Skip to main content Accessibility help

The gender distribution of real property ownership in late medieval Brussels (1356–1460)



Although ownership of real property was crucial to the economic opportunities of medieval urban women, few studies systematically investigate the gender distribution of medieval real property over time. Using censiers (rarely used sources), this article approaches this question through a socio-geographical analysis of Brussels. The study finds that, despite the region's egalitarian inheritance laws, female ownership of real property was relatively limited, and it declined during the late Middle Ages. This decrease accelerated during economic crises, and especially affected the property of non-elite women. Further research on the changing economic opportunities of medieval women would benefit from a more explicit discussion of non-labour income sources and social status.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

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

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

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The gender distribution of real property ownership in late medieval Brussels (1356–1460)
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

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

      The gender distribution of real property ownership in late medieval Brussels (1356–1460)
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

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

      The gender distribution of real property ownership in late medieval Brussels (1356–1460)
      Available formats



Hide All


1 Jones, Sarah Rees, ‘Public and private space and gender in medieval Europe’, in Bennet, Judith M. and Karras, Ruth Mazo eds., The Oxford handbook of women and gender in medieval Europe (Oxford, 2013), 250.

2 A good overview of recent studies is provided in the introduction of Staples, Kate Kelsey, Daughters of London: inheriting opportunity in the late Middle Ages (Leiden, 2011), 113.

3 Some notable exceptions include Reyerson, Kathryn, ‘Women in business in medieval Montpellier’, in Hanawalt, Barbara ed., Women and work in preindustrial Europe (Bloomington, 1986), 117–44: Hutton, Shennan, Women and economic activities in late medieval Ghent (New York, 2011).

4 For a recent study that succeeded in overcoming these obstacles through an original source approach, see Yates, Margaret, ‘Married women and their landholdings: the evidence from feet of fines, 1310–1509’, Continuity and Change 28, 2 (2013), 163–85.

5 David Nicholas, for example, considered censiers to be of little value for his research on women in fourteenth-century Ghent, as they ‘tell us little of the role of women [because] women are statistically insignificant as payers of a [census]’. See Nicholas, David, The domestic life of a medieval city: women, children and the family in fourteenth-century Ghent (Lincoln, 1985), 70.

6 To my knowledge, three studies do offer quantitative information on the gender distribution of real property ownership in late medieval cities, but only for one moment in time. Wensky, Margret, Die Stellung der Frau in der Stadtkölnischen Wirtschaft im Spätmittelalter (Graz, 1980), 312–15; Smail, Daniel Lord, ‘Démanteler le patrimoine: les femmes et les biens dans la Marseille médievale’, Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 52, 2 (1997), 343–68; Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, ‘The boundaries of affection: women and property in late medieval Avignon’, in Sperling, Jutta and Wray, Shona Kelly eds., Across the religious divide: women, property, and law in the wider Mediterranean (ca. 1300–1800) (New York, 2010), 3851. For the high Middle Ages, two studies did quantify changes in women's landownership. David Herlihy charted evolutions in female landownership in the whole of continental Europe between 700 and 1200 based on samples of charters. See Herlihy, David, ‘Land, family and women in continental Europe, 701–1200’, Traditio 18 (1962), 89120. In his study of the growth of Barcelona and its ruling classes, Stephen Bensch included a discussion of the share of female property holders in Barcelona between 1100 and 1290. See Bensch, Stephen, Barcelona and its rulers, 1096–1291 (Cambridge 1995), 258.

7 For north-western Europe, see among others, Wensky, Die Stellung; Howell, Martha C., Women, production, and patriarchy in late medieval cities (Chicago, 1986); McIntosh, Marjorie, Working women in English society, 1300–1620 (Cambridge, 2005); Hanawalt, Barbara, The wealth of wives: women, law, and economy in late medieval London (New York, 2007); Hutton, Women; Peter Stabel, ‘Working women and guildsmen in the Flemish textile industries (13th and 14th century)’ (forthcoming).

8 Howell, Martha C., The marriage exchange: property, social place, and gender in cities of the Low Countries, 1300–1550 (Chicago, 1998).

9 Barron, Caroline M., ‘The “golden age” of women in medieval London’, Reading Medieval Studies 15 (1989), 3558; Goldberg, Jeremy P., Women, work, and life cycle in a medieval economy (Oxford, 1992).

10 De Moor, Tine and van Zanden, Jan Luiten, ‘Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period’, Economic History Review 63, 1 (2010), 133, here 16.

11 For the Low Countries, see, for example, Boone, Marc, Dumon, Machteld and Reusens, Birgit, Immobiliënmarkt, fiscaliteit en sociale ongelijkheid te Gent 1483–1503 (Kortrijk, 1981).

12 Many historians have pointed to the relationship between landownership and creditworthiness in the Low Countries. See, for example, Zuijderduijn, Jaco, ‘Assessing a medieval capital market: the capacity of the market for renten in Edam and De Zeevang (1462–1563)’, Jaarboek voor middeleeuwse geschiedenis 11, 1 (2008), 138–9, 148, and the cited literature there.

13 Zuijderduijn, Jaco, Medieval capital markets: markets for renten, state formation and private investment in Holland (1300–1550) (Leiden, 2009), 1011; Godding, Philippe, Le droit privé dans les Pays-Bas méridionaux du 12e au 18e siècle (Brussels, 1987), 480–5.

14 Rollo-Koster, ‘The boundaries of affection’, 47–8.

15 Dickstein-Bernard, Claire, ‘Bruxelles: résidence princière (1375–1500)’, in Martens, Mina ed., Histoire de Bruxelles (Toulouse, 1976), 139–65.

16 Meijers, Eduard Maurits, Het West-Brabantsche erfrecht (Haarlem, 1929), 110–11.

17 See also the discussion of the studies on Marseilles and Avignon in section 5. Martha C. Howell, ‘The social logic of the marital household in cities of the late medieval Low Countries’, in Carlier, Myriam and Soens, Tim eds., The household in late medieval cities: Italy and northwestern Europe compared (Leuven, 2001), 189–91.

18 Godding, Le droit privé.

19 Bousmar, Eric, ‘Neither equality nor radical oppression: the elasticity of women's roles in the late medieval Low Countries’, in Kittell, Ellen and Suydam, Mary eds., The texture of society: medieval women in the southern Low Countries (Basingstoke, 2004), 109–27.

20 Kittell, Ellen, ‘Guardianship over women in medieval Flanders: a reappraisal’, Journal of Social History 31, 4 (1998), 897930; Hutton, Women, 36–58.

21 Fossier, Robert, Polyptiques et censiers (Turnhout, 1978), 67.

22 Although they were not completely identical, a cens or cijns is best translated as ‘burgage rent’ or ‘socage rent’ as existed in urban England. To compare, see Harding, Vanessa, ‘Space, property, and propriety in urban England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32, 4 (2002), 553–4.

23 Smail, ‘Démanteler le patrimoine’; Rollo-Koster, ‘The boundaries of affection'. Joëlle Rolle-Koster did combine gender analysis of a censier with social topography, but from the perspective of the cens collector. She reconstructed the lordship of a female convent in Avignon over properties throughout the city. See Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, ‘From prostitutes to virgin brides of Christ: the Avignonese Repenties in the late Middle Ages’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32, 1 (2002), 125–6.

24 This overview is based on Philippe Godding, Le droit foncier à Bruxelles au Moyen Age (Brussels, 1960).

25 All archival references are given in the overview table (see Appendix).

26 A complete overview and discussion of all censiers drawn up by institutions from Brussels can be found in Vannieuwenhuyze, Bram, Laatmiddeleeuwse Brusselse cijnsregisters (12de–15de eeuw): een schitterende bron voor de historische topografie van Brussel en haar omgeving (Brussels, 2014).

27 An example: ‘Item, my lady Margriete, former wife of Henrix Sloesen, yearly and hereditary xxxix s. x d. to be paid at Christmas, for a plot in the Steenstraat next to lord Diederex Loesen’ (Free translation from: ‘Item joncfrouwe Margriete, Henrix Sloesen wijf was, xxxix s. x d. siaers erfleken te Kerssavont op een hofstat gheleghen in de Steenstrate bi tser Diederex Loesen’) (OCMW Archive Brussels, fonds Hôpitaux, no. 312, fo. 7r).

28 The cens paid by institutions such as the city of Brussels and religious or charitable institutions were not included in the analysis.

29 On methodological considerations for censiers, see Andrea Bardyn and Bram Vannieuwenhuyze, ‘Inleiding’, in Vannieuwenhuyze, Laatmiddeleeuwse Brusselse cijnsregisters, 9–33.

30 In some cases the plot was described with the name of the house; in others, the name of the payer was not written down, or a payer was described as ‘the children/heirs of X’.

31 Translation of ‘Lijsbet Zwerten ende Jan van den Driesche, haer man als hare monbore’ (OCMW Archives Brussels, Bienfaissance, no. 883, fo. 4r).

32 Hutton, Women, 49.

33 Judith M. Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘Women, gender and medieval historians’, in Bennet and Karras eds., The Oxford handbook of women and gender in medieval Europe, 9. Specifically for Avignon, see Rollo-Koster, Joëlle, ‘The women of papal Avignon: a new source: the Liber Divisionis of 1371’, The Journal of Women's History 8, 1 (1996), 3659, here 49.

34 Hutton, Women, 149; Kittel, Ellen, ‘The construction of women's social identity in medieval Douai: evidence from identifying epithets’, Journal of Medieval History 25, 3 (1999), 215–27.

35 He analysed this by counting the owners of adjacent properties in 4,000 land transfers (Bensch, Barcelona, 258). Linda McMillen found a higher percentage of female landowners in the middle of the thirteenth century, but this is based on a small number of transactions concerning only leased property by one monastery. Of the 137 leaseholders of urban property, 27 per cent were women. See McMillin, Linda, ‘The house on Sant Pere Street: four generations of women's land holding in thirteenth-century Barcelona’, Medieval Encounters 12, 1 (2006), 6273, here 72.

36 Bensch, Barcelona, 244–60.

37 To my knowledge, the only studies that give the gendered distribution of property ownership (not market activity) in late medieval cities are those mentioned by Daniel Lord Smail and Joelle Rollo-Koster (which will be discussed further), and Margaret Wensky's study, giving a percentage of female property owners from a taxation source. However, the source only includes heads of households (and thus mostly only widows) above a certain wealth level. See Wensky, Die Stellung, 312–15.

38 Michaud, Francine, Un signe des temps: accroissement des crises familiales autour du patrimoine à Marseille à la fin du XIIIe siècle (Toronto, 1994), 83.

39 The exclusion of dowered daughters was the rule in most regions in southern Europe. Nevertheless, there was significant regional variation. In Barcelona, as mentioned earlier, dowered daughters were not disinherited. This was also the case in Lisbon. See, for a comparative study, Sperling, Jutta, ‘Dowry or inheritance? Kinship, property, and women's agency in Lisbon, Venice, Florence (1572)’, Journal of Early Modern History 11, 3 (2007), 197238.

40 Winer, Rebecca Lynn, Women, wealth, and community in Perpignan, c. 1250–1300 (Aldershot, 2006), 256 and the literature cited in note 57; Lightfoot, Dana Wessel, Women, dowries and agency: marriage in fifteenth-century Valencia (Manchester, 2013), 122–36.

41 Bavel, Bas Van, ‘People and land: rural population developments and property structures in the Low Countries, c. 1300–c. 1600’, Continuity and Change 17, 1 (2002), 1015, and the studies cited there.

42 Claire Dickstein-Bernard, ‘Une ville en expansion (1291–1374)’, in Martens ed., Histoire de Bruxelles, 100; Despy, Georges, ‘La “grande peste noire de 1348” a-t-elle touché le Roman Pays de Brabant?’, in Centenaire du Séminaire d'Histoire médiévale de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1876–1976 (Brussels, 1977), 195217; Deligne, Chloé, Bruxelles et sa rivière: genèse d'un territoire urbain (12e–18e siècle) (Turnhout, 2003), 109–10.

43 For example, in Norfolk, all identifiable female landowners in the period 1500–1529 were widows: Whittle, Jane, ‘Inheritance, marriage, widowhood and remarriage: a comparative perspective on women and landholding in north-east Norfolk, 1440–1580’, Continuity and Change 13, 1 (1998), 3372.

44 Godding, Le droit privé, 182–3.

45 For example, the censier of the poor table of the parish of the Chapel from 1376 was compared to several corresponding contracts from a charter book of the institution.

46 Howell, The marriage exchange, 124–43.

47 Dumolyn, Jan, ‘Patriarchaal patrimonialisme: de vrouw als object in sociale transacties in het laatmiddeleeuwse Vlaanderen: familiestrategieën en genderposities’, Verslagen van het Centrum voor genderstudiesUgent 12, 1 (2003), 128.

48 Philippe Godding points to the possibility to use testaments to (partly) circumvent customary devolution, for example to preserve the unity of the patrimony by compensating other heirs. He underlines, however, that research on actual practice is necessary (Godding, Le droit privé, 381, 393–4). In Brussels, testators had wide latitude in formulating their wills, more than in many other cities in the Low Countries. See Godding, Philippe, ‘Dans quelle mesure pouvait-on disposer de ses biens par testament dans les anciens Pays-Bas méridionaux?’, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 50, 3 (1982), 279–96.

49 See the extensive overview of women's participation in financial markets in Jordan, William C., Women and credit in pre-industrial and developing societies (Philadelphia, 1993), 1778. The majority of his data, however, deals with the Mediterranean world before the Black Death, Jewish women, or rural societies.

50 Boone, Dumon and Reusens, Immobiliënmarkt, 346–8.

51 It is worth noting that the registers of St John's hospital contain larger numbers of women paying a cens together with their husbands, which might suggest involvement of the couple's communal property. However, the share of women paying a cens independently did decline: from 21 per cent in 1356 to 9 per cent in 1409.

52 Tiffany A. Ziegler, ‘I was sick and you visited me: the hospital of Saint John in Brussels and its patrons’ (unpublished D.Phil. thesis, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2010), 392; Kusman, David, ‘Le Rôle des hôpitaux comme institutions de crédit dans le duché de Brabant (XIIIe–XVe siècles)’, in Pauly, Michel ed., Institutions de l'assistance sociale en Lotharingie médiévale (Luxembourg, 2008), 366–73.

53 See, for example, Boone, Dumon and Reusens, Immobiliënmarkt, 196–9.

54 See, for an overview, Van der Wee, Herman, The growth of the Antwerp market and the European economy (fourteenth–sixteenth centuries) (The Hague, 1963), 918.

55 Spufford, Peter, Money and its use in medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1989), 349 with specific reference to Brabant; van der Wee, Herman and Materné, Jan, ‘De muntpolitiek in Brabant tijdens de late Middeleeuwen en bij de overgang naar de nieuwe tijd’, in van den Eerenbeemt, Henricus ed., Bankieren in Brabant in de loop der eeuwen (Tilburg, 1987), 4350.

56 Favresse, Félicien, L'Avènement du régime démocratique à Bruxelles pendant le Moyen Age (1306–1423) (Brussels, 1932), 107–19; Dickstein-Bernard, Claire, La gestion financière d'une capitale à ses débuts: Bruxelles 1334–1467 (Brussels, 1977), 112–15.

57 Free translation of ‘de stad mids crancker neringen, die lange daerinne es geweest ende in lanc soe meer continueert …, alsoe de de menichte van den volke zeer vermindert, de huyse vervallen ende andersins de voirseide stad grotelic declineert’. See Marez, Guillaume Des, L'Organisation du travail à Bruxelles au XVe siècle (Brussels, 1904), 472–3.

58 This was a consequence of the history of this neighbourhood. After the guilds of the weavers and fullers were banished from the city centre due to a failed revolt in 1303, many settled in the parish of the Chapel. The inhabitants of the quarter thus came predominantly from the lower and middle groups. Billen, Claire and Deligne, Chloé, ‘Autonomie et inclusion d'un espace: les détours de l'appartenance du quartier de La Chapelle à la Ville de Bruxelles (XIIe- XIVe siècle)’, in Dierkens, A. et al. . eds., Villes et villages: organisation et représentation de l'espace (Brussels, 2011), 84–7.

59 A small section of the Chapel parish, which was located within the first city wall, has been excluded from the analysis.

60 They were identified with a title, or could be linked to elite families through their names and family members.

61 One woman was definitely linked to Brussels patrician linages. The other woman paid a cens for no less than four houses and her husband came from an important, albeit non-patrician, family (van Bolenbeke).

62 OCMW Archive Brussels, Bienfaissance, no. 216, fos. 73r, 75r.

63 For the relationship between economic trends and real estate and capital markets in the Low Countries, see among others, Soly, Hugo, ‘De schepenregisters als bron voor de conjunctuurgeschiedenis van Zuid – en Noordnederlandse steden in het Ancien Régime: een concreet voorbeeld: de Antwerpse immobiliënmarkt in de 16de eeuw’, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 87, 1 (1974), 521–44; Boone, Dumon and Reusens, Immobiliënmarkt, 86–9.

64 The difficult economic situation of the inhabitants of Brussels has been discussed in the introduction of section 7. For additional discussion of the increased impoverishment in the city, see Dickstein-Bernard, Claire, ‘Paupérisme et secours aux pauvres à Bruxelles au XVe siècle’, Belgisch tijdschrift voor filologie en geschiedenis 55, 2 (1977), 390415. The selling of real estate by people without sufficient financial reserves during times of economic difficulties has been observed in late medieval Ghent; see Boone, Dumon and Reusens, Immobiliënmarkt, 154–6. See also, in general for the Low Countries, Uytven, Raymond van, ‘La Flandre et le Brabant, “terres de promission” sous les ducs de Bourgogne?’, Revue de Nord 43, 3 (1961), 312–13.

65 Vannieuwenhuyze, Bram and Meijering, Stefan, ‘Het Brusselse hof van Nassau: de oprichting van een laatmiddeleeuwse stadsresidentie’, Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Filologie en Geschiedenis 88, 2 (2010), 367.

66 OCMW Archive Brussels, Bienfaissance, no. 216, fo. 61v.

67 State Archives of Belgium – Anderlecht, Fonds Kerkelijk archief van Brabant, no. 6926, fo. 12r.

68 Boone, Dumon and Reusens, Immobiliënmarkt, 312–13.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Continuity and Change
  • ISSN: 0268-4160
  • EISSN: 1469-218X
  • URL: /core/journals/continuity-and-change
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed