Between 1300 and 1600, only the Italian city-states could rival the artisanal industries, commerce, and artistic production of the southern Low Countries. This is common knowledge to anyone familiar with the history of art.
Its medieval townscape is still visible to the foreign visitor in popular historic Belgian cities such as Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp. Equally famous are the region’s visual artists of the so-called Northern Renaissance: Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel, and Peter Paul Rubens, not to mention lesser-known female artists like Clara Peeters.
It is less well known that between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, there was a very high frequency of popular collective action in principalities like the County of Flanders, the Duchy of Brabant, and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. Indeed, fourteenth-century Flanders was probably the preindustrial region with the highest intensity and frequency of workers’ protest and civil warfare.
Center of Revolt
The southern part of the medieval Low Countries roughly covered the area of what is today Belgium and Luxembourg as well as the most northern regions of France and a small southern part of the Dutch kingdom. It was a densely urbanized area. By 1300, the share of the population living in towns is estimated to have been somewhere between 30 and 40 percent — much higher than the average in medieval Europe.
The two most famous upheavals were the rising that led in 1302 to the Battle of Courtrai, in which a militia mostly composed of rebellious Bruges artisans defeated a French chivalric force that was the strongest army in medieval Europe, and the revolt of Maritime Flanders between 1323 and 1328.
In 1297, under the pretext of a conflict over feudal rights with his vassal Count Guy of Dampierre, the king of France had his troops invade the prosperous County of Flanders. His real objective was to get hold of the region’s economically booming cities and the fiscal income they provided. The Flemish merchant class supported the French invaders, having been in conflict with their count for some time.
The artisans of Ghent and Bruges at first remained passive toward the invasion. In 1301, however, they began protesting against unjust taxation. The members of the Flemish comital family who still held on to a small part of the county saw this as an opportunity to forge an alliance with Pieter de Coninck, a weaver and rebel leader of Bruges.
On July 11, 1302, this alliance of “odd bedfellows” destroyed the French army. Although the Flemish had to negotiate an unfair peace treaty, they remained independent. Most importantly, common artisans now also had representation in the urban governments.
Some years later, however, the comital family felt increasingly uneasy about their alliance with the workers and small producers and started siding once again with the patricians and the French royal family. This caused new unrest among the working masses, and ever more so among the peasants, who also had reasons to revolt against taxation.
Between 1323 and 1328, this led to a new major revolt that united the lower and middle classes of most of Flanders against the new count, who was at one point held prisoner by his own subjects. But he eventually crushed the rebellion with French aid, and the cities and rural districts once again had to pay heavy fines.
Historians often see the popular victory of 1302 as a key moment for the securing of Flemish autonomy from the region’s feudal overlord, France. In this light, it has frequently been misrepresented as a national struggle rather than a class one. Yet it was primarily caused by deep social tensions between the urban artisan and merchant classes of Flanders.
The revolt of 1323–28 is usually compared to the French Jacquerie of 1358 or the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. It is now generally acknowledged that all three of these so-called “peasant risings” also included urban workers and members of the middle classes.
Yet Marxist medieval historians have tended to focus on rural society, trying to anatomize the productive relations of feudal society almost exclusively in the rural context. In fact, social revolts were much more frequent in the towns and cities of Flanders, Brabant, and Liège than in the countryside, and the same can also be said of other European regions.
Towns in the Feudal Order
Medieval towns generally do not receive the same attention as the countryside from the viewpoint of historical materialism. They do not easily fit into a conventional view of the feudal mode of production as a system with a class of lords appropriating the surplus from peasants under the weight of extra-economic pressure, whether those peasants were classified as serfs or as freemen or as occupying a wide range of juridical and social statuses located between those two poles.
Of course, there is some justification for this focus on rural life. In the average region of medieval Europe, the population living in towns did not exceed 10 percent of the total. But cities were not “non-feudal islands in a sea of feudalism,” as the historian Michael Postan once put it. They were integral to the social formations of medieval Europe, certainly from the eleventh century onward.
The classic Marxist debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, involving figures such as Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy, and Robert Brenner, did not have to say a lot about the medieval town. The leading Marxist historian of medieval society, Rodney Hilton, only systematically reflected on the modes of production in the small market towns of England and France toward the end of his career. With some justification, he considered these towns to have been the most typical forms of urban life in this period.
This leaves the Marxist approach to history with a paradox. Medieval urban economy and society constituted a distinctive social formation combining different relations of production, particularly in the more important centers such as Florence, Venice, Ghent, or Bruges. Yet town and countryside were also in constant interaction.
City dwellers obviously depended for foodstuffs on the surplus produced by the peasants of the surrounding countryside. The larger the population of a town, the larger the hinterland that produced for it.
The same point held true for sources of energy and construction material such as wood and peat, and for many raw materials that were used in the artisanal industries of the towns. Moreover, since the level of mortality was always higher than birth rates in the preindustrial city, urban areas also needed a constant influx of migrants to maintain or increase their population.
The Economy of Medieval Flanders
We can use the medieval County of Flanders as an example of a feudal society with a very strong urban element that will shed light on the wider theoretical problem. Flanders was situated in a flat landscape, at the delta of several major rivers, and in a central position between France, Germany, and Britain. At first underdeveloped and infertile, this swampy region on the North Sea experienced spectacular economic growth during the Middle Ages, especially from the eleventh century onward.
This growth was the result of two factors: a strong and steady rise in agricultural productivity, which created a demographic surplus, and the development of a vigorous export-oriented textile industry and an urban service economy for trade. While the first element was also present in some other European regions, the second was much less common, even in Italy, where the towns were less industrial than those of Flanders.
In cities like Ghent and Ypres, between a third and a half of the population worked in one industrial sector, the cloth industry, by 1200. Bruges became the hub for north-west European trade and its connection to the Mediterranean.
Early medieval growth in the period between c. 700 and c. 1150 seems to have been primarily created by elite demand, as Chris Wickham has convincingly argued. The warrior class and the clergy appropriated the agricultural surplus produced when the European economy began to undergo a gradual revival from the eight century onward. They used that surplus to purchase luxury products and imported commodities in general.
From the eleventh century, however, city dwellers themselves became a growing domestic market for their own artisanal production. At the same time, commodities produced in regions like Flanders also reached extensive interregional and international markets.
However, the rise of medieval industry markets did not imply the existence of capitalism. In Marxist terminology, “simple commodity production” refers to an artisan mode of manufacturing. The producer owns the means of production, which may often be just a small workshop, some tools, and a modest amount of raw material with which to make his finished product. This commodity is subsequently sold on the market, often directly to the consumers.
Medieval shoemakers or bakers are clear examples of petty commodity producers in their pure and simple form. But in the case of Flemish cloth production for export, the division of labor and the relations within the sphere of production arising from it were more complicated.
While commercial capital did not directly intervene in the production process, merchants had a firm grip on small producers through credit and their ability to set prices for raw materials and finished products, not to mention their control of political power in the towns. This remained the case even if the small producers formally possessed their own means of production. For their part, wage workers were dependent on both merchants and master artisans who acted as entrepreneurs.
Empowering the Towns
In the years between 1050 and 1150, roughly speaking, the “communal movement” resulted in a high degree of political and legal autonomy for the urban areas. This was not a real social revolution that brought a new class to power through violent confrontation.
In most Flemish cities, princes and the early patrician elites of merchants and landowners shared a common interest in the growth of the urban economy, which led to profits for the merchant class and greater fiscal income for the prince. Only in ecclesiastical towns like Tournai, situated right next to Flanders, were there some violent clashes when ruling bishops did not want to share power with the burghers. We can observe the same pattern in a number of other ecclesiastical towns located in France and the Holy Roman Empire.
However, when a succession crisis arose in Flanders in 1127–28, as described by the eloquent chronicler Galbert of Bruges, it was the major cities such as Bruges, Ghent, and Saint-Omer that acted as kingmakers. By then, they had already developed considerable economic and military power and political influence that was too strong for the nobles to successfully resist.
The great majority of Flemish peasants had obtained personal freedom by the thirteenth century, and the seignorial power of the nobility dwindled. The ruling class in the communes consisted of merchants, descendants of seignorial officials, local knights, and urban landowners. Urban society polarized, especially in the years between 1150 and 1300. The urban merchant classes took advantage of cheap migrant labor from the countryside to keep wages low and accumulate capital.
Food had to be imported in ever larger quantities to feed the urban workforce. Prices increased and wages lagged behind. Between 1225 and 1250, the first labor strikes are documented in towns like Douai and Ghent, earlier than anywhere else in medieval Europe. At first, artisans were not organized, or organized merely in religious confraternities. The merchant elites who jealously monopolized political power forbade independent craft guilds or even meetings of workers.
Particularly in large towns such as those in medieval Flanders, the combination of small commodity production and commercial capitalism thus fundamentally changed the outlook of the feudal social formation across the entire region. Class structure became more complicated than the opposition between lords and peasants alone. Already by the twelfth century, many merchant capitalists and urban landowners were becoming wealthier than the nobility. A number of commodity producers obtained middle-class status and also sought political power.
Making use of the craft guild as an organizational form, artisans demanded institutional autonomy, control over the production process, and participation in urban government. The constant flow of rural migrants provided the towns with an army of proletarians, who populated the fast-growing suburbs from the twelfth century onward.
Merchants, small entrepreneurs, and wage workers developed triangular class relations and formed various temporary political alliances. Guildsmen working for the local market were less proletarianized than those in the cloth industry. Working women in particular, often single, were the most exploited of all urban social groups.
Yet it was a united front of small entrepreneurs, retailers, and wage workers that faced the patrician regimes in successive waves of revolt around 1280 and 1302. In the most industrious cities like Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, and Liège, more popular governments came to power — that is to say, ones that included artisan representatives (even if they belonged to the richer layers of their guilds).
The next two and a half centuries were marked by a constant struggle between these “popular fronts” or “burgher movements” on the one hand and the class of commercial capitalists on the other. The latter often received support from wealthy petty commodity producers — in the luxury industries, for example — as well as from princely, noble, and ecclesiastical power.
The fourteenth century was the apogee of guild power in Flanders and Liège. Ghent became the center of artisan strength in medieval Europe. In the Brabantine towns, where the alliance between the nobles and the patrician class was stronger, the struggle was more difficult, developing after 1360 and sometimes only succeeding by the beginning of the fifteenth century.
While it was the urban classes that led the social and political struggles of the medieval Low Countries, the free peasants of the coastal areas also played an active role at times. A notable example came in the uprising of Maritime Flanders between 1323 and 1328, as well as in 1379–85 and 1436–38, two periods when large parts of the countryside openly revolted against princely rule.
Free peasants also developed a culture of village meetings and rose up against excessive fiscal burdens, often siding with rebellious urban artisans. In other periods, however, these two social groups had opposing interests. Cities fiscally exploited their hinterlands, and the urban workforce saw rural industries, where wages were lower, as unfair competition that they wanted to suppress.
The rule of popular leader James of Artevelde (1338–45) as captain general of Ghent marked the high point of Flemish rebellious power. Although Artevelde was not a craftsman himself and belonged to the urban upper class of Ghent, he managed to obtain the support of the textile workers and most of the other artisans.
At the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, he sided with England against France, even though Flanders was a fief of the French monarchy. This was because the import of English wool was vital to the Flemish production of woolen cloths. Artevelde’s followers also took power in Bruges for several years.
Guilds in Retreat
During the second half of the fourteenth century, the textile industries of Flanders and Brabant entered a period of crisis. There was growing competition from England and Tuscany as well as from smaller towns and rural producers. A city like Bruges mainly reoriented its economic activity to the production of durable consumption goods and luxuries, making it the ideal place for painters like Jan van Eyck or Hans Memling to settle.
The Burgundian dynasty assumed power in most of the Netherlandish principalities between the late fourteenth and the mid-fifteenth century. This was part of a wider pattern in medieval Europe whereby the feudal state became stronger in relation to its subjects through the interplay of war and taxation. This increased strength applied to lords and cities alike.
During the fifteenth century, the power of the political guilds in Flanders was in retreat. Textile workers became ever more isolated from the commodity producers in other sectors who worked for internal markets. At the same time, the upper layers of the urban elites fused with an expanding cohort of state officials and nobles who profited from what we might term “state feudalism” — a more centralized form of surplus extraction through the appropriation of tax rather than rent. The fiscal burden placed by the feudal state upon its subjects became heavier during the later Middle Ages.
There was another generalized wave of uprisings between 1477 and 1492, after Duke Charles the Bold died on a battlefield against the Swiss, having overstretched in his plans for Burgundian expansion. The Flemish and Brabantine town-dwellers took advantage of the weakness of his young successor, Mary of Burgundy, to revolt. They demand the restoration of their former privileges.
Mary subsequently married Maximilian of Austria. After her untimely death in 1482, this marriage alliance brought the Habsburg dynasty to power in Flanders, but only after ten years of civil war. The opposition to Habsburg rule consisted not only of the popular classes in the cities but also of large sections of the elites, including many nobles.
In 1515, under the reign of Maximilian’s grandson Charles V, the Netherlands became part of the global Spanish-Habsburg empire. In a number of confrontations between 1525 and 1540, this centralized authority, much stronger than what had existed before, defeated the guildsmen.
The craft workers of the southern Netherlandish principalities had achieved a degree of political power in their towns, especially the larger ones, that was unrivaled in any other region of medieval Europe before 1400, with the possible exception of the Rhineland and some Italian city-states. By the middle of the sixteenth century, that power had been significantly weakened. Yet the Netherlands would soon produce a new wave of revolt in the wake of the Reformation, dealing a heavy blow to the superpower of early modern Europe, the Habsburg monarchy.