Flanders and North Sea Trade in the Middle Ages. 1. Nobles, Merchants, and Middlemen
Updated: Mar 4
In this blog post I want to reflect on trends and assumptions in historical scholarship relating to international trade in medieval Flanders (appr. 950 AD- appr. 1200 AD), this in reference to some legal-historical appraisals of service relations.
In 2020, I wrote a (Dutch-language) book on North Sea trade and medieval Flanders, starting from an in-depth study of the social and economic relations of a family of maiores (manorial bailiffs) in the small village of Temse. Temse is located on the banks of the river Scheldt and is situated some 15 kilometers upstream from the city of Antwerp. It was part of the county of Flanders and at the Western outskirts of that principality, which had the Scheldt as its border.
In the High Middle Ages, the village was smaller than it is nowadays. In the early tenth century AD, there were two major rural zones in the area that later became the communitas of Temse. One was situated in the North and had the hamlet Bolsele as its center. Another one was a vicus in the south, which was a port settlement on the river with roots in Roman times and which bore the name of Temse (Tamisia). The northern part had been given a (loose) manorial structure by the abbey of St Bavo, of Ghent, probably as early as the later seventh century AD. Starting in the early tenth century AD, the abbey of St Peter (also located in Ghent) built up an estate on the Uilenberg, adjacent to the fishers’ town, with which it increasingly became identified in the decades thereafter. As a result thereof, from the middle of the eleventh century onward, Bolsele and Temse were fused together. This came after a decline of the lordship of Bolsele. In the middle of the 900s, St Bavo’s abbey abandoned the exploitation of Bolsele; members of the de Straten family of Varsenare (near Bruges) took over and controlled the estate for some 100 years. However, their supervision declined and after 1050 St Peter’s abbey was the main authority in both Bolsele and Temse. As a result, at first, an open field system was created, encompassing plots of land of the two former communities. Near the end of the eleventh century, Bolsele was also legally incorporated into the manorial structures of St Peter’s abbey at Temse.
At the beginning of the 1100s, the maiores of Temse-Bolsele belonged to the le Rus-family and they were newcomers. They had arrived at the demand of the lords of Alost, who held the advocatia of St Peter’s abbey and also held manors in the region surrounding Temse. In my book, I explored the peculiar profile of these maiores. They organized the oversight over the work on the fields of St Peter’s and they were subordinate to the praepositus, the representative of the abbot. However, at the same time, they were involved in shipping and international trade. Maior Baldwin (d. 1196) held land in Saint-Omer; his brother Reingot, who became maior in 1172, possessed tithes in Uitkerke, near Blankenberge and Bruges, on the Flemish coast. Reingot, as well as his offspring, were shipmasters and traders. Moreover, the origins of Baldwin’s and Reingot’s family lay in Saint-Omer, where the le Rus-family still in the thirteenth century was one of the main families of international traders. Until approximately 1200, Saint-Omer was a dominant commercial city in the county of Flanders, with a focus on trade with England. Relatives of the le Rus-family were trading in nearby Ypres as well.
The campanile of Saint-Omer, 1895
The combination of agricultural and mercantile expertise is odd, when considering the traditional accounts of economic historians of the medieval period. In the later 1800s Henri Pirenne explained the rise of cities and of a class of merchants in the later eleventh and twelfth centuries as phenomena that marked the end of feudalism. In Pirenne’s conceptions, cities were entirely different from the rural countryside, and as a result, feudal elites and the newly arising bourgeoisie were in opposition to each other. He emphasized the group of mercatores as consisting of “new men”. Furthermore, historians who have theorized on the transitioning from feudalism to capitalism have either stressed internal-feudal dynamics (in particular class dynamics, see Brenner and Anderson) or external factors such as newly emerging opportunities for international trade, as Pirenne did (see for example Sweezy). In these approaches, as well, the divide between traditional and new elites was assumed. Even though Marxist historians have acknowledged that capitalism was as much rural as it was urban, they also commonly distinguished strictly between merchants and nobles.
One needs to be cautious about terminology. The mentioned authors conflated the concepts of nobility, lordship and feudalism. In recent scholarship these notions are separated. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the link between noble status and possession of a feudal estate was most natural (by then, a noble was required to have an estate and estates of nobles were often held as fiefs); however, rural elites did not always have fiefs. Lords could wield seigneurial power that was not feudal. Before approximately 1250, in Flanders the notion of nobilis could still refer to so-called allodial lords. Their land was theirs and theirs only. They could ally themselves with the count of Flanders but remained outside a feudal relationship. Moreover, recent literature has demonstrated that lords could be involved in city life. Pirenne already acknowledged the gentrification of merchants, but developments also ran in the other direction: rural elites could come to the newly thriving towns and cities and participate in their government and trade. And also the term of “merchant” is compound. When using the concept, Pirenne had internationally trading, economic professionals in mind. By contrast, Marx and historians referring to Marx’s ideas commonly blended crafts and commerce in their analysis of the earliest demise of feudalism. Merchants were then considered marchands rather than négociants.
One key to a solution lies in seigneurial authority as being a crucial component of international commerce; lords established marketplaces and provided protection for international merchants travelling over their land and waters. As a result thereof, trade and agriculture were glued together in the powers of lords. Therefore, their representatives and assistants could be implicated in both spheres as well. In fact, an older view held amongst historians was that the mercatores of the Early and High Middle Ages had often been Palastkaufleute, that is “palatial” suppliers who were part of a prince’s household. For Flanders, there are signs pointing to twelfth-century remnants of this idea. When, for example, in 1168 count Philip of Alsace granted exemptions to the citizens of Nieuwpoort, he spoke of “my negociatores”.
Another answer relates to the complex social-legal strata of eleventh- and twelfth-century Flanders. The abovementioned maiores were defined as servientes in their relation to the Flemish count. Indeed, maior Baldwin held land bordering the river Aa in Saint-Omer, from count Philip of Alsace. And he also had land from the count near Bapaume, an important town for transits between the river Somme and the mentioned cities of Saint-Omer and Ypres. In their capacity of maior in Temse, the members of the le Rus-family were free; they held the office on the basis of the law of succession, as paternal inheritance, and this at least until 1166, which was when St Peter’s abbey successfully transformed the office into a fief. But it seems that in their quality of merchant they were more involved in service-like relations. The close ties between the maiores of Temse and the Flemish count did not bypass the clout of the mentioned lords of Alost, who were close to Philip of Alsace. And all this conforms to a picture of service relations that were at the core of the earliest feudal law and of household officers (ministeriales and others) whose officium stood in close relation to lordly authority.
From a broader perspective, the example of the maiores of Temse at once confirms newer views in the literature, but also invites for further research. The connections between territorial lords, local seigneurs and traders, also in agricultural settings, may shed a new light on discussions over nascent capitalism in medieval Flanders. I will write more on what the case-study of Temse reveals on agricultural organization in a subsequent blog post.
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