Villages and Serfdom 800 – 1300

Medieval Serfdom of Roman origin

One of the most far-reaching developments for our region, during Roman times was the reorganisation of the Empire under Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (Diocletian) (284 – 305). Over time more and more administrative staff was recruited by the Romans from the ‘foreign’ provinces and locals slowly even started to replace even most military staff. Increasingly also ‘free’ Germans started to take part in these functions.

This significant increase in bureaucracy required new taxes. In exchange he provided the large landowner certain rights under public law in this way governance, justice and tax collection were linked to landownership. In this way private property title resulted in rights under public law. For fiscal reasons farmers were linked to their land; people were bound to the land until they had paid their taxes.  If those lands were sold these people (serfs) were sold with it. It is here that we find the roots to following feudal systems. While the landowners and military leaders became the start of the European nobility. Interestingly physical strength in the Middle Ages was not linked to physical work in daily life but to political and military activity.

Diocletian doubled the size of the army and instigated far reaching military reforms. Along the Rhine lightly armed boarder troops on horseback were deployed, often recruited from the new German invaders. They were only deployed as a first level of defence with the aim to deploy larger units for assistance if so required. By deploying locals (as a result of the rapidly changing multicultural policy of the Empire) they successfully avoided large scale attacks. Nijmegen, Kessel and Ceuclum were, as mentioned above, the key fortresses during the 4th century along the far northern border of the Empire. Titles such as count (comes) and duke (dux) are also dating back to the Late Empire. They were given to holders of substantial, strategically situated territories.

While the system declined after the collapse of the Roman Empire and many landholders and military leaders left some were able to hang on to their titles, lands and wealth during the Merovingian and Carolingian periods and many more were added more or less along the same concept as it was established under Diocletian.

The less wealthy people could lease land from the local king and cultivate that for his own purpose. This system was known as precarium (a petition or prayer requesting the landowner to lease him the land). Basically, this group of people started to replace the Roman slaves. The Church also did find the system of precarium useful in order to bring their for ever expanding properties under cultivation. This complex system of relationship forms the basis of the evolving feudal system proper and well as the system of serfdom.

However, most of the Roman landowners went back further south, mainly to Rome. While during this period of confusion there were no legal arrangements that guided the various relationships and the rights and plights, many of the principles of the Diocletian system survived and once the Church and the Merovingians started to take control, many of these Roman legal and administrative systems were also adopted by them. With increased violence during the Merovingian period, all levels of society needed more and more protection. By the Early Middle Ages, the system of Diocletian had grown into a proto-feudal system.

After Clovis the Merovingian Empire collapsed onto itself and for 200 years it was no longer possible – in the western part of the Empire which in name still fell under the Emperor in Constantinople – to maintain the cultural, military and economic integrity of the Roman systems, initially the tax system from Diocletian was continued but rapidly this stopped at the landowner. Once the gift-based economy of the raiding Franks and Germans started to stop, wealth became measured in landownership.

Seigneurial communities

It is around the 8th and 9th centuries that from these mansions, monasteries and farms that the early villages started to emerge. A range of customary law got incorporated into this serf system. This system was partly based on old tribal laws and partly on how these gifts were formulated in the charters that documented them. In exchange for ‘protection’ the farmers in and around these domains (hoven) had to pay taxes in the form of both produce and services, this developed after the collapse of the Carolingian empire into a full blow serfdom system.

To a large extend the people in the Middle Ages – as their tribal ancestors – saw themselves living within a heterodynamic society, one that is based on success and failure originating from outside themselves such as their environment (natural, tribal, pagan) and later their secular lords and God (through the church). Knights and more general rulers as well as several saints were often people that received external superhuman powers able to sleigh dragons and devils (evil) again a model that dates back to pre-Christian times. Another element of that heterodynamic model was that monks, nuns and missionaries often provided advice and warnings to rulers emphasising the need for supernatural support from God. [x. Understanding the Middle Ages, Harald Kleinschmidt, 2000, p63]

Despite its many downsides, the serf system did provide some very basic (subsistence) securities to the serfs. There was little or no need for money in such a closed economic system. Money was only used by the nobility and the merchants.

Some of these farms were simply grouped together and were made communities at that stage they did not yet grew into proper villages without any civic rights they became tradeable properties of the Lord. Especially in Twente do we see a range of these ‘hoven’ many had their own mill, bakery, and trades people and employed a relatively large number of people; sometimes they included several smaller neighbouring farms as well. Already in 797, the hoven of Mander and Hezinge (both near Ootmarsum) are mentioned in an official Charter from Oodhelm whereby he donated the farms to the Church of Wichmond near Zutphen. These farms were managed by the court of the major-domo (who lived elsewhere) he was in charge of the production and the management of the farm and he was also in charge of the various feudal and servitude obligations of the people. This system operated outside the normal civil system (city, province) of the day. Because of their often rather isolated positions they were amongst the last elements of the feudal system in the Netherlands that finally got dismantled. The Court of Ootmarsum was finally abolished in 1812, during the Napoleonic Period.

In the year 900, farms in Nordhorn and De Lutte are mentioned as properties of the Werden Monastery (modern Essen) and in 1255 properties in Nordhorn belonged to the Langenhorst Monastery in Ochtrup near Steinfurt [1.  Nordhorn, Geschichte einer Grenzstadt, 1979, Heinrich Specht, p 13].

Around the 9th century under the ancient nobility – pre-feudal landlords – a more full-blown feudal system of lower landlords started to emerge. Feudalism and vassalage were arrangements between the nobility, which only made up between 1 and 5% of the total population. This system started to grow during the Merovingian and Carolingian periods where the kings originally rewarded his warlords with treasure. However, this system started to reach its limitations and the rewards started to be paid out in the form of land (domains/manors/hoven). Increasingly also privileges (rights) were added along the lines of the immunities issued during Merovingian times to the emerging monasteries.

The new domains started to include the farms that were part of the above mentioned territory (patrimonial/allodial domain) as well as a range of other claims, goods and services – they started to form the first villages.  In order to manage and administer all of this a manor (seigneurie, heerlijkheid) became the centre of the seigneurial system (manorialism). It was also on these domains that the first chapels and churches started to emerge, initially just for the Lord and his family, later also for the parishioners.

Once these seigneurial centres started to emerge satellite farming communities were established (hoven).  In general, we are still talking about very small communities often not more than one or two extended farming families. This system became the essential base for the feudal wealth system of the nobility.

Within these new structures the village became a legal public entity, with the local lord at its head.

It is also important to mention the difference between feudalism and manorialism. The first involved the political system and the latter the economic system, linked to this. The villagers themselves wouldn’t have noticed much of the feudal system, from their perspective what mattered was the seigneurial (manor) system, that was the one they were confronted with on a daily basis

The agriculture communities that started to evolve included all three classes the serfs/ free farmers, the clergy and the nobility. From the start there were significant differences within the social structures of these emerging agriculture communities (villages).

The church also participated in this system (and in many cases was the seigneur), however, their lands were not heritable, this system is known as prebendal domain.  With ecclesiastical and secular life very much intertwined during the Middle Ages both systems were not mutual exclusive.  One of the developments here was that, in order to run the Bishopric, the bishop appointed ministerialists, feudal bureaucrats in charge of the administration of property and feudal rights on behalf of the Bishop.

Wherever these ecclesiastic and secular rulers started to take procession of these domains, the people who already lived here simply became part of it, they had little say in it and over time their position worsened. With an ongoing fragmentation of landownership, the system became very confusing with many conflicts in relation to who owns what. Often after generations some farming families suddenly saw their property being made part of a new manor, while they believed they were independent people. They however had no answer to the brute force of yet another warring knight who established himself as the new landlord.

Together with serfdom and lordship, that evolved from the anarchy of the Dark Ages, this created a different environment that set the scene for a totally new system of social, legal and economic development that lasted for close to 500 years (800 – 1300).  On a more positive note, this feudal  system became the major economic engine behind the agriculture revolution that occurred during this period and coincided with the Medieval Warm Period that created favourable climatological condition for this to happen.

The villages with its lands as discussed below together with the manor/domain system became an integrated unit throughout most of north western-Europe. Within this system the lord also was the largest consumer of surpluses, which kept the system fully self-sufficient.

These Feudal Ages were also the centuries where the clerical and in particular the monastic powers reached their pinnacle. The Church as well as the secular leaders had since time immemorial owned large number of slaves and the serf system therefore was for them a logical evolution from this earlier Roman system. What we have here is the beginning of capitalistic economic development without any form of social protection.  For several thousands of years already slaves were seen as property similar to cattle and tools, even an enlightened person as Aristotle describes them as such in his book ‘The Politics’: ” the deliberate function of the soul is not present in a slave, inoperative in a female and undeveloped in a child”.

Also, under the system of serfdom these people were subject to absolute authority and arbitrary will of the lord to whose patrimony he belonged by birth. It was in the interest of the ruling class to maintain the status quo, as that would result in ‘harmony’. Any changes (progress) would destabilise their world and therefore their power. Very little social and economic progress was therefore made by the farmers during these 500 years of manorialism. ‘Protective’ feudalism must also be seen as a response to the anarchy of the Dark Ages. However, unbridled powers to look after this ‘harmony’ were in the hands of only 3-5% of the population; with the other 95% no say whatsoever in how best harmony should be established and maintained.

While the other classes of society were progressing, the peasants and villeins missed largely out on this. At no time before, during and after this period was there any indication that the peasants accepted manorialism. But, only at snail pace are we seeing social improvements being made among this class, it was not until the Age of Death (14th century) that- because of an under-supply of serf labour,  a first break with the feudal system was established in many parts of Europe, however throughout Europe certain lords and monasteries were able to hang on to this feudal system until the French Revolution and in the Eastern parts of the Netherlands (Twente) until the French Revolution and on Germany even until 1850, Russia only rid itself of serfdom after their Revolution in 1918. On the other hand, in the rest of the Low Countries there was a relative low level of servitude, even at the height of feudalism.

Looking back, it is also important to reflect on the eternal human struggle of trying to improve their own situation as well of that of the group they belong to.

In the Low Countries and in north Germany the manor system was also tempered by that fact that large land reclamation was undertaken and those peasants involved often received free land as compensation, this significantly improved their overall prosperity. This became a prelude for the development of more market oriented economic developments.

My ancestors in Wietmarschen were amongst the last in Western Europe to be subjected to the manor system. Sources indicate that under the influence of the more liberal rulers of Hanover (Hanover became Protestant in 1534), the feudal burden was rather light, furthermore they were amongst the pioneers reclaiming land from the vast Bourtanger Moor, so they might also have had certain privileges. But nevertheless, they were still subject to serfdom under the local monastery.

I have a direct link to that feudal system through a conversation I had with Rosa, the late wife of Joseph Budde (who died in WWII). In a discussion with her in the 1990s she mentioned with pride that Joseph and his father were ‘colons’. She put a lot of emphasis on that title and said it with a certain pride. When I later studied this further it became clear to me that what she indicated by that was as we will see later that they were reasonably well-off farmers, they had more freedom under the serf system of the local monastery. Colon was the term for a farmer who had the right to let one of his children become the new farmer and he ‘owned’ farmland.

The system of Serfdom

After the disintegration of the Carolingian empire, there was a period of anarchy. It was during the Dark Ages of the 10th and 11th centuries that we saw the arrival of hundreds and hundreds of war lords all over north-western Europe. Many of them had until that time been officials working on behalf of the Carolingian nobility. However, without any overseeing control anymore these landlords misused and abused their powers and started to subdue the local population, often with the help of their own militia.

During Merovingian and Carolingian times, social structures were still very much along the lines of the Germanic tribal arrangements. Decisions were taken by the ‘freemen’ (vicini, ceorls, liberi homines) within the tribes during their regular assemblies (ding/mallus/campus) where the freemen decided about the upcoming raids as well as all other major decisions that needed to be made as a community. All freemen were also obliged to provide fyrd (heervaart, leidang) their participation in a sort of short-term militia.

Under Charlemagne the freemen started to take on juridical positions as scabini (schepenen, sheriffs, bailiffs, officials). When villages started to emerge these scabini – at a local level – were chosen from among the local freemen. The freemen combined were also allowed to use and manage the commons. Once feudalism started to set in, the power of the freeman diminished and was taken over by the (lower) nobility).

Already during this period, we see that freemen or partial freemen started to give up their freedom, sometimes because of the pressure of taxes or because to avoid the fyrd. This development continued during the following centuries, caught between warring lords, protection was needed and given by the local ruler in exchange for their freedom. In some regions very few freemen survived and/or they became indistinguishable from the emerging serfs.

A new element that fuelled the system of serfdom was the low population density in Europe; labour had become a scarce commodity in the booming agriculture economy. Serfdom became a critical element to ensure that agriculture labour remained available. In order to make sure that the peasants kept working, Lords terrorised their subjects, fear was seen as a necessary tool and was also endorsed by the Church, only excesses were some sometimes questioned. Religious fear was the other weapon, if you didn’t adhere to the position in life that God had given you and perform according to the Church laws you would end up in hell.

The system was very effective and agriculture became a lucrative trade which provided income to the nobility through a system of taxes and levies and also the Church got its share through the tithes.

The lack of a proper functioning market of demand and supply allowed for the serf system to develop, well beyond the original format of the earlier Frankish system.  Furthermore, the collapse of central power also resulted in a collapse of the tax system with deprived the warlords of an alternative source of income. As a result of this every little landlord along a river or road tried to enforce its own toll system, which in turn severely hampered national and international trade.

By the end of the first millennium, Europe survived on a subsistence economy that did manage to feed a more or less stable population of around 20 million people. Large areas were still unsettled and large areas of land were still wilderness, undrained marshlands and extensive forests.

The impact of serfdom cannot be underestimated. Labour was bonded; this stopped and/or prevented the growth of a free flow of labour between farms and even between towns. It stifled innovation as very little communication took place that would allow for the sharing of new ideas.


Serfdom most certainly had its origin in the age-old tradition of slaves. Once the farming communities started to evolve into more sophisticated tribal or city societies, there were goods and properties to protect and to conquer and ever since that time the slave system evolved.

It was perfectly acceptable for these societies to see slaves as personal property (chattel). There was no moral issue with this at all as a matter of fact once religion started to evolve also these institutions had slaves.

One of the first Catholic scholars Origenes of Alexandria wrote in the 3rd century that the offspring on Noah’s son Cham (Ham) became the African people and because Cham had dishonoured his father Noah cursed his son and as such Origenes concluded all his offspring, being the African people, were equally cursed. This argument was still used by the Dutch in the 17th century to justify slavery.

In the City state of Athens perhaps as much as half the population was made out of slaves. The Roman economy totally depended on the system of slavery and as much as 25-35% of the population was enslaved.  Besides manual labour, slaves performed many domestic services, and might be employed at highly skilled jobs and professions. Teachers, accountants, and physicians were often slaves. Greek slaves in particular might be highly educated. Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were brutal, and their lives short. Their value was roughly the same as one head of cattle.

The slave trade in Europe stared to flourish again in the 10th century; with the Vikings being the major traders. The raided the Slavic (this is where the word slave originates from) countries and transported large numbers to Byzantium and the Arab Caliphate (including Spain). It is estimated that at that time 10% of the European population was still enslaved. This is also reflected in the the Doomsday Book; by 1100 still 10% of the population in Britain were slaves.

Interestingly and sadly peasants because of the rough look and behaviour were in the Middle Ages also easily stigmatised and compared with the dark-skinned people which made it all the easier to make them serfs. Slowly but surely people stared to question the wholes system of slavery and the Catholic Church was indeed one of the first to abandon the system.

By the Late Middle Ages, the trend was clearly downwards and at least in north-western Europe the phenomenon had basically disappeared. Nevertheless, as mentioned above merchants in the Low Countries were amongst the first to become involved in the lucrative slave trade between Africa and the Americas. Slavery was only finally abolished in 1865. However, even nowadays millions of people still live in very similar situation (forced labour) as those earlier slaves, as a matter of fact it could be argued that those who are currently enslaved are far worse off than those in previous centuries.

Serfdom by church and state

During the transition from the Merovingian to the Carolingian period, we see a gradual change from a more or less independent (free) farming society to a proto-feudal and later a full feudal (fief) society. Such a society is characterised by relationships between two free men of unequal social rank. It regulated administrative, military and other services in relation to grants, landholding and other benefits that resulted from such a society. Over the following centuries in several parts of Europe it became the predominant economic and social structure.

The two key drivers for this development are:

  • The increasing influence of the church on society
  • The more autocratic nature of the rulers (starting from the Carolingians)

The preaching’s of the church clearly indicated that there were different levels of authority. And the Carolingians used religion to submit the ‘pagans’ they conquered during their traditional raids. At the same time the church was only too happy to support this as it also provided them with increased authority and increased influence within the circles of power.

Gradually the norm became to work on the properties of the landowners and the monasteries and the feudalisation was largely completed at the turn of the first millennium. The link between individual people and their land was broken, this led, especially during the Dark Ages, to severe poverty and misery amongst the peasants.

A range of customary law got incorporated into this serf system. This system was partly based on old tribal laws and partly on how these gifts were formulated in the charters that documented them. It did provide some very basic securities to the serfs.

As this system developed largely unchecked it developed into a very severe suppression of the local people. They were subdued by taxes, fines, and forced labour by rules that only operated in favour of the feudal lord (which very often was a monastery). Research from people such as Dr. G.G. Coulton (The Medieval Village) indicates that monasteries were only perhaps 5% more lenient in this system than the secular lords. From an ordinary people perspective these centuries can rightly be called the Dark Ages, most lived in poverty and would go through several periods of near starvation during their lifetime.

On average serfs had to pay approx. half of their annual income to the Lord (sometimes more than one) and the Church (tithes).

While a third of all the land around them was forest, they were not allowed to hunt here as that was the privilege of the nobility. The by the Lord appointed foresters were among the most feared authorities by the peasants. Starvation would often drive them to the forests but if they were caught or suspected punishments were harsh (blinding and castration) and often meant hanging on the spot.

Land (including the people/chattel) also started to become more and more involved as a trading object in the gift exchanges. Especially in relation to the church large land donations were made, the produce of the land than funded the building of monasteries, churches and allowed for the education of new priests and missionaries.

The increase of the population in the 9th and especially from the 10th century onwards saw an intensification of a more efficient agriculture-based economy. This development had already started under Charlemagne who was a driving force behind the developments of agriculture. Under his regime the pioneers involved in this land reclamation for agriculture purposes received half of that land or half of the produce yielded from that land. There was a real competition for these pioneers as many local lords and monasteries vied for their labour.

Land reclamation

During this booming agriculture period the population started to grow and peasants started to spread across Europe looking for fertile lands that they could cultivate.

Small scale reclamation started with free Frisian farmers perhaps as early as from the early 10th century, they turned wads into pasture by digging ditches to get rid of surplus water. A century later free farmers in Holland they started to reclaim lands from the peat areas. Around the same time monks in Flanders started to reclaim coastal lands. By the  mid-11th century more organised reclamation started when the local nobility had established their territorial powers and their system of serfdom. This created extra land for them and thus added to their wealth.

Some of the early leaders in land reclamation were:

  • Feudal Lords in Holland
  • Bishops of Utrecht since 1105
  • Bishops of Bremen-Hamburg 1106
  • Count Adolf II of Holstein (1131 – 1164)
  • Albert the Bear of Brandenburg (1144 – 1170)
  • Abbots in Zeeland 11th century Henry the Lion of Brunswick (1145 – 1180)
  • Monastic orders of the Cistercians and the Premonstratensians

With lots of peat land available for reclamation, the Low Countries and northern Germany were leading land reclamation and people from Flanders and Holland became welcome labourers throughout the region and many became settlers and owned most of the land that they tiled for the lords who invited them to assist them in the reclamation. By 1500 most of peasant farmers in in the south and the north of the Low Countries were free of seigneurial control. In the north-east there had never been any strong seigneurial control, so the land in most of the Low Countries was parcelled in small plots owned by the farmers, the church and the nobility alike. In Holland approx. 5% of the land was owned by the nobility, 10% by the church and the city dwellers were another prominent group of landowners; perhaps as much as a third of the land. [x. The Dutch Republic, Jonathan I. Israel,1995, p16-108]

To entice farmers to participate in land reclamation, they received attractive conditions such as no tax during the first three harvest years, attractive land tax conditions, etc.  For many centuries the Dutch travelled through the whole of northern Europe to well into Russia to assist in land reclamation. The liberties that these clearing pioneers were granted became known as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Flemish’ law.

The Dutch have a saying: ‘God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands’, more than 1/5th of the country is reclaimed land, a total of 7.000Km².

Within a reasonable short period of time farmers saw their landownership increase and in relative terms the nobility’s share decreased. In Holland, Flanders and Brabant the nobility class was less defined by landownership than it was by legal, political and social privileges.

However, on the sandy-soils in the eastern provinces as well as eastern Utrecht, Limburg and north-east Brabant, the structure of the rural society reflected more of the prevalent system in Europe. There was less urbanisation, more villages and greater seigneurial control. In Twente as much as 52% of the land was owned by the nobility. Nevertheless, the influence of the rest of the Netherlands saw also changes happening in these poorer regions. During the urbanisation process in Holland, Flanders and Brabant the rural population in other parts of the country also grew substantially, providing the agriculture produce needed in those centres. Also, a substantial flow of labour occurred from the east to the south and the west of the country.

Around 1600 my ancestors in Wietmarschen started to become involved in land reclamation. However, also here the first steps were made many centuries before. Back in 1152 Hugo van Buren got permission from the Duchess Gertrudis from Bentheim to start Sünt Marienrode, a double monastery (men and women) that could start with the cultivation of a segment of the southern part of the Bourtanger Moor. They followed the rule of Saint Benedict. The County of Bentheim was in that time a procession of the Counts of Holland.

Land reclamation also meant a change to the agriculture system. Reclaimed land was very fertile and yielded good crops and therefore allowed an economic development  away from subsistence farming towards a more market focussed economy. This of course didn’t happen everywhere but in particular this was the case in Holland and it laid the foundation of the trading power it became in following centuries.

The monastic orders also played a key role in politics as they were often the institution to manage these uncultivated lands in the newly conquered border regions. The Cistercians started with forest reclamation in Burgundy and through daughter monasteries rapidly expanded their activities throughout western Europe.  The Abbots of Zeeland were among the first to organise this in a systematic way. German orders followed in the Baltic region, Frankish ones in Greece and British monks in Scotland. These developments were done in ‘isolation’ there was no involvement from the local peasants, nor were they included in these developments or did they directly benefit from this.

As an offshoot of these land reclamation commons were established. In the east of the Netherlands and in Germany they were known as marken. Because of these reclamation processes there were fewer uncultivated areas which since time immemorial were used by the villagers to herd sheep and produce fertiliser for their fields. In exchange for the reclaimed ‘common’ grounds new commons (marken) were established as legal entities, many of which still exist a thousand year later. Ootmarsum had a mark court (markgericht) , were disputes in relation to these marken were settled.

Under the Dukes of Brabant, the river Maas was diked in and fertile floodplains were used to graze cattle and grow grains, flax and other produce. This made it for example possible to grow a small farming settlement into a town and later city. Oss profited from these developments and was for this and other reasons able to develop itself into a city.

As a result of the utilisation of peatland led to subsidence, which started to create significant environmental problems in the following centuries under less favourable climatic conditions in the so called Little Ice Age.

Another side effect was that the cultivation on these previous peat lands became more and more difficult and Holland was forced to import grain from Prussia and the Baltic countries.

Reclamation on sandy soils

A separate reclamation takes place on the sandy soils. Here we see deforestation followed by improving the soils with manure. These fields are called in the east of the Low Countries ‘essen’ and in the south ‘akkers’.

They mostly start off as square fields but because of inheritance division they end up as oblong lots. As land reclamation continues from here these lots become longer and longer and in the end, we see the farms being moved along, leaving the old centre of the settlement empty – often with the ruins of the old church.

Over the centuries the added manure often with sods are creating elevated fields that are sticking out in the landscape, especially in a rather flat country such as the Netherlands.

From farms to villages

Dictated by the environment

The Lower Rhine Delta in what is now the Low Countries has been the dominating factor in how this part of the world has developed over the millennia. The harsh conditions made this part of Europe one of the last parts to become populated. The harsh conditions only allowed for sparse population, the yield of the land was very low and required close cooperation within the small farming communities (two to five farming families). Fishing and hunting were important activities essential to complement the agriculture produce. To the south was the impregnable forest were very few if any people lived, land clearing transformed most of the forest in poor agriculture lands in the second half of the first millennium.

The Roman period did not have any direct effect on the local way of life; their farming culture was based on the slave-manned villas. However Roman trade as well as their military activities certainly had its influence on the development of the region both within Gaul and in the Germanic lands

These influences, however, did not result in the development of larger villages let alone cities.  We mentioned some of the Roman military camps and of course Nijmegen and Tongeren but after the Romans left, these places rapidly depopulated, Tongeren and Nijmegen survived but only as small settlements. Under the Frisians, Dorestad on the Rhine, became another sizeable settlement. Around the same time the first monasteries started to appear, Ghent developed around such a place. Under the Merovingians and Carolingians Antwerp and Utrecht started to emerge, Middelburg followed a bit later.

During the Merovingian and Carolingian periods many properties in what Brabant is now were donated to the rapidly growing number of monasteries that were established under the patronage of the kings and their families. Historians dismiss an interpretation that a property, possibly in Oss, was in 713 donated to the Abbot of Echternach, the later Saint Willibrord. For certain is it that such as property was mentioned in 1069 [2. Oss een stad, 1998, p 49].  Other interpretations of names in and around Oss also indicate that during the early Middle Ages the Salian Franks might have settled in Oss, the names Vranckenbeemd and a reference to Mallobergium Ohseno (ding hill – the centre of Oss is called The Hill – Heuvel) might point into that direction. While there is no evidence of this – so far not even archaeological evidence – it could well be that if these Franks would have settled here, they could have been part of what would become the Merovingian Empire and as such Frankish properties could have ended up in the hands of Merovingian nobility who were well known of donating properties to Echternach.

Some of the farming properties in Oss had already been in use since 2000 BCE by ‘free’ communities, but some of them were, in the Middle Ages, owned by the Duke of Brabant, who held feudal rights over them. How they were operated is uncertain but the villeins and peasants of Oss had to pay annual feudal taxes over them. In 1526 it was reported that there were 14 properties owned by citizens from Den Bosch and two other properties from other landowners for which the people of Oss annually had to pay 680 guilders and 187 mudde (approx. 70kg per mudde) of rye.

While between 1100 and 1300 Oss started to develop itself as a town and later a city, by enlarge the region (as indeed all of Europe) maintained its centuries old farming nature; at least 95% of all people were peasants. Their settlements were a collection of farmhouses, huts, sheds, barns and enclosures for sheep and perhaps a few cattle, with their fields and meadows surrounding them. Most farmhouses were designed as long houses as the ones unearthed in Oss. Interestingly later developments of settlements and villages started to see apart from these longhouses also far poorer buildings such as huts cut into the earth, so much for progress. The reason why Oss grew from a collection of farms into a town, was because of the market function it was able to establish. Within a 10-kilometre radius there were at least 25 villages and hamlets for which it fulfilled regional functions. Its strategic position – on the border of Brabant and Gelre – saw it developing into a city, with walls and fortifications. In reality however, it remained an agriculture community with a market function. Its remarkable marketplace – De Heuvel – is still the centre of town.

Around 1330, the villages were still a collection of farms scattered around an area, based on practical, geographic conditions, taking weather and flood conditions into account and linked in with the farmlands that are cultivated by that farmer. The farmhouses themselves wouldn’t be that much different from those used by their pre-historic ancestors, however their seizes are more variable, in the Middle Ages they ranged from 5 to 15 meters long The floors are compacted uneven earth. Thatched roofs started from chest heigh and were overgrown with moss, with wholes with some louvre-alike cover over it to let the smoke out. It would have a few buildings around it including a stable, a barn, a hen and goose house, a pile of firewood, sometimes a brew house or a bake house, a cart. The lot would be enclosed by a fence and the area would also include a vegetable and herb garden. If there is a mill it will stand there because it is the best place to catch the wind or in case of a watermill based on the best conditions in the river for such a building. Somewhere central there would also be a small church however, only a few of the houses would be in visual distance of the church. In the feudal regions a village could also include the mansion of the Lord who owns the village and the farms. He might not live their but his farms would be managed from here and it was also here that taxes and fees were collected and from where feudal law was exercised over the regions.

Scattered throughout the landscape would also be the various monasteries and their farming and cultivation activities.

From the 13th century onwards, many new innovations in farm building and agriculture practices were introduced and in the more prosperous areas this led to significant improvement of living conditions and agriculture practices. A major improvement was the use of plaggen soil this increased the yield and this in particular improved the situation on the higher sandy soils, as a result all of these areas were turned into fields and the farms themselves – who for the previous 200 years had been situated on these higher areas – were being moved from these fertile grounds to the lower areas in the landscape. The landscape started to change. Forests were cut to create health lands for the sheep, heath was cut from the topsoil and used in the so-called deep litter (potstal) stables where it was soaked by the manure (plaggen soil).  After that it was used on the fields , over hundreds of years these field became higher because of the layers of deep litter, especially in Twente these fields known as ‘essen’ stand out in the landscape, they are sometimes more than a meter higher that the surrounding landscape.  However, in some areas the removal of heath let to and being blown over the heath, forming sand dunes. These sand dunes are still visible in and around Oss, Herpen and Uden.

For more on the developments of the early farming settlements in Oss see also: Prehistoric times in northwest Europe

The arrival of the local lords

After the collapse of the Carolingian empire a land grab was launched by the local chiefs and the upcoming nobility, within a few hundred years every bid of land had a local ruler, who then of course had to defend its newly conquered territory, so what most probably were the mead halls of the chiefs perhaps with his farmhouses (long house), became the first fortified buildings later on a watch or defence tower was added  and over time these  grew into motte-and-bailey  castles.

While the early knights and squires were seen as the protectors of the people this situation rapidly changed.

The lower nobilities simply continued the bannum, which originally only belonged to the tribal chief and later on the Carolingian kings. As indicted in the chapter on the Early Middle Ages of vassalage was simply an exploitation of the local population and as such a continuation of the system that had emerged in the late Roman period when the central authority started to lose it grip and local landlords started to take the law into their own hands.

Their castles simply became a weapon of war and terror to where these feudal lords could safely return after have raiding neighbouring villages, castles, farmers, etc. Castles allowed these lords to behave with impunity. From here they could inflict injury and insult without any fear of retaliation. The look like defence structure however, in reality they most of the time were simply attack and occupation weapons. It made the civil wars between competing lords much more intractable. Medieval battles during the High Middle Ages took place one by one as none of the thousands of local lords had the resources to start an all-out war.

Castles emerged on the scene not as an expression of strength but of weakness and were a response to the collapse of central power.

As these local chiefs became wealthier – because of this for them very favourable system – they started to assemble their own vassals as armed warriors and became even more powerful, making them largely independent from the King. Most of their money was spend on warfare and castle spending could easily take up half of their annual budget.

The Merovingian immunities now also started to include toll concessions, market dues, digging moats, building defence walls, building castles and the right to punish and the fines and revenues associated with it. All of this with still closely tied to the Frankish gift-giving system.

It was the strongholds of these local vassals that started to give the impetuous of many if not most of the villages that are still with us today. Originally not more than fortified strongholds, mansions and castles started to emerge and the walled area around it started to provide protection to the farmers in the area in an ever more aggressive environment and as a consequence these ‘free’ farmers became more and more dependent on these lords, this further consolidated the system of serfdom.

It is from these castles that the counties and duchies of Flanders, Brabant, Limburg, Gelre, Holland and Utrecht developed. This history can often be traced back to a single caste. These more significant warlords had underneath them vassals who had to swear allegiance to them and who ruled over villages and rural areas where they exploited the local peasants as serfs. The Lord of Oss as well as the neighbouring Lords of Megen, Oijen and Cuijk for example all were vassals under the Duke of Brabant.

Slowly these regional counts and dukes started to take control over their larger regions and castles became incorporated in their networks and larger castles started to be built in particular during the 13th century. The ruler often travelled from castle to castle in order to cater for the food and other provisions of his court. Until well into the 16th century it was often easier to travel to the supplies rather than to bring these supplies to one central place.

With the more widespread use of gunpowder from the late 14th century onward the castles lost their strategic advantages as weapons of war. This resulted in widespread changes to warfare, governments and society in general. The costs of new weapons (canons, firearms, warships) were too much for the smaller rulers and this became a key driver behind the emergence of the larger states as we know them today. There was no longer the need for vassal provided military services, instead taxes were needed to pay for the new war efforts.


Since the 13th century we see the arrival of ‘landweren’ defence walls, constructed in the landscape by local communities to try and stop raiding parties plundering. These defence walls started in Germany and spread over the next hundred years further west to the Low Countries. Defence was a stronger form of warfare; it is easier to defend than to attack. These walls were planted with dense bushes and often had moats alongside, sometimes there were doubler and even triple walls (such as near de Lutte near Ootmarsum). There were narrow entrances in these walls and some of these ‘gates’ had fortifications.

One of the largest complexes of landweren was on the eastern side of Oss, from the river Maas in the north to the villages of Berchem and Heesch to the south in all a stretch of some 10 – 15 kilometres. Archaeologists have also excavated small holes, initially it was thought that poles would have been placed in them as another defence mechanism, however it is now believed that these were so called ‘trip holes’ which would have made it more difficult for horse to traverse the terrain. The first time this landweer was mentioned was in 1359 and it had been built to defend the people against the ongoing attacks from Gelre. There were also extensive defence walls to the northeast of Ootmarsum, to defend itself against Bentheim.

The system of these local fortifications flourished in feudal times when many local rulers lived in almost continuing situation of war with each other. Once a more central governance started to emerge these local fortifications started to lose their importance.

They slowly started to lose their effectiveness after 1500, partly because of more centralised government but also because new warfare technologies. However, many of them lingered on for the next few centuries, the land of the landweer in Oss was finally subdivided and sold in 1760. It only totally disappeared in the 20th century when the city expanded to the east and now only street names refer to this once critical line of defence [3.  Landweren in Nederland, Bertus Brokamp, 2007].

Feudalism in Oss

While the historic proof is heavily disputed, there are indications that the Franks arrived in the area sometimes after 400. I have argued that the name Vrankenbeemde for a grassland property to the northwest of Oss was named by the native inhabitants after the people who came from outside and settled here. The fact that this land later belonged to the Lord van Amstel, who after he had fled from Amsterdam to Oss had received property from the Lords van Kuyc (related to one of their grandparents) indicates that this land was in the hands of (local) elite. Based on similar situations it could be argued that these lands might have belonged to the Church and was re-appropriated by the various war lords who started to establish themselves thought Europe during the 10th and 11th centuries. During the following centuries the Duke handed some of the land over to his vassals in exchange for military services and after they had, according to old Frankish tradition, sworn allegiance to the Duke.

The Abbey of Echternach has held land in Oss since time immemorial for which they, until 1797, received the tithes (tenths). This abbey was founded by St Willibrord. Legend has it that he had visited Oss and had baptised the local people here.  The Medieval St Willibrord church that was situated south of Oss on the higher situated heath area was the place where the baptism had taken place and the well that has been discovered here during archaeological work would support at least some parts of the legend. In one of the many war activities that happened in and around the church was burned down during the Austrian-Habsburg Succession War in 1748. The sacred place however was still venerated and used for pilgrimages at the end of the 19th century.

Apart from Echternach also the Monasteries of Hage (near Eindhoven) and that of the Norbertines in Tiel held property rights in Oss

Historic documents from the Middle Ages indicate that there were 14 feudal properties in Oss, that belonged to the various Lords as well as to the Abbey. Most of the properties were situated to the north of Oss (Ussen, Amsteleind, Katwijk and Kortfoort).

During the wars between Brabant and Gelre, Oss is regularly sacked and its citizens complain that they are unable to pay the feudal fees. In 1526 they were stated as being 680 Rhine Guilders and 187 mudde (measure) of Rye

Historian Jan Cunen argued that there also had been a property on the Heuvel (Hill), what is now the centre of the town. He concluded that this property was donated to the Abbey of Echternach and that this became the basis for the new church, the old one being the one to the south on the higher heath grounds. The Heuvel, being the highest place so close to the lower laying farming lands, must have been a prime property and it would make sense that that would have been occupied by the local chiefs and later Lords and these were the people, especially during Merovingian and Carolingian times, who would donate property to missionaries such as Willibrord. Most of the tithes paid to Echternach (The St Willibrord tithes) are on properties in and around the Heuvel.

Jonkers van Oss

The local Lords were the Jonkers (young nobleman) van Oss. The first known ancestor is Jan (van Panhedel) van Oss. Panheel is a very small village near Roermond in Limburg, could perhaps he or his family have received property is Oss, important enough to slowly see Panhedel disappear in favour of the surname van Oss?

The first tangible link with Oss dates from 1322 when Marcelus van Oss is mentioned to have an ‘open house’ here which he had been allowed to build by the Duke for the defence of the Duchy against Gelre. This was probably the castle Terwanen or Trawanten on the Craekenburg.

See also:  Jonkers van Oss.

The early villages and their peasants

Free men handed over their freedom, – often as a result of a war or a failed harvest – in return for protection and security given to him by the Lord. This phenomenon had already stared to occur in Carolingian times but rapidly increased during the 10th and 11th centuries. However, in the Carolingian period, especially under Charlemagne the Lord had clear responsibilities towards his serfs (slaves) and he had to protect them and had to guard against abuse.

Many of these pro-villages were still close to the springs and streams that were also chosen by the early Germans who had settled in these areas.

These villages were rather isolated from each other and totally self-sufficient.  During the Medieval Warmth, these rural communities were able, thanks to improved agriculture developments, to grow and clusters of farms started to turn into small villages, by 1300 on average there were around 50 households totalling some 250 people living in these communities (average of 4.5 person per household).

The end of the Medieval Warmth saw an end to this growth, with more people and worsening climate conditions this led to a prolonged situation of subsistence village life that lasted throughout the Little Ice Age and in some areas to well into the 20th century. By 1300 in the more habitual parts of north-western Europe you could find a village between 5- and 8-kilometres distance of each other. The larger of these villages, despite their relative low number of inhabitants – often not more than 500 – would have a regional function and could be called towns. These villages had significant market activities and as such became significant economic hubs. As means of travel was slow and primitive – mostly walking – people wouldn’t travel to a larger city for example 20 or 30 kilometres away. That would mean a two-day return trip including overnight accommodation. So, these towns often saw several hundred of extra people occupying their streets during daytime.

Living conditions in these towns was even more questionable here as in the cities. From the 14th century onward, you saw cities issuing rules and regulations that at least slightly improved living and environmental conditions within the settlement.  In the towns and villages, it, in some instances, took another 400 years to see such improvements being achieved. Some traders remained in the centre of towns such as tanners and butchers (slaughterhouses), human and animal refuse as well as other debris was just dumbed in or along the streets. Wooden houses and thatched roofs increased fire risks.

Throughout this period, most people wouldn’t venture beyond their own village and during their lifetime would perhaps meet not more than a few hundred people. Their vocabulary was rather limited in German it is estimated an average villager wouldn’t know more than some 600 words.

Their ideas and view were very limited with little or no knowledge of anything beyond their very small own world. Their ignorance and simplicity were widely ridiculed and talked down, they were accused of paganism and superstition. These peasants – making up 95% of the population – are leaving a rather poor historic legacy behind. Tellingly for these religious times, it was often remarked that there were only very few peasant saints. This was used as another indication on how backwards these people were. Even in the official doctrine of the Church, as for example formulated by Thomas Aquinas, peasants were essentially treated by the Church as of lower rank.

There are many laws and regulations that forbid these ‘rowdy’ people to dance on Sundays or other Holy Days, some of them based on writings dating all the way back to Augustine. Often heavy drinking was involved and quarrels ended in bloodshed. That fact that year after year we see these laws and regulations repeated indicate that they had little or no effect on the local population. At the same time, it is also important to note that the wars and vendettas of the nobles were not an object to similar rules and regulations.

The peasants didn’t have a voice and no education, most were unfree and had no rights, so there was little they could do to stand up for themselves.

During these 500 years they were the losers and the underdogs of society. Occasionally we do come across church records that talk about the miserable plight of the peasants.

While serfdom hampered individual freedom, the village as a whole enjoyed a high level of independence and autonomy. Within the village there was less importance given to the distinction between free and unfree people as would be the case in modern societies. What Medieval villages and villagers do have in common with modern societies is that the most important elements in life were love, sex, courtships, marriages, holidays, games, sports and plenty of booze. True life in most medieval villages was certainly far less comfortable, life was equally dominated by disease, poverty, famine, death and more death. In an average village of a few hundred people there would be a funeral nearly every week.

Live was unrelentingly harsh and revolved around the never changing rhythm of seasons of planting and harvesting. As much as 90% of rural Europe survived at near-subsistence levels, lived from harvest to harvest and were prone to illness because of back-breaking working condition, poor diet and reoccurring famine and epidemics. The same applied to the fishermen who lived in equal horrific circumstances with the added threat of death in the many drownings that were a fact of life of these people. Their women often worked on marginal plots of farming land to scrape enough food together for her families.

Despite often extreme hardship the village provided security. They were mostly close-knit communities, with most people directly or indirectly related to each other. Kinship relations were very important and secured that people who were the sick, infirm and injured were cared for by the community. While very poor, the village ensured the survival of its entire people. For centuries these very strong social units formed the backbone of all of the European countries.

For some the situation started to change in the 10th and 11th centuries when towns started to develop and many peasants were attracted by a possible better life in these often bustling new communities, however, these towns didn’t have the safety net provided by the villages and the poor in the towns were worse off than the poor in the villages.

Taxes, fines, fees and labour duties

By far the largest burden for any peasant in the Middle Ages were the taxes, fees, fines and labour duties that they were subjected to, with little or no legal protection and the church actively participating in these rorts there was no escape.

Both the church and the nobility were tax exempt. Often, they also had the rights to collect the taxes on behalf of their Count or Duke, of course after they first had taken their share of it.

Many of them had their origin in previous periods when the economy was based on booty and gift exchanges. These gifts became part of the common law and finally ended up as taxes, in many instances these taxes were levied totally at the will of their lords. Whenever, they needed money if it was for a war, the marriage of their son or daughter, a visit from another lord or simply a housewarming party taxes could be levied. They could be levied on goods, houses, land, or people.

Whenever a Lord called upon them, they simply had to oblige there was no appeal. By not showing up when summoned – day or night – or not paying a tax would immediately result in a fine. The local legal system was in the hands of that same lord.

Not paying the annual tailles in France could see the local Lord or Abbott take the door of your house away, a right confirmed by the Parliament in Paris in 1293. We also come across these ‘fines’ in other parts of Europe, especially used against peasants who had nothing else to pay.

While there were local variations the system was largely the same throughout north-western Europe.

There were some real barbarian punishments as well, they were not universal, some of them were very local, others had their origins in pagan punishments traditions.

Tax, fee, fine For Tax, fee, fine For
Censum (quit rent) Paying off certain work duties Filstingpound ‘insurance’ against corporal punishment
Woolsilver Shearing tax Leirwite/Legerwite Fine for sex out of wedlock (females)
Wardpenny Paying off watchman duties Hueshire Rent for the house
Maltsilver For making malt Tallage (taille) Yearly tax
Fishsilver For supplying fish Gersum Succession fee
Vineyard silver Work in the vineyard Heriot Death tax both to landlord and church
Foddercorn Ring of oats for each virgate Merchet Marriage fee (females)
Chevage Upon moving out of the village Monopoly fees Using mills, bakeries, sheepfold, court system, wine-ban
Akermen/bovarii Tax for the manor’s ploughmen Fines For various (minor) crimes
Poll Tax (poll old English for head) Per person

As mentioned, both rules and punishment were very local and could be implemented and changed at the whim of the landlord. As In Wietmarschen the punishment often had to be paid in wax – a minimum of half a pound-, to be used for the candles in the church, this of course was a precious commodity and as such a difficult punishment to fulfil. During the course of the ages more and more of these punishments were monetised.

The serfs working for their lords in the region between the Rhine and the Loire had on average work for 2 or 3 days for their master. The women had to spin flax.

The Monastery of Prüm owned land even in the Low Countries, in 893 their serfs in Arnhem had to pay 10% of every 100 litters of rye, four carts of wood, one chicken, five eggs and two pigs at the value of five pennies. On top of that they had to pay 27 pennies and in spring and autumn they had to work a fortnight for the lord.

The situation only started to change in the 13th century. Those belonging to the Saint Bavo Abbey in Ghent had their duties reduced to only a few days a year work on the lands of the lord, mainly to assist with haymaking or with the carting of manure.

The logistic of all of this was a significant burden, trying to collect produce over large distances must have been a real nightmare. With the money economy slowly starting up again dues was slowly being paid in money and this led to the growth of markets.

Another significant complexity was the lack of standards in any measurements, this applied to the size of a property or a farmland (different acre sizes), distances (many cities had their own ‘mile’), money. There are different ‘length’ measurements there is the foot, the ell, the inch; but an inch of Flemish cloth is different from an inch of English cloth. Liquids is perhaps the most confusing with different measurements depending on the actual liquid, a gallon of whine is not the same as a gallon of ale, imported beer is measured differently from local beer. Weights have their own very localized measurements.

Buddes in the Schatzungsregister – Wietmarschen

There’s a tax register (Schatzungsregister) where all farmers who belonged to the Stift Wietmarschen were listed with the amount of tax, they had to deliver every year to the Stift.

The main tax was the tallage, here known as ‘Garben Pacht’ the wheat tax, this was reviewed every 6 years (Garbenjahr – Garbe = sheaf). Every fourth wheat sheaf went to the monastery. Farmers were not allowed to harvest the sheafs before they were counted in the field by representatives of the monastery.  If this representative did not show up, they were still not allowed to bring the harvest in. This of course often created a lot of anxiety as these activities rely heavily on the unpredictable weather. At regular intervals we come across farmer-revolts against this rule. During the German peasant revolt also Wietmarschen showed its resistance and in 1530 the farms destroyed part of the harvest in protest to this feudal tax. The wheat tax in Wietmarschen also applied to other produce.

Other feudal duties that applied to the serfs in Wietmarschen:

  • All farmers with 2 to 5 horses had to provide their services with 2 horses during ploughing, seeding and for the transport of peat.
  • Smaller farms had to provide nine times a year for personal service and carriage for the Abbess.
  • These peasants also had to provide one day during harvest time with the sickle (only one person was needed) and one day, with two persons, with the scythe.
  • Children from the smaller farms had to do some work every half year such as shopping, weeding, cleaning, pick berries and were ordered to do other light tasks. These duties could also be paid off by their parents.
  • At the annual court day, the serfs had to confirm the feudal rights the landlord held over them.
  • When the father of the farm died or handed the farm over to the eldest son or daughter he couldn’t do without the permission of the landlord and the heir had to pay a fee (G.Erbwinnung – E. gersum) based on the value of the farm.
  • Also, here the heriot applied but on top of that there was the ‘Einheirat’ a separate fee for the funeral, both these fees could be negotiated.
  • As most people from outside the Wietmarschen were free people, they had to face the fact that they would become unfree when they married to somebody on one of the farms from the monastery. However, they could negotiate that one or two of their offspring would be free.
  • Those who wanted to move away outside the jurisdiction of the monastery had to buy themselves free. This happened with my great-great-great-great-great-grand father, who around 1770 bought himself free and moved to Nordhorn.

The Ürbar also mentions that at succession the new farmer had to ‘voluntarily’ promise:

  • That he was a serf belonging to the Abbess
  • He would not reclaim new land without permission
  • Keep his land in order
  • That he would only take wood from his own land
  • Take peat from the monastery’s land
  • To accept the new rent set in the next ‘Garben’ year.
  • Not keeping sheep without permission
  • Pay any debts
  • Plus, some duties specific to that farm

There was a myriad of other fees that were allocated to certain farms, often at will, This could be assistance during hunting, feeding the hunting dogs,

All of the above-mentioned transactions also resulted in significant ‘stamp charges’ locally known as the ‘winkop’, mostly this fee was three Taler. There also ongoing disputes about the ‘winkop’ as well as in relation to the taxes charged for the various feudal duties.

In 1733 the fees in relation to heriot and freedom added up to a fifth (194 Reichstaler) of the total income of the Monastery.

The rest of the family stayed on the farm – which is still occupied by this Budde family. Next is an overview of last listings of the Buddes in the Schatzungsregister:

  • In 1795 a field inspection took place amongst the farms belonging to the monastery. They noted that in the previous eleven years no reclamation of new peat grounds had taken place at the Budde farm.
  • The register of 1802 includes for Budde: two free and four taxable persons, two fireplaces, 3 horses, 8 cows, 2 pigs, 5 sheep, no bees and 3 geese. In its ranking list of 1829, 45 farmers were listed, Budde was no. 33.
  • In 1829 the annual corn tax noted: no rye, 5 Scheffels (old content-based measurement) of barley and 5 Scheffels of oats.
  • The farmer Budde finally became free (paid a final sum) in 1854. After this he was classified as a landowner.
  • The Buddes finally paid off the annual corn tax on 27 September 1854. They paid: no rye, 1 Malter (= 8 Scheffels) and 1 Scheffel of barley, 1 Malter and 1 Scheffel of oats, and 5 Florins and 7 Stuber for Prast (unknown what this is). Furthermore, he had to pay 118 Reichstaler, 11 Goldgroschen, 9 duit, 134 florijn and 10 Stuber. (The reason for this mixture of German and Dutch money is the fact the count of Bentheim didn’t like to receive only German money for these payments. This system slowly started to change when the new empire also introduced the Mark, divided into 100 Pfennig).

Another mention of the Budde family in the local history dates from 24 August 1795. During the Napoleonic wars the allied forces of England and Hannover, consisting of 600 soldiers and 200 horses, were billeted in Wietmarschen. The Buddes were compensated for their services and received an amount of 30 gulden for this.

When in 1887 the Wietmarscher Marke (common) was divided into private land, 49 farmers received a part of it. The Buddes are ranked as number 27 and received 28 hectares. The total farm was valued at 8699,61 Mark.

The Heriot

The most hated tax was the heriot as it basically deprived the peasant from ever becoming on top of their poverty. The Lord took their best beast and the church took their best procession (best piece of furnishing, best cloths). The 2nd most hated was the merchet as it clearly showed that the peasant was not much more than a serf, with little or no saying over his/her private life. The leirwite followed very close in that list.

The heriot dated back to a previous age, where knights were decked out by their masters to fight for them and on the death of the knight the Lord claimed the horse back that he had given to him in the first place. As we have seen before the early knights were simple peasants who had to assist the Lord to protect his lands or to accompany him in pursuit of booty and later land. Conveniently lords kept on claiming horses on the death of peasants even when he had never provided these animals to them in the first place. Serfs could make provisions for heriot in their wills, but death in battle often meant no heriot was required, because the winner of a fight would often take horse and armour anyway as was often the custom. By the 13th Century the payment was made either in money or in kind by handing over the best beast or chattel of the tenant. The extend of hatred against this tax can be seen in some of the Medieval texts such as the one that called lords who imposed heriots “vultures that prey upon death… worms feeding upon the corpse

The effects of the heriot were also felt into the Low Countries there are reports from Hainault (Henegouwen) from 1327 whereby the heriot consisted of half of the dead man’s movables and sometimes even more. Whole villages were depopulated as peasants fled to areas with less burdensome taxes. This often was done even before the dead man was buried, leaving the grieving family not only without the breadwinner but also without most of their livelihood. While the heriot was greatly modified over the following centuries, and had already disappeared altogether from many areas, it was not until 1789 until it was finally abolished.

The Merchet

Another very denigrating right of the Lord was the approval of marriages; it was bitterly resented. This was used to ensure that he had the right peasants on the right farms and that he kept control over ‘his’ brood. A clear indication that people were simply treated as chattel. And of course, there were always the fees involved levied on approved marriages.

Originally no marriages between manors were allowed by later that became easier; again, an interesting example from the Budde family in Wietmarschen.

The ‘Urbar’ and the ‘Wesselbook’of Wietmarschen

The family data of the properties belonging to the monastery in Wietmarschen are recorded in the ‘Urbar’ (from about 1430-1580). This was written by an administrative person employed by the Abbess.

An urbarium (German: Urbar) is a register of fief ownership and includes the rights and benefits that the fief holder has over his serfs and peasants.

An important part of this document is the ‘Wesselboek’, a book where they recorded ‘changes’ (Wessel) of persons. The purpose of writing such things down was to keep track of their properties … and people were a part of this, too.

The Wesselboek

An example of this is as follows. Say the farm belonged to the Knights Budde in Hange. Now, the second son or daughter of this farmer (mostly the eldest son, sometimes the eldest daughter) becomes the new farmer on this farm. First of all, the landowner must agree with this. The same approval was required if a person wanted to marry someone on a farm that belongs to the landowner. If the person came from a property that belonged to another landowner, then both had to agree. If that was the case the two landowners than ‘exchanged’ (verwesselten) two persons: ‘I give you one of mine, you have to give me one of yours’. And this was written down in the ‘Wesselboek’. Sometimes a free person (someone who had formally paid for a ‘Freibrief’ to become free from the landowner) married a farmer who was not free. If so, he or she then became unfree. But there were rules – that his/her first son or daughter was free.

There is indeed a recorded change involving the knights Budde in Hange that was recorded in 1531 on pages 67b and 219a of the Urbar des Klosters Wietmarschen, entitled:

Wolters Huis to Biden -1531

To Biden by dem Schultenhove iß ein Kotte, genant to Woltershuiß, de Frauwe, genant Hille, geboren van des Schulten Hoff to Biden, uns egen, hadde dre Kinder, einen Sone, Hinrich, eine Dochter, wont to Linge, is vrigelaten – Grete. Noch eine Dochter, Swenne, van unß verwesselt an Budden ten Hange, wy hebben aver geine Widderwessel kregen.

This translates as follows: At Biene at the burgomaster farm there is a cottage, called at Wolters house, the wife, born at the burgomaster farm at Biene, is our guarantor, she has three children, a son, Hinrich, a daughter who lives in Lingen, was released out of serfdom. Yet another daughter, Swenne, we exchanged her to Budde at Hange, we have not yet got another exchanged back to us.

It indicates that Swenn Woltershuiß from Biene (a few kilometres north of Lingen), was exchanged with Budde from Hange.

The link between Sünt Marienrode and Hange

The landlords in the exchange mentioned in the Urbar, are on one side Sünt Marienrode and on the other side the Buddes in Hange. The Knights Budde (also referred to as von Budden) originally had, as we saw before several castles in the area. They are no direct family of my forbears from Wietmarschen.

One of the knights of this branch of the family, Lambert von Budden, married Gertrud von Hange and after the death of his father-in-law became the owner of the castle in this township a few kilometres from Freren, east of Lingen which in turn is 20 kilometres east of Nordhorn. Together they bought three farms in the parishes of Voltage and Recke. Swenn (as mentioned in the Urbar) was exchanged for a person who lived on one of the farms that belonged to the von Budden’s in Hange.

Source: The History of the Budde Family

If a freeman unknowingly marries a bondswoman, he can sometimes buy her free, if he has the funds to do so, alternatively he can take another wife if he wants. Concealed servitude was a clear impediment to marriage.

As was reported in the catholic district of Paderborn it was often impossible for the peasants here to marry girls from the free villages around them. Wietmarschen was a similar catholic enclave so it not unlikely that a similar situation occurred here.

Myth or truth? As it has great fantasy value the “right of the first night” has been hotly debated by historians and others. While there are a few historical records indicating its existence there is no evidence that this was widespread or often used. The ius primae noctis was, in the European late medieval context, a widespread popular belief in an ancient privilege of the lord of a manor to share the bed with his peasants’ newlywed brides on their wedding nights. Symbolic gestures, reflecting this belief, were developed by the lords and used as humiliating signs of superiority over the dependent peasants in a time of disappearing status differences.

Ban rights

The wine ban had also interesting consequences in some parts of Europe – during the Medieval Warmth wine was grown all over Western Europe, including the Low Countries. The Lord was the only one allowed to produce wine and the villagers had to buy the wine from him. However, even when they didn’t want to buy wine they were forced to do so and sometimes the wine was simply poured over the roof of the house or in their front yard and of course the levy was charged.

A large village would perhaps have a mill, a bakery and a blacksmith, of course all ‘controlled’ by the Lord. These were monopolies that not only kept the prices high, it also stopped competition that could have led to innovations.

The first windmill in Oss was mentioned as a ban-mill (dwangmolen) in 1350, which the rights owned by the local lord Alard of Oss. The mill-ban only ended in 1798 (French occupation) and it was until the mid-19th century before competition arrived.

In the early days farmers would have had to travel for up to 10 kilometres to get their grain milled in Oss. It was only later that neighbouring communities were allowed to have their own mills [4.  Molen Zeldenrust,1978, Paul Budde, p5].

Feudal lords were also allowed to buy up all produce at the local market and then sell it a higher price.

He could commandeer at will his serfs to for example to catch eels in the local streams.

Another ban right involved gambling and prostitution. In particular gambling became a lucrative form of income the rights to tax are a frequent issue of dispute between landlords and cities. Gambling was limited to so called dicing schools (dobbelscholen). As has always been the case gambling also often resulted in poverty and misery and throughout history periods of criminalising gambling were followed by legalisation, and as still is the case the lure of lucrative income for landowners and cities were often in conflict with morality. Certain holy days and events as council meetings and activities at the court often specify that gambling during these events or periods are forbidden.

Other taxes and duties

While over the centuries many of the duties were transferred to taxes, many duties still continued as also can be seen in the information about Wietmarschen above. The ‘angaria’ or ‘averagium ‘was the compulsion to carry the loads of the lords either by hors and cart or on the back of the peasant. Apart from the labour itself it also could see peasants having to leave their lands behind for rather long periods. Having hunting duties with the Lord also often resulted in long periods away from the farm.

Villagers were also not allowed to pick up the dung from their own cows unless this was dropped in front of their door.

Church taxes

Apart from all the secular duties, there were also a whole range of church related rules, regulations and taxes. The most well-known are the tithes (tenth). Dating back to biblical times, they were not formally introduced until the 8th century, they became more widespread under Charlemagne and his successors.

Originally a quarter of these tithes was earmarked for the poor of the local church, however in the Middle Ages hardly any of that money went to the poor, the local priest himself would like his ‘flock’ to live under the poverty line. As a representative of the oppressive church, the local parson had few friends within the village. Often the local priests were simple ‘assistants’ of the parson. He had the rights and received the income of his part of the tenths, and he ‘rented’ the actual job itself out to an assistant. In the early 17th century Pastor Brouwers of Oss used as his replacement Nicolas Spirinx, who didn’t shy away from signing as pastor himself. Often these ‘replacements’ resulted in legal challenges and disputes regarding rents and tithes.

At the same time the peasants saw the monasteries grow richer and richer with splendid buildings and gold decorated churches, and those who travelled to the city would see the magnificent cathedrals being built.

The before-mentioned monastery of Wietmarschen received two years after its establishment, in 1154, from the bishop of Münster both the rights for the larger and the smaller tithes, this last one being the rights on a range of services that had to be provided by the serfs, including certain percentages of the produce from their land.

An interesting other rule of the church was that men who received the Last Sacraments and survived, must abstain from sex. Many men refused to take these Sacraments.

However, most of the duties were financial and it was not uncommon that what been voluntary gifts to the Church (as was in the case of secular lords) in the past became taxes. They were applied in getting access Sacraments or in relation to birth, marriage and burial.

But the Church, despite all of its shortcomings, still represented a more humane aspect to life in an age without any social services, monks and friars cared for the poor, and the sick beyond earthly rewards.

A few rights for women

There were also some positive elements in the seigneurial system. As mentioned before the Lord also had a protective role towards his subjects. While the lot of the women in particularly seemed to be a hard one, they had certain privileges. The most important perhaps was that they were not summoned to participate in the army. The richer women also were able to inherit land in some situations the woman could also share the position of her husband rank. In the cities women were able to carry out their husband’s trade.

We already have come across the Monastery of Prüm, which played a key role in the Carolingian period. As early as 834 it was recorded that under the gaming rights of the Abbott, no one we allowed to fish with the local brook. However, a woman, bearing a child, was allowed to fish with one foot in the brook and one foot on land. Under certain circumstance a husband was also allowed to fish for his wife. Also, elsewhere there were there certain privileges for pregnant women and also around childbirth.

See also: Women in the Middle Ages.

Buddes under feudal rule until 1805

As mentioned north Germany remained the last feudal stronghold in Europe the secular but even more so the ecclesiastic powers clung to the lucrative system – be it in a somewhat softened way – until around 1850, this included the hated heriot tax. Interestingly that in the neighbouring Low Countries most serfs were already manumitted (freed) in the 12th and 13th century. For example, in 1285 Margaret of Flanders freed a large number of her serfs.

My forbears in Wietmarschen still paid these feudal taxes until 1850.

The concept and measurement of time – the yearly calendar

The concept of time was totally different for most of the hunter gatherer and agriculture cultures. Time could go fat or slow or could stand still as no progress was observed. Time didn’t proceed during the nights as it could not be observed by humans. Instead of time the rhythm of time was measured in seasons and days were measured in daylight hours. So, the length of seasons and days varied widely depending on the amount of daylight that was available to humans.

Time could be measured within groups where people were born and died and provided an idea of temporariness but sustaining life within the group received more attention than adjusting oneself to time’s progress. [5. Understanding the Middle Ages, Herald Kleinschmidt, 2000, p 19]

There is some evidence that suggests that the Germanic and Celtic people divided the year in two a dark half year and a light half year. This was further divided according to the Germanic lunar year. The four key calendar points in the year would have coincided with the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes. These points would have coincided with the dates 21 December, 21 March, 21 June and 21 September. In all it looks like that the year had six segments of sixty days each (double months). Two of these double months are known: Yule (November and December) and Litha (June and July). At least at some point in time, the 4 months from 15 March to 15 June were, in the Low Countries, collective called May.

As several of the megalithic monuments are clearly aligned with the natural features of those days it could be concluded that many of these celebrations date back to at least the Bronze Age.

The Germanic calendar started with the beginning of the winter, which was midway the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.  Calendar years didn’t start everywhere at the same time.  Julius Caesar set the starting date for the new year om March 1 (therefore December – the 10th month, February was the last month of the year hence the one with the leap date). This calendar survived in Venice until 1797.

However, the more structured time measurements of the Romans started disappearing and it was basically back to the old seasonal calendar. The lengths of the days as set by the Romans continued. That is 12 hours for the night and 12 hours for the day. However, the lengths of the hours depended on the season. In summer the day hours were longer and in winter they were shorter. The first hour stared at dawn and the end of the last day hour ended at sunset. The ‘invention’ of minutes didn’t happen until the 14th century when instruments started to appear that allowed of the calculation of these smaller units.

During the Middle Ages the starting day for the year was in some regions or at some points in times fixed. A key date for the absorption of old pagan celebrations became Martinmas (Nov 11) and many appointments did run from Martinmas to Martinmas. Later that date moved to Bamis (October 1) and All Saints (November 1). In England the (year of the Lord) started on March 25, Lady Day. Michaelmas (29 September) was another date on which some years started. Because of these different starting dates, you could be in one country/region where it would be 1367 and the next one could be 1377. Spain and Portugal have a totally different year as they started with the arrival of the Romans 38BC. So, the year 1367 is here 1405. Apart from these differences many countries had paralleled systems such as the year of the reign of the ruling king, those years start with the day of the accession.

The 2nd half of the year started, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.  Depending on the altitude the start of summer varied. In the Low Countries the start of summer was more like mid-May. However, there is very little information to be more precise about the Germanic calendar.

In prehistoric times there were no dates and many of the old festivals were absorbed not in just one ‘Christian’ date but in several of them, as winter and summer dates were celebrated differently throughout the Germanic lands (anywhere between mid-October and mid-November) the dates that were later used for some of those traditional celebrations and activities could be different per region.

Celebrations often started (and sometimes still do) on the eve of the event. In pre-historic time the evening marked the start of the next day.

On a social level these festivals also played a key role in asserting and maintaining the continuity of village life, this was in particular important for the more remote villages, which were of course most of them in a time of very limited transport.

Early Christian intellectuals such as Augustine, Isodore and Bede thought about time and Augustine divided world history in six stages. This had more to do with some historic period, measuring from their present towards the future (the end time) remained unmeasurable. However, there was forever the temptation to try and measure the time when the end time was supposed to start and many ‘scientists’ were enlisted by courts, bishops and popes to come up with that measurement.

The all-important Christian Easter became the catalyst for a more scientific approach to the measurement of time. It was Dionysus (before 556) who came up with the idea to start counting the years based on Christian principles rather than pagan traditions linked to the seasons. He was the first to suggest using the start counting the years based on the year that Jesus was born. Bede became an important proponent from the AD chronology and by the 8th century the AD concept also started to appear in secular chronology.

It wasn’t until the High Middle Ages, when the works of Aristotle were rediscovered that more rigour became involved in time measure and for the first implemented. Aristotle had stated that time was a linear process and needed to be observed in an objective way and not on subjective interpretations or based on what people experienced. Initially these ideas received strong opposition of the Church as they saw time totally in the hands of God and that humans should not mess with that.

This also led to strong condemnation of work being linked to time and as such a chargeable unit; ‘time was not for sale’. This led to a ban on interest being paid on moneylending on as such on moneylending itself. Merchants also got a bad name as they did embrace these new concepts of time and used that in their business dealings.  Unfortunately the Church increasingly became dependent on money itself and consequently – as early as the 13th century – ways were invented that did allow for ‘selling time’. Not long after this the first mechanical clocks started to appear, measuring hours, weeks, months and even longer astronomical cycles. Because of their importance to the calculation of Easter these clocks soon became a feature of many churches, many of these early clockmakers were not surprisingly monks.

Suddenly time measurements were implemented for many jobs and activities such as council meetings, church sermons, university lectures, praying hours in monasteries.  However, outside the cities where time was measured life very much maintained to evolve around daylight and seasons both in respect of the farmers and the rural nobility. Goethe noted in 1785 that the townspeople of Verona still measured units in the day in accordance with the seasons rather than in accordance with mechanical clocks. [6. Understanding the Middle Ages, Herald Kleinschmidt, 2000, p 25-28]

From Germanic to Christian calendar

Date Tradition Christian Events/activities
Between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice
  • Start Year
  • End of harvest
  • Bon fires propitiating the spirits of the deaths (Halloween)
  • Oct. 1Bamis (St Bataafs Mass)
  • Nov 1 All Saints
  • Martinmas/ St Martin (Nov 11)
  • Beginning of the fin.yr
  • Church tax, leases, dues, certain wages had to be paid
  • Feast of the ploughman
  • Yule (God Jöl)
  • Blót – Sacrifices (e.g. of slaves, boars)
  • Lasted 3 days
  • Christmas (Dec 25)
  • Epiphany (Jan 6)
  • Feasts to eat the boar
  • Christmas dinner in the Manor/s hall
  • 12 holy days 25/12-6/1 longest holiday of the year (no work on the demesne)
Between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox
  • Imbolc (fertility rites for Goddess Brigit)
  • Blood offerings
Candlemas (Mary’s churching) Feb 2
  • Birthing period of lambs
  • Purification after birth, procession with candles
  • Market (3 days)
Spring Equinox
  • Goddess Eostre fertility
  • Fertility rites (eggs, rabbits)
  • St Gertrud 17 March
  • Easter
  • One week holiday from demesne work.
  • 2nd instalment of dues
  • Inspection/culling of livestock
Between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice
  • Celtic God Beltane (May 1)
  • Whitsun (sun celebrations)
  • Rogation Days
  • Whitsunday
  • Games, processions, tourneys, feasting, flower decorations
  • Week holiday from demesne work
  • Peasants walk the boundary of the village and youth get dunked
Summer Solstice(Litha)
  • Plants had magical powers during this night.
St John (June 24)
  • Bonfires to drive away evil spirits.
  • Fiery wheel roll down the hills
  • Maypoles
Between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox
  • Celtic God Lugh (of skills and talent)
  • Celebrating end of hay harvest, start of grain harvest.
Lammas (=loaf mass) (August 1)
  • End summer grazing.
  • Start sheep shearing
  • Start pasture leases
  • Feast at the Lord’s mansion
  • Corn dollies
Autumn Equinox Harvest home bringing Local Parish Saint Day Vigils, processions, mass, sports

Separate from years and dates there is the time of the day. Before the arrival of clocks there was only the sun-based system.  Regardless of summer or winter the day was split in two equal halves. This meant that winter days were shorter than summer days, this is also reflected in the working times issued by the lord for their serfs. The church bell was used as the official measurement of the time. Sun-time and clock time were different measurements so one had to specify which system was used, hence “o’clock”. Church bells and city tower bells were important means of communications as they also indicated when markets opened and closed, when the night curfew starts, the town gates get closed as well as of course the various church activities.


The Lord’s demesne

Each manor – which nearly all started as a large farm – had its own demesne (land and fields directly controlled by the lord and used for the benefit of his household and dependents). Serfs (or villeins) had to provide the labor for the work that needed to be done on that land. The difference with the preceding slavery system was that the serfs were not part of the Lords household but had, apart from their work as serfs, also work on their own land and make their own living on land owned by the Lord.

The serf system reached its zenith around 1250, it slowly started to die out from that time onwards with the exception of north Germany, Poland and Russia.

Agriculture boom

The economic boom, during the Medieval Warmth – between 1050 and 1300 – saw ideal farming conditions and this led to a population explosion (see below). The old kinship-based farming settlements grew into the villages as we still recognise many of them today. Communities became parishes and needed churches. The kinship powers and traditions were slowly replaced by the new state (lord) and church-controlled systems.

Life revolved around farming and the old family or tribal based communities continued this communal tradition in the larger entity of the ‘permanent’ village; socially, economically and politically. These villages are rather different from modern villages. In the early days there were only peasants, no merchants, or trades people. A large village would perhaps have a mill, a bakery and a blacksmith, of course all ‘controlled’ by the Lord. These were monopolies that not only kept the prices high, but it also stopped competition that could have led to innovations.

The first windmill in Oss was mentioned as a ban-mill (dwangmolen) in 1350, which the rights owned by the local lord Alard of Oss. The mill-ban only ended in 1798 (French occupation) and it was until the mid-19th century before competition arrived. See also Molen Zeldenrust Oss (video clip)

The village was a continuation of the age-old agriculture based civilisations; life revolved around the peasant economy, very little money changed hands, the essence of life was survival. Until the 20th century farms were rarely larger than one or two acres and while the yield had of course significantly improved it remained largely a subsistence operation.

Medieval Serf System

Britain Germany (Wietmarschen) Low Countries
Free Landowners 40-100 acres Free landowners Heerboeren
Villeins (serfs)

  • Virgates (12-16 acres)
  • Half Virgates
  • Cotters < 1 acre
VollerbeHalberbe Viertelerbekötters Laten (free from duties but bound to their land)Lijfeigenen (serfs)
Huermann (no land)
Brinksitzer (cottage next to common)

Feudal hierarchy continental north west Europe

  • Vollerbe (total heir) – they were allowed to have 4 heuerleute (tenants)
  • Halberbe (heir of half the land)
  • Viertelerbe (quarter of the land) also called kötter (most common title for Buddes in Wietmarschen)
  • Colon was the term for a farmer who had the right to let one of his children become the new farmer and he ‘owned’ farmland. (In later years Johan Heinrich Budde (1879 – 1915) was titled ‘Colon’ in an official document.)
  • A ‘Heuermann’ (Heuerleute) had no farmland but only a little house and perhaps a garden on the land of a Colon.
  • A ‘Brinksitzer’ was allowed to have a house and some land (not his own) at the border of the village (the ‘Brink’).

The effect of the system varies from place to place, but of course the lower on the ladder the more difficult life was. It looks like that for example cotters in Britain would need to have other jobs to make ends meet, while the kötters, or at least some of them on the continent could make a living, especially for example if they were ‘employed’ in the reclaiming of land from inland lakes, swamps and peat areas.

The church as landlords

Since the 800s the church had received an enormous amount of land and in many villages the Church (Monastery, Abbey) was the landlord. My ancestors in Wietmarschen were serfs (kötters -cotters) under the local monastery until 1853. Kötters in north Germany had between 2 and 4 hectares of land (one eights of a, on the edge of the village, this was not enough to look after their own livelihood and they had to look for whatever other work was available to earn a living. They had a few cattle and sometimes a horse.

Towards the end of their life as cotters the Buddes had 3 horses, 8 cows, 2 pigs, 5 sheep and 3 goose. At that stage 2 persons were classifies as free and four as serfs.

According to studies done in Britain an average villain owned: 2.35 horses and oxen, 4.5 cows, 3.1 pigs and 6.2 sheep.

Scholars differ in opinion about the size of a farm needed to sustain the average medieval family of 4.75 people. Some say 5 acres; others tend to go closer to 10 or even 12 acres. This is largely influenced by the weight of feudal exploitation in the way of fees, fines, taxes and labour duties. This burden was the single most important reason why most people stayed – for centuries – well below the poverty line.

This community was rather different from most traditional villages. Where the Budde’s settled around 1650 was totally new developed land for agriculture, reclaimed peat land in the Bourtanger moor, rather isolated, several kilometres away from the village itself. The cultivation of these lands was in principle more effective than that of the often parcelled (Celtic) fields closer to the village. It is highly likely that the Buddes were invited by the Monastery, perhaps they came from Emsburen. These settlers were often attracted by more liberal conditions than the ordinary peasant serfs.

Justice – all about making money

Both State and Church law were in practice unjust to the people and as a consequence the landlord (employer) was unjust to their subjects. The basic system that governed the large monastic estates were fundamentally based on capitalism; their key goal was economic gain. True there was an underlying religious character to this; however, this only marginally favoured the serfs that were owned by the monasteries in comparison to those who belonged to the secular lords. It was a profitable business to collect fees for sins.

Based on the Roman system of publicani – public contractors in charge of collecting taxes – these local rulers had the jurisdiction rights over a village and its surroundings and as we saw had an enormous number of rights in the way of taxes, fees, fines and labour the villagers had to provide to the Lord in relation to his demesne. These rights remained largely unchecked and there was little or no transparency in these rights. The Lord was in his own court the prosecutor and the judge. He claimed fees from those he came and sought justice, he collected the fess that followed the legal process and he also took the chattels the condemned.

Often ‘justice’ was the main source of income for the lord! Because of this unjust burden, the wealth of the local villagers remained low, often at poverty levels. There was no way they could progress as that would simply see an increase in fees, fines and taxes.

Once a year all the serfs had to attend the Court Day which was held either at the manor or at the monastery.

The poorer, the less justice the people could expect, as there was very little financial gain to be made from these people. Men were cheap under a feudal system and therefore life was also cheap. Serfs were treated as an economic good and life therefore had only a very limited moral value.

Even in those times people were often discussing the practical inequality between ordinary people and the well-off within the current legal system; imagine the inequality of the legal system in respect to the ordinary people in the Middle Ages. And also in these times, with plenty of opportunity for corruption it was the money that talked.

The legal system in the Middle Age was a right given to the local secular powers by the King (or more likely these rights were bought by them). As the right was so lucrative large sums of money were paid to the Lord in order to obtain these rights. Sometimes money had to be borrowed for that and if the legal professional could pay back the debts, guess who had to pay for this, the ordinary people through a range of (new) fines and fees.

Sometimes these rights were maintained for centuries by the same monastery, in those situations, such as for example in the case of the Monastery in Wietmarschen, there is constant tension between them and their secular overlords the Count of Bentheim and the King of Hanover as well as their ecclesiastic overlords the bishop of Munster.

Conflicts of interest

In most places the population had to deal with different rulers and different sets of rules. Ootmarsum for example had its town privileges but depending on their strength Counts and Bishops tried to wrangle rights away for example in a war – especially when they hadn’t supported the local ruler – or for ‘special’ taxation purpose – again often to pay for the war effort.

The overlord also always had the night of appeal and more serious criminal charges were also under the jurisdiction of the overlord.

Then within the broader community there could be other places such as hoven (farms) that belonged to other rulers who had their own court systems.

This all intermingled and where continuous reasons for legal conflicts with higher courts to look after these conflicts. Ootmarsum also hosted several of these rulers – the local schout and schepenen (bailiff and magistrates) the Drost of Twente (bailiff of the overlord) and the major domo (hofmeijer) of some of the hoven that belonged to the bishop of Utrecht.

Ootmarsum also hosted the ‘mark’ court in charge of disputes in relations to the commons (marks).

All these different rulers and the different rules and regulations created their own specific dynamics in this rather small town.

So, the legal system was there to make money, not necessarily to provide justice. Especially in conflicts between the villagers and the Lord the verdict was already there, it was just a matter of forcing the accused to confess and get them to pay the fine, without a confession the fine would simply be increased or as in the case of inquisitions the torture machines were simply sharpened.

Many serfs hated the Lord and often even more so the church, which legal system was seen as even a larger farce as the church was supposed to support the weak and the poor.

The church didn’t even shy away from acting against Commandments such as ‘Thou shalt not kill”. The Church did set up its own first prosecuting institutions, the Episcopal Inquisition, which were operated by the bishops and this system was in operation from 1184 till the 1230s. The persecution of heretics became a ‘jihad’ and in 1252 a Papal Bull was issued endorsing the use of torture.

Even the slightest diversion from the official religion could mean the death sentence, fully sanctioned by the Church.

Having said this there is not a lot of evidence that this level of extreme injustice was imposed on the peasants in the regions we cover: Flanders, Brabant and from there into north Germany. There certainly will have been at particular points in time despots but they certainly were not the rule. Nevertheless, there were the feudal system continued, such as in Wietmarschen, we see a continued conflict between the peasants and their landlords. In Brabant misery continued after the Middle Ages as this part became a colony of Holland, they were ruled from The Hague, freedom of religion was suppressed and little or no social and economic progress took place for the following 300 years.

An interesting exception to the rule was found in Liege, here a few times every year synods were held where lay assessors were allowed to say what they believe was done wrong by the laity and if this was proven to be right, they would be punished under canonical law.

Civil Law, Canon Law and Feudal Law all proclaim to treat all men equal; however, the slave and serf systems that operated under these justice systems in the middle Ages were contrary to these laws.

In Wietmarschen the Monastery established in 1152, received the rights – granted by the Abbot of Prüm in 915 – to establish their own court of justice.

The list of key offences is:

  • Improper use of means of transport
  • Unsocial behaviour in public
  • Absenteeism from church service (or arriving late)
  • Absenteeism from Sunday school
  • During church service or Sunday school serving beer, the consumption of beer, playing games or playing bowls or to be in pubs and inns, with the exception of travellers.
  • Disputes or non-payment in relation to serf duties and fees
  • Complaints in relations to the duties of fathers in relation to children born out of wedlock
  • Extra marital affairs

Fees had to be paid in wax or the equivalent in money, but sometimes also labour duties could be enforced. One of the punishments was to stand in the church, dressed in a ‘shame cloth’ with a burning candle in the hand throughout the service.

Open Celtic fields systems

The village lands were situated on the outskirts of the village and consisted of cultivated fields, meadows forests and marshes (used for peat). While everybody had their own smaller or larger fields subdivided by a low earthen wall, co-operation was required in relation to the use of resources such as draught animals and regulation regarding the various farming decision that need to be made. The system was widespread across northern Europe from Russia to Ireland. In the Low Countries these open fields are known as ‘es’, ‘akker’ and ‘kouter’.

The system dates back to the Bronze and Iron Ages (3,000 BC and 600BC) and lasted until the late Middle Ages. Slowly this way of agriculture started to replace the age-old slash and burn culture. Together with the farms and sheds these family-based settlements were sometimes enclosed by stone-walls. These were still ‘wandering settlements’ as the one in Oss mentioned above.

During the Medieval Warmth population and land cultivation grew exponential. By around the year 1000 the settlements started to become more permanent. The Carolingian three field system became more and more used. At any given time one field remained uncultivated, so it could recover. One year the field would be ploughed in October and sown with wheat or rye, reaped in August, and left in stubble. Next year it would be ploughed in March and sown with barley and again reaped in August. The third year it would lay follow and ploughed up twice in June and rested upon the 4th year, when the cycle started again. By now we see that farms and fields are becoming one property.

However, with little manure it was very difficult to maintain the yield and towards the end of the 13th century yields started to decrease.

In the Low Countries smaller field were also known as ‘kampen’ and many topographical names in Brabant have the word ‘kamp’ in it.

Over the millennia crops started to change wheat (spelt, emmer), barley, rye, oats, vetch, hay, flax and dyestuff. Livestock included cattle, pigs, sheep, horse, domestic fowl, and honeybees.  Since Roman times a range of other produce was added: peas, turnips, parsnips, cabbages and other vegetables, along with fruits and grapes.

Of equal importance were the woods for nuts, berries, firewood, while not allowed they were also used for poaching, the pigs were roaming around and basically lived in the woods.

During the boom years, people started to run out of arable land the land got more and more partitioned for their children. This led to the most incredible subdivisions, with land of the same owner scattered throughout the field sometimes strips of a few meters wide and 10 or 20 meters long. Within the larger field most parts were not individually accessible and the whole field got sown with the same crop and in one way or other decisions were made regarding the work that needed to be done and how the produce would be split, this doubtlessly must have led to many disputes. I still remember it, so it must have been in the 1950s or 1960 that these land parcels (kavels) were reallotted in a massive government led reorganisation of farmlands around Oss.

The complex nature of this open field system required a high level of cooperation, there was little room for individualism. People to help each other with ploughing, harvesting, pasturing, to act as pledges, to bear witness and help each other during the many situations of disaster and hardship.

The underlying reason of all of this was the open field system and this required a range rules and regulations. The key elements of this system included:

  • Land could not be fenced.
  • Common agreement about crops and cultivation.
  • Common use of meadows, stubble, fallow and waste.

Common pastures and woodlands needed management and here the marks started to emerge. Long after other feudal systems had disappeared ‘commons’ remained. Not far from where we live in Australia a large common exists in At Albans, the institution was brought with the British settlers to Australia and also found here these useful feudal institutions survived in modern days; still managed commonly by the local community of this small hamlet 100 kms north of Sydney.

However, the open field system with its common attitudes also stifled progress and innovations. The result of that was low productivity, low yields. Nothing much changed during these 500 years and the Lords in general were happy with that level of status quo.

However, at the same time in combinations with favourable climatologic circumstances, the system was favourable to significant population growth and left an ever-lasting legacy behind of a quilt work of villages and agriculture fields throughout Europe.

While much has changed over the last 700 years, there remains a nostalgic longing to the closeness and the mutual solidarity of the Middle Ages.

Also, most of our medieval forebears would have, until WWII, largely recognised the farming landscape of Europe; it is only since intensive farming that this landscape has now changed for ever.

Water-Boards and Dyke-reeves

Many communities and villages still largely maintained their own set of rules (common law) around the various community issues – many dating back to tribal times – but from the 13th century onwards we do see more and more written laws started to occur.

In the Low Countries the earliest regulations also involved the building and the management of the dykes and the land this started to protect. Starting in the 12th century the Dukes of Brabant allowed their vassals to reclaim lands along the river Maas. The first dykes started to arrive from that time onwards. The low laying land north of Oss towards the river Maas was often flooded and started to be reclaimed under Duke Jan I in the 2nd half of the 13th century. By 1275 the had reached the confluence of the rivers Dieze and Maas just north of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Between 1290 and 1330 they worked on the stretch between Lithoijen and Grave, north of Oss. The way they worked their way along the Maas, was that they first built a cross dike from the river to the higher laying grounds approx. 5 kms to the south, in order to stop the water flooding the area. In all north of Oss, they had to build 4 of such dykes: Kepkensdonkdijk, the Ossermeerkade, the Groendijk and the Erfdijk.

Within the reclaimed lands drainage canals (wetering) was dug and in 1303 Oss and neighbouring towns were busy digging the Hertogswetering (the Duke’s stream). For parts of this stream the old cut off riverbeds were ‘reused’.

The first polder board in Brabant was established in 1309 (Rosmalen, Nuland and Orthen).

The remnant of this drainage canal is still visible and known as the Osser Meer (lake of Oss).

Osser Meer

The meerdijk (dyke along the meer) is another remnant of the works that took place early in the 14th century.

The first map of the area with the various water works – linked to these privileges – dates from 1323. The first sluices were built – amongst the first was the ‘schutlaken’ or ‘keersluis’ (reverse sluice) in the Hertogswetering (video clip) – in order to regulate the drainage of the lands. The system was largely completed by the middle of the 14th century and led to a agriculture led boom in the local economy.

In order to support these works the Duke allowed the people of Oss to use the land tax to fund some of these works. Newly reclaimed land was made available, by the Duke, as commons (gement) to the various communities in exchange for a land tax. In 1286 the inhabitants of Oss, Berchem and Duren received their gement for the tax of ten Louvrain pounds.

For the management, funding and maintenance of the dykes, sluices and drainage canals certain regional privileges were provided.  The new polders were divided into seven heemraden (water-boards). The Dukes appointed dyke-reeves (dijkgraaf) they functioned as bailiff and magistrate, basically representing the Duke. Duke John III provided in 1323 the judicial privileges for the seven (heemraden) that formed ‘Hoog Hemaal’. ‘Hemaal’ is related to the Germanic world mallum which means ‘jurisdiction [7.  Geschiedenis van Oss, Jan Cunen, 1932, p23].

However, those participating in the water-board were representatives of the farmers from the towns, villages with land in these polders and they elected the management council of the heemraden. As such system this is one of the earliest forms of democratically organised administrations in Europe.

Interestingly these dikes and water works did not neatly follow political borders and neighbouring jurisdictions such as Megen and Oyen belonged to other rulers such as the Bishop of Liege and the management of these areas therefore do get an international character an early form of international cooperation.

These developments also assisted in the shaping of the area what became known as Maasland and formed one of the regional administration centres of the Majory of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Oss became the capital town of this region. The bailiff of Oss was also the high bailiff of the water board of Maasland.

Many of these rules and regulations survived into modern times – when most land had moved away from the feudal systems into private ownership – as common laws and regulations continued to be required to manage nature.

Beerse Overlaat

However, the Maas didn’t let itself conquer that easily, especially during heavy rains in its basin, the water than started to breach its dikes, with the climate change in the late Middle Ages this started to happen more frequently.  In those instances, the river wanted to follow its original broader bed which was often more than a kilometre wide. The dike was lowered at Beers and this functioned as a spillway (overlaat).


The area between Grave and ‘s Hertogenbosch was most affected. The Hertogswetering, as a part of the old river system became a main channel during such floods. The cross dikes now stared to become a problem and farmers upstream first affected by the floodwaters started to pierce wholes in these dikes to make it flow away.


However, those on the other side of such a dike tried to prevent that. This led to ongoing conflicts and sometimes even armed conflict.


The Groenendijk in Haren does have a colourful history in this respect. It was not until the 1930s that they canalised the river which allowed for a faster out flow into the North Sea and in 1942 they were able to replace the spillway with a proper dike.

The miserable life of the peasants

The local Lord played a key role in this as we saw he was the legal representative of the King and in charge of most local regulations. However, they only operated passively, it was the villagers themselves who were largely in charge of their daily life. But most of the proceeds in one way or another ended up with the Lord through taxes, fees, fines and labour the villagers had to provide to the Lord in relation to his demesne.

Many peasants lived in what can only be described as huts, one single high-ceiling hall which functioned as living room and bedroom and bays for the kitchen, buttery, pantry and byre, some were partially portioned off mainly to keep the animals away from foodstuff and other supplies. On average a house had three bays; a cotter usually had only two bays.

Most of these wattle and daub huts were partly dug in the ground. In a central hearth peat or wood was burnt and there was a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, windows were rare, and the atmosphere in the house was perpetual smoky. During the day benches, stools and a trestle table featured in the room; chairs were rare. In the evening this was put aside and beds made from straw matrasses were rolled out. The floor was covered with straw or rushes. Sometimes a loft was used for sleeping as well. The houses in the village were of such poor quality that they had to be rebuilt nearly every generation.

Belongings were sparse and simple a few wooden spoons, some earth ware, mainly jugs and pots and a barrel. They would also have some towels, linen and some clothing, most not much more what they wear (and rarely changed). Luxury article would include a silver spoon, brass pots and pewter dishes.

According to a book written about the German peasant in 1520, they fed on brown bred, oatmeal porridge or boiled peas and they drink water or whey. They were clad in a coarse linen coat, with booth of untanned leather and a dyed cap. Other sources add some ale to this and also states that most food and drink crops were barley and oats, wheat went mostly exclusively to the market. A little fat bacon might be added to the porridge and when available cabbages, lettuce, leek, spinach, parsley and cooked fruit would be put on the menu. Nuts, berries and roots from the woods was also used in the diet of the villager. The occasional eel and perhaps some salted fish sometimes complimented the daily food routine. Eggs were one of the few sources of protein, together with some occasional meat and cheese. There is also evidence that people unconsciously craved for protein, as is evidence in some of the stories and folklore from that period.

In the period following the Black Death when population was severely reduced saw an increase in food intake and wheat started to become part of the daily menu.

What is also often overlooked is the important role the exploitation of animals played in society and the economy. The production of many of the tools and articles used by the people in the Middle Ages depended on animals.

  • Feathers and dawn were used to stuff pillows, mattresses and bed covers.  Birds also provided pens and brushes.
  • Hair was used for household brushes.
  • Leather provided coats, saddles, gloves, belts, hats, shoes, harnesses, scabbards, water-skins, purses.
  • Fur was used for cloth, blankets, cuffs, headgear.
  • Sheep skin (parchment) and wool formed the most important element of the high Middle Age economy. Nearly all clothes were made of wool (linen was rare, jute ignored, silk to expensive and hemp was rough).
  • Dogs were essential in guarding the place, horses provided the means for transport and were the war machines and cattle (oxen) provided the engine power.

[8. The axe and the oath, Robert Fossier, p205, 2007]

However, despite the hardship of these times and despite a lack of education most sources from across Europe indicate that most villagers did speak freely about politics, religion, morals; they philosophised about their world and there was plenty of humour, imagination and wisdom.

Customary Law

For as long as people lived together certain unwritten rules applied in order for the group to survive. The more complex the communities became the more complex the tribal laws became. The combined knowledge of the tribe was often held together by the elders and communicated through stories which made it easier to pass the information on. These laws were based on habits and only applied to the people of the tribe, people outside the tribe were not part of the law and outside the tribal area the tribal law had no effect on the person.

Aboriginal tribal law

I personally encountered tribal law in 1987 when I stayed for two weeks with an Aboriginal family group within the lands of the Pitjantjara people near Uluru in Central Australia. When I discussed tribal law with the head of this tribe Naningja, she told me that I could not trespass their law as I was not a part of her tribe. Equally when I discussed Aboriginal affairs in relation to where I lived in Bucketty she told me that I could not trespass the law of the land there and I could act in good spirit to address situations such as looking after aboriginal sites in my part of the world.

Interestingly when she explained ways of life and traditions to me, and I asked questioned she often whispered with a respectful voice “that’s the law” and gave no further explanation.

Most tribal laws do have a large set of rules in common – it has been argued that the Ten Commandments formed the core of the tribal of the people in the Middle East and because they made a lot of sense they equally applied to societies in other parts of the world and Christianity didn’t have a lot of problems spreading these laws across the world.

During most the Middle Ages people remained in their local communities, this is where they belonged. These were small communities where everybody knew everybody, they worked together, went to church together, celebrated together and were strongly linked together through the culture and traditions they deeply shared. They knew if there were people of bad character and where those people were when a crime took place.  These issues were addressed locally and punishment took place on that basis. Within the concept of customary law they mainly looked after their own legal affairs, either through their tribal leaders or their manorial lord.

At the same time there were also plenty of local variations and many of them were later enshrined in the city privileges.  When more sophisticated structures evolved statutory law started to take over the customary law, but of course large parts overlapped.

Roman law didn’t really have a major impact on the Low Countries. It was until the Carolingians until things started to change. First of all, the various customary laws were codified and as such applied in these regions, as we saw with the Merovingians Lex Salica was one of them. At the same time Charlemagne started to issue capitularies, these were laws that as we saw above applied to the whole of the Frankish Empire. However, by 1000 these were largely forgotten and it was until 1200 before cities started to come up with their own laws. In the Low Countries it was not until the Burgundian period and especially under Charles V before statuary law started to become fully enforced.

In many German villages law courts were still held under the old tribal oak to well into the Middle Ages. As mentioned before the linden tree in the arms of the city of Oss most probably also refers to such a tree.

Social, economic and political unit

Increasingly more concentrated communities started to form during the 11th and 12th centuries and they needed institutions, in the lower laying areas it was the fight against water that created water boards to look after dikes and drainage.

In north-eastern Europe there was a trebling of villages between 800 and 1300. A situation, once established, stayed largely unchanged until recent times.

It also during these centuries that for the first time the common people start to make themselves heard and increasingly we see them arriving in the world of written history, as active participants.

Serfdom in Wietmarschen

In Wietmarschen the feudal system operated by the monastery established its main income through a corn (Garben) tax the rate was fixed every 6 years (Garben Jahr). Most if not all of the farms in Wietmarschen were the property of the monastery, including their inhabitants. They were built on reclaimed land at the edge of the Bourtanger Moor, the first farm (Südhof) was established after hard work as the historic documentation indicates in 1202. The Budde farm formed part of the newly started peat-colony in the Ostermoor. This colony was probably established by the Monastery around 1650. The farm is mentioned in the various taxation documents so they clearly formed a part of the property of the monastery, they had few rights, many duties and very limited freedom.

While the feudal systems in most parts of Europe tarted to disappear after 1350, it flourished in some parts of Germany and France for another 500 years. The Monastery in Wietmarschen didn’t lose its feudal rights until after the French occupation at the end of the 18th century (1795), but it took decades before the remnants of feudalism were truly abandoned.

The end of the feudal system

The ‘Age of Death’, the disasters that struck Europe between 1350 and 1450 also resulted in the abolition of serfdom in most of Europe.

The manors and the monasteries had lost their vigour and had grown fat and lazy and when disaster struck, they lost their once powerful status. In many parts of Europe serfs were ‘freed’ and could thus own their own land and buy and sell land, this system is known as mercantile domain.

This development took especially of in the Low Countries and northern France and assisted in the agriculture innovation that started in this part of Europe, new farming technologies were far more slowly introduced in the feudal domains.

The mercantile system also led to investors entering the market, which in turn led to the development of capital markets and capitalism. These developments took place in areas where the feudal system was weak, namely the north Italian city states and cities in Flanders, Brabant and Holland. It is interesting to note that for several centuries the (feudal) domain management system co-existed, along the mercantile system. It is therefore difficult to conclude that this was an evolutionary process.

Landownership Late Middle Ages

Landowner Percentage of ownership
Nobility 5-10%
Farmers 40-50%
Freemen 20-30%
Religious institutions 5-10%

While the nobility did loose most of their lands, they in general did held on to their other rights such as jurisdiction, fishing, milling and holding offices.  These functions fitted the lifestyle of the nobility.  [9.  Edelen, belastingheffing en politieke verhoudingen in laatmiddeleeuws Zeeland, Arie van Steensel, 2009]

While this didn’t mean an end to the misery of the peasants and villeins, but it did mean another small step forwards on the long road to a more equal society. With more freedom the villages slowly started to learn on how to take more control over their own affairs.

Similarly local churches also learned to take a greater control over their local church. However, old fashioned customary laws, superstition, lack of any form of education kept this class largely ignorant and primitive in its behaviour.

While some progress was made once the serf system started to disappear, the rules and regulations that started to replace this system didn’t provide a better environment for most villagers. At the same time the paternal system of the Lord also did provide certain security to the villagers and common law at least also provided them with some rights. Overall life of the villagers remained at most times and at most places extremely miserable.

Most literature from these ages (written by the ruling classes) ridicules the peasants. Under the ultra-conservative attitude of ‘harmony’ these peasants were not given any chance to develop themselves. The proto capitalistic feudal economy allowed the upper class to repress the lower class, more or less indefinite and this situation lasted for example in Russia until the early 20th century. Tibet was a feudal society to well into the 1950s and still many development countries still show elements of feudalism.

But nevertheless, progress was underway, freedom and more independent form churches and monasteries, towns started to set up their own social institutions, guilds and confraternities (such as the Swan Brothers of the Illustrious Holy Virgin in ‘s Hertogenbosch) set up their own charitable foundations. Because of the need for more arable land many villagers had become involved in land reclamation and had in return received more independence and more (relative) wealth. These people were amongst the first to take the lead in the new era of greater independence. Of course, the emergence and the growth of towns also operated as a magnet for the more entrepreneurial people from the villages. While they often ended up as the poorest of the poor in these towns, overtime many of their decedents were overtime able to slowly improve their lives.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)