Say Cheese… or how Gruyère got co-operation going over six hundred years ago

We are launching now a fresh re-telling of the story of co-operation, in a short book which tracks early cases of mutuality around the world. The book, available free to download and in English and Spanish editions, is called A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality.

Drawing on this, I have also put together a slide deck of twelve early co-ops, with design support from colleagues at Co-op News.

One of the examples, that came to me courtesy of colleagues in France, Coop FR and the international social economy journal RECMA, is the case of cheese.

In rural Switzerland and the Franche-Comté region of France, cheese-making societies, termed Fruitière (ripening) started in the fourteenth century, then spreading to other European countries. From informal reciprocity, exchanging milk between neighbours, these developed into full mutual societies. Each round typically lasted for a year, starting in February with the first milk coming in March or April. The accounting system was in urns of milk – the farmer that took the cheese was then debtor to others who had contributed milk – and the product, and dividend from its sale, was the cheese.

In these mountainous areas, it is possible to trace the lines of mutuality from these neighbourhood associations, present in different forms and with different functions across medieval Europe, through the development of self-governing quality standards and charters, such as the Appellations d’Origine Protégée, to the co-operatives that are responsible for the production of Comté and Gruyère cheese today.

Writing in the late nineteenth century, George Jacob Holyoake declared “it is clear that Gruyère should be the favourite cheese of co-operators, as it is the first cheese made on their system.”

There are many more stories in the book. Thanks to the International Co-operative Alliance, around two thousand delegates coming to Malaysia from around the world will get a copy. My hope is that we learn more about and take confidence from the enduring way in which different cultures and different generations have harnessed co-operation as a way to live and work together.

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