Rural and Environmental History Group

General Information

There are no simple and general answers to these questions valid for the whole of the Netherlands. In some parts of the Netherlands, such as Groningen, the growth of the power of the farmers had already taken place before the main period of the present study. The answers will also be complex because they need a political, economic, social, cultural and regional dimension.

Our hypothesis of what happened is as follows. From 1815, within the new context of the monarchy and the national state, the gentlemen in the countryside (we use this ‘label’ for the gentry and the large, sometimes urban, landowners) tried to represent the rural interests and at the same time to modernise the rural economy. C.H.E. de Wit called this period the monarchical-aristocratic order. (De Wit 1965; Van Zanden en Van Riel 2000). The constitution of 1848 and the municipal corporations act of 1851 changed the position of the gentlemen and the urban and rural elite in the government of the provinces and the countryside. At the same time they changed the significance of the local government vis à vis the national government. So from the 1850s the political circumstances changed in favour of the farmers thanks to changes in the general political order.

From the 1850s the economic circumstances also became favourable for the farmers. Agriculture flourished and both the farmers and the smallholders, who grew in number, profited from it. The agricultural crisis of the seventies and eighties strengthened the need for organisation of the agricultural sector. At first, again it was the gentlemen who tried to provide the answers to the crisis and to organise the new developments, but at the local level all kind of changes took place. The most important one was the growth of the co-operative movement that gave the farmers and smallholders the opportunity to organise themselves.

A complicated social struggle took place where several developments became intertwined with each other. These include the contention of the churches against the liberal character of the national state, the contention between urban and rural interests, the contention of the outer provinces against the real or perceived domination of the national state by the sea provinces and the desire for a regional identity within the nation-state. As a result of this, the organisation of the countryside in the 1920s was very different from the one around the middle of the nineteenth century. The countryside had been democratised. The farmers had become the local power holders. They occupied the seats in the boards of the co-operative movement, they were aldermen and councilmen, and they were active within the district water board. The link with the national state was no longer the mere domain of the gentlemen with their personal connections who for a long time had tried to play the old game by the new rules, but also and more and more of the (denominational) farmers associations.

This research proposal is important, stimulating and urgent for the following reasons:
  • It is a new theme within rural history. In the last decades most of the attention has been given to agricultural studies and regional monographs. What we propose to do here is to study social change in the countryside and to connect local and regional changes with encompassing developments like state formation and nation building, industrialisation, commercialisation and urbanisation. (Schuurman 1996).
  • When historians are searching for changes and innovations in the nineteenth century, they look to industrialisation, urbanisation and the labour movement. They almost ‘forget’ the countryside. However in this period the rural economy and the rural population were still an important factor. With our research we want to demonstrate this importance for Dutch society in general with regard to the social changes that took place in the countryside. By doing this our research will correct the existing view of the history of the nineteenth century.
  • This research is innovative due to its emphasis on processes of change, on agency and contention, and on spatial effects of these changes and contentions. We want to restore the open character of the historical process without giving up the claim that it is possible to draw general conclusions.
  • Finally, we suggest that our research is important for the contemporary discussion on the role of economic institutions, the state, civic society, and trust for the transition to market societies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The proposed research dovetails with current developments in general historical research in the Netherlands, notably the recently finished projects Pillarisation in the Netherlands, especially at the local level (Verzuiling in Nederland, in het bijzonder op lokaal niveau 1850-1925 ) (Blom en Talsma 2000) and Reconstruction national accounts from the Netherlands and analysis of the development of the national economy (Reconstructie nationale rekeningen van Nederland en analyse van de ontwikkeling van de volkshuishouding, 1800-1940) (Van Zanden en Van Riel 2000) and the ongoing project The Nation-State. Politics in the Netherlands since 1815 (De natiestaat. Politiek in Nederland sinds 1815) (Aerts e.a. 1999 en De Haan 2003). We will profit greatly from these projects, especially from the approach as presented in the concluding monograph of the national accounts project by Van Zanden en Van Riel (2000), but also from dissertations that appeared in the other projects on small towns in the Netherlands (e.g. Miert 1994 and Groot 1992). Our research differs from these projects because we are explicitly interested in the social changes, modernisation and democratisation of the Dutch countryside and we want to demonstrate that these developments were relevant for Dutch history in general in this period.

Our approach and its subject also fit within the international historiography. At the European Social History Conference in March 2004 in Berlin many themes that will be addressed in this research, were topics of sessions organised by the Rural History Chair such as the sessions on credit, nation-building, modernisation, agricultural organisations, landed estates. Our approach of the proposed research is also strongly influenced by recent developments in social theory and especially the literature on globalisation and on spatial changes in general (Schuurman 2001). Finally, we are inspired by one of the classical authors on this topic Alexis de Tocqueville and his book L’ancien régime et la révolution where he discussed the role of the aristocracy and of associations in the organisation of society.

Four projects

Although we are interested in the modernisation and democratisation process in the Dutch countryside as such and two of our projects are also situated at this level, we will limit our own local-regional research mainly to Gelderland. Because our main theme is the declining role of the gentlemen and elite in the countryside and the rising influence and power of the farmers themselves, it is logical to choose one of the eastern provinces. Gelderland is also a good choice because it provides opportunities for comparisons within the region. For the other provinces we will make use of existing literature (e.g. Duyvendak 1990, Botke 2002).

Our research is divided into four projects. In the first project we will focus on the ‘modernisation project’ of the gentlemen on the national level (their congresses, exhibitions, publications). The main theme of the second project is the co-operation movement, what we call the ‘modernisation project’ of the farmers. In the third and fourth project we will focus on the social history of the countryside in Gelderland in the period 1840-1880 and 1880-1920. We will analyse the role of the different social groups, their ideas on modernisation of the countryside and the relationship between developments on the national, provincial and local level.

Together with the existing national and international literature, these projects will enable us to write an overview of the modernisation process of the Dutch countryside in the nineteenth century and its social, political and spatial implications.