The history of land reform has been a study of tenures and rights governing land. There is an inherent tension between the idea of an individual right to land and the fact that most people perceive land to be common property. A common right to land is often based on reciprocal obligations.
The Roman Empire was the first to implement the idea of private property. The legal systems and written laws it established were the foundation of modern jurisprudence. Tiberius passed a land reform law with popular support in 133 bce. However, the law was only effective in former public lands. It was also delayed by the death of Tiberius. Nevertheless, this law was the first step towards the reform of medieval land tenures.
In ancient Athens, a tribe held the land. Land in Polynesia was also considered common property. These tenures left a common heritage in most European countries. But as land became more centralized, a shift to grazing instead of cultivation occurred. This, in turn, led to less employment.
When the Roman Empire began to colonize Europe, the commons were gradually confiscated. While the chiefs received a share of the lands, many of the people living there were dispossessed. Several years later, an enclosure movement consolidated the lands and promoted private ownership.
However, while most of the land was private, it was subject to a variety of duties. For example, the owner had to keep his land in good condition. He could not mortgage it or lease it, but he could sell it. Similarly, he had to pay debts. His debts were usually high. Depending on the size of his holding, he was obligated to deliver five sixths of his product to the creditor. Some of the rest was retained by the debtor.
A feudal estate was an agreement between a lord and his tenant. The lord had certain obligations to his tenant and the tenant had certain obligations to the lord. Tenants would be required to raise a certain force when the lord was not available. The landlord also had to pay rent. Most of the rents were exorbitant.
The French Revolutionary War abolished feudal tenures and abolished the use of feudal courts. It also cancelled all rents. In addition, the new law enacted a standing collegium to enforce the lex agraria.
In Spain, the compulsion to live in a village was a major factor in the development of private ownership. In Germany, however, the 1848 revolutions led to the dissolution of the compulsion. Sweden also pioneered the removal of the compulsion and the establishment of individual property.
After World War II, Japan enacted its own land reform. It was designed to reflect the industrial level of the country. It also was intended to accommodate the high literacy rate. Ultimately, though, this reform was not successful.
Eventually, the idea of the common right to land was supplanted by the idea of the exclusive right. Private ownership of land grew and became widespread. In England, over eight million acres have been enclosed since 1710.