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Flanders and North Sea Trade in the Middle Ages. 2. Agricultural Organization and Commerce

Updated: Mar 4

In this blog post I want to connect some of the conclusions of my book Noordzeehandel en middeleeuws Vlaanderen to scholarship on agricultural organization and trade in the period between approximately 1000-1300 AD.

As was mentioned in the previous blog post, the communitas of Temse was established in the second half of the eleventh century, after a merger of the estate of St Peter’s abbey and the manors of Bolsele. In the third quarter of the eleventh century, an open field structure was created that encompassed terrains that had belonged to the two former complexes and over all of them the authority of St Peter’s abbey was imposed. Before that, Bolsele had a loose manorial structure. Different farms were dispersed in the area between the Heirstraat, the Roman road which ran from Burcht to Waasmunster, and the fishers’ town of Tamisia in the south. Hamlets such as Velle, Eigerloo and Ten Doorne were connected under the authority of St Bavo’s abbey, later the lords of Bolsele. At one point these farms became ruled from the Vroonhoeve (later also called Vrouwenhof). This manor was established at the spot where the river Vliet, which ran to the Scheldt, crossed the Doornstraat. It had a modest demesne; after 1050 the demesne became a ‘village field’, which was when it was part of a larger open field system that included an East- and a West-field.

In literature links are made between the structures of fields and farms, and agricultural organization models. All are then brought into connection with economic developments as well. English historians such as Richard H. Tawney have emphasized trends of engrossing of land and enclosure of commons for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and connected these developments to the organizational attitudes and market-related behavior of provincial gentry. The latter factors resulted in a demise of communitarian organizational models of villages, in which social and family ties were dominant and production was not based on profit seeking. According to historians writing in the wake of Tawney, the end of villeinage, and the reorganization of land that came along with it, was due to the rise of agrarian capitalism. For the county of Flanders, and particularly for Inland Flanders, Adriaan Verhulst has distinguished between three waves of clearing of wastelands, between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. The first reclamations of the eighth, ninth and tenth century were made by locals and were confined to the surroundings of existing settlements and farms. A second wave of wood clearing and marsh drainage, in the 1000s and early 1100s, was more systematic and supervised over by the count, who held the legal authority over non-privatized lands.

The creation of an estate on the Uilenberg by St Peter’s abbey from the early tenth century onwards, which was next to the fishers’ settlement of Tamisia, can be categorized as pertaining to the mentioned first movement. It is possible that the establishment of a large open field complex in Temse in the third quarter of the 1000s went together with reclamations in the West. However, in those undertakings the count most certainly did not have a part; the efforts of land reform were steered by St Peter’s abbey only and comital lands can be found exclusively among plots of land situated in the north of Temse. These terrains were cleared after approximately 1150, which also conforms to the legal-historical insight that princely rights over uncultivated lands were generally acknowledged after 1158 (the Diet of Roncaglia). However, in this respect, Temse provides an exception to the trends in Inland Flanders, where reclamations largely came to an end in the early twelfth century. But this was due to the regional situation. Many parts of the Land of Waas, the area in which Temse was located, were brought into culture only in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which was considerably later than other parts of Flanders. By 1300, at Temse nearly all outfields had been brought into cultivation.

The lane leading to the former Hof ter Straten (Varsenare)

Verhulst’s views on the close cooperation of the count in the reclamations of the eleventh century were challenged by Thoen and Soens, who emphasized that local lords, and also peasants, were initiators as well. Indeed, the older assumption that organized plot formation and settlement could only have been caused by lordly control has been challenged. The autarky of peasant communities is recognized more often. However, this notwithstanding, the strong influence of St Peter’s abbey meant that Temse was not an example of a communitarian model of agricultural organization. The building of a tithe barn that was located close to the Vroonhoeve, for example, affirmed the abbey’s power in previously autonomous areas.

Agrarian capitalism is evident for the thirteenth century. Patricians from the city of Ghent invested in land around Temse and held large farms. And within these larger holdings, cultures became less diversified; grain became the preferential product. It is unclear when all this started, since sources become available mostly from the later decades of the thirteenth century onwards. However, it is clear that the mentioned developments were combined with high pressure on small peasants; the lease of land became dominant on the mentioned large farms and also replaced feudal tenancy from lords. The new reclamations of the second and third quarter of the thirteenth century were made by a few wealthy local lords, even though they pertained in title to the count. One of them was Walter of Coudenborch, who held a small manor next to Temse, but who due to a breach of the river Scheldt into the river Durme around 1240 all of a sudden could extract tolls from river traffic, thus greatly increasing his revenue. However, it seems that the less opulent patrician and noble families in the area around Temse were struggling, already since the 1220s. Due to the devaluation of the Flemish currency, revenue from their land dropped; since tenants increasingly had opportunities to work elsewhere, lords were incentivized to diminish feudal encumberments, which was a race-to-the-bottom that eventually tore down many of the remnants of manorialism that had existed before.

Over the past decade, more attention has been paid to the question whether manors were organized such that they produced surpluses that could be sold in nearby markets. Temse in this regard was firmly integrated within abbatial networks, but in close connection to cities. The open field system of Temse, under the wings of St Peter’s abbey, was most probably set up in relation to rising demands for supplies by the city of Ghent. In the course of the thirteenth century, flax processing gained ground in Temse. The production and export of linen, through Ghent as well, then became normal activities within the village. In the adjacent village of Tielrode, quays were built on the river Durme for ships that exported agricultural yields, and sometimes their names referred to manors higher up in the fields (for example, the Hogenakker, which was connected to a wharf of its own by a small river). And before approximately 1050, it may have been that in Temse the field of the Vroonhoeve served to supply the city of Bruges as well, since the lords de Straten, from Varsenare near Bruges, held Bolsele between approximately 950 and approximately 1050. This may provide clues for further research on the intra-county connections through lordly exploitations and holding of rights in different regions of the county of Flanders. As will be mentioned in a subsequent blog post, the presence of the lords of Alost at the coast of Picardy was one indication thereof. And one can consider maior Reingot’s possession of tithes at Uitkerke, near Bruges, as another example.

The polders of Uitkerke


De ruysscher, D., Noordzeehandel en middeleeuws Vlaanderen (ca. 1000-ca. 1300). De families de Russe, van Gent en de Straten in Sint-Omaars, Brugge en Temse, Gent, Skribis, 2020 (2nd print 2021), 410 p. (ISBN 978-94-639-6941-3), available at

De Wree, M., Het domein van de abdij Lobbes in Waas. Een bijdrage tot de historiografie van middeleeuwse Tielrode en Hamme, Hamme, 2018.

Thoen, E. and Soens, T., “The Low Countries, 1000-1750”, in Thoen, E. and Soens, T. (eds.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Turnhout, 2015, 221-258.

Van Bavel, B., Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600, Oxford, 2010.

Verhulst, A., “Les franchises rurales dans le comté de Flandre aux XIe et XIIe siècles”, in Femmes, Marriages, Lignages XIIe-XIVe siècles. Mélanges offerts à Georges Duby, s.l., 1992, 419-430.

Verhulst, A., Het landschap in Vlaanderen in historisch perspectief, Antwerp, 1965.

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