HOST Research programme

Cities have been attributed a crucial role in Europe’s history over the past millennium: as engines of specialization, commercialization, industrialization, social differentiation and individualization, as determining factors in processes of state formation, as cradles of new ideas, art forms and social relations, and as hallmarks of modernity. Notwithstanding a wide acknowledgement of cities’ roles as catalysts of social change, the actual dynamics of change remain elusive, as do the interactions between dynamics of change on the one hand and the observed resilience of the urban fabric on the other hand. European cities’ capacity to harness their own transformative power is indeed a remarkable achievement in global historical perspective, which has manifested itself in an overall resilience of the urban network and the urban condition since Europe’s High Middle Ages. The question of how the interactions between diverse social groups shaped urban dynamics of change and stability forms the basic point of departure for HOST’s research agenda.

The spatial and temporal setting of HOST’s research agenda is that of the cities of Brabant and Flanders from the late Middle Ages to the long nineteenth century, two core regions of the Southern Low Countries with a distinct political and economic setting and an early and long-standing urban tradition. By adopting a long-term perspective from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, it is possible to dissociate analytically the impact of long-term structural transformations from conjunctural effects when exploring the dynamics of urban change and stability, while the implementation of an internationally comparative perspective allows to establish the generality and typicality of the urban developments studied. On a social scale, the HOST research agenda adopts a broad scope to allow for a focus on the interactions between urban elites, middling groups and the labouring poor.

Given its broad spatial, temporal and social scope, HOST’s concrete research agenda is operationalized analytically by concentrating on nodes of interaction: six related core themes in the social-economic (income), social-political (power) and social-spatial (space) sphere, namely: (1) guild history, (2) social mobility, (3) social policy, (4) elite formation, (5) neighbourhood relations, (6) migration. While each of these themes have been studied in their own right, HOST aims to take research further by focussing on the interrelations between these connected nodes of interaction, employing an analytical framework cross-linking income, power and space with social interactions.


  Income Power Space
Arenas Guilds Social Policy Neighbourhoods
Transgressions Social Mobility Elite Formation Migration







Underlying the analytical framework is a twofold approach to social interactions. The arenas of interaction refer to the different ways in which social groups are confronted and interact with one another and where conflicts of interests or alliances crystallize, such as the relations between merchants, entrepreneurs and workers, the supported poor and relief administrators, and landlords and tenants. Transgressions in turn refer to the different ways in which the boundaries between social groups are constantly modified by processes of migration, upward and downward social mobility, and group formation. Whereas arenas focus on the agency of different social groups, transgressions in other words highlight how the boundaries between these social groups are in permanent flux through the agency of aspiring individuals, families and social networks. The two types of interaction also broadly correspond to different sources and methods: whereas arenas of interaction can best be studied by employing qualitative materials such as administrative documents, petitions and court records, transgressions will be approached mainly by using prosopography, social network analysis and life course analysis on the basis of relational nominal databases. The thematic focus on income, power and space, and the six nodes of interaction identified at the crosslinks of the analytical and thematic focus, link up with HOST’s established expertise in social-economic and social-political urban history. Although this necessarily implies a selective view on urban developments, we maintain that the relational approach provides a fruitful inroad into the dynamicsof social change in a long-term and comparative perspective, of which the insights will provide important leads for other aspects of urban change more generally.


WP1: Guilds

Contrary to earlier views on guilds as conservative and homogeneous institutions, recent trends in guild history have highlighted how these corporative occupational institutions played a pivotal role in social dynamics of premodern European cities as arenas for conflicts and negotiations between merchants, entrepreneurs, master-artisans and workers over labour conditions, labour and product markets and product development, especially in the Low Countries. At the same time, these core urban institutions represented an important channel for both the integration of newcomers and upward and downward social mobility. HOST aims to continue its strong research tradition with regard to guild history in relation to the other WP’s in order to gain further insight in the multilayered nature of social-economic regulation, negotiation and conflict in medieval and early modern cities. 


WP2: Social Mobility

The fourteenth to the early twentieth centuries witnessed the gradual transformation from the protean and diverse groups whose income is to be situated in the middling range of the spectrum into a well-articulated ideological category known as the ‘middle class’. While older historiography is often inclined to see this as a given and to define its genesis as an inexorable evolution, the HOST-team aims to contribute to the deconstruction of this teleological narrative by focussing on the processes of social mobility in Flemish and Brabantine cities between the labouring poor and the middling groups on the one hand, and between those middling groups and the lower ranks of the elite on the other – processes of social mobility that were also permeated by dynamics of geographical mobility. The primary analytical focus here is on the level of individual and household strategies with regard to income, survival and/or wealth accumulation and intergenerational property management.


WP3: Social Policy

This work package is concerned with the attempts of local and central institutions to regulate the social sphere in the Southern Low Countries. From the Late Middle Ages onwards, states were increasingly prone to develop ambitious legal programmes to cement or to restore the public order, ranging from sartorial and heraldic rules of precedence to contain status conflicts among the elite to extensive legislation about poor relief and migration. Yet, for the implementation of such policies, states were largely dependent on urban administrations, who developed social policies of their own and often ignored or modified the directives of the central administration to suit local needs and interests. Intermingling with the interactions between cities and states were local interest groups and actors on the ground, who executed, implemented, negotiated and influenced social policy in practice. What makes HOST’s approach to this theme innovative is its radical long-run perspective, its dedication to the multi-layered arena of negotiation and strife surrounding social policy practice, as well as its contention that social policy was essentially shaped by the interactions between cities and the state.


WP4: Elite Formation

The ambition of this work package is a quantitative and qualitative research into the elites of the large and middling cities of Flanders and Brabant. While the urban elites of the Northern Low Countries are the subject of a long-standing research tradition, remarkably little is known about the constituents of urban political inequality in the Southern Low Countries. Recent research suggests that an in-depth study of those urban elites will significantly alter our current understanding of the intense city-state relations in the pre-modern era, while this WP also directly ties in with the WP on social mobility. The sources for the Southern Low Countries are sufficiently rich to study the processes of upward and downward social mobility between corporate middle groups and the elites in core cities.


WP5: Neighbourhoods

Existing research has demonstrated that neighbourhoods fulfilled pivotal roles in both informal social ties and formal means of regulation in preindustrial and early industrial cities. Neighbourly relations and street life provided important support networks, especially for new arrivals, and functioned to mediate and sanction social norms on public behaviour. The functioning of neighbourhoods was also shaped by attempts by urban authorities to integrate semi-formal neighbourhood organizations in the regulation of social life, by delegating administrative and policing tasks such as street maintenance, the registration of newcomers and the settling of minor conflicts. With regard to this WP, HOST strives to explore how dynamics of extensive immigration, building activity, social segregation and the reorganization of local administration impacted upon the viability and scope of neighbourhood life from a long-term perspective.


WP6: Migration

Contrary to earlier visions of migration as an essentially modern phenomenon and of preindustrial Europe as an essentially static society, recent research has demonstrated how migration was a pervasive and vital characteristic of city life already under the ancien régime. While these revisions have helped to break down artificial divisions between ‘premodern’ and ‘modern’ urban society, they have brought to the fore new challenges as to explaining the important changes in migration levels and patterns that did take place between the late Middle Ages and long nineteenth century. HOST’s approach to these research questions is to further develop its innovative methodology on migratory change, based on the analysis of relational nominal databases and centred around a three-tier framework taking into account the interactions between macro (structural social change), meso (social networks and migration information) and micro levels (individual and household strategies) of migration patterns.