A standard mill from Vieil Rentier d’Audenarde, a land register from the end of the 13th century | Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, MS 1175, fol. 15r

Economy & Technology
c. 1183
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The Windmill of Wormhout

Innovation in Agriculture

‘In Wormhout [there is] a mill that is propelled by the wind,’ we read in a deed of the count of Flanders from about 1183. It is one of the very earliest mentions of a windmill in the North Sea area. The wooden constructions brought about a revolution in medieval agriculture.

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Were they variants of watermills? Or vertical versions of the horizontal windmills from Asia and the Middle East? Historians and archaeologists have not yet found the answer. What we do know is that the standard millsmills placed on a wooden undercarriage which allowed the mill casing to be turned in the right direction, also called stake mills. like those in Wormhout in present-day French Flanders were complex machines that could turn completely around their own axis. With their sails they used the changeable wind to drive two millstones. They ground grain into flour. So that manual labour was no longer needed in regions where there was not sufficient height difference to grind with watermills – manual labour which was freed for other work. The standard mill was just one of the technological innovations which made the impressive population growth in medieval Western Europe possible.

Duc de Berry.

Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 65, fol. 3v

Turning plough and three-field system in the 15th century. From Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (March), around 1410.

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Innovation in Agriculture

Between the 11th and 13th centuries the population of Western Europe grew steadily, and in the Low Countries even more markedly than elsewhere. To be able to feed all those extra mouths, farmers started to innovate. They were able to work new land, increase fertility and achieve greater productivity for a given area of land.

As elsewhere in Europe the three-field system farmers sowed both summer and winter grain, but left a portion of land to lie fallow each year, to avoid exhausting it, thus optimising the use of land. was introduced in the great agricultural domains, but in the Low Countries the intensification went further than that. Besides their own small fields farmers worked large central fields together intensively. They shared tools and draught animals. Systems of ditches drained land of excess water.

Farmers also grew more crops like peas and beans, which they sowed on fields that were lying fallow. Legumes were rich in protein and added nitrogen to the soil, which increased its fertility. Near the large towns industrial plants were grown, and plants from which dyes were prepared.

Innovation ensured more food production. Still, at certain times there was food insecurity and even famine. The poor were always the first victims. At the end of the Middle Ages grain had to be imported from Northern France and the Balticthe region on the Baltic Sea, present-day Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. region, to feed the fast-growing population of the Low Countries, especially in towns.

Focal points

Dutch husbandry.

Ghent, University Library

The English aristocrat Richard Weston (1591-1652) spent the years 1644-1645 in exile in the Spanish Netherlands. His findings on the practice of agriculture in Brabant and Flanders, more specifically on the rotation of crops, appeared in book form and had a real influence on the renewal of English agriculture.

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Population Growth and Urbanisation

The standard mill and other agricultural innovations had a significant demographic impact. Greater food production made further population growth possible. Between 950 and 1300 the population of the Low Countries quadrupled. Agricultural innovation also facilitated urbanisation. Fewer people were needed to produce the same amount of food. Their hands were freed to make industrial products or conduct trade. Those activities took place mainly in towns. In the 13th century Ghent was the largest city in North-West Europe, together with Paris and had perhaps 80,000 inhabitants. In around 1450 the county of Flanders alone had approximately 660,000 and a third of the population of the Low Countries lived in a town.

However, moving to the town was for many people a necessity. By the late 13thcentury a large part of the fertile land in the Low Countries was under cultivation. All that was left was land that was less fertile, difficult to work and remote. It was not worth investing man- and horsepower in it. However, the population of the countryside continued to grow. As a result there was less and less land to live on. Many people had to seek a future elsewhere. They did that, in among other ways, in the up-and-coming towns.

Paard en tractor.

Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven, B00014112

The Brabant draught horse is known as far away as America as a Belgian Draught. After the Second World War it had to cede its place in the field to the more powerful tractor, the symbol of industrial agriculture.



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Agricultural Innovation in the 18th and 19th Centuries

In the 18th century the population of Western Europe once more increased sharply. In the region which today is Flanders, the population rose between 1700 and 1800 from 1.2 to 1.9 million. All those people needed to eat and so more food had to be grown. Again, agricultural innovation was necessary.

New land such as that on the Campine heaths was cultivated. The productivity of smaller agricultural businesses also increased. New crops, like the starch-rich potato from America, could produce a great deal of food in a small area. By alternating grain and potatoes with, for example, animal feed like turnips and clover, farmers enriched the soil. More intensive fertilisation (by more livestock) and care of crops (frequent weeding), led to higher yields.

The West-European population also continued to grow during the 19th century. In 1880 3.3 million people lived in present-day Flanders. However, productivity in agriculture increased more slowly than the population. One solution was massive imports of American grain. The same America attracted many poor European immigrants, which relieved the pressure of population here.

At the end of the 19th century innovations again led to a leap in agricultural productivity. Thanks to the development of industrially-produced artificial fertiliser, farmers could increase the fertility of their land. More and more work was carried out on the farm by machines; mowing and threshing machines, beet-cutters… They were driven by men, animals and – increasingly frequently – steam and diesel engines.

Wikimedia Commons

The three-field system divided an area of arable land into three. On each field farmers sowed winter grain (year 1), then summer grain (year 2), and subsequently let the land lie fallow (year 3).

Wikimedia Commons

In the absence of farmland, Flemish settlers moved to new agricultural areas in Europe from the 12th century onwards. For example, to Fläming, a region in Germany with a name that recalls medieval migrants.

Een keerploeg.
Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, MS 1175, fol. I 318

A turning plough consists of a coulter, which gives the earth a preliminary dig, and a combination of a ploughshare, which loosens the sods, and a mouldboard which subsequently turns over the soil. From Vieil Rentier d’Audenarde.

Zicht op Gent.
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

View of Ghent. Woodcut by Pieter Dekeysere, 1524.

Genk, Openluchtmuseum Bokrijk

A square farmhouse in the Open-Air Museum in Bokrijk (Genk). This type of farm, built in a square around a farmyard, was very common in the 18th century in parts of the Low Countries and in Germany.

Zuid-Abdijmolen Koksijde.
ArcheoNet Vlaanderen, Lambert J. Derenette

In 2021 Flanders still had about 320 windmills – not from the Middle Ages but from later periods. Some are still working, such as the Zuid-Abdijmolen of Koksijde from 1773. It stood first in Houtem and in the 1950s was moved to Koksijde.

Veurne, Stadsarchief Veurne, published by J. Declercq

Advert for artificial fertiliser, around 1910-1934.

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Voor Boer en Tuinder

Bron: VRT archief, Centrum Agrarische Geschiedenis – 26 jan 1964


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