The Portuguese definition for the word "Quinta" is described as a piece of land to farm on, or to sow on. However, the definition includes several variations: a rustic property in the countryside with a house or cottage improvement, a country home, or an orchard surrounded by a circle of trees inside a built property.
The Quintas of Portugal were also quite often references to a seat of governance for an official, an important civil servant or influential and wealthy member of society. The parallel of a Quinta is very much close to that of a Manor Estate in England with all the exclusive and class connotations that go with it.
In her seminal work ‘Quintas of Madeira Windows into the past’, Majorie Hoare studies the term further and defines the word quinta as follows:
...embedded in feudalism..., the function from which it is said to have derived its name quinta, means a country house with a small farm incorporated, so called because at one time the farmer, in lieu of rent, paid the quinta part, or fifth part, of its product to the landlord.
Note should be made, however, that the term "Quinta" has been found to include a seemingly incongruous category of many small properties such as homesteads in the city with a large garden. It may seem a bit of a misnomer or an attempt to elevate a humble property to a status more becoming of a larger manor estate in the country (which in some vain attempts it is) but there is some justification for this apparent usurpation of the title. Many old Quintas, if not being divided up as a result of the huge social and political changes Portugal underwent during the twentieth century (see our other articles in this section about this), were divided up into equal portions of land as a result of the "Napoleonic" rule of inheritance law - prevalent in Portugal since the 18th century. This rule abolished the primogeniture nature of inheritance law and forced owners to bequeath their properties to all their heirs into equal non-discriminatory portions. With each heir, and then in turn with their successive heirs, and so on, the formerly expansive estate would end up being cut up into so many small parts that it would not be distinguished from any other suburban development.
Many pundits in Portugal see the degradation of Portuguese heritage and culture, especially century old estates, because of this. It is not uncommon to find clubs of monarchists and other groups who wish to do away with the current inheritance laws as it is practised in Portugal. They profess the advantages of adopting a system similar to the United Kingdom where the lord of the manor may dispose of his property as he may see fit upon his or her death. However, the counter-arguments are many too, not the least that some of the more eccentric English landowners who bequeath their entire estate to a cat or dog disinheriting entire leagues of relatives would not help change popular opinion about this issue. It seemed only until recently that many of the great Quintas in Portugal were mercilessly left to continue to be subject of inglorious deflation over time.
Still, the largest contributing factor to the reduction of the former impressively large Quintas, into what may seem to be a merely glorified detached homes with some garden, was the almost forced distribution of land to many of the live-in labourers, farmers or families of tenants that had worked previously on a "feudal" type of system for the Quinta owners.
Unfortunately, in some cases, since then, many of the new owners (jettisoned into the middle class as a result of acquiring the divided pieces of property) quickly put up their own, quite often, less attractive homes surrounding the original Quinta. The resulting mesh of old Quinta building surrounded by many less attractive homes, or even apartment blocks in some cases, and the resulting lack of proper urban planning laid sabotage to much of the local heritage and nostalgia associated with the old aristocratic lifestyle.
Only recently, and perhaps as a consequence of the tourism industry in this regard, have efforts been made to preserve what few grand old Quintas were left as Portugal and Madeira still struggle to identify itself with its tokens of the feudal past. Government funded programs now exploit these important resources - renovating old quintas, like the Zino palace in Lugar de Baixo, Ponta do Sol, or providing European Union funds to private parties to renovate or redevelop old quintas - like the Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro owned by the Blandy family.