Weyden en zeyden in het broek : middeleeuwse ontginning en exploitatie van de kommen in het Land van Heusden en Altena

B.W. Braams

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    The problem is defined and elucidated in Chapter I and examines the reclamation and use of the river basins in the Dutch river-clay area in the Middle Ages. The research was carried out in the district of Heusden and Altena (Fig. 1.1). This district has been part of the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant since 1815; but before then it had belonged for centuries to the county of Holland. In the early Middle Ages, it was the most western part of the county of Teisterbant, which became fragmented in the eleventh century. The questions posed are about agricultural history; they are investigated by means of historical geography.

    Chapter 2 deals with an attempt to reconstruct the natural landscape, together with a survey of the occupation and social relationships in the reclamation period. The latter is roughly placed in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

    Chapter 3 handles the reclamation of the basins, especially those in the district of Heusden en Altena (Fig. 1.2). Historical, pedological, agricultural and geographic aspects of the reclamation are examined. This part of the study is mainly based on the literature, soil maps and topographical maps. Special attention is given to crops, of which oats was the most important, and to the significance of organic matter as an indicator of soil fertility.

    Chapter 4 is dedicated to developments in the period after the reclamation. First of all one looked at the physical developments which resulted from the reclamation, and which in their turn played a part in the use of the basin clay soils. In particural, lowering of ground level and changes in soil fertility are examined. Attention is given to area-specific developments.

    In Chapter 5 an account is given of published and non-published sources, of cadastral maps and of maps from the pre-cadastral period. This research had to be restricted to part of the studied area. Initially the villages of Eethen, Babyloniënbroek, Andel and Uitwijk were chosen for the purpose, and subsequently the territories of the villages of Wijk and Veen were added (Fig. 2-7). This Chapter ends with a recapitulation of the subject.

    In the final Chapter answers are formulated to the questions posed, and the results are discussed in a wider context. These results can be summarised as follows:
    For centuries, the formation of the area was determined by the different branches of the river Meuse. In the Roman period, the "Oude Maas" was the main course of this river (the "Oude" Maas" was taken as the southern boundary of the area to be studied). After Roman times, the river Alm must have been the main channel for the waters of the Meuse. Towards the end of the early Middle Ages a channel was formed from the Alm near Giessen to the river Waal (the most southern branch of the Rhine system) near Woudrichem (Fig. 1.1). Under the name of Merwede, the rivers Waal and Maas flowed together to the North Sea. There is some disagreement amongst historians about the date of the formation of this new channel. Some of them believe that it occured during the twelfth or the thirteenth century, but this investigation lends support to an earlier date, namely the ninth or the tenth century.

    Occupation of the levees along the rivers started in the early Middle Ages, and in some places even much earlier. The levees of the "Oude Maas", the river Dussen and the river Alm (all of them are old branches of the Meuse) were inhabited in Roman times. Also in Merovingian times there was some habitation, especially on the broad levees of the Dussen ridge. The levee soils along the river Alm show evidence of occupation before the tenth century.

    The church was probably present in the tenth century. The bishops of Utrecht had a church at Woudrichem, which served as a Mother church. The Abbey of Saint Truiden (now in Belgium) had a curia in Aalburg. From information about the populations and the founding of churches, there seems to have been some cooperation between the church and the nobility; thus the county of Teisterbant was typically Frankish. Property belonging to the ancestors of the Counts of Holland was more than likely located in the villages of Wijk and Veen, near Aalburg. Here, in 889, Count Gerulf obtained two "hobas" from the German King Arnulf.

    In the period before reclamation, the basins were usually inundated in winter. In summer, natural drainage would have occurred. Permanent open water was possibly restricted to the main basin south of the river Alm. Nowadays the soils in this basin are o.8 in below Ordnance Datum. The vegetation in the basins probably consisted of swamp forest (mainly Alder), marshes with reeds and sedges and bogs with rushes and reed mace. Owing to the activity of the Meuse, with formation and erosion of ridges, there must have been deposition of day in the basins in the early Middle Ages. So the top layers of the soil profile must be more recent. Because of draining in summer, the conditions were not suitable for peat formation, with the probable exception of some pools. This conclusion differs from recent publications, in which a recent vanishing of a peat cover is assumed.

    Both reclamation and land use in the basins were dependant on the soil type; roughly one can distinguish between basin clay soils without peat in the upper 80 cm of the profile, and clayon- peat soils. Today, as a rule, the first group of soils have a height at or above Ordnance Datum. They were the first to be reclaimed, and this was done by means of long, parallel ditches. In a number of places, the parcels were called "hoeven". They often had an area Of 12 to 14 hectares and several of them were inhabited. In some places the parcels did not have such an area. They still had a constant breadth, but varied in length; their area depended on this length. In the thirteenth century these soils were mainly used as arable land.

    It is feasible that some of these reclamations were realised as part of estates. Artefacts, indicating the presence of "villae" were found in Eethen, Aalburg, Wijk, Veen and in Uitwijk. in most of these places there is a field-name "Verwede" to be found, which I have interpreted as "bulls pasture". Altogether I found eight fields with the name of Verwede; I assumed they were part of a demesne. At least in Eethen, Aalburg and Wijk there are signs of a classical estate, a number of "mansi" seem to have existed there. The reclamations in question are not later than the twelfth century, possibly from the eleventh century or earlier.

    The reclamation of Babyloniënbroek (from the beginning of the twelfth century) has quite a different character, both technically and juridically. This territory was out-of-the-way; probably for this reason it was reclaimed later. From a street as axis, small areas of levee soil, basin clay soil and transitional soil were parcelled out together. From the later distribution of property and from the absence of a manor and manorial services, I concluded that the reclamation was done by independant farmers, who had possibly bought the parcels.

    Thirteenth century sources provide the surprising information that on the stream ridges and in the reclaimed basins oats was the main crop. Yield must have been fairly good. Farmers were heavily involved in horse-breeding, which continued until the twentieth century.

    The combination of the use of a heavy plough which turns the sod, of horses as draught animals and the extensive cultivation of oats, can be considerated as innovative. With respect to earlier farming methods, we may speak of an agricultural revolution.

    Farming which specialises in oats and horse-breeding demands the exchange of goods. Thirteenth century sources tell us of regional markets at Woudrichem and Giessen and in later times at Heusden. In the same period, the corn trade became firmly established in the nearby town of Dordrecht. By the twelfth century, several ecclesiastical "curiae" had been founded in this region, including an important Abbey (the Premonstratensian Abbey of Berne, near Heusden). The area was of considerable interest, presumably for economic reasons.

    The clay-on-peat soils were less appropriate for the same methods of reclamation and use. At the time of draining (by digging canals) subsidence would have started. These soil areas are also parcelled in strips; the strips were called "slagen" or "weren". No exact dating of this parcellation. is available, but there is evidence that it took place in the thirteenth and the early fourteenth century. These soils were presumably rarely used as arable land, but mostly for rough grazing and hay-making. Large landowners had often laid out a decoy on their lots. During the agricultural depression, from 1650 to 1750, the value of these clay-on-peat soils dropped temporarily to zero, in some years they could neither be sold nor leased.

    Initially, the reclaimed soils were rich in organic matter and plant nutrients, After one or two centuries of arable culture the soils became exhausted. At first, frequent floodings with river water effectivily supplied nutrients, but when the dikes along the rivers were made stronger, and higher, flooding occurred less frequently. A substainable exploitation of these lower heavy soils was developed by combining them in one farm with the easier to work levee soils. The soil in the basins served as an outfield, with a modest production of hay or oats, alternated with grazing. The infield was situated on the levee soils. From the fourteenth century onwards, vigourous diversification took place on the stream ridges (the infields). Wheat and rapeseed became important crops, orchards and hop gardens were laid out. The main problem of this agricultural system was the shortage of manure. Gradual diversification of the livestock, more cattle alongside the horses helped to solve this problem, and in the twentieth century fertilisers came into use. The basin soils have recently regained an important place in animal husbandry.

    Reclamation of the basin soils signified economic progress; it contributed to the wealth of both the settlements and their Lords. As early as the second half of the thirteenth century, one can speak of independant farmers, who worked for themselves and took their produce to the markets. They participated in law-making and in the administration of justice. The emancipation of farmers also expresses itself in the gradual development of self-government. In the villages, in the second half of the thirteenth century, we see farmers as jurymen or "heemraden". They act, together with the sheriff (the "schout") in regulating local affairs and particularly as a local polder board.

    However, the relationship between agricultural development and social change in the Middle Ages was not the subject of this study. 1 must confine myself to the remark that reclamation of the basins and emancipation of the farmers occurred in the same periode. By about 1300, in the district of Heusden and Altena, society as well as the landscape and the economy, was completely different than in the year 1000.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Vervloet, J.A.J., Promotor, External person
    Award date22 Sep 1995
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054854258
    Publication statusPublished - 1995


    • clay soils
    • land
    • reclamation
    • netherlands
    • historical geography
    • noord-brabant
    • land van heusden en altena

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