the existence of the Mesta last so much over the years, concretely until 1836, when it finally disappeared, and all the recoupment measures could be taken. Despite of that, making changes was and, still is, a very difficult process that can´t be solved in a pair of days.

So, despite it´s positive effects on the economical and demographical aspects during this centuries, there was a moment when Spain found itself into his own trap, because the rest of the European countries had spend their money developing their industries instead of just keeping it for being more and more rich. This is also another problem to mention, the lack of interest developing new technologies, and not only related to the agricultural field: the industrial, the commercial one…Also during the last years of the Mesta´s existence, Europe was in the middle of the industrial revolution. Raw materials were the key for this, because so much food and other elements were needed for the cities for surviving. The problem? As we have said, agriculture in Spain was so, let’s say, “primitive”. That caused a delay in the industrial revolution, what demonstrates that the Mesta, indirectly through agriculture, made bad to so many other sectors, places and the economical activity.6

Conclusion So after all, we can agree on some things: first, trusting on the Mesta was, probably at a beginning, the most useful and profitable option, due to so many reasons: it gave more incomes to the Crown, and it helped to repopulate the territories that had been reconquisted to the Arabs. But this however does not mean that the agriculture had to be forgotten and underestimated. Second: the big errors committed in the past (all the privileges that were given to the Mesta) are, still nowadays, causing problems, especially the ones related to the division of the territories for their exploitation. Third: thinking that with the wool business                                                                                                               6  Nadal, Jordi El fracaso de la revolución industrial en España, 1814-1913,pp 70  

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the whole country will survive forever was a great mistake, because it leads to make no inversion in improvements for agriculture. Fourth, the problems related to agriculture spread to many other fields, and affected Spain in terms of the Industrial Revolution. Fifth: the damage caused to all the vegetation and landscapes was impossible to measure, and even today not everything has been recuperated. Reading all this reasons, leads us to a one and clearly answer: that the history of Spain, from an agricultural (or non-agricultural) would have been totally different without the existence of the Mesta.

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Bibliography: •

Heredia ,V Beltrán , “Cartulario de la Universidad de Salamanca, Volumen 3”

Marín Barriguete, Fermín, 1987.” La Mesta en los siglos XVI y XVII: Roturación de pastos, cañadas, arrendamientos e impedimientos de paso y pasto”

Pérez, Joseph “La revolución de las comunidades de Castilla (1520-1521)”

Nadal, Jordi “El fracaso de la revolución industrial en España”, 1814-1913

Drelichman, Mauricio (2009), “License to till: the privileges of the Spanish Mesta as a case of second-best institution”, Explorations in Economic History

Nugent, J. B. and N. Sánchez-Albornoz (1989), “The efficiency of the Mesta: a parable”, Explorations in Economic History

Antón Ramírez , Braulio, “Diccionario de bibliografía agronómica y de toda clase de escritos relacionados con la agricultura”, pp 510

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Was the Spanish Mesta an obstacle to the modernisation of Spanish agriculture?  

The “Mesta” was an organization which guaranteed the transhumance of animals in Spain during the 13th century. Although it can be considered...

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