Research projects

Poor migrants or strange labourers? Regulating migrants' access to poor relief in eighteenth century Flanders

This project is concerned with the paradox of community based poor relief and cross-community mobility. Since the sixteenth century, the parish had been the responsible entity to provide assistance to the poor, but mobility and migration complicated this local phenomenon. If migrants became poor, where should they turn to? Criteria for migrants' access to poor relief varied througout time and space. The distinction between 'own' and 'strange' poor became an increasingly stringent issue for local, regional and central governments in France and Flanders. Different regulations followed each other swiftly, and local agreements existed alongside central legislation. This project focusses on a local regulation, the concordat of Ypres. The concordat was a transnational agreement between cities and rural districts in West Flanders and Northern France. It was signed on June 6, 1750 and lasted until the end of the Ancien Régime. The concordat stipulated that access to relief was located in the birthplace, thereby ensuring free movement within its boundaries and abolishing the obligation for migrants to present caution sums or warranty letters when they entered a new town. As a multilateral bottom-up policy, it forms an excellent case study to analyse poor relief and access to relief on the continent in detail, to delve deeper into local autonomy in an age of increasing centralisation and to contribute a historical perspective to the debates on welfare and mobility. 



Paying for deservingness? Poor relief administration, entitlement and local economies in the Southern Low Countries, 1750-1830

This project sets out to identify and explain spatial variations and temporal changes in revenues raised for the relief of the poor, conceptions of entitlement and belonging, and survival strategies in
three sets of rural parishes in the Southern Low Countries in the period 1750-1830. By investigating
the interconnections of these themes at local, regional and ‘national’ levels of analysis in a period of
profound social, political, economic and institutional change, we aim to contribute to a renewed
comparative approach to the determinants and consequences of poor relief organization in
Europe’s transition from preindustrial to industrial society, in a way that radically challenges
stereotypes of ‘English’ versus ‘continental’ relief practices. The exceptional quality of the source
materials in combination with an empirical focus on three rural regions characterized by very
distinct socio-economic structures during a gradual transition from a charity-based to a tax-funded
relief system, will allow us to systematically test a number of influential hypotheses on the
interconnections between poor relief administration on the one hand and agrarian change and
economic growth on the other hand, in a way that takes into account the role of local contexts,
shifting criteria and conceptions of entitlement, and the life cycles and survival strategies of the
poor themselves.


Explaining the great litigation decline. The impact of social-economic change on litigation patterns in early modern Europe. The case of Bruges and the Liberty of Bruges.

Historians across Europe have identified an intriguing phenomenon in litigation patterns. In the long sixteenth century European civil law courts at various levels were characterized by a dramatic increase in the number of cases they heard—a so­‐called ‘legal revolution’. However, during the seventeenth century the courts saw a marked decrease in the volume of litigation, a ‘great litigation decline’. This project will contribute to our understanding of this decline by way of an analysis of the shifts in the social-­‐economic composition of the clientele and the nature of case matter of law courts of first instance. There are reasons to assume such structural changes. In the long sixteenth century social groups from the lower middling ranks of society especially, were responsible for the dramatic increase in lawsuits. Large sections of middling groups impoverished during the early modern period, possibly resulting in significantly fewer occasions for litigation. The project improves our understanding of changes in the business of law courts and changes in processes of inclusion and exclusion in early modern communities. The city of Bruges and the rural district called the Liberty of Bruges during the seventeenth and eighteenth century will be the case studies. The juridical and social­‐economic configuration of these regions and their courts allows for a comparative research design that helps to test the assumed correlation between declining litigation and social‐economic change.


Power in the Metropolis. Urban elite formation during the demographic and commercial expansion of Antwerp (c. 1450 - c. 1550)

During the late 15th and early 16th century, Antwerp replaced Bruges as “gateway city”. In this period, Antwerp transformed from a medium-sized Brabantine city into the leading metropolis within the Burgundian-Habsburg Netherlands. Most post-war historiography focused on the demographic and economic aspects of Antwerp’s growth, but devoted less attention to the impact on the political elite and to the question how this group dealt with the opportunities and challenges that accompanied the urban expansion process. This project aims to conduct a social study of the composition and evolution of the Antwerp magistrate between c. 1450 and c. 1550. Quantitative and qualitative approaches will be combined to chart the social mobility, the interaction and overlap between political and commercial elite, the marriage networks and ownership structures of the leading political families, as well as their relationship with the Antwerp craft world and the Brabantine and Flemish nobility. The central objective of this project is an in-depth study of the Antwerp political elite. This study will enable a comparative analysis between the aforementioned elite, the elites of other European “gateway cities” (i.e. medieval Bruges, 17th century Amsterdam and 18th century London) and a selection of cities in the Low Countries.


Shifting grounds? Nobility, lordship and state formation in the sixteenth-century Low Countries (case studies: Brabant and Flanders)

To date, historians assume that the Habsburg state became strong enough in the Low Countries to integrate the once autonomous nobles as docile servants into the “modern state”. Yet, recent international research for the surrounding regions has demonstrated that the development of a powerful state did not necessarily plunge the nobility into a crisis. On the contrary, the noble class created strategies to maintain its social position precisely by turning the construction of a powerful state into its advantage. The aim of this project is to reconsider the relationship between the sixteenth-century Habsburg state and the Netherlandish nobility from a social point of view. Did changes within the nobility as a social group alter its relationship vis-à-vis the princely government? To answer this question this research will focus on the management of seigniorial lordships. As the cornerstone of noble status and the basis for a nobleman’s power, the seigniory plays an important role in comprehending state building and elite formation. Evidence suggests that from the late fifteenth century onwards more and more seigniories became concentrated in the hands of an ever smaller group of lords. This project will investigate the hypothesis that this concentration process urged those excluded from the community of lords to support the princely state as an institution with the authority to allocate noble status, replacing the customary association with seigniorial lordship. By collecting data on sixteenth-century seigniorial lordships in the Low Countries, combined with data on the composition of the nobility and the participation of noblemen in the state, this project aspires to broaden our understanding of the relationship between the princely state and the nobility.


The transformation of urban political elites: the case of sixteenth-century Ghent

This project aspires to understand how urban political elites were shaped and reshaped in relation to the intense upheavals of the sixteenth century with an in-depth study of Ghent, the largest city of Flanders. This is a high-potential case study, as it combines a unique mix of elements that are central to current international debates, such as shifting city-state relations, intense confessional and ideological strife, socio-economic change and the entanglement of urban elites with both regional and supra-regional elites as well as with urban middling groups. To chart structural processes of elite formation as well as the agency of elites and would-be elites in buffering or exploiting those processes, this project would combine quantitative methods with an agency-focused analysis of families and individuals to exploit the exceptionally rich and diverse primary sources available for the top layers of the Ghent urban community. On the one hand, the structural processes of elite formation are measured by looking at (1) the number of political offices held per family, (2) the “wealth” of Ghent’s ruling families, the way in which they were fused with (3) the Habsburg state officials, (4) the nobility as well as (5) Ghent’s craft guilds, and finally by (6) charting the confessional choices of Ghent’s urban political elite. On the other hand, the agency Ghent’s political elite is studied by a comparative analysis of various well-documented leading families. By comparing the evolution of Ghent’s political elite to the various trajectories of urban elite formation in different European regions, this project will allow a meaningful intervention in the current historiographical debate on the agency of established elites and the impact of structural changes on urban government.



The aim of STREAM is to develop a research infrastructure for early modern Flanders and Brabant (c.1550-1800). STREAM is designed to protect, utilize and make accessible a multitude of historical data for diverse research applications and for the public at large. STREAM compiles a range of data from a diversity of sources and provides us with a geographically comprehensive and long-run quantitative account of early modern Flemish society. It contains key data regarding territory, demography, transport, agriculture, industry, trade, labour and social structure. The infrastructure rests upon a geographical information system and a database storing the original and harmonized statistical data at the local level. This enables scholars to easily consult historical data and to implement historical reconstruction maps for their own research.


Entrepreneurial strategies of building contractors. The case of Antwerp, 1490-1670.

 Construction and the building trades have long fascinated architectural and social-economic historians. Whereas most attention has been drawn to the product of their activities and the corporative framework in which they were operating, this project will focus on entrepreneurial strategies of building contractors active on the market for private housing in early modern Antwerp. These entrepreneurs had a crucial function in bringing together capital and labour with the purposes of optimizing the construction process and making profits through speculative investments. The project will investigate the different types of contractors and partnerships, their financial and speculative strategies, the targeted submarkets and the characteristics of their construction or renovation works. The available sources related to real estate are exceptionally rich, so that entrepreneurial strategies of building contractors can be captured far better than those in any other economic sector. This research will contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics and financial strategies of entrepreneurs operating within a corporative framework, and yield insights that will transcend the specific context of Antwerp. At the same time, the secondary research questions related to different types of private houses and to the formation and evolution of housing prices, will provide better insight into the processes leading to gradual changes in the social topography of early modern cities.


Interdisciplinary Research Programme "Cities and Newcomers: Regulating Neighbourhoods of Arrival in Periods of Urban Transtition, 1880-1914 and 1980-2015."

This interdisciplinary research programme is a collaborative enterprise of research teams HOST (Department of History), Cosmopolis – City, Culture and Society (Department of Geography), Interface Demography (Department of Sociology) and Crime & Society (Department of Criminology).

Cities are both catalysts and embodiments of societal change: macro-economic transformations go hand in hand with the rescaling of geographical space and the redrawing of the layout and social composition of cities, among other things by generating new flows of migration. Although the presence of migrants is a ubiquitous phenomenon throughout urban history, processes of accelerated societal transformation tend to entail momentous changes in migration patterns and create new fields of tension and conflict, which together pose fundamental challenges to the existing social order. This research programme focuses on the modes of regulation developed to cope with these challenges. Drawing on an interdisciplinary framework it aims to break down artificial boundaries between state-centred and migrant-centred perspectives on regulation and integration that dominate discipline-bound approaches. We postulate that the arrival of large numbers of newcomers in specific local settings spurs regulatory actions by urban governments, established residents and newcomers alike, the interactions of which produce specific integration patterns and foster new modes of urban life. By investigating the interactions between the formal and informal modes of regulation surrounding the process of arrival in its local setting, we therefore aim to gain original insights into the how and why of patterns of integration and conflict, neighbourhood disintegration and urban renewal.


Artists or Beggars? Adaptive Strategies of Itinerant Entertainers in Brabant (1750-1914).

This project aims to gain insight into the migration patterns, income strategies and cultural repertoires of itinerant entertainers in Brabant in the ‘long nineteenth century’ (1750-1914). Making their living with public performances ranging from singing, making music, acting and puppetry to acrobatics and bear dancing, they travelled over short and long distances with their shows and brought entertainment to people who did or did not have regular access to amusement. The transition from preindustrial to industrial society confronted them with new opportunities and constraints, inciting permanent adaptations of their trajectories and shows. While they are often dismissed sideways as folklorist remnants of a bygone age or as ‘beggars in disguise’, this research aims to explore the relative success of their cultural repertoires and income strategies in their own right in a period of societal transformation. Using repressive sources on the one hand and requests and permissions for itinerant performances on the other hand as the main source materials, this research project aims to establish a balanced, comparative and long-term view on both the relative success of their survival strategies and their cultural importance during the transition from preindustrial to industrial society, with due attention for dynamics of social differentiation, professionalization, commercialisation, the expansion of urban leisure facilities and changing migration policies.


City and Society in the Low Countries, 1200-1850

City and Society in the Low Countries is a vibrant network of senior and junior researchers devoted to the study of the urban history of the historical Low Countries (present-day Belgium and the Netherlands), that builds on the know-how acquired during the previous phases III, IV, V and VI of the Interuniversity Attraction Pole Program (IAP) of the Belgian Science Policy Office (Belspo). The current phase VII (2012-2017) coordinates a new collaborative research project entitled City and Society in the Low Countries (ca. 1200-ca. 1850). The ‘condition urbaine’: between resilience and vulnerability. The enlarged network includes six Belgian universities (UGent, UA, ULB, VUB, KULeuven and FUNDP), two Belgian federal scientific institutions (RMFAB, KBR) and two European partners (the Universities of Leiden and Utrecht).

Environmental problems, issues of social identity, and of community building have claimed their place on the world’s social sciences programs, and are therefore of great historical interest. Yet, the questions and results of this historical research often remain isolated and, therefore, need to be reintegrated in a questionnaire that claims not only historical but also wider social relevance. It is our firm belief that urban history is a specific field that allows for a holistic approach since in the cities of the past (and the present) all of society’s problems come together and push for a collective answer. A thorough understanding of how urban societies in the past tackled similar problems and tried with or without success to come to terms with them, is necessary in order to formulate an answer to the compelling problems caused by present-day urbanisation.

From a historical perspective, one of the most striking features of urban society is its capacity to undergo moments of stress and extreme crisis or long-term destabilisation, but to re-emerge in the end. This remarkable resilience of the urban phenomenon – or condition urbaine – is one of the leading concepts that binds this research network together. The common goal of the different research projects proposed by the network is to give a realistic and contingent evaluation of the opportunities, challenges, successes and failures of urban societies.

The historical Low Countries constitute an important case-study, since from the Middle Ages onwards this region has was one of the most densely urbanised areas of Europe and the world. Yet, on a larger scale, it is the explicit goal to develop an international perspective by widening the research questions through European, and in some cases even global, comparisons. Driven by the need for wider comparisons and a better understanding of patterns of transformation, our network intends to extend the chronological scope of its research until ca. 1850, allowing the transition to modern society to be included in our research. The study of transformations and continuities between, on the one hand, the medieval and early modern period and, on the other hand, the early modern and modern period, will therefore be at the core of our research.

Inspired by the challenges of present-day urbanisation, the network coordinates its engoing research on 'urban resilience' in the historical Low Countries along three work packages:

    (1) Environmental Challenges of City Life: Resilience and Precariousness;

    (2) Urban Memories and Counter-Memories;

    (3) Urban Community Building: Inclusion and Exclusion.

These themes are the object of a resolutely international and interdisciplinary analysis, including – besides history – such disciplines as the study of visual and literary culture, archeology, and geography.

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Entrepreneurs, master craftsmen, workers and merchants. Relations of production in the Brussels' building trades, 1685-1789. 

The building trades – clamped between architects and the built environment – have much to contribute to urban historiography. Despite the broad consensus amongst historians on the importance of the industry in the early modern urban economy, our understanding of the relations of production in this sector is still limited. Taking the city of Brussels from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries as a case-study, this project aims to gain insight into the entrepreneurial structures and labour relations in the building trades during the early modern period. It will yield new perspectives on current debates in guild historiography, as it moves away from an institutional approach and considers guilds as nodal points of social relations. This requires a methodology that brings into view the ways in which guilds generated a range of opportunities that benefited specific groups in specific ways. While existing studies are primarily committed to the public building market, this project proposes an integrative approach that also includes semi-public and private markets in order to understand if and how different market segments provided distinct opportunities to certain entrepreneurs and craftsmen, while excluding others. By establishing the interactions between market differentiation, social networks and economic strategies, this project will provide a significant contribution to the history of entrepreneurship, guild history and urban development.


Access to justice. Urban legal procedures and the usage of the pro bono procedure in civil adjudication in the Low Countries, 16th to 18th century.

Historians generally acknowledge that broad layers of early modern society made abundant use of civil adjudication to arrange their social and economic relations and interests. If litigation was indeed as central to early modern community life as recent research has established, the question of to what extent urban households that belonged to the socially lower groups participated in litigation has particular relevance not only for legal history, but also for social, economic, political and cultural history. If they did take part, they must often have made use of the pro bono procedure, which allowed them to wage a lawsuit free of charge. The central question of this project is to what extent these urban households had access to urban juridical courts in the early modern Low Countries. It will be determined which urban households made use of the pro bono procedure at local juridical courts, and why they used them, throughout the early modern period. This research will be carried out for towns in the Low Countries, which historians allege offered particularly good public services. This research will assess the extent to which householders among the urban population really could access the court system by assessing the relative social inclusiveness of the urban litigation community. In doing so, it will substantially improve our understanding of social relations in the early modern urban context.


Between local autonomy and national migration policy: Dealing with ‘foreigners’ in Brussels, 1750-1914.

This research is part of a broader project that aims to investigate the role of local authorities in the development of national migration policies during the period 1750-1914 by uncovering continuities and changes as well as similarities and differences in the treatment of non-national migrants in two distinct urban contexts – Antwerp and Brussels – in a comparative and long perspective. In the existing historiography concerning the treatment of ‘foreigners’ in the long nineteenth century we can see a particular top-down focus highlighting the legal, political and philosophical aspects in the emergence of what we call today a ‘national migration policy’. One tends to ‘ignore’ or ‘forget’ that the national framework, which tried to shape migration policies in this period of strong political and economical transformation, was heavily dependent on lower levels of authority, in essence the provincial and, mainly, the local level. After all these local authorities had developed a strong tradition of ‘controlling’, or at least dealing with, migration on their territories for many centuries. They were moreover the main executors of the national migration policy in the nineteenth century. This inter-dependency and the field of tension between the local and the central/national level of authority is the main focus of this research project. From a bottom-up perspective using mainly, but not exclusively, source materials that were produced by the local authorities this research tries to evaluate the maneuverability which local authorities (still) had in the 19th century and the ways in which they used this to shape their own policies, according to their own interests. The hypothesis is that the mere emergence and existence of a national migration policy framework did not mean that century-old traditions and specific interests of local authorities (such as control over their relief expenses, the shaping of their own labor market and the maintenance of political stability) were put aside without further notice.


Life Trajectories on the Fringe. ‘Vagrants’ and ‘Beggars’ in the Belgian State Benevolent Colonies (Rijksweldadigheidskolonies) (1870-1930). 

This research aims to answer three main questions. First of all, we want to examine how contemporaries and the legislator felt on the matter. This concerns the view of policy makers and the consequences thereof on the judicial and institutional levels. In a second line of research we focus on practice. Who was being arrested and why? After all we do know that not all vagrants or beggars ended up in an institution. The sentencing – or lack thereof – left room for interpretation. Also, which elements played a part in determining whether someone was locked up in an institution for beggars or in a refuge home? Despite the Lejeune Act of 1891 it was not always obvious to the authorities where to put a certain individual. A third line of research corresponds with what is called 'history from below'. Here the focus is placed on the experiences and strategies of the target groups themselves.