The weighhouse in Akmaar

The weighhouse in Akmaar

With the growth of European towns, the guilds developed into powerful organizations. Because a prominent member of a guild could be sure of the support of his colleagues when he put himself forward for the post of magistrate, the guilds often became political pressure groups that dominated the town councils. This not only applied to the governing bodies at municipal level: the ruler was also open to pressure from the representatives of the guilds. The guild masters of the flourishing Flemish cloth industry even dictated the Count’s foreign policy.

It did not come to that in Holland. The guild brothers did not allow themselves to be a cat’s paw for their more prominent colleagues. They had seen what had happened in Flanders, where prominent guild members behaved like nobles, and journeymen were forced to behave as if they were unfree. In northern Italy it was no longer a question of pretending; there, rich merchants had even officially seized power. The best known example of this is the Medici family of Florence. They started in the alum trade, then set up a bank and, with the profits from banking, went on to take over the government – informally at first and then officially – giving themselves the bizarre title of Dukes of the Republic of Florence. By the sixteenth century, these towns had, as it were, become ‘re-feudalized’.

In Holland this was seen as an undesirable development. The Count did not feel like functioning under the guardianship of rich merchants and, by the same token, the ordinary members of the guilds had no intention of being voting yes-men for prominent guild members. Merchants who threatened to become too powerful were kept off the lists of nominees for mayor. If they happened to be nominated, then the ruler did not appoint them.

Because of their consultations, the Count and his subjects trusted each other and were too contented with their tacit alliance to tolerate the guilds as a new political factor. In Holland, thus, the guilds remained convivial associations that looked after their members’ interests and the danger of the urban and princely authority being taken over by the business world was avoided. The consultation culture had, once again, proven its right to exist, at any rate for those who were part of the tacit alliance.

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