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The tower of the cathedral of Utrecht.

The tower of the cathedral of Utrecht.

The greatest merit of the Counts of Holland was that they did nothing to hamper the emergence of trade, industry and towns. This is less self-evident than it seems. Consider the case of the Bishops of Utrecht, who were in this respect rather shortsighted. In their desperate search for money – they had to finance the imposing spire of Utrecht Cathedral from some source – the bishops taxed everything taxable. There were so many tolls along the River Vecht that shipping merchants took the longer route via the Spaarne River, cutting right through Holland. As a result, the Count of Holland made larger profits by charging fewer tolls.

And this is the crux of the matter. The motive for the promotion of trade and the growth of towns in Holland was simply the need for money. Trading activity was easy to milk fiscally, and as long as the Count did not tax the shirts off the backs of the merchants, he could enrich himself in this way. At the close of the thirteenth century, Count Floris V was rich enough to come to the financial aid of the Bishop of Utrecht. As security for the generous loan, he ‘merely’ requested some tracts of land.

Floris invested part of his profits in an efficient bureaucracy. The officials had to be literate, of course, and because education could only be found in monasteries, it is not surprising that in the thirteenth century many civil servants were clerics. The Count saw to it that a school was set up in every parish and when there were a sufficient number of literate people, civil servants were recruited who were not necessarily clerics. Holland had been a late starter in respect of the rise of towns, and this was no different when it came to setting up an efficient bureaucracy. The Emperor and the Count of Flanders had at a much earlier date directed their profits from taxation to this end.

The bureaucracy of the Middle Ages did not amount to much. The yield from the land was very low and in order to sustain the population almost everyone had to farm. Consequently, civil servants were even rarer than merchants and craftsmen. Nevertheless, a count’s chancellery was set up, manned by a handful of clerks who drew up official documents under the supervision of a powerful chancellor. A former merchant was employed as accountant. Although this does not sound very impressive to us, it was a big leap forward at that time. Up to then, the work of writing and registering documents had been done by scribes in Egmond Abbey, where the pious scribes sometimes showed less interest in this temporal world than was fitting for the administration of a county.

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