This article uses ethnographic evidence from Tigray to revisit the debate on informal rural land markets in present-day Ethiopia. It explores informal farmland rental from a historico-anthropological, micro-analytical perspective in relation to the formal allocation of land use rights and to other informal land transfer practices. It shows how different rationales for land rental give rise to different socially embedded tenancy configurations. On the basis of this empirical evidence, the paper questions the appropriateness of the common idea that in Ethiopia ‘the land rental market is expanding’. It argues that research and policy thinking on land in Ethiopia could gain analytical power and relevance by adopting a less monolithic and abstract view on people’s informal land transfer practices.