Ownership and inheritance
Entailed estates, ownerships and tenants
Historically, tradition and common sense have always dictated that the ownership of the farmhouse and its land be passsed down as a whole through the same family. This very reasonable custom means that the surface-area of the exploitation does not have to be broken down, maintaining the amount of land necessary for the survival of its workers, but this didn’t prevent the formation of four social groups in the Gipuzkoan countryside, defined by their different position with respect to land ownership.
The most priviliged class was comprised of the owners of several farmhouses or nagusiak, who profited from the income generated by agriculture without getting their hands dirty.These were followed by small owners or etxejabeak, respected men who, even as a minority, were the country’s emblem, dedicating themselves to exploiting the resources of their ancestral homes. The largest group was that of tenant farmers or maisterrak who, with a renewable contract, lived in farmhouses which they didn’t own, keeping local aristrocratic families in provisions with their harvest. Lastly, on the lowest level, were rural servants or norroiak , who, in exhange for food, a roof over thir heads and something to wear, worked for life for independent farmers and even for some of the better-off tenant farmers. They were normally treated with affection but, since they had absolutely nothing of their own, they were never able to set up their own families. There were also some paid unskilled labourers, piontzak, but these were virtually non-existent in Gipuzkoa.
The most powerful family in the province was that of the Idiaquez of Azkoitia, successors to the ancient lords of Loyola, who, from the end of the 16th century until the mid-18th century, coleccted around fifty farmhouses in Azpeitia, Azkoitia, Elgoibar, Deba and Mutriku. On lesser scales there were always a couple of famous local fortunes in each village, backed by the posession of a dozen or so farmhouses in the surrounding areas.
Large rural patrimonies were not achieved by buying and selling farmhouses, but through arranged marriages between heirs – often between two couples of brothers and sisters- and were strengthened by the founding of new houses in unpopulated forest areas. Once this property enetered into the orbit of a family, it stayed there forever through entailed estates, so that one single heir inherited the whole lot, without being able to mortgage or sell any of it whatever the circumstance, including that of covering accumulated debts.
The rented farmhouse: payment and terms
The other side of large ownerships was the great number of tenant farmers living in Gipuzkoan farmhouses who had to pay for the right to work the land. Inevitably, once a year –almost invariably on All Soul’s Day-, the maisterrak would meet at the administrator or landowner’s house to pay the agreed amount of rent.
This rent was broken down into several different sections.Normally cash was only a small percentage of the overall payment, while the most important part was the delivery of varying amounts of wheat fanegas: 1,500 kilos for the most fertile farmhouses, and scarcely 400 for the most modest. In addition to these payments were the caricias or obligatory presents, which comprised of capons, rams, aplles, eggs, cheeses, honey and other delicacies. Lastly, the tenant undertook to preserve and improve the farm’s production capacity, and was obliged to prepare the land regularly with lime and to plant chestnut and apple trees. He also had to make small repairs to the farmhouse, and in some cases retile the roof or build an oven. These large renovations were paid fo by the owner.
Contracts, in days gone by, were made for a short period of time, normally from four to ten years, which meant that the owner could periodically increase the rent and add new obligations, and that he could also select the strongest working candidates or those who inspired the highest confidence. This, in normal cirumstances, didn’t stop the growth of good relations which favoured renovation of the agreement and even succession of the tenant’s children at the head of the expoitation, but to achieve this they had to make sure that the owner was always satisfied.
With the arrival of industrilization to Gipuzkoa and the menace or rural depopulation, the landowners lost much of their power and the farmers gained more stability, so that the last generations of tenants have scarcely moved from their farmhouses and have even come to the point of considering them as their own.
Basque inheritance with castilian laws
Since the 12th and 13th centuries, when the first family farmhouses started appearing in Gipuzkoa, there has been a tradition of selecting one single child to succeed the father at the head of the agricultural unit, disinheriting the other brothers. This basis of indivisible inheritance, which protected the economic viability of the farmhouse over and above the individual well-being of its inhabitants, gave rise to a class of small owners who formed the historical backbone of the farmhouse.
But Gipuzkoa came under the Castillan crown and the laws of the kingdom with respect to successions were completely different to those of Basque tradition. In particular, the viejo Fuero Real (old royal Castilian Laws) whose application became obligatory as from 1348, defended the right of all children to receive part of the paternal belongings, and at most, that the favourite be given a third of the total. From then onwards, the Gipuzkoans tried to impose their peculiar rule, arguing –unsuccessfully- that partition meant the death of the farmhouse.
As these demands went unanswered, they had to intent a formula which would allow them to both respect the letter of the law as well as achieving the practical result of transmiting the house and its land to one sole heir. The solution adopted from the beginning of the 16th until the end of the 19th century was that of giving the farmhouse to the child who was designated as the successor at the moment of his or her getting married. The son and his new wife then became the new proprietors by means of a written agreement, but in exchange they undertook to continue treating their parents with respect, to giving them the use of half the income received and, when the moment came, a decent funeral. The other children were given some money, a chest, a bed and a change of uderclothes.
The parents were usually loathe to lose their authority at such an early date and often tried to put the marriage off until as late as possible, which meant that many Gipuzkoan couples, who were too impatient to wait, had illegitimate children out of wedlock. At the moment when the new daughter-in-law was finally officially admited into the house, the mother would ceremoniously present her with the wooden spoon used for serving the food: a symbolic gesture which marked the definitive cession of power.