Urban Space and Political Conflict in Late Medieval Flanders
By Marc Boone
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.32:4 (2002)
Abstract: This essay investigates political claims over space in Ghent, urban Flanders’ largest city during the late Middle Ages.Distancing itself from the long tradition in which the Low Countries’ urban history deciphered city life principally through market relations, it argues for the independent importance of political culture. Political contests were enacted through rituals of rulership and authority performed, first, by members of the commune in the high Middle Ages and then by the politically enfranchised urban members and the Burgundian princes. Ritual space—iconic spaces—were not just the site of the contests but also the prizes. The goal was possession of these spaces and the symbols of power they bequeathed. The late medieval period was a key crucible for the formation of urban space. As important as economic life was to Low Country cities like Ghent, the market did not determine spatial arrangements so much as intersect with a set of political valences forged out of political contests between urban factions and the emerging composite state of the Burgundian Netherlands.
When considering urban historyin medieval Flanders, just as in adjoining areas such as the Duchy of Brabant and the Bishopric of Liège, it is tempting to paraphrase the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the word, and the word was Pirenne. Indeed, Henri Pirenne’s scholarship on urban histor yhas long dominated urban historiography throughout the Low Countries, and inspired a strong body of work in economic and political history. Pirenne was fascinated with questions of state formation, national identity, and the urban locus of early capitalism. Markets and the urban economy, he argued, were the engine behind urban development in the Low Countries. Strongly influenced by German historiography at the turn of the century, Pirenne read cities as market enclaves—creations of merchants and entrepreneurs organized to serve these particular interests.