Estate management in a changing rural society. The Saint-John's hospital of Bruges (c. 1275-c. 1575)

Goederenbeheer in een veranderende samenleving. Het Sint-Janshospitaal van Brugge (ca. 1275 - ca. 1575)
Begin - Einde 
2008 - 2014 (afgewerkt)



Coastal Flanders was among the first rural societies of North-western Europe that underwent a transition from a peasant-society towards a society dominated by large, commercial oriented leasehold farms. Small freehold farmers, omnipresent in the region by 1300, gradually lost their property. In the sixteenth century, a threefold hierarchy existed: large landowners leasing large farms to commercial farmers, who worked with landless laborers. In the historiography, three models existed to explain this transformation. One of the most influential was that of R. Brenner, who focused on the division of property rights between different social groups. According to Brenner, peasants lost their land to landlords, who subsequently leased these lands. Leasehold implied unsecure rights to land, and therefor competition for land. In order to bid for the land, farmers were obliged to rationalize and specialize. The competition would lead to an engrossment of farms. However, recent research have emphasized that leasehold did not bring automatically an agrarian capitalist society. The significance of leasehold depended on the exact arrangement of the system and the socio-economic context in which it emerges (B. van Bavel). For the Flemish coastal region, the rough lines of the transformation are known (E. Thoen, T. Soens en K. Dombrecht). However, the significance of the lease-system remains unclear. Historians did not know how it became introduced in a region where peasants were used to freehold. They also did not know how it was exactly organized. Another aspect of the transformation process which was superficially known, was the significance of wage labour for the coastal inhabitants.  

By studying the estate management of a large landowner, the importance of those two crucial aspects in the transformation process (leasehold and wage labour), can be elucidated. The most suitable landowner of coastal Flanders was the St. John’s hospital of Bruges. Urban ecclesiastical ownership was generally important in this region, and the St. John’s hospital was one of the most important landowners. Thanks to previous research (G. Maréchal), the importance of St. John’s as a charitable institution is well known. A third reason why St. John’s was a suitable subject, was the high quality of the preserved sources. A continuous series of accounts from the end of the thirteenth century has been preserved. However, only few historians (J. Mertens and T. Soens) have touched upon these unique sources.

The central question of my research was: how did the institution adapt his estate management to guarantee the necessary revenues? St. John’s was one of the most important charitable institution of late medieval Bruges and therefore confronted with a constantly high demand for foodstuff. A second important question was which impact did the choices and strategies of such a major landowner had for the rural society? To answer both questions, I focused on a) the crucial moments of change in the estate management, when the friars of the hospital switched from one system of exploitation to another and b) the relationship with the tenants of St. John’s patrimony.

The St. John’s hospital was able to adjust his management at the right moments. This happened the first time at a large scale between c. 1250 and c. 1350. The old revenues, coming from the direct exploitation of large farms and from customary rents, did not suffice anymore. Impoverished inhabitants of the coastal region donated their small pieces of land in order to receive a lifelong support by the hospital. After the donators died, the hospital could choose what to do with the lands. The friars chose to lease them out for very high rents, benefitting from the hunger to land among the peasants in the coastal region. High revenues from leasing were the result. However, from c. 1350 lease prices started to decline, caused by a combination of deteriorated ecological conditions and a gradual changing in agriculture. Moreover, the geographical arrangement of St. John’s leased out area did not correspond with the prevailing demand. Farmers, striving for an enlargement of their holdings, were not interested anymore in small plots of land. They were prepared to offer high prices only for large plots of pasture. A reorganisation of St. John’s plots was not possible. The institution lost more and more revenues. This doesn’t mean however that the friars weren’t aware of the changing socio-economic conditions, on the contrary. When they decided to expand their possessions in the second half to the fifteenth century and the second quarter of the sixteenth century, they organized their new lands just in the way they realized the highest lease prices. Now the friars offered large farms or large plots of land. The flexibility of the friars according to their estate management was also revealed in the conversion to cattle breeding in the fifteenth century on the direct exploited farm. They responded to price changes, but especially to changes on the rural labor market.  They tried to save labour by introducing among other things performance-related pay instead of time-rates.

To conclude, the friars were able to adapt the estate management successfully to the changing socio-economic conditions. However, in some cases they weren’t looking for as high as possible revenues. They also pursued strategies which were intended to guarantee a continuous and assured provisioning of the institution, where approximately 100 to 150 mouths had to be feed every day. For the food supply, the friars did not completely trust the food market of Bruges. This is remarkable, because the hospital worked in one of the most important commercial cities of late medieval Northwestern Europe. The friars hold very long, in comparison to other landowners, to the direct exploitation of demesnes. Until the middle of the sixteenth century, by average one third of all consumed food stuff came from the direct exploited farms. The decision to lease out those farms, which occurred in the fourteenth century, was not only the result of adverse price- and wage developments in the countryside, but also the result of internal-institutional problems. The demesnes were leased out as one unit to farmers, while splitting them up into small parts would be more (financial) rewarding. When leased out, the friars of the hospital did not strive for the highest lease prices, but for a continuing, personal relationship with the tenants of the farms. Those tenant were responsible for one third of the food provisioning, however the lease prices were stipulated in cash. So, the friars of the hospital differentiated between the leasing out of small plots of land, which had to bring as much cash money as possible and the leasing out of large farms, which had to guarantee the provisioning of the hospital. This learns us that the significance of the lease system was not only determined by regional factors, but also by the strategy pursued by the landowner.

What was the impact of these adaptations and strategies by the friars of St. John’s for the rural society? Important was the early and general switch to leasehold for small parcels. Peasants, desperately searching for land, were obliged to offer high prices. Those peasants had to bid against each other. This was one of the factors which caused the disappearance of the peasants in coastal Flanders in the fourteenth century. Secondly, the remaining peasants of coastal Flanders did not participate any longer on the lease market in the sixteenth century (controlled by St. John’s). The lease market, even this of small plots of land, was dominated by local landowners, wealthy urban dwellers and wealthy farmers. There was no strong competition anymore. For those who lost their own land, the lease market did not provide an alternative any more. Considering the labor market, it is clear that in coastal Flanders a shift occurred from occasional wage labour by peasants towards nearly fulltime labour by landless people. The labour market suffered acute shorts of workmen in some periods (for instance the first half of the fifteenth century, the end of the fifteenth century), causing the farmers to introduce labour saving methods. To my opinion, it was this short of (cheap) labour forces which stimulated rationalization and specialization in agriculture in coastal Flanders in the sixteenth century, not a competition on the lease market. So each factor market (lease/wage labour) played a decisive role at a different moment in the transformation process in coastal Flanders.