Reading the medieval townscape of Leiden: Fullers, fullers' canals and tentergrounds

Reading the medieval townscape of Leiden: Fullers, fullers' canals and tentergrounds

Before the Langebrug was covered or - maybe more accurately - bridged over, this street was known as the Vollersgracht (Fullers' Canal). And, despite what its name suggests, hardly any fullers lived there in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

In 1908, Posthumus gave a detailed description of how in the medieval textile town of Leiden drapers coordinated the series of processes required for making wool into Leiden cloth. These entrepreneurs bought the raw (English) wool (at Calais) and had it processed by an almost endless chain of artisans working at home, including the weavers and the fullers (also known as tuckers or walkers). Fulling gave the fabric a fine, felted and water-repellent surface, whose warp and weft were no longer visible.[1] After the siege of Leiden (1573-1574), fulling mills were introduced, but in the Middle Ages fulling was done by treading the fabric in fulling tubs. These tubs contained a mixture of hot water, fullers' earth, butter and urine (fig. 1).[2]

Fig. 1: Fullers at work, 1602; Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken, PV34700.8. (source)

1591: a municipal planning policy

Fulleries would discharge their waste water into the town canals. In 1591, city secretary Jan van Hout was quite definite in his judgement: this practice seriously compromised the local water quality, and in such a populous town as Leiden, was undesirable with regard to the spread of contagious diseases.[3] The measures taken as a consequence are well-documented in Leiden's history.[4] The fullers' workshops were to be concentrated in the north side of town, particularly in the bon (district) Marendorp Landzijde on the Donkere Gracht ('Dark Canal'), which henceforth would be known as the Vollersgracht ('Fullers' Canal') (fig. 2, no. 5). In fact, this was the third canal of this name, as apart from the Vollersgracht-Langebrug, the St. Jacobsgracht too had briefly borne this name. In 1611, Leiden was expanded northwards, and fullers were now required to establish their workshops on the (newly dug) Volmolengracht ('Fulling-mill Canal'; fig.2, no 6), exactly aligned with the Vollersgracht (fig. 2, no. 5).

Fig. 2: 'Vollersgrachten' ('Fullers' Canals') in Leiden, based on the town plan by Lieferinck, 1578 (Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken PV321A).

1= (old) Vollersgracht; dug in the 13th century and initially marking the border between the Count's and civic territories; in the 17th century the canal was covered over and became known as the Culvert Vollersgracht, nowadays Langebrug ('Long Bridge').
2=(new) Vollersgracht; constructed as part of the city expansion of 1386, by the 16th century almost exclusively referred to as St. Jacobsgracht.
3= Levendaal.
4= Zijdgracht.
5= Vollersgracht, redesignated ca 1595, earlier known as the Donkere Gracht.
6= Volmolengracht, dug as part of the town expansion of 1611.
Outlined in red is the walled tenterground.

Distribution of fullers in 1498 and 1557

Historiography does not state this explicitly, but does suggest that after Jan van Hout's fiery plea in 1591, it was a matter of the fullers of the old Vollersgracht (later Langebrug) being resettled on the Vollersgracht, formerly Donkere Gracht (fig. 2, nos 1 and 5, respectively). This seems only logical; but when we look at the registers of the wealth tax of 1498 and the Tiende Penning levy of 1557, it seems that by then hardly any fullers lived along the Vollersgracht(-Langebrug) any more.

The tax register of 1498 records 73 fullers (fig. 3); that of 1557, 61 fullers (fig. 4). Only in 1557 are addresses occasionally mentioned, i.e. names of streets where the tax payers resided. In 1498 only their distribution at district level was recorded.

In 1498 and 1557, very few fullers are registered in the old town centre and hence hardly any on the old Vollersgracht (fig. 2, no. 1). Yet their absence in the registers need not imply that they were not actually there. Underregistration was commonplace. At the time of the fuller’s strike of 1478 there were - according to Posthumus - maybe as many as 600 or 700 active fullers in Leiden.[5] The tax registers presumably recorded only the master fullers, and maybe not even all of them, while omitting the fullers' employees and apprentices.

What we can safely conclude is, first, that fullers did not live exclusively in one district, but lived scattered throughout town; and, secondly, that both in 1498 and 1557 there were marked concentrations of fulleries in the southern outskirts of Leiden. They had settled in this town extension of 1389. The St. Jacobsgracht was originally kown as the 'new Vollersgracht' (fig 1, no 2).[6] Maybe fullers had lived there during the 15th century, but by 1557 most tax-paying fullers lived on the Levendaal (12 fullers) and Zijdgracht (8 fullers) canals (fig. 1, nos 3 and 4, respectively). In other words, these canals functioned as fullers' drains, and must have been marked by the most severe stench and pollution.

Fig. 3: Numbers of registered fullers in the wealth tax register of 1498 (n = 73)
Fig. 4: Numbers of registered fullers in the Kohier van de Tiende Penning of 1557 (n = 61).

Fullers and tentergrounds

The specific concentration on the Levendaal and Zijdgracht canals, and more in general the southern districts of Leiden, had the advantage that the fullers had only a short distance to cover, carrying their fulled cloth to the tenterground. A side effect of fulling is that the fabric would tend to shrink. After fulling, it would have to be stretched again on frames (tenters).

Until 1595 the tentergound was situated along the Raamsteeg ('Tenter Alley'), as Lieferinck's map of 1578 shows (figs 1 and 4).[7] Within the city walls, the tenters were enclosed within a wall along the current Doezastraat and the Raamsteeg. As of 1516 also one hectare outside the Koepoort gate was occupied by a tenterground,[8] which is visible in another version of the Lieferinck map (1581). [9]

The 'tenter watchman' (raamwachter), who in 1581 lived with his family at what now is Doezastraat 2-4, would take care that the gate was kept closed during inspection of the cloths. It was a rule that during inspections by the 'waardijns', wardens,[10] no third parties were allowed to attend. Once the cloths were approved as to quality, length, width and dye, the fullers would be paid by the drapers.[11]

Fig. 5: The tenterground. Detail of Hans Lieferinck's map of 1578. Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken PV321A.

Drapers and the tenterground

After the assessment, the drapers took their cloths off the frames and paid the fullers. The drapers too had an interest in living close to the tenterground.[12] Even if the district was a smelly one, they often - but not always - preferred to live near the tenterground. A favourite location would be the upmarket Garenmarkt place (then known as Oosterlingplaats); closer to the tenterground it could not be: at the end of the street was the Raamtoren ('Tenter Tower') gate to the tenterground.

Fig. 6: Distribution of the drapers in Leiden, 1557.

Tentergrounds, fullers and drapers outside Leiden?

The case of the various Fullers' Canals has shown that in medieval Leiden the tenterground was an important structuring element in the townscape: it explains the vicinity of both the fullers and the drapers. The question is whether this principle had a similar effect in other towns. In Haarlem, the current street Gedempte Vollersgracht ('Filled-in Fullers' Canal'; up till the mid-19th century: Vollersgracht) at any rate is close to the site of the 16th- and 17th-century tenterground. The Leiden example, however, demonstrates that the name of a street cannot simply be quoted to prove a concentration of trades. Only close examination of further historical sources can provide evidence about other towns.

An elaborated version of this text, in Dutch (authors: Roos van Oosten, Martin Hooymans, Arti Ponsen and Jan Dröge), has been contributed as a chapter to the ADC report on the archaeological excavations at the Garenmarkt in Leiden (J.T. Verduin, (ed.), in prep, Ploters, vollers en drapeniers aan de Garenmarkt. Een archeologische begeleiding en opgraving op de Garenmarkt te Leiden, ADC Rapport 4848, ADC ArcheoProjecten, Amersfoort).

Sources and literature

  • ELO toegang 0501A (SAII) inv.nr. 5174, Conceptrapport Jan van Hout betreffende bestrijding van de watervervuiling door de textielindustrie, 1591.
  • Kohier van de tiende penning 1557, gebruikte dataset Van Steensel, A., 2016: ‘Historisch Leiden in kaart: kohier van de tiende penning, 1557’, DANS-Easy dataset, Fedora Identifier: easy-dataset:67437, DOI: 10.17026/dans-zrk-9va3.
  • Vermogensbelasting 1498, gebruikte dataset Van Steensel, A., 2016: ‘Historisch Leiden in kaart: vermogensbelasting 1498’, Fedora Identifier: easy-dataset:67435, DOI: 10.17026/dans-zfa-srjh
  • Pelinck, E., 1948: ‘De eerste gedrukte plattegronden van Leiden en de oudste kaarten betreffende het beleg en ontzet der stad’, Leidsch Jaarboekje, 94-108.
  • Posthumus, N.W., 1908: De geschiedenis van de Leidsche lakenindustrie, deel 1, de Middeleeuwen (veertiende tot zestiende eeuw), ’s-Gravenhage.
  • Posthumus, N.W., 1910-1922: Bronnen tot de geschiedenis van de Leidsche textielnijverheid 1333-1795, 6 delen Rijksgeschiedkundige publicatiën 14.
  • Taverne, E., 1978: In ’t land van belofte: in de nieue stadt. Ideaal en werkelijkheid van de stadsuitleg in de Republiek 1580-1680, Maarssen.
  • Van Maanen, R.C.J., 2003: ‘Stadsbeeld en ruimtelijke ordening’, in: R.C.J. van Maanen, Leiden 1574-1795. De geschiedenis van een Hollandse stad, Leiden, 16-41.
  • Van Oerle, H.A., 1975: Leiden binnen en buiten de stadsvesten. De geschiedenis van de stedebouwkundige ontwikkeling binnen het Leidse rechtsgebied tot aan het einde van de gouden eeuw, Leiden, 2 delen.
  • Van Oosten R.M.R, M. Hooymans, A. Ponsen and Jan Dröge, in prep. 2019: ‘Leidse lakens uitdelen rondom de Garenmarkt :een stukje textielgeschiedenis gelokaliseerd in het middeleeuwse straatbeeld’, in: J.T. Verduin, (ed.), in prep, Ploters, vollers en drapeniers aan de Garenmarkt. Een archeologische begeleiding en opgraving op de Garenmarkt te Leiden, ADC Rapport 4848, ADC ArcheoProjecten, Amersfoort.
  • Van Steensel, A., 2018: ‘Mapping Medieval Leiden: Residential and Occupational Topographies’, in: Jesús á. Solórzano Telechea/Arnaldo Sousa Melo (eds.), Trabajar en la ciudad medieval Europea, 237-260.
  • Wielens, J. and P.J.M. de Baar, 2015: Gedemptegrachtenwandeling, Leiden: het Waterambacht/Historische Vereniging Oud Leiden.


[1] Posthumus 1908, 61.

[2] Posthumus 1908, 62-3.

[3] ELO toegang 0501A (SAII), acc.no. 5174, Draft report by Jan van Hout regarding the control of water pollution caused by the textile industry, 1591. With thanks to André van Noort (ELO).

[4] Van Oerle 1975, 328-331; Taverne 1978, 186-189; Van Maanen 2003, 31; Wielens and De Baar 2015, 12-13 and 36.

[5] Posthumus 1908, 338.

[6] Van Oerle 1975, 197.

[7] The number of tenter frames was increased in 1392, 1452, 1476, 1494 and 1516 (Posthumus 1908, 99).

[8] Posthumus 1910-1922, part 2, p. 285, n. 851.

[9] About the other version of the Lieferinck map, Pelinck 1948, fig. 2.

[10] Posthumus 1908, 153.

[11] Posthumus 1908, 154-155.

[12] Van Steensel 2018, 256.

This research was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) Veni Grant (275-60-010).

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