In what is now northern Italy and southeastern France, the post Black Death population explosion of the late Middle Ages combined with the relative lack of free land made métayage an attractive system for both landowner and farmer. Once institutionalized, it continued long into the 18th Century although the base causes had been relieved by emigration to the New World.
Métayage was used early in the Middle Ages in northern France and the Rhinelands, where burgeoning prosperity encouraged large-scale vineyard planting, similar to what the ancient Romans had accomplished utilizing slave labor. Called complant, a laborer (fr Prendeur) would offer to plant and tend to an uncultivated parcel of land belonging to a land owner (fr. Bailleur). The prendeur would have ownership of the vines and the bailleur would receive anywhere from a third to two thirds of the vines' production in exchange for the use of his soil. This system was used extensively in planting the Champagne region. Bailleur was also used as the name for the proprietor under métayage.
In Italy and France, respectively, it was called mezzeria and métayage, or halving -- the halving, that is, of the produce of the soil between landowner and land-holder. Halving didn't imply equal amounts of the produce but rather division according to agreement. The produce was divisible in certain definite proportions, which must obviously vary with the varying fertility of the soil and other circumstances and do in practice vary so much that the landlord's share was sometimes as much as two-thirds, sometimes as little as one-third. Sometimes the landlord supplied all the stock, sometimes only part--the cattle and seed perhaps, while the farmer provided the implements; or perhaps only half the seed and half the cattle, the farmer finding the other halves. Thus the instrumentum fundi of Roman Law was combined within métayage. Taxes were also frequently divided, being paid wholly by one or the other, or jointly by both.
In the 18th Century métayage agreements began to give way to agreements to share profits from the sale of the crops and to straight tenant farming, although the practice in it’s original form could still be found in isolated communities until the early 20th Century. As the métayage practice changed, the term colonat partiaire began to be applied to the old practice of sharing-out the actual crop, while métayage was used for the sharing-out of the proceeds from the sale of the crops. Colonat partiaire was still practiced in the French overseas departments, notably Réunion until 2006 when it was ablolished.
In France there was also a system termed métayage par groupes, which consisted in letting a considerable farm, not to one métayer, but to an association of several, who would work together for the general good, under the supervision of either the landlord, or his bailiff. This arrangement got over the difficulty of finding tenants possessed of sufficient capital and labour to run the larger farms.
In France, since 1983, these métayage and similar farming contracts have been regulated by Livre IV of the Rural Code .
The term métayage is also applied to modern-day flexible cash leases in French-speakingCanada.
English writers were unanimous, until John Stuart Mill adopted a different tone, in condemning the métayage system. They judged it by its appearance in France, where under the ancien régime all direct taxes were paid by the métayer with the noble landowner being exempt. With the taxes being assessed according to the visible produce of the soil, they operated as penalties upon productiveness. Under this system, a métayer could fancied that his interest lay less in exerting himself to augment the total share to be divided between himself and his landlord and instead be encouraged to defraud the latter part of his rightful share. This is partly due to the métayer relative state of destitute with the fixity of his tenure-without which the metayage cannot prosper. French metayers, in Arthur Young's time, were "removable at pleasure, and obliged to conform in all things to the will of their landlords," and so in general they so remained.
In 1819 Simonde de Sismondi expressed dissatisfaction with the institution of métayage because it reinforced the poverty of the peasants and prevented any social or cultural development.
Yet even in France, although métayage and extreme rural poverty usually coincided, there were provinces where the contrary was the fact, as it was also in Italy, specially on the plains of Lombardy. An explanation of the contrasts presented by métayage in different regions is not far to seek. Métayage, in order to be in any measure worthy of commendation, must be a genuine partnership, one in which there is no sleeping partner but in the affairs of which the landlord, as well as the tenant, takes an active part. Wherever this applied, the results of métayage appeared to be as eminently satisfactory, as they were decidedly the reverse wherever the landlords held themselves aloof.