4.2

Statue of Floris V (Middelburg, townhall)

Statue of Floris V (Middelburg, townhall)

Although ‘town’ was a legal and not a socio-geographic term, granting a charter could indeed alter the socio-geographic realities. If we take Amsterdam again as an example: since the dam had been constructed, the water in the port could to some extent be regulated. This made it an ideal place for shipping merchants to settle. In 1275, in order to promote trade, Count Floris V granted the people of Amsterdam ‘the right to sail toll-free with their goods when they sail through our land’. This exemption was quickly followed by a town charter. Both privileges stimulated the growth of this commercial settlement, making it necessary to build a castle for its protection around the year 1280. And now, with a guarantee of security, more people were attracted to settle in Amsterdam. According to archaeologists, before 1310 there lived in Amsterdam a smith, a carpenter, a shipbuilder, a tanner, a shoemaker, a baker, and two millers: specialists you would not come across in a village. Clerks and clergy completed the picture of a diverse economic life in this boom town.

Tax inspectors followed in 1323, when the Count stipulated that foreign beer had to be cleared of customs in Amsterdam. And woe betide anyone who tried to steal past in the night without paying toll because the Count ‘would confiscate both ship and cargo’. This forced the merchants to dock at Amsterdam. A dock area arose with a toll house, warehouses, and inns, not forgetting the Gothic church dedicated to the patron of seafarers, Saint Nicholas. In short, a handful of privileges made a fishing village into a merchant town.

Old Church, Amsterdam

Old Church, Amsterdam

Of course it was not just exclusively merchants and artisans who lived in a medieval town. Streets frequently became blocked as a farmer drove his cattle to the cowshed. Pigs were allowed to root around at will because they ate the offal. Most townspeople kept hens and doves. Excavation of medieval town centers has revealed that with all these animals around, manure surplus was a considerable problem. And in the same way that the countryside reached past the walls of the town, the town influenced the villages. Cottage industries took on a varied character. Up to then, in order to make money each peasant family had specialized in one simple craft, such as weaving or pottery. From this time on, they could earn extra money by cutting reeds, making shell lime or firing bricks in the river forelands; products used for building material. Cutting turf was even more important, as this was needed for warming the houses in the towns and particularly for brewing beer. (In a world that had no means of purifying water, beer was the only liquid that was both drinkable and affordable.) To this end, peat bogs which were of no use for other purposes were dug out, causing the area to become flooded: a consequence that ought to have been foreseen.

Not every settlement with a charter developed into a town in the socio-geographic sense of the word. Bronkhorst on the IJssel remained rural, demonstrating that opportunities for development were occasionally missed. In fact, it is quite exceptional that Holland became urbanized so quickly. Around the year 1300, only Dordrecht had developed into any kind of a town, and then, when compared to towns in Flanders, only relatively so. Six or seven generations later, half the population of Holland lived in towns. To find an explanation for this relatively fast growth, we have to consider the metamorphoses which the countryside underwent in the fourteenth century.

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