Thomas Frank: Dealing with Quantitative Sources for the History of Late Medieval Land Markets. Abstract # 9 (random order)

“The research project on which my paper is based has been developed at the Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte of the University of Vienna in 2013. It focusses on “Rural Land Markets North and South of the Alps” from the 14th to the 16th century. Our work is organized in four case studies, three in Austria (the estates of the monasteries of Lambach, St. Lambert and Klosterneuburg) and one in the Veneto region (the estate of the Hospital of Santa Maria dei Battuti in Treviso).

The aim is to evaluate the economic and social implications of land transfers in the rural context, especially the land held by tenants working for great proprietors (here: ecclesiastical and charitable institutions). Moving from existing studies on factor markets realized by economic historians mainly for North Western Europe, we try to detect whether elements of a land market can be found also in late medieval Central Europe. In particular the project aims to reconstruct the extent of market integration of the tenants’ land transfers and the importance of these land markets for changes in rural social structure. The comparative perspective of the project, with its four case studies, requires to assess the position of each local context with respect to its legal, social, cultural and ecologial conditions.

Leaving aside the question if this might be called an ‘institutionalist’ or a ‘commercialist’ approach, the first problem to face is the handling of the sources. Most of them are inedited and consist – as to the Austrian cases – of property transfer registers, terriers (Urbare) and considerable amounts of parchments, in total more than 1000 contracts from the 15th and 16th centuries for each monastery. In Treviso – the case I am working on – the main sources are a lease register, written in the 16th century on base of the hospital’s older account books, and fiscal documents produced by the local Venetian administration.

These sources make available large quantities of different kinds of data: a huge amount of information about the involved persons and their relations (kinship, neighbourhood, social hierarchies), about the land transferred (rents paid, value in the moment of the sale, size, agricultural use) and about the type of transfer (sale, lease, heritage etc.). Furthermore, but limited to the Italian case, the fiscal sources give insight in the composition of the households, the age of the familiy members as well as the lands and goods a tenant owned besides the land he had leased from the hospital.

In order to manage this information we have developed a database in MS Access (with the help of an IT specialist). In my paper I intend (1) to present this database, referring to examples drawn from our current work, and to discuss its pluses and minuses. (2) I will present some fiscal documents as well as specimens taken from the account books of the Treviso hospital. The hospital’s notaries organized their material in a two columns system representing real income and real expenditure or debts to be paid and debts honoured, but they did not yet adopt the double entry bookkeeping in a technical sense. However, these are examples apt to foster the discussion about the problem of digitalizing different systems of historical accounting.”


Thomas Frank, professore associato for Medieval History, University of Pavia, Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici

Presentation: Oct 22, 5.40 – 6.00 p.m., Haus der Begegnung [PROGRAMME]




Picture credits: Landscape in Veneto/IT, Smartino at Italian Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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