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City and society in the Low Countries 1200-1800: space, knowledge, social capital

Research project P6/32 (Research action P6)


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The proposed project “City and society in the Low Countries, 1200-1800: space, knowledge, social capital” aims at capitalizing on acquired know-how (see IAP programme V/10: http://www.ulb.ac.be/philo/urbs/) and at the same time at enlarging and rejuvenating the network in order to fulfil expanded scientific goals. Available know-how on urban history in Belgium (and in the Netherlands through collaboration with a Dutch team) can be brought together in order to explore topics which reflect current trends in historical research and to evaluate methodological innovation. First of all the chronological scope will be enlarged so as to incorporate the full late medieval and early modern period (ca. 1200-1800), permitting an emphasis to be put on long-term processes.

Three research packages are proposed whose subjects emphasize the socio-cultural and spatial historical approach: (1) urban space, (2) knowledge and culture, (3) social capital. Elements of these themes have already been the object of study in the previous IAP-project, but they have been placed here – as suggested in the evaluation of IAP V/10 – in the more pronounced perspective of international comparative research and a resolutely interdisciplinary approach (involving also art historians, book historians and geographers).

The composition of the teams (UGent, ULB, UA, KBR, MRBAB/KMSKB and Universiteit Utrecht) came about in order to take maximum advantage of available competencies and in response to a clear wish both to redirect research in the direction of cultural studies in a broad interdisciplinary sense (hence the incorporation of the Royal Museum) and to explore the link between urban economy and the diffusion of intellectual knowledge (hence the incorporation of the University of Utrecht as European partner). All Belgian partners involved in the previous programme will continue to participate. The European partner active in programme V, the University of Leiden, will no longer participate in an institutionalised way, but strong cooperation with some of the Leiden-based research groups will continue in an intense way on specific topics, such as the study of the role of the nobility and of representation of urban society. This fundamental option of ‘continuity in change’ may also become clear in the wish of all partners to continue with the existing panel of accompanying experts. Every research project proposed in all three work packages will profit from support offered through related projects (both in the formula of group research and by individual researchers) funded by other sources, but acquired gradually while building up the critical mass in the previous IAP programmes in which some of the teams participated.

Reformulated in this way, the project plans to make a substantial contribution to a scholarly domain in which Belgium has enjoyed international recognition for generations. Among the themes opened to research some are of great relevance for the understanding of present-day society and the problems related to globalization and world-wide urbanisation. The emphasis on research topics such as the dissemination of knowledge and its practical implementation, the study of access and processes of inclusion and exclusion of both labour markets and socially relevant spaces and statuses, all have implications for understanding the actual problems urbanised society faces nowadays.

1. Urban space

Two main themes are at the core of this axis: urban spaces and their transformations, on the one hand, and urban networks, on the other hand. Both have been in the forefront of the previous IAP project; we propose in phase VI to pay more attention to movement, leaving behind a more static analysis, deriving from the study of urban hierarchies. The new project aims to highlight the role played by a variety of networks of solidarity and economic, social, political, cultural or religious influences. In the project the dimension of the dynamic organization of space within and outside urban centers will be the main research topic. Concrete research will focus on the mobility of commercial elites and of craftsmen (especially in the responsive field of printers, personnel of mints, and artists). The research on how natural resources and material conditions created chances for the development of a performing urban network will continue and be incorporated into a more general approach involving the political and social forces at work in urban society. Considering the world outside the Low Countries, the chronological extension of the project embracing the Ancien Régime will automatically bring the question of the links between the Low Countries and broader Spanish and Austrian political networks to the foreground. The topic of representation, cityscape and landscape, partly to be investigated at the Museum of Fine Arts will be present on different levels of research: one focusing on 16th century drawings; a second one on the present-day representation of historical reality. Indeed, on a more methodological level, the preceding phase V brought to the surface the dearth of valid cartographic instruments in the domain of urban history. Within the perspective of the new research project, it has been proposed to experimentally produce several relevant maps making full use of the new digitalizing techniques currently available to geographers, bringing to full effect the presence of several researchers formed in the fields of history, geography and computer science.

2. Knowledge and culture

Within the field of urban history a shift of emphasis has taken place promoting the study of the cultural representations of social groups. This change in paradigm was already present in the former programme (study of the construction of urban identity and urban ideology). Using this expertise, this work package aims at reintegrating socio-economic and cultural research questions, taking the key role of the urban middle groups in the cities of the Low Countries as a starting point. It focuses on the question of how cultural capital (literacy, intellectual and artistic skills, practical and theoretical knowledge) was acquired, reproduced and transformed by the middling groups, and how this cultural capital contributed to the processes of change in urban society. Finally, the question of the circulation of practical (and applied - hence again the importance of art producing groups) and theoretical knowledge will be considered from different angles in view of the debate on the development of an early knowledge economy. This will be enlarged to embrace the study of the circulation of political and religious ideas in an urban context with special attention for the media and material forms through which ideologies were diffused, linking up with the question of how identity was constructed, which changes it underwent and how it was adapted to changing contexts.

3. Social capital

Inspired by anthropological and sociological research, the next phase of the IAP aims to concentrate on two research fields that closely interrelate with the previous project (which focussed on the civilizing process and the emotional behaviour of citizens): the coming about of and ‘access’ to social capital, on the one hand, and the nature of social capital, on the other. The study of ‘social networks’ will be the key item in this work package. Historians have to take into account the everyday life of the historical actor, while continuing to investigate the interaction of the same actor with long-term processes, such as political centralisation, the development towards trade capitalism, patterns of consumption and (de)urbanisation, the impact of institutions on economic development. In several tangible research lines, related items and research subjects will be treated, such as the way middling layers in society (clubs, societies, confraternities, corporatist institutions) functioned; strategies of conflict settlement; socio-cultural identity of intermediary groups that were essential to urban life; integration via the artistic output of these groups into broader political entities (such as court and state). Again the broader chronology and the interdisciplinary approach will enhance possibilities for comparison both within the Low Countries’ space and with other strongly urbanised parts of Europe. For this work package, too, additional research taking place in related research projects will provide an important added value.

Given the importance of the phenomenon of the city in the Low Countries’ past, the proposed research topics will elucidate the exceptional and particular development of the Low Countries in a European context. More than was the case in the previous programme this research proposal will take care to forge close links with both recent developments in the field of the changing academic landscape by providing a critical mass for the elaboration of pedagogical innovation (involvement in doctoral schools and in MA curricula) and with the general public’s need for scientifically based historical knowledge. The collaboration with several historical city museums, that are being rethought and will reach completion in the very years during which phase VI of the IAP programme will run, is not so much a happy coincidence as proof of the growing need for historical understanding of ongoing processes on a local and regional level in society.


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