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Urban society in the late Middle Ages

Research project P4/14 (Research action P4)


Persons :


Description :

The project aims to probe in depth the basic formative mechanisms of urban society in the Burgundian Netherlands from the 14th to the 16th century, with special emphasis on Flanders and Brabant. The Low Countries were, at the time, among the most densely populated and urbanised areas in Western Europe. The cities of Flanders and Brabant, moreover, attracted an exporting textile industry and played a major role in international trade. They were integrated into a European network, which contributed to stimulating their expansion. They offer an ideal test-case for assessing the dynamics of pre-industrial urban society.

The present integrated approach involves an innovative thematic perspective (structures are seen as catalysts of social innovation and social change and as networks of protection and social change, of social protection and mobility), in addition to comparisons with other urbanised European regions such as northern and central Italy, with countries like England and France which were less urbanised but more central, and with the economically and politically fragmented region which is now Germany.

Each laboratory contributes its specific expertise to the integrated research strategy: complementarity of research methods and topics is crucial to reaching the goals and coordinating the research. The RUG participants are specialised in social and economic relations in Flanders and in the socio-political structures of the Burgundian state in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Furthermore, they possess a rich tradition in methodology (particularly prosopography); the UCL laboratory studies craft guilds and their impact on social and economic life in the southern principalities of the Burgundian Low Countries; the UFSIA researchers study economic balances within the urban network of Brabant, with emphasis on the functions of an emerging capital city, such as Brussels in the 15th and 16th centuries; the FUSLO researchers are specialised in institutional history and the history of urban law in the late Medieval period.

Urban networks and urban functions are analysed in depth in the context of regional and European economy (the impact of retail trade, of the labour market, of international trade, of administrative centralisation). Urban legislation provides the general framework of social and economic development. Judicial and law enforcement documents will make it possible to assess its impact on everyday life and social realities. The major lines of social development will contribute to presenting a balanced picture of a city's socio-political infrastructure and to re-examining accepted views on social identity and urban elites, on craft guilds and other corporations. Crucial elements are for instance social mobility through marriage, topography of poverty and wealth, the balance between political and economic power, marginalisation processes, the impact of public and private finances on urban society, and the position of particular social groups (foreigners, guilds, women and children).

To achieve their aim, the project participants will use a wide range of methods and sources. Belgian and foreign archives will be consulted. Prosopographical analysis will be used to discern the social profile of urban elites and the social impact of matrimonial strategies. It will also be used to study the pathways open to social groups suffering from legal discrimination (such as illegitimate children) to become integrated into the social networks of a city. Another focus will be the various ways private and informal networks (e.g. the market and inn networks) interacted with the more formal social systems in the city or family. The influence of an urban elite is obvious, as shown by the interpenetration of governing classes and economical elites (merchants, entrepreneurs, brokers, people with an unearned income) and by the elaboration of various formal systems for controlling social behaviour and protecting family property.

Quantitative methods will be used to analyse social and economic developments within the urban network: urban hierarchies, food supply systems, consumption patterns, proletarisation and the labour market in industrial cities, political centralisation in capital cities, economic centralisation in major cities. Confrontation of written sources with iconographic and archaeological evidence clearly shows the contribution of the various corporations that structured social life in the cities (craft guilds, brotherhoods, merchant guilds, rhetoricians, and archer guilds).


Documentation :

Shaping urban identity in Late Medieval Europe = L'apparition d'une identité urbaine dans l'Europe du bas moyen âge  Boone, Marc - Stabel, Peter (eds)  Leuven: Garant, 2000 (PB5616)

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