Short numerical history of Romanian commons

What we currently call Romanian commons is the result of a layering process, of diverse realities, social strata, laws and particular histories of places from the old Romanian Kingdom (Vechiul Regat) and Transylvania. 

In our effort to provide a short and comprehensive numerical picture, we also operate gross reductions and have to relay on the reductions and (eventual) mistakes of previous data collectors and interpreters. 

Understanding the history of commons with numbers is inescapably tied with the evolution of measurements and statistics and also with the evolution of the state-related bureaucratic apparatus that produced categories, collected and assembled such numerical data. 

The statistics on commons are scarce and they only provide a snapshot into certain moments in time. In reality, the commons evolved and changed significantly over many years, alongside economical, political and social processes. 

We collected statistics from different sources, published or unpublished, to offer a synthetic picture of the numerical evolution of associative commons. 

Example: Hunedoara County

Surface of forests in commons (composesorate) 

1885  (cf. Bedö 1885)                     50.950 ha

1941   (cf. Lazăr, Balazs 2012)           94.621 ha

2007  (cf. RNP Romsilva 2007)          55.745 ha

Number of commons (composesorate)

1885 (cf. Bedö 1885)                     161

1940 (cf. Lazăr, Balazs 2012)        302 

2012 (cf. Register of Companies)  168

Surface of forests in commons over the last 100 years

1930 (cf. Giurescu 1980)


obști (Old Kingdom)                       450.566 ha

composesorate (Transylvania)     655.707 ha

total                                              1.106.273 ha

1947 (cf. Dissescu 1997)


obști                                                 419.755 ha

composesorate                               630.448 ha

total                                               1.050.203 ha


2007 (cf. RNP Romsilva)


obști                                                  289.981 ha

composesorate                                473.000 ha

total                                                   762.981 ha

2014 (cf. Sinteza Curtea de Conturi)

total                                                    873.809 ha

Evolution of associative commons (ha). Years 1930, 1947 and 2007 assembled from different sources. 

There is an overall decline of the commons’ forest land surface. This surface gradually rose at the turn of the century because of set of legislations in 1853-1900 in Transylvania and 1910 in the Old Kingdom. These, more or less forcefully, formalized the custom laws regarding the common access and use of forest and pasture land and made the property forms statistically accountable. Nonetheless, the process of recognizing the commons was accompanied by private and public enclosures. For example in the county of Maramureș most of its composesorate land was expropriated in favor of the municipality (commune) land following the 1923 agrarian reform in Transylvania.

Between 1947 and 2007 the data shows a sharp decline in land surface. Some commons were not re-established after year 2000 (see the case of Hunedoara county above, where half of the existing commons in 1940 do not appear in 2007) and many of the ones that got re-established did not regain all the claimed lands. Considering that during the 1948-2000 period the commons’ land was nationalised and these associations were de facto abolished, this decline relates to various interrelated situations, unravelling in the post-socialist land restitution process: 1) restrictive access to information, unaffordable or unavailable legal assistance and lack of initiative of the heirs of former commons members; 2) lack of legal property documents, which were either lost, made unavailable, hidden, stolen or destroyed; 3) confusion of the state institutions regarding the legal procedures of reconstituting common property (for example, should the commons be reconstituted as a whole and then divided between whatever heirs appeared or should it only be restituted as a sum of individual land shares of the actual persons, heirs, that requested restitution?); 4) the reluctance of municipalities, entitled to run the restitution process, to hand over the land to associative commons; 5) reluctance of state forestry districts, who managed the forest land, to hand over the land to private associative owners; 6) changes in the administrative structures that created confusion; 7) new private enclosures.

Some of these processes will be detailed in the following sections.


Further details in the paper:


2018, Vasile M., Formalizing commons, registering rights: The making of the forest and pasture commons in the Romanian Carpathians from the 19th century to post-socialism. International Journal of the Commons. 12(1), pp.170–201. DOI:

The modern history of commons in Transylvania

Peasant status, social movement, property reform and land use circumscribe the process of formation of the modern Transylvanian commons. 

Starting with 1853, following property reforms and the expropriation of large estates, woodlands and pastures were legally allocated to communities as their commons, composesorate, organized in allocated shares. The shares were not enclosable, but mere numerical abstractions, sahres or rights quantified on paper. We find the urbarial commons (composesoratele urbariale), commons of ex-serfs. Alongside, we find the freeholders’ commons (composesoratele nemesesti, nobile). At the time, villages could consist of serfs, or of freeholders, and often involve both categories. 

The laws which formalized the commons were called the law of segregations (1853) which provided the separation of lands between the landlords and the peasants, and later on the law of proportionalization (1871), which calculated the shares of each peasant in the commons property. The peasants received a share in the emerged commons, proportional to their previously used agricultural land (cota-parte). In the mixed villages, one commons was formed for all peasants, and the portions were variable; usually nemesi (lower nobility, freeholders) received larger portions and ex-urbarialiști (serfs) smaller portions (equal to their cultivable surface). The distribution took into account land use and status. A few examples of documents of proportionalisation and composesorate constitutions, Sântimbru (Harghita county) and Râu Alb (Hunedoara county) can be viewed in our Archive section here.

Historians deemed the law that constituted modern commons an unfair law, as it excluded a category of serfs that did not hold any land, a “moment of definitive exclusion of the landless paupers from their rights to the ancestral commons” (Imreh, 1982: 136).

They convey that the law seemed fair at first, as it allocated shares according to use value, but at a closer look, the allocation was unjust. It took into account only momentarily householding needs, without an outlook into the future. Passing on the shares to the next generation, and splitting the shares between 2-3 or 4-5 heirs, would not provide sufficient support for future livelihoods  (Csucsuja: 77).

Also, it did not take into account the variable importance of forest economies in rural livelihoods (ibidem). A lot of variation actually existed among different areas, according to the material attributes of the forest, its accessibility and so on. In the end, large amounts of shares ended up into the hands of the already large landowners (Imreh, ibidem).

The operation of acquiring rights and shares in the commons was a cumbersome toil that lasted for decades, as the large landowners resisted to give up their lands and many former urbarialists did not even claim land. In the region of Csik (Ciuc), where there were significantly more freeholders, former border-guards, we found nd also significantly more constituted commons in 1908 (63% of communities had a commons, as opposed to the average for Transylvania 40%).

As a measure of duration, we found final court decisions about the members of the commons and their portion inscribed in the cadastral records as late as 1900, counting almost 30 years since the passing of the law. The internal economic organization of commons was regulated through law no. 19 from 1898 and those regulations were reinstituted more or less in the same form after the contemporary reforms in 2000. 

Parallely, or almost immediately after the constitution of modern commons, segregation of newly acquired lands as individual property occurs. Peasants whose shares amounted to more than 57 hectares (100 cadastral acres) were granted by law the possibility to separate their portion from the commons and receive an individual title. Usually only a couple of families in each community pursued this sort of enclosure and in 1908 a law prevented further withdrawals.

Parralell to this, in 1910, the same laws are passed regarding the organization of similar modern commons in the Old Romanian Kingdom, so that when Transylvania becomes a part of Romania, the commons continue to function according to more or less the same regulations and allotments. 

Situation of composessorates in 1885. Source: A. Bedö. 1885




Satu Mare



Bistrița Năsăud


Solnoc-Dăbâca (Dej)







Târnava Mare (Sebeș)

Alba de Jos

Târnava Mică







Total Transylvania 


























1914:  570,000 ha (Szasz, 2002: 567)

1930:  655.707 ha (Giurescu, 1980: 97)

2007: 418.484 ha (RNP Romsilva)

Current situation in different areas visible on page Statistics.

Imreh, Istvan. 1982. Viata Cotidiana La Secui: 1750-1850. Bucuresti: Kriterion

Csucsuja, István. 1998. Istoria Pădurilor Din Transilvania, 1848-1914. Cluj-Napoca: Presa Universitară Clujeană

Bedö, Albert.1885. Die wirtschaftliche und commercielle Beschreibung der Wälder des ungarischen Staates

The modern history of commons in Wallachia (Southern Romania)

In Wallachia, the rights to the mountain commons were in the hands of lineage groups of freeholder peasants, moșneni, a category of smallholder peasants similar to the lesser nobility of Transylvania (Panaitescu 1964; Ciobotea 1999). From very early on, the shares of members in the commons were unequal and they could trade these shares in the mountains. Moșneni were a feudal social category, which survived until today. The moșneni peasants,  amounted to 50-60% of all peasants inhabiting the northern counties of Gorj, Vâlcea and Argeș. They were defined by the Ministry of Water, Forests and Domains in 1899 as those peasants who were not dependent, did not pay tribute to monasteries or landlords, and freely owned their lands prior to the agrarian reform from 1864, on the basis of their ancestral rights (Ciobotea 1999).

The centrally-driven formalization in 1910 followed grassroots demarcations that took off already in the 17th century, on principles related to lineage divisions.

At the frontier territories of the Ottoman Empire, the feudal villages of Wallachia enjoyed a high degree of political autonomy and the freeholders devised their own institutions for self-governing the collective resources, frequently recognized by local courts.  Various laws demanded the registration of land, starting with the Ipsilanti Register in 1780, then the Calimah Code in 1817, and the Caragea law in 1819 when measurement were undertaken to draw ‘property delimitations’ (hotărnicii and cărți de alegere).

Land changed hands successively from landlords to monasteries to various groups of freeholders, through transactions, ‘redemption payments’, donations and other methods. The relatively free circulation of land and readiness of cash is attested by many documents starting with the 16th century. Peasants often reclaimed estates communally from other landholders, local boyars, monasteries - reclamations enabled by various local decisions or larger property reforms, especially the property reform of 1864. Peasants paid what they could afford, which meant unequal amounts. The unequal payments generated long-lasting conflicts about the equity of sharing benefits, conflicts that resulted in grassroots establishment of rules and individual quota-shares. By and large, a dense web of complex tenure relations was created over time by successive redemptions of land piece by piece with various groups of peasants and families participating in the payments. The state attempted to clear up the ‘customary mess’ through the formalization in 1910.

Calculations of individual shares were based on genealogies, on kinship relations to the presumed initial settlers. The pioneer settlers were considered to have equal rights to the land, by virtue of donations by the local rulers (voievod) or by virtue of first occupancy, meaning entitled for their labor in the process of creating property by slash and burn techniques. The initial settlers were considered to be the biological founders of all the village lineages. Thus, by partible inheritance rule, rights were allotted to all descendants of the initial settlers, preferably to males, but occasionally also to women through dowry and when there were no male heirs (Panaitescu 1964: 175-176).

Calculations of individual shares were based on genealogies, on kinship relations to the presumed initial settlers. The pioneer settlers were considered to have equal rights to the land, by virtue of donations by the local rulers (voievod) or by virtue of first occupancy, meaning entitled for their labor in the process of creating property by slash and burn techniques. The initial settlers were considered to be the biological founders of all the village lineages. Thus, by partible inheritance rule, rights were allotted to all descendants of the initial settlers, preferably to males, but occasionally also to women through dowry and when there were no male heirs (Panaitescu 1964: 175-176).

According to Romanian sociologist Henri Stahl (1998), genealogies were a way to legitimize the protection of patrimonies against unwanted outsiders, and to justify inequalities. His opinion is that the presumed lineages did not necessarily consist of blood-based relations and the reconstruction of genealogies dealt with a certain degree of fiction. Dumitru Brezulescu, writing in 1905 about his own area in the Southern Carpathians, Novaci, showed that tracing genealogies back to the initial settlers usually ended up in a “labyrinthic confusion” (Brezulescu 1905). He also shows how the literate elites of villages, who made the genealogies, usually took advantage of various inconsistencies.

The formal recognitions of who was entitled to what, drawn up into documents by local judges and jurors, followed different particular rationales, in a rich diversity of local practice. By and large, the introduction of shares was facilitated by the participation of peasants into the cash economy and by the presence of a developed land market. 

Observing abuses in grassroots operations of formalization, as well as environmentally and socially threatening practices of the industrial forestry companies (Botez 1923), political actors launched a state-driven formalization of rights to the commons, through the adoption of the Forestry Code in 1910. In Transylvania, the Code was also taken on in 1923, after the unification in 1918 and the property reform from 1921

The formalization of rights in the commons was ideologically a mixed bag of liberal individualism and nationalistic collectivism. It created a ‘crossbreed’ of mountain commons. While recognizing the collective as a legitimate owner and manager, thus trying to incorporate customary tenure principles, the 1910 Code was keen on institutionalizing individual inheritable entitlements. To some extent, it recognized what was already being practiced at grassroots level, the form of undivided (non-enclosable), inheritable personal rights to the commons, similar to the system in Transylvania, and with the same negative consequences of fragmentation and delocalization. The technical management of the forests was to be done by the specialized state forestry service, the House of Forests, according to management plans, that were yet to be created and implemented from 1910 onwards. The communities of users, through the commoners’ assemblies and the local institutions of obște and retained the right to devise their own rules for using the land, for electing management boards, for voting, for distributing benefits, or instituting sanctions. The assembly also had to be consulted in the case of sales.

Botez, Corneliu. 1923. Legiuiri Silvice. Codul Silvic. Reprinted as “Codul Silvic Din 9 Aprilie 1910, Cu Modificările Din 1919, 1920, 1921 Și 1923, Aplicabil În Tot Cuprinsul României Întregite.” Cultura Nationala

Brezulescu, Dumitru. 1905. Contribuțiuni La Studiul Proprietății În Devălmășie a Munților Noștri [Contributions to the Study of Property in Devălmășie over Our Mountains]. Bucuresti: Socecu

Ciobotea, Dinică. 1999. Istoria Moșnenilor. Craiova: Editura Universitaria

Panaitescu, P. P. 1964. Obștea Țărănească În Țara Romînească Și Moldova: Orînduirea Feudala. Biblioteca Istorică ;10, 281 p. [București]: Editura Academiei Republicii Populare Romîne.

Stahl, Henri H. 1980. Traditional Romanian Village Communities: The Transition from the Communal to the Capitalist Mode of Production in the Danube Region. 1. digitally print. Studies in Modern Capitalism. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press [u.a.]