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The Presence of the Fast in a Spanish Village
Santa María del Monte
By Ruth Behar
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
A Portrait of a Landscape and of a People
It was late June and I was riding in a cart with a village man, his team of cows pulling us slowly along the rocky, winding path. We were on our way to a meadow in that part of Santa María's landscape known as San Pelayo, where his brother and sister-in-law, having left earlier by donkey, were haymaking. As the cart jolted us up and down, my companion spoke to me of how his world had started to change forty years ago, "when petroleum came." Reflecting on the longevity of certain features of the local economy, he went on: "How must the world have been in the past; it seems it was standing still, the way they went on using the Roman plow." I asked him why things had remained static for so long. And he replied: "It must have been a punishment, I don't know, but it was only forty years ago that the world started to evolve, at least in Spain where we are a few years behind the times. They say we are on the road to development."
Indeed, to read Marc Bloch's account of medieval French rural life or George Homan's of medieval England is to read a description of the agrarian regime in León during the first half of this century, even that of the present in many aspects. The presence of the medieval past has been displaced only recently in Santa María, as my informant tells us; nor is he alone in thinking that the modern world has caught up with the village and with Spain in the last forty years, in other words, since the Civil War, and that before all was a still time, the longue durée that Fernand Braudel has made famous.
Older villagers have told me that they, their fathers, and their grandfathers were still harvesting wheat and rye with the sickle until the end of the 1920s, and oats until 1945. They remember the great resistance of the elders to adopting the scythe as a tool for harvesting the grain for their daily bread. It seemed to them that the scythe wasted too much of the harvest. When cut by the swinging motion of the scythe, the stalks dropped to the ground, the grain falling from them, and more grain was lost when the stalks were later gathered up into sheaves. With the sickle one lost none of the grain, for bunches of the stalk were grasped with the hand, cut and bound in a single process. In an area of poor rocky soils, where wheat will hardly grow, and the rye that was gathered was just enough for subsistence, their conservatism was not unfounded. But, as elsewhere in Europe (though there the new technology had already been adopted by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), the scythe eventually won the day and by 1938, as a village man could recall, it was in use to harvest all the grains except for oats.
The rural landscape
It is not just the longevity of traditional harvesting methods that gives people their sense of the presence of the past. The rural landscape itself, in its general features, bears the marks of its archaic origins. The lack of enclosures, the predominance of the open fields, the small scattered parcels forming a vast mosaic over the cultivated terrain, these features still characterized the land tenure system of the village and the surrounding area until 1983. Now that the consolidation of parcels plan has been carried out, all this has changed—but the way of life associated with the old system of land tenure has yet to be forgotten.
Perhaps even more than in the layout of the landscape—where the subtle changes that have taken place through the centuries in the size and shape of the fields are not so open to view—it is in the names given to the hills, paths, ridges, valleys, springs, and fields that so much of the past is embodied. These topographic names, as William Christian observed, are part of a uniquely local lexicon. They are also part of a uniquely local history, writ on the land, passed down from generation to generation, and bearing testimony to a very human landscape, as human as the women and men who have lived and worked within it through the centuries. I have counted as many as two hundred such place names in Santa María, and many of them already turn up in sixteenth- and eighteenth-century sources. Nor should we forget their highly practical import—practical not so much in the sense of being utilitarian but of being lodged in practice—for it is these manifold place names that have always helped villagers to keep track of their many scattered parcels in the open field system. They are the reference points of a mental map that makes possible a very exact situating in space, expressing once again that distinctly human predilection for giving meaning to the small world into which destiny has cast one.
Having spoken of the medieval past, let us look briefly at the formation of this rural landscape in the period of the early Reconquest and settlement of northwestern Spain (eighth to tenth centuries). During this era, active repopulation and colonization of the deserted areas in the northern part of the peninsula was supported by the expansion southward of the Christian frontier into areas long under Moorish domination; at the same time, the continual formation of new settlements made this politico-religious expansion possible. The early Spanish kings, who understood very well the strategic value of human numbers, allowed relatively free occupation and settlement of the land by individuals and family groups. Of generally poor means, they came on their own, or under the auspices of monastic or secular lords, and in time took possession by the rights of pressura and scalio of those unoccupied lands that they could clear and cultivate.
As a result of this pattern of settlement, small peasant proprietorship found ideal soil in which to develop, in León as in the whole northwest of Spain. An estate or manor system never took root, as it did in parts of the south, settled centuries later and no longer so freely in the final period of the long crusade to reconquer Spain for Christianity. In conjunction with the system of individual or family proprietorship arose the complementary system of communal tenure over what were often quite extensive tracts of wooded areas and wastes. Formed at a time when there were vast uninhabited spaces, territorios yermos y desiertos, lying open for settlement, the older communities of the north had a population density that remained always quite low, and dramatically so in proportion to the formidable unworked spaces that formed a thick border around the tiny parcels of cultivated land. Santa María is an exemplary case of this medieval settlement pattern, encircled as it is by a ring of cultivated lands that are encircled, in turn, by a wider fringe of woods.
The legacy of the medieval system of land tenure is still evidenced in the preponderance of small landholders in central León. Most Leonese labradores have traditionally owned holdings of less than three hectares composed of many minute and fragmented parcels, which vary in size from a tenth to a fourth of a hectare and are scattered about a single village territory. The significant social consequence of this is that the land is fairly well distributed: in the past, as in the present, it is rare to find villagers who do not own some property, however meager, for basic subsistence needs. Differences in wealth between individual villagers have never been sharp enough to produce a class of landless rural workers.
The proportion of communal land in this part of León is very high: in most villages more than 50 percent of the terrain is communal, and in many, Santa María among them, it makes up more than 70 percent of the total. Of these lands, the major part is made up of woodland (monte). The rest generally consists of wastes (baldíos) and grazing land (pastos), with the few productive natural meadows usually serving, in the recent past, as restricted pastures (cotos boyales) for beasts of burden. In its extensiveness, if not in its social structural features, this vast common land held by the village community as a social body forms a latifundio of sorts, which is in stark contrast to the pattern of minifundio and privatization that characterizes cultivated land.
Such a pattern of land tenure neatly fitted the demography of the area. The earliest reliable population figures, which date from the late sixteenth century, show that the median size of villages in central León was twenty-five households, and a third of them had fewer than twenty households. This demographic pattern is still found in the eighteenth century and into the first half of the nineteenth, though by this time there were already indications of the dramatic population growth that was to become general in the entire area by the end of the century. Looking at the area as a whole, it is the stability in the size of settlements in central León throughout the old regime that is most striking. The largest villages in the area, Vegas del Condado, Barrillos, Villaquilambre, and Cerezales, had populations ranging from forty to sixty households from 1738 to 1798, while León, the provincial capital, in the same period had a total population of around six thousand.
Of course we can only speak of stability in a general sense, for if we look more closely at the year-by-year shifts in population in any single village we discover the drastic fluctuations that always lay beneath the apparent stability of the old agrarian regime. Some of these population shifts were particular to a village, others affected a wider area, even an entire region. Such, for instance, was the crisis of 1803-1804, which began with a tertian fever epidemic in all of León and Castile and was intensified by disastrous harvests and inflated prices for the little grain that was to be had. Thirty-six people died in Santa María in these two years—a quarter of its population—while in nearby Barrillos the grain harvest fell to a fraction of what it had been ten years earlier and the number of tithe contributors declined sharply. These demographic crises led on occasion to the actual disappearance of villages, but overall the basic settlement pattern, the constellation of small villages nestled near one another, continued unchanged.
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, population growth makes steady advances. Though demographic crises still occur, as in 1883 when an outbreak of smallpox takes the lives of twenty-five children in Santa María or in 1918 when the influenza epidemic causes the deaths of another twenty-five people in the village, these no longer halt the march of population growth. Causes of this growth can be sought on the local level. In Santa María a lower age at marriage, a longer span of childbearing years, and a slightly shorter interval between births all contributed to the increase in family size that marked the period from 1850 to 1927. After 1927 it is a lower mortality rate rather than a high birth rate that sustains demographic growth, which continues until the mid-1950s. Yet the rise in population which affected Santa María and the surrounding area in this era was not a purely local phenomenon but part of a Spanish and even European trend.
We can see in miniature how the population was escalating in the period by glancing at the figures for Santa María, which went from 135 inhabitants in 1797 to 201 in 1854 and 270 by 1885, reaching a peak of 315 by 1955. A similar pattern can be seen in the figures for the area as a whole. Given the long-established pattern of small villages, rather like those of the early medieval settlement, this sudden overpopulation represented an unprecedented change, which villagers responded to by clearing common woodlands to bring more land under cultivation, and by virtually becoming woodspeople, the younger couples especially. This era of expansion, of bustling activity in fields and woods, is the one which villagers remember vividly and invoke when recollecting what village life was like in times past, though as we have seen such expansion was uncharacteristic of the long run of village history. "The houses were full," as one of my informants recalled, "and between the 80 youths of Santa María and those of the other pueblos there were maybe 200 men in the monte, clearing land."
Although villagers resourcefully confronted the crisis of numbers on their own, as they expanded into more and more marginal land it eventually became clear that the solution did not lie in the local landscape. With the support being given to industry in the later part of the Franco regime, the younger people who could no longer make ends meet had an outlet, which they turned to in increasing numbers during the 1960s and 1970s. Most went to Madrid and Bilbao, a handful left for Switzerland and France, later returning to settle in urban Spain. But it was not just a call to industry that drew people away from the village; it was a call to urban life. Thus, many of the people who left the village went no further than to non-industrial León, twenty kilometers away, a city that in this century has grown from 15,000 to 150,000, absorbing much of the rural population of the province.
People recognize the sad necessity of the emigration—sad because of the eerie stillness of the present in comparison with the activity of the remembered past. Today the population of the village has returned to the level at which it maintained itself fairly steadily before the middle of the nineteenth century. But if we look at the composition of the population we find a drastic change: the population pyramid has become inverted, as the number of young couples and children decline and the elderly residents live to an increasingly old age. While half the population in 1920 was under twenty-two years of age, in the present half are over sixty, an age few attained in the past. A symbol of the aging of the population is the school, attended in 1981 by eight children and a few years later by a mere five.
There is also a sadness in the perception of the older villagers that they will not be replaced when they are gone, that they are the last link in a human chain stretching back to the foundation of the village. Yet, they do see that there was no other way out of the crisis that an increase in their numbers had caused. One man, remembering the eighty-three vecinos in the village during the 1940s when he was starting to raise his family, made a keen remark: "If those people hadn't left today we would be dying of hunger" (Ahora mismo si esa gente no se marcha pues hoy nos moririamos de hatnbre).
"Considering the poverty of the land"
When I first came to Santa María, people would often ask me why I had chosen so poor a place to visit—a place so mísere, as they said. Of course in part they were simply trying to understand why a foreigner—a rare sight—had chosen to come to a small and obscure village rather than go to León or Madrid, cities with discotheques and movie theaters. And, one supposes, they were displaying a habitual guardedness toward the stranger. Yet there is more to this self-perception of the village as a very poor place than a characteristic politeness or reserve. It also stems from a realization that the village lands are generally poor, that it is difficult to wrest a living from them, and that the village therefore can hold little attraction for one who was not born there and raised on its soil.
Excerpted from The Presence of the Fast in a Spanish Village by Ruth Behar. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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