Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-747cfc64b6-7hjq6 Total loading time: 0.253 Render date: 2021-06-14T16:42:11.003Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true }

Women and leasehold in rural Flanders, c. 1290 to c. 1570

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 March 2019

Lies Vervaet
Ghent University
E-mail address:


Research has emphasised the stability in female landholding between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, despite demographic shocks and fundamental economic changes. However, in this period, a new type of land exploitation emerges: leasehold. This article wants to introduce a gender perspective into the history of leasehold. It investigates women’s activities on the lease market in late medieval and sixteenth-century Flanders, a region where short-term and competitive leasehold spread early and widely. An analysis of the actual practice, making use of landlords’ manuals and accounts, demonstrates women’s decreasing participation at the lease market. Moreover, their marital status increasingly mattered: from the beginning of the fifteenth century only widows could hold land. This article also demonstrates that, next to marital status, the size of the holding had a marked influence on women’s opportunities. Finally, these results invite us to rethink the grounds of women’s growing participation at the labour market in post-Black Death Europe, since especially single women lost access to land, particularly to land offered on the lease market.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2019 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


1 It is, for instance, significant that in the synthesis on property and power in rural society of northwestern Europe, the aspect of gender is almost completely absent: van Bavel, B. J. P. and Hoyle, R. W., eds, Social Relations: Property and Power, Rural Economy and Society in Northwestern Europe, 500–2000 (Turnhout, 2010)Google Scholar.

2 Whittle, J., ‘Inheritance, marriage, widowhood and remarriage: a comparative perspective on women and landholding north-east Norfolk, 1440–1580’, Continuity and Change, 13:1 (1998), 3372CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Whittle, J., ‘Rural Economies’, in Bennett, J. M. and Karras, R., eds, Oxford University Press Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2013), p. 316Google Scholar.

3 Bennett, J. M., ‘Women and Poverty: Girls on Their Own in England before 1348’, in Langdon, J., Kowaleski, M. and Schofield, P. R., eds, Peasants and Lords in the Medieval English Economy: Essays in Honour of Bruce M. S. Campbell (Turnhout, 2015), p. 302Google Scholar.

4 Bardsley, S., ‘Peasant women and inheritance of land in fourteenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 29:3 (2014), 297324CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Franklin, P., ‘Peasant widows’ “liberation” and remarriage before the Black Death’, Economic History Review, 39 (1986), 188–92Google Scholar; Bennett, J. M., ‘Widows in the Medieval English Countryside’, in Mirrer, L., ed., Upon my Husband’s Death: Widows in the Literature and Histories of Medieval Europe (Michigan, 1992), pp. 69114Google Scholar; Mate, M., Daughters, Wives, and Widows after the Black Death: Women in Sussex, 1350–1535 (Woodbridge and Rochester, 1998), pp. 82–3Google Scholar; Whittle, ‘Inheritance’, 59–63.

6 Brenner, R., ‘Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe: the roots of agrarian capitalism’, Past & Present, 157 (1982), 16113CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 van Bavel, B. J. P., ‘Land, lease and agriculture: the transition of the rural economy in the Dutch River area from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century’, Past & Present, 172 (2001), 343CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 van Nederveen Meerkerk, E., ‘Gender and economic history: the story of a complicated marriage’, Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 11 (2014), 175–98Google Scholar.

9 Whittle, J., ‘Leasehold Tenure in England c. 1300–1600: Its Form and Incidence’, in van Bavel, B. J. P. and Schofield, P., eds, The Development of Leasehold in Northwestern Europe, c. 1200–1600 (Turnhout, 2008), p. 152Google Scholar.

10 Thompson, E. P., ‘The Grid of Inheritance: A Comment’, in Goody, J., Thirsk, J. and Thompson, E. P., eds, Family and Inheritance: Rural Society in Western Europe, 1200–1800 (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 328–60Google Scholar; Holderness, B. A., ‘Widows in Preindustrial Society: An Essay upon their Economic Functions’, in Smith, R. M., ed., Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle (Cambridge, 1984), p. 433.Google Scholar

11 M. Muller, ‘Peasants, Lords and Developments in Leasing in Later Medieval England’, in van Bavel and Schofield, eds, The Development of Leasehold in Northwestern Europe, c. 1200–1600, p. 162.

12 Bennett, ‘Widows’, pp. 92–3.

13 Hilton, R. H., A Medieval Society: The West Midlands at the End of the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge, 1983), p. 163.Google Scholar

14 Whittle, ‘Leasehold’, pp. 144–7; Kerridge, E., Agrarian Problems in the Sixteenth Century and After (London, 1969), pp. 4853Google Scholar; Dyer, C., Lords and Peasants in a Changing Society: The Estates of the Bishopric of Worcester, 680–1540 (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 313–14Google Scholar.

15 T. Soens and E. Thoen, ‘The Origin of Leaseholding in the Former County of Flanders (13th–16th centuries)’, in van Bavel and Schofield, eds, The Development of Leasehold in Northwestern Europe, c. 1200–1600, pp. 31–56.

16 Meijers, E. M., Het Ligurische erfrecht in de Nederlanden (Haarlem, 1929)Google Scholar.

17 Godding, P., Le droit privé dans les Pays-Bas Méridionaux du 12e au 18e siècle (Brussels, 1991), p. 292Google Scholar.

18 Gillissen, J., ‘Le statut de la femme dans l'ancien droit belge’, Recueils de la société Jean Bodin pour l'histoire comparative des institutions: la femme, 10 (1962), 255356Google Scholar; Godding, Le droit, pp. 78–9.

19 Godding, Le droit, p. 124.

20 Gilliodts-Van Severen, L., Coutume du Franc de Bruges, Vol. I (Brussels, 1879)Google Scholar.

21 Godding, Le droit, p. 266.

22 Kittell, E. and Queller, K., ‘Wives and widows in medieval Flanders’, Social History, 41 (2016), 436–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Howell, M., Women, Production and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities (Chicago, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Danneel, M., Weduwen en wezen in laat-middeleeuws Gent (Appeldoorn-Leiden, 1995)Google Scholar; Stabel, P., ‘Women at the Market: Gender and Retail in the Towns of Late Medieval Flanders’, in Boone, M., de Hemptinne, T. and Blockmans, W., eds, Secretum scriptorium: Liber alumnorum Water Prevenier (Leuven, 1999), pp. 259–76Google Scholar; Hutton, S., ‘Women, Men and Markets: The Gendering of Market Space in Late Medieval Ghent’, in Classen, A., ed., Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age (Berlin, 2009), pp. 409–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hutton, S., Women and Economic Activities in Late Medieval Ghent (New York, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Curtis, D., ‘Trends in rural social and economic history of the pre-industrial Low Countries: recent themes and ideas in journals and books of the past five years (2007–2013)’, Low Countries Historical Review, 128 (2013), 8990Google Scholar.

25 L. Vervaet, ‘The economic opportunities of rural women in late medieval Flanders’ (forthcoming, 2020).

26 Soens and Thoen, ‘The Origin’, pp. 35–7.

27 Gilliodts-Van Severen, Coutume du Franc, Vol. I, pp. 86–98; Berten, D., Coutumes des pays et comté de Flandre: Coutume du Vieuxbourg de Gand (Brussels, 1903–04), Vol. I, pp. 330–40Google Scholar; Gilliodts-Van Severen, L., Coutume de la salle et chatellenie d’Ypres (Brussels, 1911), Vol. I, pp. 72–4Google Scholar; Gilliodts-Van Severen, L., Coutumes des pays et comté de Flandre: Quartier de Furnes, Coutumes de la ville et chatellenie de Furnes (Brussels, 1897–1902), Vol. I, pp. 197–8Google Scholar.

28 Gilliodts-Van Severen, Coutume du Franc, Vol. I, p. 88.

29 Berten, Coutume du Vieuxbourg, Vol. I, pp. 331–2.

30 Jansen, H. P. H., Landbouwpacht in Brabant in de 14e en 15e eeuw (Amsterdam, 1955), pp. 7882Google Scholar.

31 De Vos, A., Inventaris der Landbouwpachten in de Gentse jaarregisters van de Keure (Ghent, 1958), Vol. I (13391501); Vol. II (1501–1600)Google Scholar.

32 Archives of the Social Service Department of Bruges (hereafter ASSDB), Archives of St John’s Hospital (hereafter ASJH), Box Lease Letters 1421–1609; Charters of St John’s Hospital, nos 427, 578, 787, 870; Series D., no. 7; Account 1399–1400; Series Varie, no. 29; ASSDB, Archives of the Hospital of Our Lady of the Potterie, Charters of Our Lady of the Potterie, nos 108, 159, 236, 466, 546, 572, 579, 595, 634bis, 635, 656, 662, 671, 686, 718, 740, 758, 767 and 768.

33 De Mey, G., De financiële organisatie van de Sint-Pietersabdij te Gent in de tweede helft van de 14e en de eerste helft van de 15e eeuw (unpublished Master’s thesis, Ghent University, 1970), Appendix II, pp. 194207Google Scholar.

34 Hutton, Economic Activities, pp. 42–58.

35 Devos, Inventaris, p. 6.

36 Gilliodts-Van Severen, Coutume du Franc, Vol. I, p. 108.

37 Thoen, E., Landbouwekonomie en bevolking in Vlaanderen gedurende de late Middeleeuwen en het begin van de Moderne Tijden (Ghent, 1988), pp. 567–94Google Scholar.

38 This analysis is based solely on the lease contracts registered before the Ghent Aldermen, since these contracts cover a wide time span and are spread across time equally.

39 van Bavel, B. J. P., ‘Pachtboek, pachtcontract, legger, pachtrekening-courant en rekening: typologie en interpretatie van de laatmiddeleeuwse bronnensoorten met betrekking tot de verpachting van grondbezit’, in De Boer, D. E. H., Marsilje, J. W. and Smit, J. G., eds, Vander Rekeninghe (Den Haag, 1998), p. 105Google Scholar.

40 Whittle, ‘Inheritance’; Bardsley, ‘Peasant women’; Bennett, ‘Women and Poverty’; Smail, D., ‘Démanteler le patrimoine: les femmes et les biens dans la Marseille médiévale’, Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales (1997), 343–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rollo-Koster, J., ‘The Boundaries of Affection: Women and Property in Late Medieval Avignon’, in Sperling, J. and Wray, S. K., eds, Across the Religious Divide: Women, Property, and Law in the Wider Mediterranean (ca. 1300–ca. 1800) (New York, 2010), pp. 38–51Google Scholar.

41 Maréchal, G., De sociale en politieke gebondenheid van het Brugse Hospitaalwezen in de middeleeuwen (Kortrijk, 1978)Google Scholar.

42 Vervaet, L., Goederenbeheer in een veranderende samenleving: Het Sint-Janshospitaal van Brugge, c. 1275–c. 1575 (unpublished PhD thesis, Ghent University, 2015), pp. 124, 513Google Scholar.

43 State Archives of Bruges (hereafter SAB), Aanwinsten, no. 689, Register St John’s hospital of Bruges, 1310; ASSDB ASJH, D.2.2., Register St John’s hospital, 1337; B. 13., Westboek, 1420 and B. 14. Oostboek, 1420; Annual Accounts, 1494–5, 1495–6, 1496–7; 1512–13, 1513–14; D. 17., Register Westboek 1559, B. 44, Register Oostboek 1546, D. 19., Register Maldegem and Eeklo, 1546–57.

44 Muller, M., ‘Peasant Women, Agency and Status in late 13th and 14th century England: Some Reconsiderations’, in Beattie, C. and Stevens, M. F., eds, Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, c. 1200–1700 (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 104–06Google Scholar; Bennett, J. M., Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600 (Oxford, 1999), pp. 166–70Google Scholar.

45 Hutton, Economic Activities, pp. 64–6; Bardyn, A., ‘Propertied women: women's ownership of immovable property in late medieval Brussels (1356–1460)’, Stadsgeschiedenis, 9 (2014), 1013Google Scholar.

46 Vervaet, ‘Economic opportunities’.

47 In 1337, 27 out of a total of 154 registered tenants were women, in 1351, 12 out of a total of 102 registered tenants were women, and in 1369, 10 out of a total 138 were women; ASSDB ASJH, 1337: D.2.2, Register St John’s hospital; 1351: B.1, Manual Zuienkerke; 1369: B.5, Manual Zuienkerke.

48 Soens, T., De Spade in de Dijk? Waterbeheer en rurale samenleving in de Vlaamse kustvlakte (1280–1580) (Ghent, 2009), pp. 73112Google Scholar.

49 Vervaet, Goederenbeheer, pp. 287–304.

50 Bennett, ‘Women and Poverty’, pp. 303–04.

51 Howell, M., The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300–1550 (Chicago and London, 1998), p. 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hutton, Economic Activities, pp. 124–30; Bardyn, ‘Propertied women’, 13; Stabel, Women at the Market, p. 260.

52 Hutton, Economic Activities, pp. 127–8.

53 Ibid., pp. 72–5, 132–3.


54 Ibid., pp. 3–4, 123–4, 130–2.


55 Howell, Marriage Exchange, pp. 233–5.

56 Godding, Le droit, pp. 288–9.

57 Buylaert, F. and Ramandt, A., ‘The transformation of rural elites in late medieval Flanders: oligarchy and social change in the Liberty of Bruges (ca. 1350–ca. 1500)’, Continuity and Change, 30:1 (2015), 63–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 Soens, Spade, pp. 96–9.

59 For all large farms, between twenty and thirty in total, the names of the successive tenants and the relationship between them were put in a database. For the small plots of land, I focused on parts of the estate: the area around the village of Zuienkerke and the around the village of Schoondijke. The preservation of several fourteenth-century rentals allows us to compare the names of tenants through time: 1310: SAB, Aanwinsten, no. 689; 1337: ASSDB ASJH, D.2.2, Register St John’s hospital, 1337; B.1, Manual (Zuienkerke 1351), B.2, Manual (Schoondijke 1352), B.3, Manual (Schoondijke 1361), B.5, Manual (Zuienkerke 1369). From the 1420s onwards, annual accounts allow us to trace every single tenant, year after year. Every ten years, all tenants were recorded in a database. To be able to follow tenants, I made one sample for every ten consecutive years (since lease contracts never lasted longer than ten years): 1443–53, 1493–1503, 1533–43, and finally 1558–68.

60 Franklin, ‘Peasant widows’ “liberation”’, 191–2.

61 van Cruyningen, P., Behoudend maar buigzaam: boeren in West-Zeeuws-Vlaanderen 1650–1850 (Wageningen, 2000), pp. 273–4.Google Scholar

62 SAB, Registers van het Vrije, no. 16477: Weesregisters van het Noordvrije, Ambacht Zuienkerke.

63 Van Cruyningen, Behoudend, pp. 256–8.

64 Municipal Library Courtrai, Collection Goethals-Vercruysse, no. 7249: De Rapsodisten, 12 (1784), pp. 187–8: ‘Dit zoude dan aan veele frisse Boeren knegten schooner gelegentheden aan de hand geven om zig te kunnen stellen, en uit dat voor hen bekoorlyk uit zigt zouden zy aanstonds hunne oogen op jonge maagden laten vallen en zig daar mede wettely verëenigen, als wel wetende, dat zy uit deze malsse grond beter huns gelyke kunnen teelen, dan wel uit een gerimpelde boerin, waar mede zommige heden, uit noodzaakelykheid, moeten trouwen, willen zy eens Boer worden.’

65 Gottschalk, M. K. E., De Vier Ambachten en het Land van Saaftinge in de Middeleeuwen. Een historisch-geografisch onderzoek betreffende Oost-Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (Assen, 1984), pp. 492–3Google Scholar.

66 ASSDB ASJH, D.7: Snellegem farm: ‘soe rest zoe niet dan 500 gleuys die hebben wij tgoet jghens tjaer 1482 de anno 1481’.

67 ASSDB ASJH, D.7: Goed te Stalhille farm: ‘dies es voorwoorde dat de voors. weduwe de husinghen van de cleen stedekin te weten de schuere zal te ghereecx houdene op huers selfs cost mids dat zij die ghebruucken … dat de voors. pachtegge binnen hueren pachte niet breken en zal moghen’.

68 ASSDB ASJH, Account 1547–8.

69 ASSDB ASJH, Pacquets, C. Box Scueringhe, account bursar, 1532–3 and 1533–4; SAB, Aanwinsten, 682: account bursar, 1536–7.

70 Lee, J., ‘Feeding the colleges: Cambridge’s food and fuel supplies, 1450–1560’, The Economic History Review, 56 (2003), 252CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Threlfall-Holmes, M., Monks and Markets, Durham Cathedral Priory 1460–1520 (Oxford, 2005), pp. 207–09.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

71 ASSDB ASJH, account, 1512–13; current account.

72 Vandenbroeke, C., Vrijen en Trouwen van de Middeleeuwen tot heden (Brussels, 1986), pp. 44–5.Google Scholar

73 For thirteenth-century England, J. Titow presented a model describing the relation between the availability of land and the number of remarriages: Titow, J., ‘Some differences between manors and their effects on the condition of the peasants in the thirteenth century’, Agricultural History Review, 10 (1962), 113Google Scholar.

74 Vervaet, Goederenbeheer, pp. 233–9, 514–21.

75 van Cruyningen, Behoudend, p. 274.

76 Lambrecht, T., ‘The Institution of Service in Rural Flanders in the Sixteenth Century: A Regional Perspective’, in Whittle, J., ed., Servants in Rural Europe (Woodbridge, 2017), pp. 52–3.Google Scholar

77 Vervaet, Goederenbeheer, p. 147.

78 Hanawalt, B. A., ‘Marriage as an Option in Late Medieval England’, in Walker, S. S., ed., Wife and Widow in Medieval England (Michigan, 1993), p. 159Google Scholar.

79 Franklin, ‘Peasants widows’ “liberation”’, 194.

80 Bennett, J. M., A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1295–1344 (Boston, 1999)Google Scholar.

81 Whittle, ‘Rural Economies’, pp. 316–319.

Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Women and leasehold in rural Flanders, c. 1290 to c. 1570
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Women and leasehold in rural Flanders, c. 1290 to c. 1570
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Women and leasehold in rural Flanders, c. 1290 to c. 1570
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *