Case Studies - Commons - Belgium

Case study: Heirnismeersen, Ghent (Sint-Baafsdorp), Belgium


Type of institution for collective action

Common (Gemene gronden)

Name/description institution  





Flanders, Province of Oost-Vlaanderen

Name of city or specified area 


Further specification location (e.g. borough, street etc.)

The Heirnis was an area of marshland located just east of the city of Ghent.


The most western border was formed by the  path currently known as Achtervisserij (Ghent), while the eastern border was formed by the boundary between Sint-Amandsberg and  Destelbergen.  To the north, the area stretched until the elevated areas with sandy soil in the area of the current Wolterslaan and Nekkervijverstraat; the Wolterslaan is built on a vaulted part of a trench that formed the northern border of the marshland. The hill that was to be found in this area of sandy soil was known as Klink; from the sixteenth until the eighteenth centuries, it was also known as  Heernesberg. To the northwest, the Heirnis stretched until the Oude Vest of the Sint-Baafsdorp; to the south, the Heirnis was bordered by the river Scheldt. The so-called Voorweede or Voordreve (a trapezium-shaped plot of land, surrounded by a trench and located near the current Toekomststraat), as well as the so-called Heirnisgat were also regarded to be part of the Heirnis. From an act of 1575, it seems that there was also another plot of land called Voorwede; this second plot of land stretched until the river Scheldt and was connected to the other Voorwede by a small strip of land. 

Surface area and boundaries

In 1575, a land surveyor by the name of Buck, who was appointed by the city council of Ghent, recorded a total surface area of 22 bunders and 878 roeden (ab. 30.72 hectares) for the Heirnis of Sint-Baafsdorp, including both Voorweden. Berten (1904; cited by Lindemans 1952, 336) estimated the Heirnis to have been about 360 roeden long (approx. 1,388 meters) and 40 to 60 roeden wide (approx. 154.2 to 231.25 meters). The surface area varied throughout time due to land transactions and (both intentional and non-intentional) floodings. The largest change in surface was caused by the construction of the Coupure (better known as Rommelwater or Visserijkanaal) in 1752, which consumed a large part of the area called Binnen-Heirnis (see also underneath).


The Heirnis generally was regarded as consisting of two separate parts, although the way in which it was divided varied from time to time. First, there was the division into two parts by the respective names of Grote Heirnis (translated 'Large Heirnis') and Kleine Heirnis ('Small Heirnis') The latter name was used for the small strip of land of the Heirnis bordering the river Scheldt; the name of Groot-Herinis was used for the rest of the area of the Heirnis. A second, less frequently used division was the division into two parts called the Binnen- and Buiten-Heirnis (translated as respectively 'Inner-Heirnis' and 'Outer-Heirnis'). This division referred to the result of the construction of a city wall between the southern moat of the Spanish Castle (located near the current Ossenstraat) and the banks of the river Scheldt near the current Kreeftstraat. The part of the Heirnis located inside this city wall (west of this wall) was called Binnen-Heirnis, the part east if this wall was named Buiten-Heirnis. However, after the construction of the Visserijkanaal in 1752, Grote Heirnis was from then on named Kleine Heirnis and vice versa.

Foundation/start of institution, date or year

Probably 1199.

Foundation year: is this year the confirmed year of founding or is this the year this institution is first mentioned?

According to Berten (1904), the first mentioning of the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp as a group was in a charter from 1199, recording the pasture rights obtained by those inhabitants from the abbot of the abbey of Saint-Bavo and the owners of plots of lands on the Heirnis.

Foundation act present?

Unknown. Berten (1904) mentions the alleged existence of a charter from 1199, stating the original pasture rights of the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp; whether this charter still exists, is unknown. Several documents confirm the existence of ancient pasture rights (see underneath). In the legal procedures of 1769 (see underneath), the landowners of the Heirnis also referred to the charter of 1199.


The earliest recording explicitly confirming the status of the Heirnis as pasture land now available to us is a charter dating from January 14, 1519.

Description of Act of foundation

See also above. A charter from 1352 arranges the servitude in favour of the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp, determining the days to which the right of pasture applied. The result of arbitration was recorded in a charter from August 1408, which specified which animals were allowed to graze on the Heirnis.


The act from 1519 does not specify the rights of users and owners in detail; it only confirms the tax exemption, which was granted to the landowners as a compensation for the pasture right they had granted to the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp.

Year of termination of institution

c. 1930

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?


Act regarding termination present?



Description Act of termination


Reason for termination?

Combination of land transactions and urbanization.

Recognized by local government?

Yes. The act from 1519 explicitly confirms the exemption from land tax, granted to the owners of land on the Heirnis, as compensation for the right of pasture they on their turn had granted to the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp. In 1769, the tax exemption was unsuccesfully contested by the Raad van Vlaanderen ('Council of Flanders').


The area of the Heirnis belonged to the jurisdiction of the seigniory of the abbey of Saint-Bavo. The general assembly of the commoners had an important say in the daily management of the Heirnis, official decisions however had to be confirmed by the Seigniory of Saint-Bavo.

 Click on inage for source credits

The abbey of Saint-Bavo, Ghent, Belgium. Fragment of a larger work painted by an unkonwn artist, 1534,

Concise history of institution

The history of the grazing rights on the Heirnis date back until at least 1199. Although the charter of 1199 has not been preserved, an ordinance of 1352 confirms the grazing rights on the Heirnis were obtained by the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp in 1199. These inhabitants were used to graze their animals on uncultivated plots of land surrounding their village. During the twelfth century, land consolidation and the construction of the abbey farm of Nieuwhof nearby increasingly diminished the area available for the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp for grazing their animals. In 1199, the new owners of the parts of the Heirnis brought into cultivation granted the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp alternating grazing rights on the Heirnis. This alternating system meant that the landowners would leave one part of their land to be grazed bij the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp, while they used the other part of their land for growing crops and grain; after some years, the agricultural part would be used for grazing and the grazing part would be used for growing crops. To compensate the new owners for their limited use of their land, they on their turn were exempted from land tax. This kind of arrangement is quite unique for this area and period. Although this arrangement was contested several times throughout the ages, the arrangement would remain effective until at least 1769, when the government (unsuccessfully) tried to annulled this arrangement.


From 1533 on, distinction regarding the grazing rights on the Heirnis was made between on the one hand the inborn inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp and, on the other hand, the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp who were not born in the village. An arbitral decision of that year stated that the inborn inhabitants would be granted preferential grazing rights for six consecutive years, thereafter the inhabitants not born in Sint-Baafsdorp would have preferential use rights for three consecutive years. Those who had married an inborn inhabitant of Sint-Baafsdorp were to be regarded as if they were inborn inhabitants, In 1575, the specific agreements between owners and users were officially recorded, specifying that the inhabitants' grazing rights would alternate between the Grote and the Kleine Heirnis every two years.


The fortification works of the city of Ghent of 1577-78 severely affected the options for the users of the Heirnis to graze their animals: some grazing areas were used to build the fortifications on, while other grazing areas became hardly accessible, due to the demolition of bridges. The ordinances dating from that period indicate that a substantial part of the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp had to leave the village. The troubles caused by the fortifications for the users of the Heirnis lasted until at least 1592, when the users living in the Visserij asked the heirnismeesters to be granted grazing rights on the Binnenheirnis, since their grazing areas on the Buitenheirnis had become inaccessible; their request was granted, on the condition they would pay an annual contribution of 20 groten to the heirnismeesters. Only three years later, the same heirnismeesters decided to let out parts of the Binnenheirnis, causing protest from the inhabitants of the Visserij; this was solved by allowing the inhabitants of the Visserij to compete in the bid for the grazing rights and stating that their bids could be 4 groten lower than other candidates.


The return of some of the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp that moved due to the fortifications of 1577-78 may have been the actual reason for drwaing up the ordinance of March 31, 1592, regulating the access rights on the Heirnis. This ordinance states that preferential use rights were granted to those 'free inhabitants' ('vrije insetenen') who at that moment had stayed in or returned to Sint-Baafsdorp. If their use rights would expire, these would then subsequently be granted to those who either had stayed in Sint-Baafsdorp during the demolitions of 1577-78 or who where connected to the area through kinship, descendance, or property. Later on, use rights would be limited to those owning a house or property in Sint-Baafsdorp and those who had obtained their use rights through blood relationship or marriage; they were called 'Bavenaars vrij van bloede ofte goede' (transl.: 'Villagers of Sint-Baafsdorp, free by blood or by property').


At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the first detailed regulations appear, containing rules about how to use and manage the Heirnis. The ordinance of 1702 (almost integrally repeated in 1705 and 1707) for instance states that:

  • those who want to execute their grazing rights for the forthcoming year, should file a request to the heirnismeesters between specified dates;
  • the heirnismeesters are in charge of indicating the locations the animals may be grazed;
  • people living within in the same household could not accumulate their indivdual grazing rights, but would be limited to the use rights granted to the hosuehold;
  • no authorized user should either let out his rights to non-entitled users or use the products of his cattle for any other purpose than the subsistence of his own household;
  • grazing animals at night is prohibited;
  • no one should argue with the heirnismeesters, offences to be fined at 2 schellingen and the forfeit of the grazing rights for the next two years.


In 1752, the Estates of Flanders (Staten van Vlaanderen) ordered the construction of the Visserijkanaal to improve the accessibility of the city of Ghent by water. The consequences of the construction of the Visserijkanaal for the amounts of land available for grazing on the Heirnis were huge, even resulting in a switch of names between both parts of the area: from then on, the Grote Heirnis (Large Heirnis) would be referred to asf the Kleine Heirnis (Small Heirnis) and vice versa.


In 1769, the Council of Flanders (Raad van Vlaanderen) unsuccesfully tried to annull the tax exemption of the landowners of the Heirnis. The heirnismeesters however succeeded to fight this attempt by referring to the charter of 1199, the tax exemption granted, and the consecutive affirmations of the agreement between the users and the owners of the Heirnis regarding the grazing of animals.


The French occupation of the Southern Netherlands in 1795 lead to the incorporation of the Heirnis by the city of Ghent. What actual effects this incorporation had on the functioning and the management of the Heirnis still has to be researched, although it is certain the function of heirnismeester survived at least until 1868, when they were in charge of selling parts of the Heirnis to new owners. Maps of the area dating from the 1860s show an increasing urbanisation on the Heirnis; whether the grazing rights still existed and / or were used at this time, is unclear and has to be investigated. From the 1870s on - and especially after the construction of the railroad in 1871 - the area of the Heirnis would become increasingly urbanized.


The overall management of the Heirnis was in the hands of four elected heirnismeesters. This function was first mentioned in an ordinance of 1484, but may have existed well before that year. One of the heirnismeesters should be elected from the burghers, another one should be elected from the traders, whereas the other two should be lected from the community of weavers (who formed the largest part of the population). Up until 1589, this prescrined division was annulled and reinstated several times. The ordinance of April 4, 1589, finally states that this division (reinstated in 1586) should not be maintained any longer. From then on, the community annually had to appoint four electors, who were ordered to compose a list of eight eligible men. The aldermen of Sint-Baafsdorp subsequently selected four out of these eight to become the next heirnismeesters.

Special events? Highs and lows? Specific problems or problematic periods?

  • 1199: Alleged year of instating the arrangement between the users and the owners of the plots of land on the Heirnis
  • 1336: The part called De Keukenbucht no longer participates in the agreement on granting grazing rights; De Keukenbucht was the only part of the Heirnis that did not belong to the jurisdiction of the abbey of Saint-Bavo
  • 1352: Issue of ordinance arranging the servitute of the Heirnis and stating the dates to which the grazing rights of the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp apply
  • 1519: Re-confirmation of the exemption from land tax for the owners of land on the Heirnis who will grant the alternating right of pasture to the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp
  • 1533: Distinction made between the grazing rights for inborn inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp and those not born in this village
  • 1577-1578: Building of new fortifications by the city of Ghent severely affect the grazing areas of the Heirnis
  • 1577-1580: A substantial number of inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp has to leave the village because of the new fortifiacations, effectively resulting in relocating the entire village; the southwestern part of the old village would be known as the Visserij from then on
  • 1592: Specification of hierarchy in the granting of use rights; the use rights would be limited further later on
  • 1592: The Buitenheernis had become almost inaccessible to the inhabitants of the Visserij, causing them to file a request for grazing rights on the Binnenheernis; this request was granted for an annual contrbution of 20 groten to the heirnismeesters
  • 1595: The grazing rights for parts of the Binnenheernis were let out; the inhabitants of the Visserij who only three years earlier had obtained their grazing rights on the Binnenheernis were allowed to compete in the bid at a reduced rate
  • 1702: First detailed regulation on the way the Heirnis may and may not be used; those wanting to execute their grazing rights have to file an application within a specified period to the heirnismeesters. Regulation is repeated with minor adjustments in 1705 and 1707.
  • 1752: construction of the Visserijkanaal; name switch between Grote en Kleine Heernis as a result of the effect the construction had on the amount of land that remained available for grazing
  • 1769: Unsuccessfull attempt by the Council of Flanders to annull the tax exemption of the owners of land on the Heirnis
  • 1795: Area of the Heirnis incorporated by the city of Ghent
  • mid-19th century: Increasing urbanization of the area of the Heirnis
  • 1868: Sale of parts of the Heirnis area by the heirnismeesters to private owners
  • 1871: Construction of railroad
  • 1870s-1930s: Ever increasing urbanization of the area
  • May 20, 1972: The area of Sint-Amandsberg is no longer part of the municipality of Oostakker, but becomes a part of the city of Ghent; subsequently, the area of the Heirnis also becomes property of the municipality of Ghent


Numbers of members (specified)

Due to the formal registration of landownership, we have ample data on the number of landowners. Most of the plots of land were owned by the abbey of Saint-Bavo (Sint-Baafsabdij) or by institutions directly related to this abbey. At this stage of the research, we have as yet far less data on the number of users. Only an undated inventory of entitled users (presumably dating from the late seventeenth century) mentiones exact figures: 75 households of Sint-Baafsdorp (counting a total of 247 inhabitants, children included) were entitled to garze their animals on the Heirnis. We do know however the maximum amount of animals that could be grazed. According to Berten (1904, 123 and 125), the area of the Heirnis covered 142.5 so-called 'coe-gersen' (lit. 'cow grasses', i.e. the surface area required per year to feed one cow in an agricultural good year). With the 17 coe-gersen of the so-called 'voorweiden' (lit.: 'pre-meadows'), the total amount of cows that could be grazed on the Heirnis was 159.5, of which 1 or 2 coe-gersen were reserved for the cowherd. The construction of  the fortifications in 1577-78  resulted in the loss of about 17 coe-gersen,  bringing the maximum amount of cows to be grazed on the Heirnis to 142.5 (including the 'voorweiden').


The letting out of some parts of the Binnenheirnis in 1592 (see above) and  a summary of the main rules by the heirnismeesters in 1637 (confirming the right of the heirnismeesters to let out unused pieces of lands to the highest bidder, in order to decrease the general expenses) are indications that not all entitled users actually did use their grazing rights and the number of cows actually grazed may have been well under the maximum allowed to be grazed. The fact that the letting out of land has not been mentioned in archival sources from the beginning of the eighteenth century on, seems to indicate that the entitled users from then on used the heirnis to (almost) full capacity, although this has not yet been confirmed by actual data.

Membership attainable for every one, regardless of social class or family background?

The use of the Heirnis for grazing was reserved to the individual landowners, the abbey of Sint-Baafsdorp (which abbey owned the major part of  the Heirnis), and the inhabitants of both Sint-Baafsdorp and the Visserij. Whereas the right of pasture of the Visserij never was contested nor was restricted in any way, the right of pasture to the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp was restricted (see underneath).


From 1533 on, a distinction was made regarding the grazing rights of inborn inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp and of those who had moved to Sint-Baafsdorp from elsewhere. The inborn inhabitants were granted six consecutive years of grazing rights, whereas the 'incoming' inhabitants were granted three consecutive years of grazing rights, these three years following those of the inborn inhabitants. Those who married an inborn inhabitant would be granted the same use rights as any other inborn inhabitant.


Probably due to the return of former inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp (who moved outside of the village due to the demolitions caused by the fortifications constructed in 1577-78), in 1592 a form of hierarchy was introduced for the granting of use rights. Preferential grazing rights were granted to the inhabitants who resided in Sint-Baafsdorp at that moment; if the rights of some of these users would expire, these rights would subsequently be granted to those users, closely connect to the area.

Specific conditions for obtaining membership? (Entrance fee, special tests etc.)

For the inhabitants of the area called Visserij, no further specific conditions were mentioned for exercizing their use rights on the Heirnis. For the inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp, several ordinances mention the condition that one should be a 'free inhabitant' of Sint-Baafsdorp ('vrije insetene' or 'vrije Bavenaer') in order to obtain any use rights. The exact specifications which would classify an inhabitant as being a free inhabitant have as yet not been retrieved within the archival sources.


The ordinance of 1592 stressed the importance of the connection of the individual user to the village; they should be connected to the area through kinship, marriage, or property ('Bavenaer van vrije bloede ofte goede'). Later on, the use rights would even be further limited to those actually owning a house or land in Sint-Baafsdorp and to those who were blood-related or married to one of the inborn inhabitants.


The ordinance of May 9, 1767, states that unmarried persons would not be entitled to any grazing rights; it is, however, unclear, whether this would also apply to mature singles and / or widow(er)s.


Initially, to be eligible as heirnismeester (this function was first mentioned in an ordinance of July 12, 1484, but may have existed weel before that time), one had to be an inborn and free inhabitant of Sint-Baafsdorp. The ordinance of April 19, 1548, however states that those who were not inborn inhabitants of Sint-Baafsdorp (but had purchased their possessions on the Heirnis) would be eligible as heirnismeester in case they either had lived for six consecutive years in Sint-Baafsdorp or were married to an inborn inhabitant of Sint-Baafsdorp. The same ordinance also states the mandatory acceptance of the election by the elected. In 1707, a new division was introduced: two heirnismeesters should be elected from the inhabitants living inside the walls and the other two should be elected from the inhabitants living outside the walls of Sint-Baafsdorp.


To have the right to vote (to elect the electors), one either had to be a free (inborn) inhabitant of Sint-Baafsdorp, or to have lived there for six consecutive years, or to have married an inborn (female) inhabitant of Sint-Baafsdorp.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

Although there is no actual mentioning of banning entitled users, users could however temporarily use their pasture rights. An explicit reference is made in the ordinance of 1702 (repeated in 1705 and 1707), which imposes a fine of 2 schellingen and the forfeit of grazing rights for the next two years for those who would argue with the heirnismeesters.

Advantages of membership?

  • The users had the advantage of being able to graze their animals. The products from these animals should however be used for their own subsistence only.
  • Those who had been elected heirnismeester would be granted a certain wage and the use of one coe-gers for the duration of their appointment.


Obligations of members? 

  • All members had to comply to the ordinances, drawn up at the general assembly of the commoners. This regulations concerned the time of year cattle could be grazed, the way in which the grazing locations would be indicated, et cetera.
  • All users had to pay an annual fee of eight groten per coe-gers. Sometimes users were allowed to replace the monetary fee by a contribution of eight barrels of oat.
  • The Lord of Herlegem - as landowner - was obliged to provide a good bull for the cows that were grazed on the Kleine Heirnis; the landowners who were leaseholders of the Nieuwhof had to do the same on the Grote Heirnis.
  • Almost all users were only allowed to graze cows which already had calved and hence would be producing milk.

Literature on case study

  • Berten, D., 1907. Coutumes de la Seigneurie de Saint Bavon-lez-Gand. Brussels: J. Goemaere.
  • Anonymus (ed.), 1988. Van wei tot wijk. Honderd jaar Heirnis (1888-1988). Gent; Drukkerij Het Volk.
  • Poelman, R., 1976. Oostakker in de 19e eeuw. Oostakker: Gemeentebestuur.


For an extensive bibliography, please consult the original case study [in Dutch], click here (PDF).

Sources on case study

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Case study composed by

This case study is integrally based on a more extensive case study, composed bij Indra Van Sande. This shorter version has been composed and translated by René van Weeren, Utrecht University.


Click here for the orginal, extended version of this case study [in Dutch]