The townhall of Gouda

The townhall of Gouda

The peasants who came to the towns in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries brought with them the consensus tradition of the water boards. Consequently the political groups in the towns became part of the tacit alliance which the Count and his subjects had formed against the nobility. The Count supported the towns by granting them privileges; the townspeople supported the Count by allowing him to collect taxes. There was direct consultation between these two parties, leading to the further exclusion of the aristocracy.

The towns were autonomous, which meant that free men could express their opinion about important business. As long as the towns were small, this was a relatively simple matter: in a small town of a thousand or so inhabitants, there were about two hundred adult men, an easy number to oversee. Plebiscites were not very usual but they did take place.

The townspeople chose a special official, the sheriff (in Dutch: schout), to administer the law. He could impose sentences in technical matters involving merchants. The Count limited his own powers to nominating the head of the sheriff’s court, the bailiff. You could say it was a representative type of jurisprudence: the bailiff passed judgment on behalf of the Count, while the sheriff judged on behalf of the townspeople.

Besides these magistrates, the town had four mayors. When the mayors finished their term of office, they joined the town council, the advisory body of the town. The mayors made up the board of administration and kept an eye on the activities of the treasurer. Their appointment was too important to leave to either the townspeople or the Count alone. Thus the townspeople drew up a list of suitable candidates from which the Count could choose four names. Again, this was proof of the harmonious collaboration in which both parties recognized and respected the other’s responsibilities and interests.

An important role was played by the town clerk or pensionary who, in fact, personified the culture of consensus. He was a barrister and, as head of the chancellery, was the highest official in a town. He knew everybody. Not only did he deal with the town’s correspondence but he also drew up deeds and contracts and maintained relations with other towns and with the ruler. From his law studies at the university, the town clerk had a network of international contacts with former fellow students who now held the same type of posts elsewhere. When conducting business this network was often more important than his town of origin. Rotterdam, for instance, had town clerks who came from Amersfoort and Delft.

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