A hulk: one of the heraldic symbols of Amsterdam.

A hulk: one of the heraldic symbols of Amsterdam.

As has been said, the characteristic landscape of the Netherlands lying below sea level, with its dykes, pastures and windmills, was formed by the continuous subsidence of the land. The farmers no longer produced rye, but meat and dairy products. This led to the emigration of labor and consequently to a fall in production in relation to the number of mouths to be fed. The starving unemployed, who had survived the plague, settled in the towns, hoping to be able to earn money in industry in order to buy grain.

While there was scarcity of labor all over Europe after the plague of 1349, in Holland there was massive unemployment. Nobody realized it at the time, but this was actually a boon for the province. There was a surplus of people, who quickly swelled the population of the towns. Under these circumstances Holland, more than other parts of the country, witnessed a rapid expansion of urban industry.

One aspect of this was that better seagoing ships – the cog and the hulk – were built, making it possible to import rye from the Baltic countries. Even when, in later centuries, Dutch merchants sailed the seven seas and traded all over the world, they were still very aware of the importance of grain imports for the prosperity of Holland. They referred to it as ‘the mother trade’ because all other forms of trade could only prosper if there was an adequate distribution of food. Centuries later, the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt, was to declare that ‘the grain trade was the source and the root of the country’s most remarkable commerce and navigation’.

Meanwhile, fixed rates of pay were agreed upon in the guilds, which meant that the incomes of craftsmen were set at the traditional level all over Europe. Furthermore, because people did not need to spend as much on food as in the past, money could be redirected to the purchase of industrial products. Everywhere in Europe, trade and industry prospered as never before; there were good reasons for calling the period after the Black Death ‘the golden age of the craftsman’. In Italy, it became known as the ‘Renaissance’. This explosion of artistic sensitivity and expression can be directly linked to a fall in the amount of money that had to be spent on food, leaving a surplus of income for other types of spending.

The hungry peasant families, who went to try their luck in the towns in the fourteenth century, could buy food relatively cheaply and had no problem finding employment with a craftsman or merchant. However, that is not to say that the peasant had it easy. True, absolute wages in industry were kept at the traditional level in Europe, but it so happened that this ‘traditional level’ did not exist in Holland. It is also true that town charters had been granted since the thirteenth century. But the towns in Holland were still quite small and there was no real craft tradition or powerful guilds to speak of. When these towns took in the relatively large number of peasants from the countryside that came looking for work, the level of wages still had to be fixed. Employers could therefore pay lower wages compared to towns which had been established earlier, under more harmonious circumstances, and in which there had been a shortage of labor after 1349. As a consequence of the surplus of labor in Holland, owners of the craft workshops could market their goods at competitive prices. Holland was a low-wage country.

Thus trade flourished and this in turn had its spin-off in the countryside: peasant farmers started to grow a greater variety of crops for industry. Since the Middle Ages, Holland had been exporting beer and cheese, requiring the peasants to produce hops and milk. In addition, the textile industry needed supplies of wool, flax and hemp. By the end of the fifteenth century, every peasant farmer was growing cash crops.

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