Een Middeleeuwse samenleving : het land van Heusden (ca. 1360 - 1515)

P.C.M. Hoppenbrouwers

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    The Land van Heusden (at present Province of Northernsituated in the western part of the river-area of the Central Netherlands. In the medieval period it consisted of sixteen villages and the small town of Heusden, founded in the first half of the 13th century along the river Meuse, midway between two major cities, Dordrecht and 's-Hertogenbosch. The riverlandscape was characterized by the alternation of sandy stream ridges and natural levees, inhabited since prehistoric times, and extensive basin clay deposits, partly covered with peat, the use of which was only intensified from the 12th century onwards by systematic draining and diking operations.

    In the spring of 1357 this strategically important territory on the border of Holland, Gelre and Brabant was taken over by the count of Holland from the duchy of Brabant: Despite several attempts of the Brabanters to recover their loss, Heusden remained an integral part of Holland until 1815, when it was appended to the newly formed province of Brabant. This study covers the history of Heusden from 1357 till the beginning of the 16th century, when the Habsburg count of Holland, also king of Germany and Spain, pledged the receipts of the Heusden domains to its governor, the wealthy count of Nassau.

    Underlying this study of the social structure of the Heusden villages during the later Middle Ages were two rather idealistic intentions: one to offer a panoptic view on local rural society, the other to leave, in the tradition of Coulton, Homans and, lately, Hanawalt, the leading part to the villagers and look at society, as Rodney Hilton once put it, 'from the bottom upwards'. Evidently, surviving records put major restrictions on both the scope and directions of our research. We focused, therefore, on three main themes, each of which covered an important set of social relations and, at the same time, constituted a common ground where the worlds of 'peasants' and 'lords' potentially touched: the ties of blood (part II), the holding of land (part III) and communal organization and self-government (part IV).

    In order to expose social contrasts between 'peasants' and 'lords' as clearly as possible, we made use of the (neo)marxist concept of surplusextraction. The central issue we raised, then, was: can we detect in the evolution of surplus-extraction relations the kind of serious tensions between the two main classes of medieval society, that, according to the neomarxist view, are essential to the collapse of the feudal system and, hence, to the general 'crisis of the later Middle Ages'? Our attempt to answer this question required several preliminary steps. First we had to give fairly intricate descriptions of the social composition of the two classes of 'peasants' and 'lords'. Second we analyzed the distribution of landed rights and 'political' power between 'peasants' and 'lords' as the two main accesses to surplus-extraction. Subsequently we had to describe the modes of surplus-extraction in more detail. And finally we tried to identify the specific conditions which favored or undermined the existing surplus-extraction system.

    To come as near to the villagers as records allowed, we undertook a genealogical reconstruction of village families. Of course, these reconstructions had their limitations. They had to be restricted to the reconstruction of patrilineages, reconstruction only succeeded for a limited number of villages, and basic source material was rather heavily biassed towards land-owning villagers, the so called 'eigenerfden'. As a backbone served several nominal rolls, listing the greater part of the local independent adults at one point in time. The most important of these surveys were the subsidy rolls of 1375 (extant for 14 villages), certain lists of landowners liable for the maintenance of dikes from 1467 and 1498 (in complete form extant for two villages) and the detailed registers of goods and receipts of the vicar and the church of one village, Baardwijk, from 1497 and 1526.

    After fleshing out this backbone with whatever other data at our disposal according to a severe identification procedure, we had to restrict the number of reconstructions even further. The final result were extensive reconstructions for nine villages covering the second half of the 14th century and for two villages covering the second half of the 15th century. For several other villages the compiling of genealogies was limited to families for which three or more generations could be reconstructed. The final result, which comprised close to 2,500 personal dossiers, is reproduced in condensed form in Appendix A. Each dossier fills one line over two opposite pages. Left-page lines contain the proper genealogical information, right-page lines various data of another kind, such as landed property, leases, income from rents, migration movements, non-agricultural professional activities, wider family-connections and the involvement in intravillage conflicts.

    The genealogical tables of Appendix A were tapped for information on personal backgrounds in a wide range of chapters. In their totality they were also used in a separate chapter (chapter 8) for testing the character of some major forces that must have enhanced intra-village stability. By counting the number of successive generations village families remained attached to their holdings - which was not the same as, but certainly came close to testing permanency in residence - and by measuring the local circulation of surnames, it was well established that social continuity in the villages of Heusden was rather great, even in comparison, for instance, with the continuity in English villages during the same period, as measured - in a similar way - by J.A. Raftis cum suis (cf. tables 8.1 -8.3).

    To test social cohesiveness, Appendix A was searched for family ties between village families. Many of the connections that could be traced were cognatic by nature. Most of these, remarkably, crossed village borders and the same was true for many wider agnatic relations as well. On a (sub)regional level, therefore, mobility of people in the later medieval countryside must have been considerable. In some cases the interconnectedness of families from neighboring villages - also across the BrabantHolland border - was so intense that even at close examination ties could not be completely unraveled. Instead of migration or movement we called this phenomenon, following A. Higounet-Nadal, 'social osmosis'. As for proper migration movements, the study of placename- surnames endorsed our impression of strong dynamics within a rather confined geographical range. Most of the not-stabilized placename-surnames referring to places outside the Land van Heusden indicated (relatively recent) immigration from the northern and north-eastern part of Brabant, to a lesser extent from the duchy of Gelre, and, only very seldom, from Holland (cf. table 8.4). This means that even after the annexation to Holland, Heusden kept oriented towards Brabant. Although we had much more difficulty with grasping the intensity and directions of emigration, there was no hard indication to be found for a massive and constant human flow from the villages to either its regional center, the town of Heusden, or the two big cities in the wider region, Dordrecht and 's-Hertogenbosch.

    Although available information indicated that even at the beginning of the 16th century the village economy was rather unspecialized - and in that respect villagers were 'peasants' - a quarter to a third of all villagers were qualified as 'poor', which as we demonstrated was, to a certain extent, the same as 'not owning any land' (cf. chapter 13). However, our records did not allow us to get a detailed and comprehensive view of overall economic and social differences among the villagers. Consequently our attempts at making a social stratification were limited to the isolation of the village elite. Besides the permanency of attachment to local tofts or plots of land, we used various other criteria for stratification, such as taxable wealth, blood-relationship with members of the nobility or with leading municipal families, the possession of feudal tenures, income from land rents, the ownership of land outside the village of residence, money-lending, the performing of leading administrative functions within the village community, or, hallmark of a high social level, the possession of a fortified (stone) house and even of seigneurial rights.

    We fully realize that these criteria are disparate and suffering from two serious objections. One was the local specificity of some criteria. For this reason only village-families scoring on three or more criteria were 'admitted' to the village elite. In the best documented villages 10 to 40% of all identified families met this requirement. At the same time distinguishing between 'harder' and 'softer' criteria made it possible to pinpoint within this rather broad core of what Raftis cum suis termed 'main families', the top-leading, that is in all respects most well-off local families. No village had more than two of those at the same time and many villages none at all (cf. Appendix H).

    This procedure left the second objection intact: by assigning to multigenerational families fixed positions on the basis of scattered data and by ranking families instead of individuals we neglected the possibilities of social mobility. We could meet this objection only inadequately and in a not entirely satisfactory manner (chapter 9). First we outlined in general a typical phenomenon of later medieval 'downward group- mobility', that of persons of noble birth who didn't succeed in maintaining a noble lifestyle, and illustrated it with some examples from Heusden. Secondly we made an analysis of the backgrounds and careers of four individuals of village extraction who ended up in high social positions. Thirdly we retraced the roots of quite some members of the Heusden town-magistracy to village families.

    And the lords? Were they indeed 'those masculine wielders of power' as Peter Laslett coined them? Hardly, but that is because the neomarxist frame of reference tricks us. By imposing the postulate of two antagonistic social classes, 'lords' and 'peasants', on Dutch rural society at the closing of the Middle Ages, reality is simplified to an inadmissible extent. If we define the lords as those who did not participate directly in agricultural production but nevertheless 'appropriated' a large part of agrarian surplus in terms of ricardian land rent, the lords of the Land van Heusden constituted a motley crowd, a widely diffuse conglomeration, ranging from petty urban rentiers to powerful baronets and huge religious corporations. In our model-like description of the surplus-extraction system in the theoretical chapter 3 (cf. figure 3.2) we proposed a rough division of the lords in four groups, ranked along the base of a matrix in which the ownership of land and the possession of land rents are cross-tabulated, as the bulk of the 'lordly' share in surplus came from leases and various forms of land rents. At one extreme we placed the members of the nobility, who were chiefly landowners and drew to a far lesser extent, income from land rents. For the small (religious) corporations at the other extreme it was just the other way round. In between we placed large (religious) corporations (closest to the nobility) and private urban investors (closest to the small corporations). In addition, possession of two specific sources of surplus, tithes and the exercise of seigneurial rights, was exclusively restricted to the nobility and the big corporations. In the chapters 17, 18, 20 and 28 we submitted this schema to the historical evidence.

    The absence or else 'subsidiary importance' (J. de Vries) of large estates and, therefore the relatively weak economic position of both the nobility and the Church is generally recognized as one of the most typical features of Dutch social structure at the beginning of the Modern Age. The Land van Heusden does not fit into this picture entirely. As our aim was to analyze property- and surplus-extraction relations primarily on the local level, we classified 'lordly' land ownership by looking at the extent of properties per village, disregarding ownership elsewhere, which anyway quite often meant outside the Land van Heusden. Taking 50 'morgen' (ca. 42½ hectares) as the threshold of (local) large land ownership, at the beginning of our period, that is to say ca. 1360, only five or six of the 16 villages did not have any large landowners in this sense. Most of the other ones merely numbered one. In relative terms only Oud-Heusden, Herpt and Aalburg were really dominated by large landowners: here more than 40% of the estimated cultivated area - commons and lands on the outside of dikes not included - was in the hands of few religious corporations and noblemen owning (far) more than 100 morgen each (cf. Appendix D. 1).

    Of the large landowners ca. 1360, five were members of the nobility, three were benedictine and premonstratensian abbeys and one was the count of Holland himself as the legal successor to the lordship of Heusden. One and a half centuries later, when we can take another close look, the situation was markedly different in one respect: the nobility, as well as the count, had lost considerably. Only land ownership 'associated' with the possession of seigneurial rights proved to be quite persistent, as was, as far as we can see, land ownership of the three old abbeys. Those who profited most from the dissolution of noble landed property, however, were not the peasants, but two cistercian monasteries, the only newly found corporations to reach the status of large land ownership in the 15th century. In fact, when we look at the middle-range of 'lordly' landowners, defined as those who owned between 20 and 50 'morgen' (17 to 42 hectares) a clear tendency in the same direction becomes visible. As opposed to the manifold noble proprietors which emerge from 14th-century records, at the beginning of the 16th century the noble land ownership of middle (or small) size has virtually disappeared (cf. Appendix D.2). On the other hand we can attest with certainty the acquisition of landed real estate by a number of newly founded, mostly urban religious and social corporations and, to a lesser extent, by individual members of the municipal clergy and magistrate. Below this level there were tens of private urban investors who owned odd acres in the countryside. Together with local parochial institutions (church, vicarage, poor relief) they constituted the majority of small 'lordly' landowners - owning less, and most of them far less, than 20 'morgen' or 17 hectares. Unfortunately in the light of the probable dynamic character of urban capital investments, we know little or nothing about the historical evolution of urban properties in the countryside. We found that already at the beginning of our period most members of the town magistracy owned land or were entitled to rents in the surrounding villages, but whether this was just the tip of the iceberg or not, is not to be determined. The urban 'attack' on rural properties seems to have faded out before the demographic and economic upswing of the 16th-century really got on its way. Up to a third of the cultivated area was by then in the hands of private townsmen, but in this matter variance was large (cf. table 18. 1).

    Striking the balance on the social division of land ownership, while at the same time reversing our perspective, we might say as well that around 1500 the peasants of nine of the sixteen villages were still the virtual owners of (well) over half of the farming land. Peasant land ownership was best preserved in Baardwijk, Vlijmen (and Engelen), the southern-most villages bordering on the sandy soils of Northern Brabant and least preserved in Herpt and Heesbeen in the immediate vicinity of Heusden (cf. table 16. 1). As 'lordly' land ownership of the large and middle-large range showed itself on the whole rather static and there are no indications whatsoever that the peasantry in the preceding one and a half century gained substantially, a first important conclusion of this study is that the propertyrelationship between lords and peasants did not change dramatically between the middle of the 14th and the beginning - or even middle - of the 16th century.

    In addition, our analysis of the 'grid of property' in both the second half of the 14th and the first half of the 16th centuries revealed an extreme fragmentation of land ownership among peasants as well as lords. After having converted in hectares the classes used in the assessment of the personal wealth-tax of 1375, we were able to make a rough comparison between the size-structures of landed property among the villagers in 1375 and around 1545, when in view of the introduction of a new land-tax detailed local surveys of both the ownership and use of land were drawn up. This comparison (cf. table 19.2) suggests that small peasant property not only had a remarkable persistence - except in some of the villages in the immediate neighborhood of Heusden - but was and stayed also extremely fragmented. In both reference periods land ownership of villagers was overwhelmingly small- to very small-scaled with a tendency to cluster in a range from one to five 'morgen' (0.85-4.25 hectares).

    More astonishing, however, was that even towards the middle of the 16th century the size-structure of the landed property of the lords was predominantly of modest size as well (cf. table 19.1 and the middle graphs of Appendix C). This applied especially to the properties of private citizens of Heusden.

    These conclusions on the social division and the size-structure of landed property point to a relative stability of the existing surplus-extraction system as well. Property- and surplus-extraction relationships should not be confounded, as Brenner did, but it is clear that both systems were interacting. Not only were the modes of surplus-extraction determined by the social division of landed property, major shifts in the burden of regular extraction might in their turn have been of direct influence to the division of landed property. An extreme raising of rents or taxes could, for instance, force peasants to give up their lands and, thus, lead to a rearrangement of property relations.

    Let us, therefore, summarize our findings on the surplus-extraction system and its workings. In our discussion we distinguished fixed and perpetual groundrents due by landowners or landusers (i.c. tithes) (chapter 20) from payments for short term landleases (chapter 2 1) and taxes (chapter 22).

    Most burdensome of the various types of fixed and perpetual (ground) rents were tithes and the so called 'created' rents ('rentes constituees'), the later medieval equivalent of modern mortgage. More curious than costly and almost exclusively payable to the lord of Heusden (the count of Holland) were other types of fixed rents, some relics of manorial relations, others springing from more recent reclamations of former commons.

    We calculated that created rents, when paid in kind, came by and large to nearly 10% of average grain-yields and were in that respect quite comparable to tithes (cf. table 20.2). Even though precise information on the process of indebting in the countryside is lacking, we know from countless dossiers and from the detailed Inquiry the count of Holland had conducted into the state of his territory in 1514 that many peasant holdings were burdened with 'created' rents, and often enough more than one at a time. The main reason of this was that until the end of the 15th century 'created' rents were not redeemable. By consequence rent-indebtedness could easily accumulate. Among the (known) creditors-recipients most were, indeed, urban investors - private citizens as well as religious and social corporations.

    Contrary to the (extreme) fragmentation of the rights to land and 'created' rents among the lords, the possession of tithes was remarkably concentrated, and, remarkable in itself, still concentrated in the hands of the Church. An important part of all tithe-rights in the Land van Heusden was exercized by the abbots of the benedictine monastery of Sint-Truiden (in present-day Belgium) and of the premonstratenzians of Berne (situated on the Meuse near the village of Herpt). Most of the remaining tithe-rights were in the hands of either religious corporations or noblemen. Only in the villages of Wijk and Veen were tithe-rights so fragmented that certain members of leading municipal families succeeded in obtaining titles to (smaller) tithe-revenues. An exceptional situation existed in the villages of Engelen en Vlijmen, where tithes had become an annex to seigniory, as indeed had happened in many other villages of Holland.

    With the Flemish historian E. Thoen we agreed that short-term leasing of land gave the lords a powerful new instrument of surplus-extraction after the dissolution of manorial structures. This was the more so since the nobility was prevented from securing seigniorial jurisdictional) rights in most of the villages up until the beginning of the 15th century - a point in which the Land van Heusden resembled Flanders to a certain degree. Apart from that, the alternative flow of income from leases was already a common part of the surplus-extraction system at the beginning of our period, as the administrations of both the count of Holland and other large landowners show.

    We disagreed with Thoen on the extent to which (large) landowners were able to manipulate lease-contracts and lease-prices to the point of offsetting the basic economic law of supply and demand on the landmarket. We argued that all the movements of lease-prices we traced can be explained from (often regionally specific) market-conditions and that, unlike Thoen made out for the Eastern Flemish countryside, the leaseprices for different sources of 'lordly' income showed markedly different evolutions (cf, chapter 24). We have to admit, though, a weak spot in our reasoning: all the serial lease-prices at our disposal were related to the administration of the count's domains. What may have made them exceptional is that the leasing out always happened by way of public auctions, not by negotiation. Even then it is remarkable that during the years of deepest crisis in 'lordly' income the counts were able to limit their loss mostly by way of raising real revenues from fixed rents, while they allowed a downfall of lease-prices over a long and sustained period of time (cf. graphs 21.6 and 28. 1).

    Neither in the 14th, nor in the 15th century were the 'aids' that the counts of Holland levied really landtaxes. During the reign of duke Albrecht of Bavaria (1358- 1404) at irregular intervals, but on average once in seven years a heavy direct tax on (real) property was raised from the villagers of Heusden. As there was in the countryside little other real property than land, this wealth tax is to a large degree equal to a land tax. After the coming to power of the dukes of Burgundy taxation was drastically reformed. Taxes were thence raised yearly and according to a repartition-system. This meant that the town and the villages of Heusden were allotted a fixed portion of the total sum beforehand agreed upon by the estates of Holland. How each village-community in its turn allotted the part apportioned to it among its taxable members, was a matter of its own concern. However, from the Inquiry of 1514 we know, that land ownership was without exception the most important, and in several villages even the only basis for taxation, Our reconstruction of the real yearly contributions of the villages shows a relatively mild fiscal climate during the reign of Philip the Good. His son and successor Charles the Bold forced up taxes at the rate of knots to exorbitant levels to finance his costly wars. A similar tax-spiral developed from the beginning of the reign of Philip the Fair (cf. Appendix F and graph 22. 1). This evolution of taxation with its growing fiscal pressure towards the end of the 15th century is well known, also from other parts of the Burgundian Netherlands. Close examination of fiscal pressure by means of a model (cf. chapter 24, paragraph I and table 24. 1) revealed, however, that even at the apex of taxation under Charles the Bold, real fiscal burden - whether expressed in quantities of rye or in numbers of day-wages - was not remotely as heavy as were the irregular aids of duke Albrecht a century before. Spread over a number of years, those exerted a pressure that probably came close to the average level during the later decades of the 15th century. We should, therefore, be careful with giving too much weight to the view that not until the second half of the 15th century did new and modernized taxsystems become an effective instrument of power (and surplus-extraction) in the hands of emerging territorial states. Our data suggest that at least in parts of Holland this development was already in the 14th century well under way.

    In consequence, changes in the taxation-system could and did not, in the long term, throw existing surplus-extraction relationships off balance. As the same proved to be true, to an even stronger degree, for the other cogwheels of the surplus-extraction system, there was no structural difference in the way surplus was channeled from peasants to lords between the beginning and the end of our period.

    Evidently, this lack of major shifts in either the property- or the surplusextraction relationship implies that we cannot speak of a general 'crisis of the feudal system' unchained by growing class inconsistencies. No section of the 'class' of the lords succeeded in accumulating sufficiently to create definite openings to the development of capitalist relations of production in the Heusden countryside, be it within the sphere of large-scale farming or in a process of proto-industrialization. On a different level the same is true for the competition for land among the villagers themselves. From our detailed analysis of the landtax registers of ca. 1545, we can hardly deduce the emergence of something like a 'kulak'- or 'yeoman'class: villagers owning more than ten hectares of land were as rare then as they must have been around 1375.

    Trying to elucidate this long-term blockage of social-structural relationships, we have put forward various explanations in different sections of our book.

    1. In chapter 24 it was suggested that the countryside of Heusden was going through a serious depression during the greater part of the second half of the 15th century. At the end, recovery was frustrated by the Geldrian wars as well as by the decay of Heusden following its being cut off from the main stream of the Meuse about 1480. In those circumstances short-term returns on land (income from leases) developed unfavourably compared to the fixed costs of landowners, such as taxes and the charges for dike-maintenance. This specific ratio of benefits to costs probably made a direct accumulation of land not an attractive prospective to the lords. At the same time chances for indirect accumulation, the chances, in other words, that the peasants would be driven out of their small properties massively because they could not meet their financial obligations, were small as well. The reason for this was that during several decades of the 15th century (regional) lease- prices and the (inter-regional) grainprices evolved in opposite directions (cf. graph 24. 2). We ascribed this apparent paradox to a demographic slump, limited to the Heusden countryside.

    2. One of the other reasons behind the stubborn persistence of small peasant property may have been the relatively high productivity and flexibility of the peasant economy. Not necessarily only expansion and specialization have marked the road to a more sustained growth in pre-industrial society. In the 'Brenner debate', for instance, P. Croot and D. Parker attributed a dynamic key role to small farmers and petty peasant landowners rather than large landowners in the development of capitalist relations of production in English agriculture. Others have, from a different angle, rightly pointed to the very high productivity of the dominant type of Flemish peasant holdings in the later Middle Ages: 'microfundia' with a size of less than 1½ hectares. The viability of these extremely small holdings was dependent on a number of things, two of which have been mentioned in chapter 24. By way of specializing in the very labor-intensive growing of cash crops, such as hops and rapeseed, and by 'selling' on a temporary basis superfluous labor outside the holding, for which there was a constant demand in diking and draining operations, peasant households could generate income under virtually all circumstances and thus withstand 'attacks' on their lands. Though we could not detect a fixed seasonal pattern in household-activities, both aspects were clearly illustrated in our description of the peasant economy in chapter 13. We concluded that the market orientation of these activities did not speed up into a real process of proto-proletarization, - even if we stretch the concept somewhat to include peat-cutting, fishery and the shipping trade and industry, as some Dutch historians have recently proposed. This was simply because the scale remained too small and proto-industrial activities of any importance failed to develop in the countryside of Heusden on a large enough scale and with enough (urban) capital-investments.

    3. In addition, on account of a high degree of continuity and cohesion within village society, loss or a too easy fragmentation of family-property was prevented by the customary rules of endowment and inheritance. We digressed on them in chapter 12. We demonstrated that dowry and endowment were both ruled by the principle of 'forced recall'. As for intestate succession, a variant of the so-called 'devolution-system' prevailed. The essence was that after the death of the first partner of a first marriage a community estate was founded between the surviving partner and the children. At least in principle the estate had to remain intact until the death of the surviving spouse. This meant not only that the rights of all children dying before their longest-living parent fell back into the estate, but also and especially that no children out of later marriages of the surviving spouse could lay any claims on the estate of the first marriage. Not until the end of the 15th century was this system exchanged for one in which estates were split up between children and surviving parents immediately after the death of the first marriage-partner. Detailed analysis of 19 series of related conveyances of land (cf. Appendix B) revealed that under the old system children must have frequently left the community estate intact for some time even after the death of the longest living parent. They seem to have portioned out parts of the estate or to have split it up in its entirety only when they considered the moment expedient, for instance when one of them was married.

    4. Many authors have viewed the village communities, which took root in the I I th century as a 'powerful line of defence against the incursions of lords' (Brenner). The German-Swiss historian Peter Blickle, referring to the same counterpoise, even proposed to distinguish two incompatible 'principles of (social) organization' in European society from the end of the Middle Ages: vertical 'feudalism' and horizontal 'communalism'. Following this angle in part IV, we described the main facets of communal organization in the countryside. In chapter 25 the communitas villae (the community of the vill) was presented as a highly autonomous institution with quite extensive legislative, jurisdictional, administrative and police authority. To quote Blickle once more, the village community in fact exercized 'stately functions' and really participated in political power. In addition to this, village communities had responsibilities outside the public domain: they controlled the use of the commons - if there were any left - they managed the properties of the parochial churches and 'poor-tables' (cf. chapter 26) and they performed certain tasks for the regional water boards (cf. chapter 27).

    We should emphasize that in the Land van Heusden land ownership was no precondition to full membership of the communitas villae. However, we detected a certain tension between the 'eigenerfden' and their fellowvillagers who did not own any land. At least in one field, that of water management, the authority of the assembly of villagers was eroded little by little by an informal organization of landholders, existing of both local 'eigenerfden' from the villages and 'lordly' landowners. Among them the large landowners, contributing most to the maintenance of dikes, ditches and drains, claimed an ever greater say in drainage organizations. At least in the 15th century higher authorities were inclined to recognize this claim and indeed frequently involved large landowners directly in decisions on the execution of diking and draining projects. Even then the assembly of villagers had, however, to approve of the estimated costs.

    The latitude a village community had in running its own affairs was to a large extent determined by the strength of its counterweight: lordship or, more precisely, the exercize of seignorial or (public) jurisdictional rights. In this, 'lordly' power was present in its purest 'feudal' form, because only the exercize of jurisdiction offered (legal) possibilities of effectuating surplus-extraction by non-economic, 'political' coercion. Annex to the administration of justice - and, therefore, to the raking in of (a part of the) fines - was the exercize of 'banal rights', such as the monopoly of flourmills and fisheries. High as revenues from these sources may have been, we should not confuse gross income with profit and judge 'banalities' too harshly. Especially the upkeep and the exploitation of mills carried high expenses. Even without deducing those, we found that banalities made up no more than a modest part of seignorial income. For the lords of Engelen and Vlijmen they amounted to about a third of their total revenues in 1460 (cf. graph 28.2), for the counts of Holland on average to 15 to 20% during the second half of the 15th century (cf. graph 28. 1 a). In chapter 28 we demonstrated that seignorial lordship was very weakly developed in the Land van Heusden at the beginning of our period. When the Land van Heusden was taken over by the count of Holland, the seignorial rights over not more than four villages were alienated. In all the other ones jurisdiction and banal rights were exercized by the count himself, that is to say, by his local representatives, the village mayors - usually called 'judges'. This situation would change dramatically in the 150 years that followed. Mostly driven by financial straits, successive counts infeudated rich noblemen, members of the magistrate of Heusden or high government officials with jurisdictional rights. At the beginning of the 16th century there were only five villages in which seignorial rights were not alienated. In fact this development meant a clear reinforcement of a feudal-type lordship during the 15th century.

    If it made any difference to the villagers, whether the count's mayor or the local 'seigneur' (or his mayor) administered justice and presided the assembly of the community, remained difficult to decide. We know of misconduct and corruption of all sorts of officials and on all levels of bureaucracy in the county. Nevertheless we inclined towards the opinion that 'seigneurs' exercized jurisdictional and 'banal' rights with more vigour and with less mercy than the appointed representatives of the count. A sure sign of this is that all complaints about the conduct of lords submitted to high courts of justice by private villagers or village communities from the Land van Heusden concerned alienated lordships. By way of illustration we dwelled, in chapter 28, on the 'reign of terror' of Robrecht van Drongelen and Arend Spierink in the lordship of Eethen and Meeuwen. Their ruthless display of intimidation and cunning, fraud and violence towards the villagers made them the very embodiment of the one-sided negative image that the more popular history- books tend to give of medieval lords.

    5. Open conflicts between villagers or village communities and their seigneurs constituted just one form that clashes between 'lords' and 'peasants' could take on. Depending on the character of the relationship, peasants confronted the lords also in their capacity of large landowners (cf chapter 30), of privileged townsmen (cf. chapter 29) and of territorial princes. The issues at stake were few and always the same. Needless to say that one was the working of the tax-system after the Burgundian reforms. While the villagers tended to view taxes as real burdens, as payments attached to land not to people, and thus tried to force a share of the total tax-burden of the countryside upon the lords, the lords all invoked their different privileged statutes to escape contribution for their landed properties. Adding to the injustices of the taxation system was the obligation of the villagers to pay ale- excises to the town of Heusden, which financed the bulk of its own tax-share with the revenues from the very ale-excise.

    In judging the outcome of these struggles, the first fact we have to establish is that clashes between lords and peasants never escalated to violent uprisings or peasant-revolts with all the possibilities of the shifting of social forces inherent in them. Severe as conflicts may have been, in the end they were always settled in court. Court-records show that on many occasions the lords did not succeed in closing their ranks, offering chances to the villagers to get into (ad-hoc) alliances with varying sections of the opposing class. In their struggle with large religious corporations over contributions to general taxes, for instance, the local communities did find the count's authority more and more at their side. On other occasions village communities were backed up by their seigneurs against claims of the town-authorities of Heusden. More in general we could, thus, say that the social and economic diversity among the lords put both individual peasants and village communities in a relatively advantageous bargaining position.

    In a sense, however, records may blind us by giving too much attention to the exchange of arguments before the counsellors of the high courts of justice of Holland and the Burgundian Netherlands. Undoubtedly countless tiny battles were fought at the village-level, never reaching the elevated institutions of which records have survived. Besides, the cogwheels of medieval justice ground slowly and even favorable sentences of high courts were not always executed at once - or ever executed at all. If peasants occasionally won lawsuits, they probably did not succeed in gaining definite changes for the better, in manoeuvring themselves into a structurally improved class-position. A striking example is the outcome of the protracted struggle between town and countryside over jurisdictional authority in the villages, one of the many facets of later medieval urban imperialism, that small towns displayed as well as big cities. The encroachment on the jurisdictional autonomy of the villagers started at the end of the 13th century with the obligated admission of written contracts regarding rural properties which were drawn up before the aldermen of Heusden. It ended, in 1569, with the issuing of the first comprehensive written customary law of Heusden, which was for ninety nine percent derived from the customs of the town. In the intervening period we see on more than one occasion that private villagers and village communities defied with success the growing tyranny of the town before the courts. But however the verdicts turned out, in the end nothing could stop the advance of urban power.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • van der Woude, A.M., Promotor
    • Blockmans, W.P., Promotor, External person
    Award date25 Nov 1992
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Publication statusPublished - 1992


    • social geography
    • culture
    • geography
    • landscape
    • classification
    • land ownership
    • settlement patterns
    • settlement
    • history
    • social sciences
    • methodology
    • research
    • netherlands
    • social research
    • noord-brabant
    • land van heusden en altena

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