Meeting a Brabantine female farmer

This blogpost is about Ymme die Lems, the female matriarch of a farming family in the 15th century seigneury of Woude (present-day Wouw, Netherlands). I encountered her multiple times in my research into the settlement history of the northwestern corner of Dutch Brabant so here I put together what I know about her. This case study serves to show what information can be gleaned from a medieval tax register about a medieval commoner in a rural community.

my impression of Ymme die Lems

Ymme owned land in “Spelrestraete” a medieval street hamlet consisting of a spread out cluster of farms located along a hay-road that originally led from the village of Woude to Spelreborch, a by then obsolete manorial court, near present-day Steenbergen. Spelrestraete (just like the neighboring community of the Triest-homestead) was a satellite hamlet of Woude, the head town where the parish church was situated. As its own seigneury, Woude maintained a local law court with baillif, aldermen and a local militia. Furthermore, it was protected by a moated castle which was used by the lord of Bergen op Zoom as his personal residence.

medieval hamlets to the northeast of Woude

Ymme is mentioned in the seigneurial tax register of Bergen op Zoom of 1424 (ARR BoZ inv. 1338). It is in these kinds of sources that we find the average medieval commoners: the smith, the miller, the butcher and also Ymme herself.

In the register of 1424, she is identified as Ymme die Lems (daughter of Lems) or Ymme Lem Dierwyen dochter (daughter of Dierwye). She married a farmer called Adde van den Dale. She and her husband belonged to the tax post of Spelrestraete, so presumably that’s where they lived.

Bergen-op-Zoom tax register of 1424

The family of her husband Adde came from the farms located in the Vroenhout dale which is the geographical depression between Spelrestraete and the street settlement of Vroedenhout (present-day Vroenhout). The father of Adde was a tenant farmer called Arnout and can be found paying rent to Pieter Noriiszone in the tax register of 1359.

The hamlets of Vroedenhout and Spelrestraete are within half an hour walking distance and according to 16th century accounts often paid their taxes and tithes together. Both peasant communities had access to a local chapel where occasionally masses were held. As mentioned before, the parish church was located in the village of Woude, so for religious festivities and church services they had to walk to Woude.

A 17th century drawing of the village of Woude, seen from the area west of Spelrestraete (Grave, 1671)

Perhaps that Ymme and Adde met each other at such an occassion. Together they had six children: Claes, Jan, Arent, Godscalc, Willem & Roelant. The children owned land both to the west of Spelrestraete, in the area called “opte donck” and to the east, near Vroedenhout, in an area called “die cauwe”.

Why did Ymme stand out to me? Well, for two reasons: 1) she was taxed for land separate from that of her husband. This is not very common (only 10% of the tax posts concern women). Here it is important to remember that medieval inheritance law did allow for women to inherit land.

2) many of her sons are identified in the register as “X son of Ymme” instead of “X son of Adde”. In total, her name is mentioned over a dozen times, mainly as a parentage identifier for her six sons.

This seems to suggest that the tax collector who visited the hamlet, encountered a community to which Ymme die Lems had a lot of significance; at least more so than her husband because her name occurs more often.

Also interesting is that Ymme paid 8 Flemish pennies of tax to the lord of Bergen op Zoom whereas her husband Adde paid 7 pennies. Presumably she owned more land Of course, it would be really cool if we could identify the plots which she owned, but this seems not to be possible.

The tax register of 1424 only refers to the taxable plots by the name of the farmer and the amount of tax that was due. The boundaries of the plot are not provided in the register and only occassionally the measurements of the plot are mentioned. This means that only in the rarest of cases, a medieval plot be identified, either by its name or by its measurements.

I hope that this case of a Brabantine female farmer, who lived almost 600 years ago, shows that some interesting nuggets of information about medieval female commoners can be found in the tax registers. And however faint the traces of the life of Ymme die Lems are, it seems clear that she was a significant figure in the fifteenth century farming community in which she lived.


AAR BoZ inv. 1338, Legger van cijnsplichtige personen of van in cijns uitgegeven percelen van Wouw, met de gehuchten onder Roosendaal, Kruisland en Langendijk, 15e eeuw (dated to 1424 in Kerkhof 2020)

(forthc.) Kerkhof, P.A. (2020). “Saer, Saert; een Zuid-Nederlandse veldnaam van oznekere oorsprong.” Noordbrabants Historisch Jaarboek.

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