In memoriam Dr.Ir. Jan Bieleman (1949-2021)

Published on
June 21, 2021

Wednesday June 9th 2021 Jan Bieleman died – 72 years old. He was an eminent member of the chair group Rural and Environmental History (RHI) for many years. Jan Bieleman studied in Wageningen in the seventies – Landscape architecture with, of course, a minor in rural history. After some other jobs he worked at our department as an agricultural historian (in Dutch: landbouwhistoricus) from 1982 until his retirement in 2012. In that quality he has done a lot of things, but most of all he felt a strong bond with de Vereniging voor Landbouwgeschiedenis (Dutch society for Rural History). Without his boundless energy this society would not have flourished as it did.

His training in landscape architecture was visible in his historical work. He was a kind of historical geographer with a thorough knowledge of the history of the landscape, the role of soils in agriculture, and the relationship between farming and farm buildings. For a long time two huge maps hung on the wall in the corridor of our group: the 19th century map of agricultural areas in the Netherlands by Staring and the soil-map of the Netherlands – as a kind of reflection of his approach to history. His fondness of and competence in organizing and making field trips or giving tours (e.g. in the Open-Air Museum in Arnhem) were an expression of the same quality. He could read the landscape like no other.

Jan has written a rich and coherent oeuvre culminating in his Five centuries of farming: a short history of Dutch agriculture 1500-2000. This was an adapted translation from his Dutch textbook: Boeren in Nederland, 1500-2000 (Farming in the Netherlands, 1500-2000).  That book has been the successor of his monograph: Geschiedenis van de landbouw in Nederland, 1500-1950 (History of agriculture in the Netherlands, 1500-1950). In the meantime, he had published with Peter Priester a pioneering book on technical innovation in agriculture in the Netherlands, volume three in the series on Technology in the Twentieth Century. Thanks to this research he had been able to rework and extend the Geschiedenis van de landbouw in Boeren in Nederland.

At its turn, the book Geschiedenis van de landbouw in Nederland had been the natural follow up for his PhD-thesis Boeren in Drenthe, 1500-1910 (Farming in Drenthe, 1500-1910) and for his course agricultural history that he taught from 1986 until 2012. The literature for this course consisted originally of the agricultural history texts from the Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden (General history of the Netherlands). These texts were at the one hand an inspiration (especially the one by Roessingh on 18th century agriculture in the Netherlands) and at the other hand demanded a more coherent framework and story. His Drenthe-thesis provided him with the experience and knowledge to undertake this adventure.

His thesis, Boeren in Drenthe, (836 pages!) was a book on farming in Drenthe completely based on archival research and painstakingly reconstructed from serial sources. It earned him rightly a cum laude. It was at the same time another example of the regional studies that had made the chair group famous, as well as a renewal of that tradition because he studied not just the early modern period (as his predecessors had done) but also the 19th century. When you work from archival sources it is like studying two different countries: the Ançien Regime sources are completely different from the sources of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The book is also interesting because it is implicitly a strong criticism on Slicher van Baths book Samenleving onder spanning (Society under pressure), which had been the first regional monograph. While Slicher focussed on changes in Overijssels rural society mainly through the rise of proto-industrial activities, Jan demonstrated that in the early modern period farming was also a dynamic enterprise. He scattered the image of eeuwige roggebouw (unchanging rye cultivation) for Drenthe and gave it back its history.

This is even more remarkable, because Slichers Samenleving onder spanning (Society under pressure) was the book that had stimulated Jan to move away from landscape architecture into agricultural history. In the second half of the seventies he wrote in his leisure time his first monograph: Heino. Een geschiedenis van mens en plaats (Heino. A history of men and space). It was a book on the history of his beloved native village in the region of Salland, which is part of Overijssel, and which would always remain special to him.

Thus, we have seen how he went in his academic writings from Heino, to Drenthe, to the Netherlands, to the Twentieth century, to Five centuries of farming (and these are just his major works). Jan was a product of “Wageningen” and contributed to it. His work is evidence of the strength of Wageningen. He could not have written with Peter Priester his work on innovation in agricultural technology in the Twentieth century without his narrow contacts with the other science groups of this university – often the very people who when they were young had been responsible for these innovations, or who were the direct successors of the innovators.

His historical work is unthinkable without the writings by Slicher van Bath, Van der Woude, Van der Poel and, above all, Roessingh. His thesis is a good example, because it incorporates the approaches of all of the above, and mostly Van der Poel and Roessingh. When Jan summarizes this research, he tells the story of a specific farm building and uses the changes in its floorplan from 1650, 1750 and 1945 to explain the development in agriculture. At his turn, he influenced the (young) scholars around him like Van Cruyningen and Brusse, and his other PhD-candidates who sometimes worked at other universities. But he also influenced his older colleagues. Roessingh explicitly acknowledged Jan’s impact on his later writings.

Jan has published a lot of his work in English and was a member of many international associations. He was an influential and active force in the early years of the Belgium based research-community CORN. Internationally too he was well-known and respected for his approach of agricultural history that was characterized by his intimate knowledge of agronomy and geography. As did many people in the Netherlands, foreign scholars often sought his advice.

When you want to appreciate yourself his craftmanship, you should start with reading his magnificent article De verscheidenheid van de landbouw op de Nederlandse zandgronden tijdens 'de lange zestiende eeuw’ (The variety in agriculture on the Dutch sandy soils during the long sixteenth century). In this article he demonstrates the explanatory power of the model by von Thünen next to soil qualities for the development of agriculture and by consequence for economic growth. Vintage Bieleman.