1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Métayage

(Part 106)



V. In one or other of these ways almost every country on the face of the globe which has passed regularly through the various stages that separate barbarism from civilization, has been at some period, as many are still, occupied in great measure by peasant proprietors. In those countries, however, in which peasants proprietorship has been evolved from serfdom, there must have been, intermingled with the lands held by servile tenure, others, not less extensive, in the immediate occupation of a rural aristocracy. These seigniorial domains would long continue to be cultivated by the serfs or slaves of their respective owners, but as feudal and domestic slavery fell into desuetude, the landlords, in order to get their lands tiled, would be reduced to the necessity of holding out inducements to free husbandmen to lend their assistance. In England, where, thanks to the comparative security enjoyed by industry, plebeians of some substance were already not rare, it might suffice to offer tenancies for terms of years or for lives; but, in those continental countries in which feudal misrule had given way, only to be replaced by monarchial tyranny, it was generally necessary for the landowner, who desired that his farms should be tolerably stocked, to stock them himself. Hence arose a system which, having never existed in England, has no English name, but which in certain provinces of Italy and France, where it was once almost universal, and is still very common, is called mezzeria and metayage, or halving --- the halving, that is, of the produce of the soil between landowner and landholder. These expressions are not, however, to be understood in a more precise sense than that in which we sometimes talk of a larger and a smaller half. They merely signify that the produce is divisible in certain definite proportions, which must obviously vary with the varying fertility of the soil and other circumstances, and which do in practice vary so much that the landlord’s share is sometimes as much as two-thirds, sometimes as little as one-third. Sometimes the landlord supplies all the stock, sometimes only part --- the cattle and seed perhaps, while the framer provides implements; or perhaps only half the seed and half the cattle, the farmer finding the other halves --- taxes too being paid wholly by one or the other, or jointly by both.

Now, with whatever virtue a system like this may be conditionally credited, it plainly can have no virtue at all except on condition of its being believed to be permanent. The metayer must have full confidence that the landlord, although authorized by law, will be prevented, by respect for custom, from increasing his exactions; but even on this condition the system is open to the serious objection, that the metayer will deem it his interest to lay out on the land as little as possible, if anything, of his own, except labour. If in England, previously to tithe commutation, a farmer was discouraged from spending money on improvements by the knowledge that the parson would claim one out of every ten additional sheaves of corn or pounds of butter produced in consequence, what chance is there of a metayer risking a similar expenditure, while knowing that the landlord’s share of the consequent produce would be a moiety or more instead of a tenth? In this particular, metayage closely resembles English tenancies at will, which practically render it almost equally incumbent on the landlord to bear the entire expense of all costly improvements, and over which metayage, in another and nearly allied particular, possesses a marked advantage. Although the metayer may, for one very cogent reason --- a reason, however, likely to be somewhat counteracted by belief, whether well or ill founded, in the fixity of his tenure --- be reluctant to use in his business any capital of his own, for the converse of that same reason, be anxious to make the most of the capital entrusted to him by his landlord. He is his landlord’s partner, entitled to a moiety or thereabout in his landlord’s gains. It is his interest, then, to get the most out of the land that can be brought out of it by means of the landlord’s stock. Virtually, indeed, he is himself, in a qualified sense, a peasant proprietor, possessing in a minor degree all the stimulants to diligence, heedfulness, and thrift, incidental to that character; and there can scarcely, therefore, be inherent in his constitution any such incurable vice as would warrant his being condemned a priori. Equally with other people he is entitled to be judged by his behavior. As to this the testimony of experience is very conflicting. English writers who see nothing of metayage at home, and may be suspected of looking with not wholly unprejudiced eyes at what they see of it abroad, were, until Mr. J. S. Mill adopted a different tone, unanimous in condemning it. They judged it, however, by its appearance in France, where it has never worn a very attractive aspect. In that country every form of agriculture still retains many of the traditions of the ante-revolutionary period, and metayage, in particular, labours under great difficulties in consequence. Under the ancient regime not only were all direct taxes paid by the metayer, the noble landowner being exempt, but these taxes, being assessed according to the visible produce of the soil, operated as penalties upon all endeavors to augment its productiveness. No wonder, then, if the metayer fancied that his interest lay less in exerting himself to augment the total to be divided between himself and his landlord, than in studying how to defraud the latter of part of his rightful share; nor any great wonder either if he has not yet got entirely rid of habits so acquired. Rather would it be strange if he had, especially when it is considered that he still is, as his predecessors were formerly, destitute of the virtual fixity of tenure without which metayage cannot reasonably be expected to prosper. French metayers, in Arthur Young’s time were "removable at pleasure, and obliged to conform in all things to the will of their landlords," and so in general they are still. Yet even in France, according to M. de Lavergne, although "metayage and extreme rural poverty usually coincide," there is one province, Anjou, where the contrary is the fact, as it is also in Italy. Indeed, to every tourist who has passed through the plains of Lombardy with his eyes open, the knowledge that metayage has for ages been there the prevailing form of tenure ought to suffice for the triumphant vindication of metayage in the abstract. Its perfect compatibility with the most flourishing agriculture must be clear to any one who, noting the number and populousness of the cities in the Lombard provinces, is at the same time aware how much of agricultural produce those provinces export and how little they import. An explanation of the contrasts presented by metayage in different regions is not far to seek. Metayage, in order to be in any measure worthy of commendation, must be a genuine partnership, one in which there is no sleeping partner, but in the affairs of which the landlord, as well as the tenant, takes an active part. If he do this, he cannot be an absentee. He must be on the spot to judge when and what advances are required from him, and to watch over their proper application; to that end conferring habitually with the metayer, and taking as well as giving counsel on the subject, as on one in which both are equally concerned. This exhibition of common interest on one side is sure too beget it, if previously wanting, on the other; feelings of mutual attachement insensibly spring up, and the spirit which governs the mutual relations becomes one of friendly and almost affectionate association. Such is, or at any rate used to be, the state of affairs in Piedmont, in Lombardy, and in Tuscany; and wherever the same description applies, the results of metayage appear to be as eminently satisfactory, as they are decidedly the reverse wherever the landlord holds himself aloof, contenting himself, as it were, with putting out his stock to usury, and never intervening except to carp at the smallness of the returns. Instead of community, there is then conflict, of interest. Antagonism takes place of association. The landlord grudges the scantiest advances, and even of those the farmer does his best to cheat the soil, which, starved by them who ought to feed it, leaves them to starve in return.

On the whole, and according to preponderance of testimony, metayage must perhaps be admitted to be everywhere showing a tendency to degenerate after the above fashion; yet even so, the worst that need be said of it is, that it is becoming an anachronism; this, moreover, being perhaps a reproach less to itself than to the age in which we live. It is the present generation of mankind who are chiefly to blame if the ties which anciently linked together employers and employed in more or less kindly fellowship, are now a-days, in agriculture as in other departments of industry, visibly decaying, and if each section of the agrarian class, bidding the others keep their distance, prefers to perform its own functions separately, and without more of natural intercourse than business obligations, arranged beforehand, render indispensable. But whenever, from whatever cause, landowners have come to be regarded by landholders as mere receivers of rent, metayage cannot possibly thrive, and it is accordingly dying out, even in the quarters to which it has hitherto appeared most congenial. Even in the Milanese, where the minute and assiduous attention to details which metayers, next after peasants proprietors, can best be depended on for bestowing, is in especial demand for sericulture and viticulture, metayage is undergoing changes which M. de Laveleye (Economic Rurale de la Lombardie) describes as follows: ---

"The primitive conditions of contract which fixed, according to local and traditional usage, the cultivator’s share, are daily more and more departed from. For a considerable time past, in the parts about Como and Milan, to the arrangement for sharing by halves, which now applies only to plantation crops, grasses, and cocoons, has been added a clause providing for the annual payment of a determinate quantity of corn; and, as this quantity is settled no longer by local custom, but by the demands of the proprietors and the offers of intending tenants, it follows that metayage is losing its character of fixity, and falling under the law of increase which governs farming rent. The clause in question is continually becoming more and more of a habit; and, even where it has not yet been adopted, the ancient contract has undergone other and not less regrettable modifications. The high price of commodities, particularly of silk, having markedly augmented the profits of the metayers, the landlords have availed themselves of this circumstances to introduce new stipulations --- sometimes taking more than half of the cocoons, sometimes claming a quantity of mulberry leaves to sell for their own profit, sometimes taking tithes first and then halving the residue. All this is done with the same aim and the same result, the aim being to secure to the landlord the whole benefit of continually rising prices, the result that of depriving the metayer of the security which the primitive agreement gave him, and of subjecting him to all the disadvantages of a leaseholder without any of the latter’s compensations."

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