Commons – The Netherlands


In the Eastern part of the Netherlands these commons usually took the form of markegenootschappen, which were associations of a number of members (both full and other members), that were entirely self-governing, although they did need the recognition of the local authority of their organization.



The origin of the term ‘mark’ or ‘marke’ appears to have been the ancient use of determining the boundaries of pieces of land owned by either individual owners or by a fellowship of owners by demarcating (‘marking’) these boundaries by planting boundary markers. In some cases boundary stones were used, in other cases (especially in humid or swamp areas, such as the peat bogs, where such heavy markers tended to sink and disappear) poles or other visual markers were used. This habit of determining the boundaries of the various marks is also mentioned in several articles of the resolutions and regulations concerning the mark, usually registered in the so-called ‘books of the mark’ (markeboeken).

Apart from the original meaning of the word, the term ‘mark’ became synonymous with the organizational form of managing and governing the area that was destined for common use. According to Hoppenbrouwers (2002,92), the term ‘marken’ was the ‘customary general name both for corporations of people entitled to the use of specified common waste lands, and for such lands themselves’. However, the organisation itself is however in generally referred to as “markegenootschap”, the latter part of the word literally meaning “association” (Hoppenbrouwers 2002, 92). Since other terms (such as ‘meenten’) also were also used for the aforementioned combination of land use and land management, Hoppenbrouwers (2002, 92) narrowed down the use of the term marks to refer to ‘user corporations that were set up and initially operated separately from general local government’. 

This kind of institution for collective action was the predominant form of common land management in the areas of the current provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel  (Beekman 1913-1938; Slicher van Bath 1978, 242; Hoppenbrouwers 2002, 93-4); in other parts of the Northern Netherlands, the management of common and uncultivated land was often linked more closely to the local government and was usually referred to with the term meent (Hoppenbrouwers 2002, 92).

Archival Sources

Since written – and other – sources become more and more scarce as we go back in time – and also given the lack of a uniform definition of the concept of the ‘mark’ – it is hardly, if ever, possible to exactly pinpoint the period of origin of the marks (see discussion mentioned by Hoppenbrouwers 2002, 93).   In case we use the criterium of a mark simply being mentioned in historical documents, the first marks date from 797 AD, when the respective marks of Oeke and Rienderen were mentioned in ancient manuscripts. However, it is unclear from these sources to what extent the mark was equivalent to the village by the same name. Hence, a more decisive criterium would be the first appearance of the mark as being an institution, usually taking the form of the first (or at least the oldest preserved) set of rules that applied to the access, use, and management of the common.

The oldest examples of such regulations often exist of one single document, written on parchment and sealed by the local authority or authorities and date back to the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century. In cases where the first regulations preserved date from a later period, the first set of rules – sometimes in transcribed form, as was the case for one of our cases, mark Raalterwoold – often cover the starting pages of the so-called markeboeken, in which the regulations – and often also the resolutions taken at annual and other general meetings – were recorded. We know from the case study of Exel that in regard to the registration of rules, a combined form was also in use: it appears from the text of the resolutions that the regulations and resolutions of previous meetings were inserted into the collected body of regulations as being the first point of order at the next meeting. Next to the regulations and resolutions agreed upon at the general meetings, the markeboek was often used for administrative purposes, such as the registration of shares or other, and for financial matters. 

Governing the marks


The general decisions on the management of the mark, the appointment (or dismissal) of officials acting on behalf of the mark, and the access and use of the mark and its resources were mainly arranged at the regular general meetings of the assembly of the mark (markevergadering, also known known as markengericht or – especially in the most eastern parts of the Netherlands – holtink, cf. the German equivalent Höltink) (Mensema 1978, xiii; Van Engelen van der Veen 1931, 195-7).  The frequency and scope of the meetings concerning the mark as well as the causes for these meetings could differ from mark to mark, but also within the same mark from time to time. The most common meeting was the annual meeting of those having shares in the mark (often those owning half a share were also allowed to attend these meetings and also had the right to vote). A frequency of twice a year, however, is also to be found in years in which there were apparently lots of issues to decide upon, whereas in ‘quiet’ periods the assembly of the mark sometimes decided to lower the frequency to a biennial or triennial frequency (cf. Van Engelen van der Veen 1931, 195 fn. 3).  Apart from these regular meetings, which had to be announced in time to allow all participants to be present (which was compulsory for those having the right to vote), the chairman of the assembly of the mark had the liberty to convocate emergency meetings of the assembly (nootholtink) whenever he decided the circumstances required immediate decisions by the assembly of the mark.

The frequency of the meetings also influenced the number of regulations and resolutions, although the number of regulations preserved does not always provide an exact indication of the number of meetings held: sometimes it was decided to replace an older set of previous resolutions and regulations by a completely new one; this new regulation would then only contain the rules and resolutions still in force at that moment. An example of this is the oldest preserved markenboek of mark Raalterwoold, which contains rules still in force from regulations dating from 1445, 1541, 1560, 1598, 1604, 1608, 1609, 1610, 1611, and 1614.

Executing, monitoring, and sanctioning

The execution of the resolutions as well as the sanctioning of acts that violated the regulations was delegated by the assembly to specific members. Management tasks such as the taxation of lands or representing the mark in formal or judicial matters usually was usually delegated to the chairman of the assembly of the mark and/or one or more commissioned members, the latter ones often being part of the group of ‘inheritors’ (erfgenamen or geërfden). The task of preventing and sanctioning of (alleged) offences was delegated to members of the common, who were obliged to accept this task, be it either willingly or unwillingly. Hoppenbrouwers  (2002, 95-6)  states that principal task of the sworn members (gezworenen, swaeren) consisted of establishing bye-laws and fines for infringements, whereas the so-called schutters (cattle pounders) were mainly responsible for the penning in of animals running wild, the collecting of imposed fines, and the execution of other kinds of sanctions. Some of the regulations however imply that the sworn members were also involved in the daily implementation of the rules and resolutions of the mark. For instance, the regulation of 1445 (transcribed 1615) of the mark Raalterwoold states in its 29th article that only the chairmen of the assembly of the mark as well as the sworn members were allowed to pen up animals; the actual involvement of the sworn members in executing this sanction is also indicated by the additional permission granted to the regular members of the common to execute this sanction in case the sworn members would refuse to execute the sanction at the request of commoners (Hannink 1992, 4). 

Dissolution of the marks

The majority of the marks ceased to exist in the course of the nineteenth century, with a peak in dissolutions in the 1840s and 1850s. Three legislative measures formed the basis of this ‘evening tide’ of the marks. First, the Royal Decree of May 10, 1810 caused a new financial burden for the marks: all lands had to be taxed, including the uncultivated – and previous untaxed – parts of the mark; an additional incentive was the exemption from taxation for newly reclaimed land. However, the status of self-governance of the marks remained intact: it was up to the assemblies of the marks themselves to decide whether or not to divide the common and uncultivated lands of the mark. As the  inventarization performed by Demoed (1987, 65, tab 1)  shows, this initial decree seems to have had little effect.

The contents of the regulations and resolutions of the assemblies of the marks, however, provide more nuance to this figures: although the number of complete and final dissolutions of marks remained relatively low between 1819 and 1839, the markeboeken show increasing concerns of the members of the mark about the financial status of the mark, often resulting in the decision to sell parts of the common in order to try to solve at least part of the debts owed by the mark. The Royal Decree of June 24, 1837 brought the legislation of 1810 to the attention of the marks once more; the final implementation of tax exemption for reclaimed land that that was formerly was common and uncultivated, as mentioned in the corresponding Law of 1840, may have been decisive for most marks in their decision to divide and sell the remainder of the common land the mark owned, resulting in the final dissolution of the majority of the marks between 1840 and 1859 (Demoed 1987, 65, tab 1).

Although almost all marks had disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, some marks still survived, either de jure or de facto. We have not yet explored the reasons and causes of this survival, – and it seems that in some cases this survival was unintentional, but was caused by the discovery that not after some time, it appeared that that not all of the common land of the mark had been sold or divided –, but it seems appropriate to expect that in these cases dissolving the mark (or to be more precise: the common land of these marks)) to the members of these institutions was little or no more beneficial than the option to maintain these in common. One of the case studies we used for this paper, the mark of Berkum, managed to extend its survival wayell into the 1990s, after which the remaining assets of the mark were used to create a fund for the promotion of specific organizations focusing on the regional heritage.  An extraordinary example of survival is shown by the common Wijkerzand: up until today, this common is in use as such. Those who ‘emit smoke from a chimney at Wijk’ still enjoy the right of common pasture on this common; in practice, this means that the revenues of the letting out of this right of pasture are collected and distributed evenly among the commoners of Wijk (Hoppenbrouwers 2002, 108-9).