Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Nobles, Patricians and Officers: The Making of a Regional Political Elite in Late Medieval Flanders

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Nobles, Patricians and Officers: The Making of a Regional Political Elite in Late Medieval Flanders

Article excerpt

In the county of Flanders the late medieval period was an era of important social mobility among the dominant classes, as a result of the formation process of the Burgundian state. I argue that in the course of the later Middle Ages, and more specifically in the period of Burgundian domination (1384-1492), a regional political elite was made, as much as it made itself, in the county of Flanders, to paraphrase E. P. Thompson. (1) Significant groups of the lower and higher nobility, the urban and rural dominant classes who did not belong to the nobility and the new social group of princely officers, itself made up of noble and non-noble elements, gradually integrated themselves in a 'power elite' on the level of the county of Flanders. They did this by forming social networks based on marriage alliances. They had common political and material interests and a common political ideology stressing the service to the state and the 'common good'. To establish empirically the early phases of such a 'political elite' from the integration of several previously distinct elite groups, I will use the following criteria. First, the careers of princely officers necessitated increased regional mobility, which led to the forging of connections between the different and previously more isolated urban and rural elite groups. This led, secondly, to a more profound social heterogeneity by means of marriages among the different elite groups. In turn this development, fuelled by the state formation process, created larger social networks encompassing patricians, nobles and non-noble rural elites. The families of mixed social origin adopted the ideology of the noble lineage, with a 'genealogical consciousness'. Thirdly, I want to show that important layers of this composite political elite developed into what could be considered a new 'state nobility' whose political ideology was to defend the bonum commune or commonwealth of the Burgundian state, abandoning the traditional autonomism of the Flemish urban political elites.

The state formation process in Flanders

The county of Flanders belonged to one of the most urbanised regions of Western Europe. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Ghent, a leading textile industry city, numbered at least 60,000 inhabitants and Bruges, one of the principal commercial centres of medieval Europe, contained at least 40,000 people. (2) Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, a very progressive and intensive agriculture and the exploitation of new lands in the coastal plain reclaimed from the sea had boosted the Flemish economy. (3) From the eleventh century onwards a series of strong counts stimulated further urbanisation to increase their revenues. They also gradually built up a centralised government structure with an administrative apparatus. The counts of the twelfth century replaced the hereditary feudal viscounts who acted as prosecutors of comital justice in the cities and rural districts or kasselrijen of the county with comital bailiffs they could appoint and remove. (4) A network of central and local receivers collected the princely revenues. (5) Gradually, in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a central comital court developed out of the traditional comital council or curia, the so-called Audientie of the counts of Flanders. (6) At the same time, a system of taxes, the aides or beden, paid by the cities and rural districts of the county, supplemented the comital revenues of the demesne. (7) Flowing from the negotiations over the payment of these taxes, a representative institution of a special kind developed in Flanders that differed from the classic model of the Three Estates. It was known as the 'Four Members of Flanders', because it included the three leading cities Ghent, Bruges and Ypres, and the rural district surrounding Bruges, the so-called Franc of Bruges. (8) Thus, a so-called 'modern state', characterised by regular tax incomes and the construction of a centralised judicial and administrative apparatus came into being. …

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