The craft of the thatchers in the cities and in the country.

This is an example of a little house with thatched roof. Only hundred years ago, 
a brother of my greatgrandfather on mother's side, August De Roo, lived in it. 
The house stood in the Thijskensstraat in Kleit, Maldegem.

Roofing in prehistoric times

Although straw used to be the normal roofing material on farms and other houses, there is little known about the craft of the thatcher before 1500. Yet, houses with roofing made out of straw can be found back in the prehistory. A step back in time:

In the old stone age (until 8.000 BC) Neanderthal men crossed our province. In Ghent, but also in Maldegem artifacts were found from the late paleolithicum (35.000-11.500 BC)

But in the neolithicum, the late stone age, the lifestyle of the human changed, from food collector to food producer. In 4500 BC, the first farm communities arise with their typical long houses.

These farmers lived in villages with a population of 50 to 150 inhabitants. They built big wooden long houses.
Experimental archeologists reconstructed these houses, to discover that only one house could be built by six men in six months.

Anne Duhameeuw writes:

We assume that these constructions in the stone age were made in the spring and summer months, and the thatchers covered the roofs with straw, a product of the harvest at the end of the summer.

Straw was not only used for roofing, but they made some sort of mortar containing both straw and loam to cover the walls.

In the earliest Iron age (7th Century BC) discoveries of certain urns point to the existence of highly developed shield roofs.

In Burkel (south of Maldegem) during the 1990's, evidence was found that indicated the existence of a settlement. The settlement was built between 1500 BC and 1100 BC. And in Maldegem there were pieces found of yet another settlement. The pieces found here point to different periods in time, the Bronze age (1800 BC), the Iron age and even the Roman period.

In Bruges they discovered an axe, dated 1600 BC. In Aalter a burial field where the oldest graves go back to 1200 BC and still remained in use until 600 BC.

The Menapiers who populated these parts at the time of the Roman conquests in Flanders, were according to estimates, few in number. Only 30.000, spread out over these parts.

Around the beginning of our Christian chronology, the sea slowly pulled back, and the land became more suited for living, especially with newly formed dunes to protect them. The connection between the sea and what was to become Bruges was insured by a natural bay.

Roofing in medieval cities and villages

Thatchers at work on a painting of Bruegel…

Clemens Trefois refers to drawings in manuscripts from the 9th and 10th Century where very detailed roofs made out of straw were displayed. And again on peculiar calendars from the 14th and 15th Century. When we look closer at the paintings of, for example, Bruegel, Teniers or Adriaan Brouwer we discover a lot of houses with straw roofs.

The actual thatcher techniques were probably developed in the Middle Ages, where the technical finishing of the roof was even more improved under the pressure of the urban crafts.

In the 14th Century, Ghent still possessed a lot of wooden houses covered with straw. Even the high, steep roofs of the more expensive houses were still covered with straw, until the 15th Century when tiled or slated roofs became a privilege for the rich.

The Craft of the Thatcher

The craft of the Master thatcher was first introduced in the 12th Century. In the beginning of the 14th Century the thatcher trade was founded alongside the other trades. Within the medieval cities unions of specialized manual workers were founded: the trades or crafts with their own rights and obligations. The archives of Antwerp state the existence of this trade in 1306. In Bruges the building trade was the second largest one, only outnumbered by the artisans of Bruges. The building trade included a number of crafts. The bricklayers, the stucco workers, the sawyers, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, the plumbers and finally the thatchers.

None of these crafts were ever as big in numbers as the ones in the textile industry.

In 1338-40 the building trade had 686 men under its wing, which was about 10% of the total.
The carpenters were the largest group with 197 men.

Unfortunately, we could not find any further information on the thatcher trade in Bruges. In Ghent the first mention of a thatcher trade was in 1336. The trade counted, according to city calculations, about 43 thatchers. The escutcheon of the thatchers of Ghent is shown below.

The thatchers in Ghent

Slaters and tilers slowly push the thatcher away

In about every city in the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Flanders) these craftsmen had to face a lot of problems. To prevent huge fires the city magistrates often had to take drastic measures. In the first half of the 14th Century there were 62 fires in 14 years located in Gent. So about 4, 5 a year.

But the "stroedeckers" (Flemish dialect for thatchers) weren't pushed away that easily by the slaters and tilers. For many years they kept on controlling their profession with approbation.

The year 1378 is historically important because of the incorporation of the thatchers with the tiler trade. Two years later, in 1380, they managed to restore their rights.

But in 1416 only 15 of the 38 thatchers could exercise their profession.
The complete ban in 1416 to exercise their profession in the city, and the lack of any regulations concerning a roof made out of straw until 1540, proves that the measures were effective. Of course, that didn't mean that these measures and laws were never broken.

Despite the ban, many houses in the 16th century, especially in the environment of Ghent, still had their thatched roofs.

Even in the 17th Century many roofs were still being thatched. Evidence provided for this statement is the city regulation of 09.02.1619. In this statement is written that anyone who violated the ban would be punished.

The attempts to forbid the thatching of roofs were of course not unjust. Many huge fires with a certain amount of victims illustrate this.
The law to forbid the covering of roofs with straw wasn't made everywhere at the same time: in Bruges in 1374, Doornik 1432, Utrecht around 1614, and in Eeklo in 1660.
In Bruges they would give people who replaced their thatched roofs with tiles a financial compensation.

In the "History of the little man" we read:

"It was mostly the upper class who could keep these measures in account. The craftsmen were already happy if they could pay their rent on time. That is why only the market places and the renowned streets changed looks. The small alleys and streets, where the poor lived, didn't change at all."

Despite these extreme measures, the thatchers who lived in Ghent could maintain their position. In 1525 the number of thatchers was as big as in 1356 (23 members)!

The rebellion of the "creesers" made an end to the independence of the thatchers in their guilds. Emperor Charles grouped the 53 big and little crafts in 21 trades. The thatchers were grouped in the 13th corporation.
Within this group they were at the bottom of the social ladder.

Until the second half of the 18th Century, the thatchers from Gent exercised their craft only to a limited extent.
The board of the thatchers consisted at that time of two jurymen. Ironically they were also the only thatchers left. So the thatcher trade didn't mean much during the 17th and 18th Century, although it remained an independent trade until the end of the "Ancien Regime."
But the French Revolution made a definite end to the traditional trades.

Life standard and wages

The building trades in Ghent could be divided into three groups.

The blacksmiths, the carpenters and the woodbreakers consisted of the first wealthy group.
The second group consisted of the painters, the tilers, the bricklayers, the stonecutters, the joiners, the sculptors and a couple of others.
The third and poorest group consisted of the plumbers, the woodsawyers, the thatchers and a few other lesser known crafts.

Most trades possessed a trade house of their own, except the "onbemiddelden", like the thatchers.
Still the thatchers were represented through their trade in the government of Ghent until 1540.
But those positions in the government were never filled by thatchers themselves. That honor usually went to bricklayers or carpenters.

Although the period between 1380 and 1540 was a prosperous one, it was still a struggle for survival for those on the bottom of the social ladder. When, in certain years the price of grain lifted, the poor trades had to face sickness and malnutrition.

From an Ordinance in 1588, we learn that the master thatchers received 18 gr a day and their servants 12 gr. A bricklayer or a stonecutter got 26 gr. a day and their servants 16 gr. A plumber received 20 gr. (Gr is short for big silvercoins.)

The wages in Ghent were 15 % higher in the 17th and 18th Century when compared with wages in other smaller cities.

Working circumstances

In late medieval Ghent, a year counted 235 working days. Then there were the Sundays, the half Saturdays and the 50 high days. A winter wage consisted of 60 to 80% of the summer wage, because of the shortened days in wintertime.
Absenteeism was punished financially fairly heavily. In the ordinances of all building trades from 1541, it states that when the workmen didn't show up in time, the masters had the right to deduct the lost time from their pay.
For instance, they could deduct 1 gr. for every lost hour from the pay of a workman and a 1/2 gr. from the pay of a server. The phrase "time is money" began to work its way into society.

The thatchers in the country.

The thatchers who exercised their profession in the countryside were not united by trades.
In the history of Maldegem, apart from a few exceptions, we have found little mention of such a craft!

What is interesting though, is the inventory of the estate of Marijn Blanckaert, deceased in Maldegem on 30 October 1633, that Daniel Verstraete reports about. Verstraete leaves us the impression that Marijn could have been a thatcher.

Marijn Blanckaert was married to Katelijne Schokaert (daughter of Jan Schokaert) and lived in the hamlet Eede (now part of the Netherlands), which was still on the property of Maldegem.

Out of a state of goods, we can assume that there were two children from a first marriage, Jooris and Boudewijn Blanckaert, and Lieven Blanckaert, from the second marriage.

After his death, they made the inventory of all his property:

A thatcher in action…


Wooden tubs, chairs, table, a cutting knife, a sickle, a "wentelhaspe", two "haumessen", three pronged forks, shovels, axes, flails, a roster, a pincer, a burner, a sewing basket, a market basket, a "hekei",….

What interests us most is that farmer Blankaert had thatcher tools in his possession.
Did these tools serve for small repair of his own roof, or were they used to gather straw on the land? Or was he a farmer-thatcher, like many in those days, who combined a craft with owning and working on their own lands. We also notice that Marijn didn't have that much land.

Daniel Verstraete also reports that when the homestead of Gillis Blondeel was sold in 1702, the buildings were estimated by carpenter Boudewijn van Maldegem, the blacksmith Adriaan Willems, the thatcher Cornelis De Suttere and bricklayer Jacques Walgraeve.

In "The History of Waarschoot", we read that in the 17th Century four thatchers were known in Waarschoot. Out of the state of goods, we conclude that he had but few possessions.
The bricklayers themselves didn't have that much, so they combined their craft with running a small homestead. We also noticed that thatcher tools weren't worth that much, although the thatching of homesteads and big barns is an art form on itself.

In 1509, the Beguine estate in the "Diefhoek" in Waarschoot possessed, apart from the normal farm buildings, also a cheese and pigeon house. To cover this all up with straw, there were 4200 bundles needed.