Land and the Mortgage: History, Culture, Belonging

By Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Parker Shipton

The mortgaging of land, a risky practice usually treated as just an economic and legal contract, has needed a broader set of perspectives for a fuller, more humanist understanding. Most of the existing scholarly literature on land and mortgages has been written by economists and legal specialists, reflecting the perspectives of their disciplinary traditions. Lacking are assessments from a wider range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, drawing upon historical experiences, cultural meanings, and locally informed perspectives.

Our recent edited volume, drawing on historical and observational research in different parts of the world, is meant to help fill that gap. It examines mortgaging as a social and cultural phenomenon to show its origins, variation, and effects on human lives and communities. Here anthropologists, historians, and economists explore archival, printed, and ethnographic evidence about mortgage. The book shows how mortgages affect people on the ground, where local forms of mutuality mix with larger bureaucracies. Tracing origins of land titling, pledging, and the mortgage in over millennia and incorporating findings from authors’ original field research, the book explores effects of government, bank, and aid agency attempts and impositions meant to encourage mortgage lending and borrowing.  It shows how these mix in practice, in different languages, currencies, and contexts, with locally rooted understandings, and how all parties have sought, and too often failed, to make adjustments. The outcomes of mortgage in Africa, Europe, Asia, and America challenge economic development orthodoxies, calling for a human-centered exploration of this age-old institution.  It must take account, we insist, of emotions, vulnerabilities, and histories of unexpected outcomes, as shown in different societies, cultures, and environmental and political conditions.

An introductory chapter by Daivi Rodima-Taylor lays out basic concepts and discusses the history of the mortgage institution and land financialization. It shows how social and cultural concerns must be added to the legal and economic, foreshadows some recent turns to electronic and crypto-finance, and explores the promises and pitfalls of lending guided by algorithms. The book then turns back in time. Other authors offer deep historical perspectives from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, medieval England, and colonial United States to illuminate some foundations and variations of the mortgage institution.  They show how it has changed over time in assumptions about possession and ownership, the duration of loans and debts, the fairness of flows, and the rightness of sacred and secular attempts at governance. The chapter by Michael Hudson describes land tenure in the ancient Near East, while highlighting its fundamentally political dimensions. Elaborating on the history of mortgage as a legal device in Anglo-American law, David Seipp discusses the development of mortgage in medieval and early modern England and argues that the nature of it has profoundly changed in contemporary society where it has become a formalized financial tool with a primary goal of acquiring property. Winifred Rothenberg’s chapter examines, with carefully compiled numerical data, the first recorded mortgages in colonial Massachusetts, highlighting town-country relations, the contributions of mortgage credit to reducing landlessness and poverty, and for many moneylenders, the extended use of mortgages as a form of annuity. Both borrowers and lenders invested in the mortgage and the colony in paper money, with enough confidence to change the nature and scale of the colonial economy.

Turning to modern times and including authors’ own field observations, the book examines the human economy of mortgage as constructed and remade by people in their daily practices. Mortgaging is shown to relate directly to inheritance, insurance, and taxation, as well as local politics. A few chapters of the anthology examine the still little-explored topic of embeddedness of land pledging and mortgaging in African countries in both vernacular and formal bureaucracies. Sara Berry’s chapter elaborates on the ways social groupings, such as families and polities, mediate debt and property. Kristine Juul’s chapter studies the relationship between land mortgaging and taxation in rural communities of Senegal and its impact on property rights and identity. The chapters of the volume also caution against the assumption that lending against land is a panacea for economic insecurity in regions undergoing transition and resettlement. The study by Mette Kusk and Lotte Meinert explores contested land sales in northern Uganda after long-lasting armed conflict and displacement.

Focusing on a different transitional context, the chapter by Stefan Dorondel, Daivi Rodima-Taylor, and Marioara Rusu explores the reinvention of land mortgage in Romania after a fifty-year interruption by the socialist regime. The analysis situates the post-socialist rural financialization within the histories of diverse tenure reforms in the Romanian countryside, and among a multiplicity of formal and informal actors that shape local economic practices. The micro-politics of resistance is central in the chapter by Nate Coben and Melissa Wrapp that compares the cases in South Africa and Ireland where rural landholders devise strategies to evade mortgage offers from formal financial institutions while relying heavily on informal social modes of trust. These chapters call attention to new ways of resistance and novel political imaginings around mortgages and their failures to solve social problems.

The book opens difficult issues of attempted international aid. Tariq Rahman’s contribution discusses the recent state-led, World Bank-inspired effort to digitize the land revenue system in Lahore. Rahman’s ethnographic analysis demonstrates that governing land property in the old city remains both a social and material practice—and despite the emerging elements of e-governance, deeply embedded in vernacular knowledge and hierarchies. The contributions by Parker Shipton explore mortgage as a form of entrustment and counter-entrustment that relies heavily on language, metaphor, and difficult translation. Combining glimpses of the mortgage in Eurasian, North American and African history, Shipton outlines the often traumatic effects of land loss upon family farmers and dependents, warning of risks to farming people and communities as the mortgage spreads to rural tropical settings.  He also shows why the causes and effects of mortgaging, such a uniquely human institution, spread well beyond humankind to other animals.

Tracing origins of land titling, pledging, and the mortgage over millennia into contemporary forms, our book thus explores effects of colonial policies, state impositions, and locally rooted understandings as they have combined and recombined in diverse regions across the world. We hope that this collection will prompt other scholars to devote more attention to the peculiar and culture-bound institution of mortgage and compel them to rethink the premises of landholding, finance, and trust in new and productive ways.

Daivi Rodima-Taylor is a social anthropologist and researcher at the African Studies Center of Boston University ( She tweets at @DaiviRTaylor. Parker Shipton is a social anthropologist and professor at the Department of Anthropology of Boston University (

More blog articles by the book collaborators on the Berghahn Books Blog site.

Photo: Farmland at the Great Rift Valley escarpment, Tanzania. Photo: Daivi Rodima-Taylor

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