chapter  4
21 Pages

‘City Air Sets You Free’: Autonomy and Rivalry in the Early Modern Northern Netherlands


The slogan ‘city air sets you free’ represents the great attraction that cities wield over migrants from multifarious backgrounds.1 Yet, the degree to which the city air was free varied. To begin with, the margin was much bigger in Europe than in other continents, thanks to the fragmented power of states in the Middle Ages and the relative weakness of the nobility. The slogan was derived from the medieval German rule: ‘Stadsluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag’, after a year and a day, city air sets you free. This meant that a (runaway) serf that had lived in a city for a year and a day would, hereafter, be a free man and freed from service to his former feudal lord. Throughout the centuries, this urban autonomy was slowly eroded by the rise of national, territorial states. With the exception of city-states such as Hamburg and Venice, there was only one area in Europe in the early modern period where the medieval independence of the city persisted signifi cantly longer than elsewhere: the Northern Netherlands.2