Dire Necessity or Mere Opportunity? Recurrent Peat Commercialisation from Raised Bog Commons in the Early Modern Low Countries

Abstract
Commercialisation of resources taken from commons is considered problematic in several ways in traditional commons scholarship. In particular common-pool resource (CPR) theory argues that institutions for collective action such as commons are largely autonomous, experiencing little influence from either the market or the state, and focusing only on the needs of entitled (local) communities. Consequently, commercialisation and sustainable collective use of common-pool resources are largely considered incompatible. Moreover, the dominant focus of CPR theory is on renewable resources rather than non-renewable resources such as peat. Although commons scholarship has broadened over the last decades and come to more nuanced views on the state-market-common trichotomy, our study adds historical depth and does pay attention to peat as a valuable non-renewable resource. We analyse historical sources on two cases of peat commercialisation from raised bog commons in the early modern Low Countries: the Bakelse gemeint in the Dutch Peel region, and the commune de Xhoffraix in the Belgian Hautes-Fagnes. In terms of volume, the share of commercialised peat in the total peat exploitation was limited; the significance of peat commercialisation lay in its permanence, recurrence, and/or regional outreach. Taxes and high debts placed communities in dire financial straits, which was one of the motives for peat commercialisation. In addition, state institutions could intervene in commons management if there was an (internal) conflict. Sources indicate that these institutions had a pragmatic attitude towards peat commercialisation, probably to foster social harmony and local prosperity in times of resource contestation and economic hardship. This study adds a novel intermediate category of peat exploitation to the traditional binary subdivision in domestic peat extraction from commons versus large-scale commercial exploitation of privatised bogs. We demonstrate that long-term use of common-pool resources could go together with a moderate degree of commercialisation. Rather than being fully autonomous, commons in the early modern Low Countries were – permanently or at times of internal conflict – clearly impacted by markets, notions of private user rights, and state institutions.
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Keywords
commodification, commercialisation, commercialization, commons, common pool resources, early modern period, early modernity, institutions, markets, marketisation, marketization, peatlands, wetlands
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