Verhoeven’s Constitution for Mechelen (1790): Constitutional Thinking and Medieval City charters
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
In 1790 William Verhoeven (d. 1809), a cloth merchant, published his draft constitution of the city of Mechelen. Verhoeven was member of the city’s Broad Council, which was a body of guild representatives that advised the city council of aldermen on important and politically sensitive matters.
The later 1780s were a period of revolutions, also in the Southern Low Countries. Reactions against the Austrian Emperor resulted in a short period of independence from the Austrian House, during which the autonomy of the old counties, including the one of Mechelen, was high on the agenda. Mechelen had been a small seigniory since the Middle Ages; it was an enclave surrounded by the duchy of Brabant. Even though at times the duke had rights there, from the middle of the fourteenth century onwards the Flemish counts, and in their wake the dukes of Burgundy, confirmed Mechelen’s independence as a province of the Low Countries.
Verhoeven had been a faithful member of the Mechelen institutions. However, he sensed opportunities when the political circumstances shifted. In 1787 riots broke out, leading to the establishment of vigilantes in Mechelen and elsewhere. In the summer of 1789, a group of rebels, incited by the revolution in France, became active on the border with the Netherlands. They formed a mixture of supporters of the Enlightenment (the so-called Vonckists, led by Jan-Frans Vonck (d. 1792)) and of conservatives who mainly wished to restore the provinces of the Southern Low Countries and the Church (the Statists, headed by Hendrik Van der Noot (d. 1827)). In October 1789 they invaded the Campine area from the North. A rapid advance followed. During the night of 12 December 1789, the Austrians fled Mechelen and the revolutionaries took hold of the city. The United Belgian States were proclaimed and a new, red-black-yellow flag flew on top of the St. Rombout tower, the main church tower of Mechelen.
The Statists saw the revolution as a confirmation of regional autonomy. Therefore, Verhoeven took the initiative to propose a constitution for the independent seigniory of Mechelen. In his constitution, Verhoeven also expressed views similar to those of Vonck, who aspired to bring French Enlightenment ideas to the Southern Low Countries. For example, Verhoeven reacted against the oligarchic nature of the Mechelen city government. He took the 1305 charter that had been granted by the Liège prince-bishop Thibaut of Bar (d. 1312) and considered this as the true constitution of the city of Mechelen. Verhoeven emphasized the representation of the urban community by the members of its guilds, which – according to him – was clearly written in this charter. Verhoeven argued that the charter had installed a democratic regime, which later on had become mutilated by power play and the establishment of new institutions. In the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, indeed, the influence of the guild representatives in Mechelen’s municipal government had dwindled.
Belgian stamp dedicated to the Brabantine Revolution (1789)
In 1790, a new war announced itself. The United Belgian States received little international support. Moreover, things were rumbling among the revolutionaries. The Statists were conservative, while the Vonckists were mostly inspired by the French Revolution and therefore against the status-quo. In the spring of 1790, the tension was palpable. The Austrians could not yet take advantage of the discord but were lurking. Emperor Leopold II, who had succeeded Joseph II (d. 1790) in February 1790, quickly managed to forge an international coalition. In Mechelen as well, nervousness rose. Verhoeven was ousted because of his resistance against the leading families of the city; he was also considered as a potential conspirator with the French. As a result of the internal frictions, the Southern Low Countries became an easy target and in November 1790 they were Austrian again. The Viennese eagle reappeared on the roof of the Mechelen town hall. The rural population around the city was relieved that the liberal lawyers had not had their way. On 28 July 1791, Emperor Leopold II (d. 1792) was received gloriously in Mechelen.
Verhoeven’s historic arguments were clearly contemporary to a large extent. Indeed, when looking at the charter of April 1305, it is evident that the part of the guilds was rather minimal. Next to twelve aldermen, chosen from patrician families, four sworn councilors were appointed each year from within each guild. The Cloth Guild was allotted nine councilors. These sworn representatives were not on an equal footing with the aldermen. They had no jurisdiction but assisted with their council in important matters. They swore an oath to the city council, while the latter was accountable only to the lord. It is true, though, that the 1305 charter had come about due to opposition from within the guilds. In 1302 and 1303, in Flanders and Brabant, the urban climate was turbulent. In Mechelen, riots broke out in the spring of 1303. Craftsmen armed themselves and marched into the city centre. Their goal was to drive out the aldermen and take over the government themselves. Thereupon, Duke John II of Brabant (d. 1312) and Jan Berthout (d. 1310) besieged Mechelen. The city was taken, in June 1303, and severe sanctions were imposed. In response thereto the rebels were able to persuade the prince-bishop of Liège to control the city. The textile workers gained more rights at that time. But their representatives remained councilors, not having the same rights of jurisdiction that the aldermen had.
Verhoeven read higher powers for guild representatives in the 1305 charter than were stipulated there. His approach towards the medieval charters of the city is highly illustrative of Enlightenment thinking. It was typical in historiography of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century to consider medieval city charters as foundational and constitutional documents. During the nineteenth century this line of thought was corroborated, even strengthened in the writings of historians such as Augustin Thierry (d. 1856) and Jules Michelet (d. 1874). Furthermore, the mentioned positivist approaches were easily blended with ideas on liberalism. Charters then took the character of constitutions that enshrined urban liberties against seigniorial intrusions. In German historiography, the reduction of constitutional thinking in medieval cities to these charters was prominent as well. It was only after approximately 1850 that medieval cities became more appraised for their associational characteristics; this resulted in more emphasis on Satzungen, rules that were crafted within the community and to which the members of the urban community abided.
Considering all the above, there is a clear connection between constitutional thinking, among lawyers, in the first half of the nineteenth century, on the one hand, and positivism in the historical understanding of the law of medieval cities in the same period. It is true that sovereigns and lords were held to pledge respect for urban privileges and rights, and often these were mentioned in princely charters. Such pledges of allegiance were done in public ceremonies, during Joyous Entrees, which were held when a new lord was installed. However, there are virtually no indications that the rules contained in the charters mentioned were considered as being more fundamental than others. The institutional rules and the rules relating to for example urban citizenship were broader than seigniorial charters; they were dynamic and could be fixed in municipal ordinances and case law as well. There are virtually no signs of immunity, as protecting against lordly interventions. In fact, the seigneur was represented at the level of the urban government, in the figure of the bailiff.
Therefore, instead of focusing on ceremonial documents, it would be good to consider the legal-institutional constellation of the city in all its complexities. Moving away from an anachronistic understanding will show the status and institutional rules of cities in a new light.
Fr. Buylaert, “From Periphery to Centre and Back Again. Elite Transformations in Mechelen (14th-16th Centuries)”, Urban History 47 (2020), 610-631.
H. de Lannoy, “De geboorte van de democratie in Mechelen (1789-1858). Politieke werking en organisatie van het einde van het ancien régime tot de vooravond van de partijvorming”, Handelingen van de Koninklijke Kring voor Oudheidkunde, Letteren en Kunst van Mechelen 121 (2017), 121-189, at 124-126.
J. Muyldermans, “Willem Frans Gommaar Verhoeven. Over zijn leven en zijn schriften”, Verslagen en Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde 1920, 817-858.
W.-G-Fr. Verhoeven, Grond-wet ofte constitutie van Mechelen …, Mechelen, 1790.