In the year 1300, the area we now call Netherland had seventy places that were called towns. Sixty of these had fewer than 2000 inhabitants; Maastricht, ’s-Hertogenbosch, Nijmegen, Deventer, Kampen, Zwolle, Groningen, and Leiden were somewhat larger; Dordrecht had five thousand inhabitants, and Utrecht, with its population of 5500, was the largest town in the country. The southern Low Countries had larger numbers of people living in its towns: Antwerp had a population of 10,000, Louvain twice as many as that, and Ieper and Brussels each had more than 25,000 inhabitants. There were more than 35,000 people living in Bruges and 50,000 in Ghent, rivaling in number of citizens London and Cologne,the third largest European towns after Paris and Constantinople.
Although only the towns in the south were real towns by our standards and those in the north were not, the medieval people referred to them all as towns. Of course they knew that Ghent was fifty times larger than the little town at the dam on the Amstel and they also knew that this quantitative difference resulted in a qualitative difference. However, what really counted for them was that these towns had special rights the simple farming villages did not have.
When a ruler granted a charter to a town, he relinquished some of his power. From then on, jurisprudence was in the hands of the inhabitants of the town. That was to the advantage of merchants who were dealing with specific problems and who hoped for informed judgments passed by a court in which their colleagues served. Therefore, granting judicial autonomy was not the act of a ruler who was shirking his responsibilities, but a policy of economic stimulation. It has to be said, however, that these charters were not purely altruistic; the Count was fully aware that merchants controlled taxable assets.
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