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Legal Change in Sixteenth-Century Antwerp

Today I finished writing the manuscript for my new book, Crafting a Law of Trade for Antwerp (c. 1400-c. 1680). Even though no publisher has been found yet, this book has the ambition to reach a broad audience. Historians of the later Middle Ages and early modern period will find new ideas to their liking, but also scholars of legal, organizational and sociological studies may be interested in its results. I plan for the book to hit shelves in 2024, early 2025 at the latest.


Over the past decade, sixteenth-century Antwerp has received ample attention. Oscar Gelderblom depicted the Antwerp administrators as capable legislators, who were keen on bringing international trade to the city (Cities of Commerce: the Institutional Foundations of International Trade in the Low Countries, 1250-1650 (Princeton, 2013). Jeroen Puttevils wrote an institutional-economic study of how merchants traded in Antwerp (Merchants and Trading in the Sixteenth Century, London, 2015). In Guilds, Labour and the Urban Body Politic: Fabricating Community in the Southern Netherlands, 1300–1800 (Routledge, 2017) Bert De Munck expands on the connections between culture, guilds and the urban community in cities of the Southern Low Countries, also from an institutional perspective, and often in reference to Antwerp. Recently, Hugo Soly published Capital at Work in Antwerp's Golden Age (Brepols, 2021). And then, of course, there was Michael Pye's Antwerp: The Glory Years (2021), which in the US edition received the more appropriate title Europe's Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp's Golden Age. From the part of legal historians as well, new research on Antwerp was published by Wouter Druwé and Bram Vanhofstraeten.



Detail from the map of Brabant by Sebastian Münster, 1550; the Honte (alongside Saaftinghe) is still depicted as a smaller river than the Easterscheldt - Antwerp is not as prominent as one would expect


Crafting a Law of Trade for Antwerp takes yet another look at Antwerp in the 1500s, but now from the perspective of its institutional constellation. It argues that many characteristics of Antwerp's legal system of the sixteenth century date back to the later Middle Ages. For the first time, also the mercantile and institutional practices of the 1400s are analyzed. A broader chronological setting has the advantage that change can be better assessed. Against a broad canvas it is easier to see what was truly novel. Also, this periodization allows to analyze whether late-medieval governance ideas on the city as body, on the market and on society as a whole were still resonating in the policies of the Antwerp administration of the 1500s.


The book details the interactions between legislation, court policies and contractual practice, and zooms in on reciprocal dynamics that sparked new developments. The law of Antwerp was not monolithic. There were lots of shades to it and merchants, judges, practitioners and notaries did not per se share views. The book, as well, intends to bring legal change more to the center of legal-historical research. For Antwerp, luckily, this is by now more or less possible. Standing on the shoulders of giants such as Herman Van der Wee, Hugo Soly, Wilfrid Brulez, and several others, one can gaze down on the many studies of mercantile and legal practice and come to new conclusions. All in all, the book contends that there is room for modesty, in the sense that Antwerp was not as exceptional as often has been said. The New York of the Renaissance was in many ways still a medieval city, and the law that was practiced there, was rooted in convictions that were not modern by any means.

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