Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Transformation of the Alpine Economy in the Fourteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: Harvesting 'Wild Hay' in the High Mountains

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Transformation of the Alpine Economy in the Fourteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: Harvesting 'Wild Hay' in the High Mountains

Article excerpt


By the end of the eighteenth century, in the northern valleys of the Central Alps, the economy was driven by raising cattle and providing dairy products for export. In the Middle Ages, however, subsistence economy based on grain, sheep and goat had become predominant. In this article, the transformation between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries is reevaluated by focusing on one aspect of mountain pastoralism: haymaking on remote mountain precipices even beyond the reach of livestock--the so called Wildheuen or harvesting wild hay. Its development coincided with the recovery of the economy of the cities in the plains of northern Italy in the 1660s, illustrating how strongly intertwined both the alpine husbandry and the Italian urban industries were on their path to modernity.

Keywords: mountain pastoralism, hay making, alpine economy, urbanization, early modern period


In the eighteenth century, enlightened scholars travelling across the Alps noticed that certain valleys were almost completely covered with green grass. One of them, the young French lawyer Ramond de Carbonnieres, was travelling through the Northern Alps by foot in 1777. At first he was thrilled to have set foot on the pastures of the alpine herdsmen who he--according to the popular notions of his age--recognized as 'proud and unpretentious Republicans'. (1) Then he described more precisely 'the magnificent valley that was strewn with huts in the midst of grassy parks underneath shady trees. Vivid cattle moved in these parks, awaiting the moment, when they may head for the high Alps. Earth and human kind, everything seemed to exist only for these animals, subordinate to their needs. The grassland seems incalculable, arable land is very scarce. Stables are voluminous and comfortable, dwellings however are huddled together. Man plays a side character' (Dufner 1977: 7, 17).

In 1926, more than a century later, the French geographer de Martonne, whose research is still valued and appreciated nowadays, identified eight different types of alpine economy in various regions according to the predominant agricultural practices existing around 1900. Livestock breeding and herding animals during summer on alpine meadows can be stated as occurring everywhere in the Alps, but it was practised most intensively and predominantly by the so called type pastoral evolue (advanced-pastoralism type).


There, in the northern valleys of the Western and Central Alps from Savoy to Western Austria, according to de Martonne (1926: 160): 'one is surprised by the monotonous sight of slopes consistently covered by a green carpet. (...) no more forests, no more ploughed fields, hardly a few acres of vegetable gardens around the houses. Here, to raise cattle is really all there is. The mountain has been modified by the farmer; he produces meat and dairy products for export, and he imports all other necessities.' Husbandry according to the typepastoral evolue did not mean ploughed fields or wheat growing, but dairy farming and raising cattle for export, mainly to northern Italy.

It had not always been like this. In the Middle Ages, in the Central Alpine valleys of the future type pastoral evolue, a mixed husbandry aiming at subsistence by growing grain and by raising sheep, goats and small numbers of cattle had been the prevailing practice. Thus, a fundamental transformation must have taken place before the eighteenth century, turning arable land into meadows, intensifying cattle breeding and dairy production at the cost of tillage. The predominance of cattle breeding discernible in the valleys of the type pastoral evolue appears as the result of substantial change, eventually caused by early intensifications on the path to modernity. When did it change, and why, by which factors and why so thoroughly? The question why seems easier to answer than the question of when this change occurred. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.