chapter  8
19 Pages

Who’s who in late-medieval Brussels? BRAM VANNIEUWENHUYZE

Pre-modern towns were characterised by dynamic and heterogeneous populations. Hence, historians face several challenges when exploring the deepest levels of their complex social structures, especially because very few sources encompass all the various layers of urban populations. Indeed, most documents focus on specifi c social groups (for example, the towns’ magistracy, the members of craft guilds and confraternities, town and state offi cials, the urban nobility, the clergy, families and lineages, poor people, widows, orphans) or on people who were similarly out of the ordinary (for instance, tax payers, merchants, immigrants, criminals, landowners, benefactors, artists, rebels). Unsurprisingly, the historical scholarly literature follows the same path. Although some historians have tried to reconstruct the general demographic evolution of towns (and often linked it to the urbanisation process), 1 or have tried to capture the socio-economic layers (‘structures’) of the urban population, 2 most studies focus on those townsmen who belonged to very specifi c groups and communities, of whom the majority must be included among the elites and higher middle groups. 3 According to Jan Dumolyn, this situation is partly caused by the fact that ‘the source situation allows for far more interesting results while studying the upper classes of society’. 4

The characteristics of the pre-modern urban population were all the more complex in capital cities. In addition to the ‘regular’ townsmen, political centres housed and attracted numerous people from outside the city: the prince, his household and court, state offi cials, deputies and ambassadors, court suppliers, honourable guests, different types of fortune seekers and so forth. The complexity of the population structures and particular social constellations of these capital cities heavily contrast with their biased representation as prosperous court cities in scholarly literature. Brussels, for instance, is often considered the ‘capital’ of the Burgundian and Habsburg Low Countries, 5 hence scholars do not hesitate to use this epithet as a pars pro toto for the whole late-medieval and early modern period. Socio-economic characteristics and changes are regularly explained by referring to the city’s function as a seat of princely power. 6 Yet, apart from the magnifi cence of the court, the development of Brussels was also due to its function as a local market-place, the opportunities offered by its topographic situation, the fl ourishing of particular industries (especially the textile industry), and the power of civic government and ecclesiastical authorities. Without any doubt, the characteristics

and dynamics of population structures in Brussels as well as in other capital cities were also attributable to a whole range of other factors.