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Governing and gathering about the common

welfare of the town. The petitions of the craft

guilds of Leuven, 1378

Jelle Haemers
University of Leuven

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

edievalists have regarded revolts and rebellions with a certain ambiguity. At the one hand, they argue that political conflicts in late medieval
times (a period of crisis!) were violent confrontations of people who wanted
to fight and even to destroy each other. If one reads, for instance, the overview
of Michel Mollat and Philippe Wolff on les annes revolutionaires, as they
have called a series of conflicts in the years 1378-81, one is struck on the focus
both authors put on the violence of medieval people, committed by both the
rebels as well as the repressive authorities. One is inclined to think that we
are speaking about a Calamitous Century, as Barbara Tuchman has called
the fourteenth century. In her bestseller of the same name, rebels are brutal
outcasts who aggressively battled against established powers. Though scholars
are well aware of the fact that Tuchman too naively has interpreted medieval
chronicles, such as Jean Froissarts, the image of a revolutionary mob still is
a very powerful one in the description of the political history of the Middle
Ages.1 At the other hand, however, medievalists often categorize medieval
protest as a conservative reaction of conformist people who stuck to their
privileges. I admit my guilt. In an overview on patterns of urban rebellion
in late medieval Flanders, Jan Dumolyn and I wrote that medieval rebels almost never demanded structural changes of society because they just wanted
1. M. Mollat; Ph. Wolff, Ongles bleus, Jacques et Ciompi. Les rvolutions populaires en
Europe aux XIVe et XVe sicle. Paris, 1970; B. Tuchman, The calamitous fourteenth century. New
York, 1978.


Jelle Haemers

concrete improvements in everyday life.2 Though I am still convinced of the

fact that medieval rebellions and revolts are not revolutions, for medieval
revolts, in contrast to revolutions, did not result in a basic structural change
of society. But I changed my mind on the very nature of these conflicts for I
think that late medieval rebels did more than primarily focussing on the defence and restoration of ancient liberties or privileges. Since some authors as
for instance, J. Elliot, albeit for early modern Europe, have argued that rebels
only strived to restore an idealised golden age in the past, with an ideology
of renovation, not of innovation, many scholars seem to argue on the conservative character of urban revolts in the later medieval period. In publications on German and English revolts, for instance, the claims of late medieval
rebels have more been seen as protest about the personal corruption of individual town rulers rather than being generated by a clash of fundamental
political principles or by a desire for structural change in town government.3
In short, the ambiguous approach on medieval revolts still influences the actual debate on the topic.
In a recent article in: English Historical Review, Christian Liddy and I approached urban protest from a more nuanced point of view. While comparing
late medieval revolts in Bruges with contemporary insurrection in York, we
argued that rebels did not want to change fundamentally the societal order in
both towns. Yet, they did have demands that altered the policies of the urban
rulers, and the protesters also wanted to transform radically the functioning
of urban institutions. We argued that the protest of craftsmen in both towns
regularly tried and succeeded to modify the manner in which the city was
ruled. It is clear that the craftsmen strove for the defence of obtained rights,
such as the custom to be judged only by the aldermen of town, privileges of
urban autonomy and corporate rights. But their desire for the observance of
these rights lead to essential changes in urban government. Elementary principles, such as the accountability of rulers, the self-governance of corporate
bodies, and the observance of a correct financial and fiscal government of the
town, were at the basis of their wishes. The text in this volume is in the spirit
of our plea for more detailed and systematic research into popular protest
in other European towns, with the aim to find out if the shared forms, goals
and mentalities of popular protest that we discovered in York and Bruges
2. J. Dumolyn; J. Haemers, Patterns of urban rebellion in medieval Flanders, Journal
of Medieval History, xxxi (2005), p. 371. In this context, we quoted Y.-M. Berc, Rvoltes et
rvolutions dans lEurope moderne (XVIe-XVIIIe sicles). Paris, 1980, p. 252.
3. J. Elliot, Revolution and continuity in early modern Europe, Past and Present, 24
(1969), p. 44; R. Rotz, Social struggles or the price of power? German urban uprisings in the
late Middle Ages, Archiv fr Reformationsgeschichte, 76 (1985), p. 69-70; J. Whittle; S. Rigby,
England: popular politics and social conflict, S. Rigby (Ed.) A companion to Britain in the later
Middle Ages. Oxford, 2003, p. 68.

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

can provide an explanation of revolt which might apply to other urban centres in late medieval Europe. Therefore, this text focuses on a case study in
another city, namely the revolt of the craft guilds of Leuven in 1378, one of
those revolutionary years distinguished by Mollat and Wolff. Though never
scrutinized in detail, the case-study presented in this article provides us with
unique documents which give us clear insight into the demands and wishes of
the rebels. A comparison with our findings on Bruges and York can thus help
us to discover general patterns of popular politics in wider Europe which is
one of the aims of this collection of essays.
The fact that Leuven differs in many ways from the cities of Bruges and
York makes it an excellent case to compare the socio-political demands and
wishes of the craftsmen across these towns. In distance, Leuven is not so far
from Bruges (about 100 kilometres), but the social and political situation in
both towns clearly varies, for three reasons. First of all, Leuven is situated in
another region, namely the duchy of Brabant, while Bruges is located in the
neighbouring county of Flanders. Though Brabant and Flanders will be ruled
by the same dynasty in the fifteenth century, both regions are at another side
of a national border. While Flanders largely made part of the kingdom of
France, the duchy of Brabant falls under the Holy Roman Empire. The fact
that Emperor Charles IV himself granted the duchy to his relative Wenceslas
in 1356 after the death of the last descendant of the dukes of Brabant shows
that, in the Emperors eyes, the duchy was an important fief in the western
part of the Empire. Wenceslas was a descendant from the house of Bohemia
and was also duke of Luxemburg until his death in 1383.4 Secondly, the city of
Leuven has different economic characteristics than Bruges. While the latter
is a financial centre and a port town in which international merchants sold
their goods and organized long-distance trade, Leuven is an industrial textile
centre, and a gateway for regional trade. The city had c. 40,000 inhabitants
in the fourteenth century, but this number declined continuously as Leuven
increasingly lost its pole position in the duchys economy (and politics) to
Brussels and Antwerp. But, still, the city counted 45 craft guilds which had accumulated a considerable wealth and rights of self-governance in the course
of the fourteenth century.5 In contrast to Bruges, and this is a third difference
with the Flemish town, these crafts did not have political representation in
1378. Therefore, more than in Bruges, political representation was one of the
4. About the fourteenth-century history of Brabant: R. Van Uytven (Ed.), Geschiedenis
van Brabant, van het hertogdom tot heden Leuven, 2004, p. 103-12, 118-25; S. Boffa, Medieval
warfare in Brabant, 1356-1406. Woodbridge, 2004.
5. About the city: R. Van Uytven (Ed.), Leuven, de beste stad van Brabant. Deel I:
geschiedenis van het stadsgewest Leuven tot omstreeks 1600. Leuven, 1980, p. 195-237; and the
emergence of its craft guilds: C. Wyffels, De oorspong der ambachten in Vlaanderen en Brabant.
Brussels, 1951, passim.



Jelle Haemers

main stakes of the revolts of the craftsmen in Leuven. Though the crafts had
managed to install a new regime in 1360 after having chased away the mighty
merchant families and landlords in town (the so-called geslachten or Sint-Pietermannen), they lost their political power in the 1370s. In 1373, the geslachten
recaptured the aldermanic seats, and with support of the duke they deprived
the craft guilds of political power.6 As a consequence, one of the main stakes
of the crafts revolt of 1378 was to regain the right to influence the election
procedure of the 7 aldermen of town. But the artisans not only wanted to restore rights of political representation in 1378, they also asked for elementary
changes of urban government.
1. Revolt in Leuven, 1378
The revolt of Leuven of 1378 is actually one stage in a series of conflicts,
which started with the revolt of 1360 and ended with a peace settlement in
1385. This period of 25 years wasnt a quarter century of permanent struggle,
but it consisted out of many confrontations between the craft guilds (the ambachten or neeringen in middle Dutch) and the elite of town (de geslechten or
goede lieden). Tension was at its height in 1360 and in 1378, when the craft
guilds succeeded in seizing power in town by establishing a revolutionary regime. In these two tumultuous years, many cities in the Low Countries, and
elsewhere, had to cope with uprisings of craftsmen. In 1360, in the neighbouring county of Flanders, for instance, weavers of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres succeeded in setting up an interurban alliance with the aim to drive political rivals
or competing craft guilds (such as the fullers) from town.7 This can explain why
also the Leuven textile guilds started with an uprising on the eve of Saint Magdalene (22 July). They occupied the market square and the city hall, where they
held the aldermen as hostages. These events, and also the date on which they
started, make clear that also internal reasons were at the heart of the conflict.
Annually, on 22 July, the urban government leased out the consumer taxes of
the city (the so-called assizen), which were very hated by the urban commoners

6. About these turbulent times and the institutions of medieval Leuven: R. Van Uytven,
Peter Couthereel en de troebelen te Leuven van 1350 tot 1363. Kritische nota over de persoon
van een hertogelijk ambtenaar en zijn rol in de politieke geschiedenis van Brabant en Leuven,
Mededelingen van de Geschied- en Oudheidkundige Kring voor Leuven en Omgeving, 3 (1963),
63-97; H. Vander Linden, Histoire de la constitution de la ville de Louvain au Moyen Age. Ghent,
1892; J. Cuvelier, Les institutions de la ville de Louvain au Moyen Age. Leuven, 1935.
7. V. Fris, Les origines de la reforme constitutionnelle de Gand de 1360-1369, Annales du
XXe congrs de la fdration archologique et historique de la Belgique, 1907, p. 427-59;J. Mertens,
Woelingen te Brugge tussen 1359 en 1361, Album Carlos Wyffels. Brussels, 1987, p. 325-30; R.
Verbruggen, Geweld in Vlaanderen. Macht en onderdrukking in de Vlaamse steden tijdens de
veertiende eeuw. Bruges, 2005, passim.

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

because they weighed heavier in their budget than in that of the elite. Fiscal
requirements, but also political ones, such as a demand of inspection of the
urban accounts, and rights of representation in the urban government, would
motivate the insurgents to take up arms. The chronicle Brabantse Yeesten, which
narrates the history of the dukes of Brabant, mentions that the commoners,
called the ghemeinte, asked goede rekeninge (good accounts) of the ruling elite.
They also successfully strove to appoint the aldermen (the scepenen or the wet).8
A charter of 1306 in which the geslechten had received the monopoly of the
Brabantine duke to appoint the aldermen of Leuven, was symbolically cut into
pieces in front of the city hall. Though the ghemeinte thus initially gained rights
of political participation, the abolition and renewal of these rights would be at
stake during the following quarter of a century.
If one wants to understand why the conflict lasted so long, it is necessary
to know that the 25 year revolt of Leuven was a time of changing coalitions,
in which the duke of Brabant also got involved. The political situation in Leuven was of great interest for the duke as it was one of the most important and
wealthy towns in the duchy. Therefore, the duke tried to intervene many times
into the conflict, with the well-known phrase divide and rule as leading
motto. In 1360, the craft guilds coalesced with Pieter Coutereel, the sheriff
of town (meier in middle Dutch), a nobleman who belonged to the duchys
political elite. He was supported by duke Wenceslas who saw in the rise of the
craft guilds a means to diminish the power of the leading families in Leuven,
who had supported the Flemish count in a struggle against the inauguration
of Wenceslas as duke of Brabant in 1356. The leader of the revolt, Pieter Coutereel, seems to have belonged to a rivalling faction of the leading families in
town (the geslechten). As in Flanders, factional divides within the Leuven elite
apparently lead to an alliance between one of the ostracized factions and representatives of the craft guilds, which used the factional split in the urban elite
to require for political demands.9 The power of the geslechten was however
not to underestimate, as they possessed most land of the town, and they had
huge financial reserves. This explains why duke Wenceslas accepted to reconcile with the leading families of Leuven when they sought his aid to recapture
power in the city. In October 1361 the duke successfully negotiated to set up
a peace settlement which compromised the geslechten and their political challengers, but in April 1373 he agreed with the first to sign a document which
re-established their autocratic rule. The change of coalitions thus empowered
the leading families who monopolised again the election procedure of the
8. Brabantsche Yeesten, ed. J.F. Willems. Brussels, 1843. Vol. II, verse 4684.
9. An overview of factional struggle in Flanders, compared with findings on other regions
in Europe can be found in J. Braekevelt et al., Factional conflict in late medieval Flanders,
Historical Research, 85 (2012), p. 13-31.



Jelle Haemers

aldermen, and of the deans of the Gilde, an institution which regulated the
urban economics, thus without interference of the craft guilds.10
In 1378, however, a new wave of unrest that questioned the political authority of many elites in European towns, inspired the craft guilds to go on
strike again. In March, they handed over a first petition to the duke, which
informs us in detail about the reasons why they rebelled. The duke did not
give in, which heightened tensions in the city and the duchy again. However, he did not side with the rebels, as in 1360, neither did the relatives of
Pieter Coutereel (who had died in 1373). A second petition was composed
in the course of August, after the craft guilds, again, had occupied the city
hall on the feast day of Saint Magdalene. Leuven was again in roere, as the
Brabantsche Yeesten tells us.11 Moreover, the craft guilds appointed aldermen after having chased away the geslechten from town; those who remained
in town became the victim of brutal repression. Confronted with the violence and his need for cash, the duke granted a favourable charter to the
craft guilds in September 1378.12 Still, however, the city remained a place of
tumult, though information is scarce on the precise course of events. Whatsoever, on 25 January 1383 the craft guilds obtained a new ducal privilege,
which principally confirmed the regulations of the charter of 1378.13 In 1385,
minor issues which had remained unclear were arranged by the Duchess
after the death of her husband. Taken together, the ducal charters of 1378
and 1383, together with the regulations of the duchess, gave the craft guilds
henceforth the right to appoint 3 of the 7 aldermen, two of the four urban
exchequers, and one of the two mayors of Leuven. They were admitted to
the Great Council which decided about the levying of urban taxes, and
they could elect the half of the administration of the Gilde. Last but not least,
their rights of self-governance were confirmed, and they obtained the right
to gather freely. In the end, the craft guilds were thus successful.
Before discussing the concrete wishes of the 25 year revolt in detail,
it is worth noticing that it wasnt as violent as its counterparts in other regions of the Low Countries, and Europe. While in Ghent and Bruges cruel
murders and even military battles between the count and the cities would
determine the course of events in contemporary revolts, the violence in
10. See the lists of aldermen edited by J. Cuvelier, Documents indits concernant les
institutions de la ville de Louvain au Moyen Age, Bulletin de la Commission Royale dHistoire,
99 (1933), p. 269-296.
11. Brabantsche Yeesten, verse 7091.
12. Edited by H. Vander Linden, Histoire de la constitution, p. 175-81; discussed in detail
by R. Van Uytven, Stadsfinancin en stadsekonomie te Leuven van de XIIe tot het einde der XVIe
eeuw. Brussels, 1961, p. 21-6.
13. Edited by H. Vander Linden, Histoire de la constitution, p. 182-94; discussed by J.
Cuvelier, Les institutions de la ville, passim.

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

Leuven remained restricted. Dialogue, negotiations and petitions decided

the conflict. Of course, force was used by rebels, such as in 1360 when they
surrounded the city hall and pushed the aldermen to resign. Yet, afterwards,
the use of rituals, symbols and a strict hierarchy in the craft guilds seem to
have disciplined the common artisans, who obeyed to orders of the leading
circles of their guild. The use of a common repertoire of collective action such
as the unfolding of banners (baniere), the ringing of bells (the stormklokke),
and the ritual occupation (gathering or vergaderinghe) by craftsmen in arms
of central squares in the city, seemed to have calmed down the commoners.
The fact that these rituals have given their names to the conflict shows how
powerful they were as a symbol of resistance. As can be easily compared with
uproar in other cities in contemporary Europe, the conflict was named wapeninge (armament), aweyte (watch or guard), beckergeslach (drum roll), baniere
dragen (bearing flags), etc.14 In 1378, however, violence reigned in the city
after petitioning had failed in March. The burgomaster that was appointed by
the guilds, Wouter van der Leyden, was murdered, probably by bystanders of
the geslechten. In an act of revenge, sixteen former aldermen and members
of the leading families of Leuven were thrown out of the window of the city
hall.15 It seems thus that frustration about the failure of finding a solution had
lead to a temporary outburst of extreme aggression, but after a few weeks of
negotiation the conflict was settled with a ducal treaty (mentioned above).
Apparently, contemporaries knew that political dialogue and petitioning was
therefore a more efficient way to achieve a certain political goal.
2. Petitioning for the common good
The most frequently deployed collective actions of the commons repertoire in late medieval cities involved the gatherings of craftsmen and
14. A document that was composed by the ducal entourage with the aim to appease the
conflict in 1378 hoped that all people would stay good friends in the future, and that the mentioned
events never would happen again: ende dat hiermede alle wapeninghe die een jegen den anderen,
alle baniere dragen, hoetmanne, coninxtavele, beckergeslach ende aweyte te nyute syn ende altemale
afgeleght (edited by A. Schayes, Analectes archologiques, historiques, gographiques et statistiques
concernant principalement la Belgique. Antwerp, 1857, p. 364). Compare with the rituals used in
protest in neighbouring principalities: P. Arnade, Crowds, banners and the market place: symbols
of defiance and defeat during the Ghent War of 1452-1453, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance
Studies, 24 (1994), p. 471-97; M. Boone, Armes, coursses, assemblees et commocions: les gens de
mtiers et lusage de la violence dans la socit urbaine flamande la fin du Moyen Age, Revue du
Nord, 87 (2005), p. 1-33; J. Haemers, A moody community? Emotion and ritual in late medieval
urban revolts, E. Lecuppre-Desjardin ; A.-L. Van Bruaene (Eds.), Emotions in the heart of the
city (14th-16th century), Turnhout, 2005, p. 63-81.
15. Throw them out, the rebels cried (Worpt ons desen ende dien uut); Brabantsche Yeesten,
verse 7170.



Jelle Haemers

the petitions which were composed on these occasions. Petitioning was

a ubiquitous practice across Europe and within different types of polity.
Petitions were presented as written munitions to regional lords and territorial princes, urban rulers and sovereign monarchs.16 In Leuven, as in
Bruges, York, and other places, the petition, written in the vernacular, was
the standard means of making political complaint and seeking redress of
grievances. In the Low Countries more widely, the petition was a political
medium which typically took the form of the so-called request, requte in
French or rek(w)est in Dutch, a pamphlet listing and justifying complaints
(called poente in Leuven) about government actions. Studies have shown
that petitioning was the main mechanism by which ordinary citizens, individually and collectively, could influence the formulation of a citys policies
through the issue of by-laws.17 As in the two petitions of Leuven of 1378, the
demands contained in these texts mostly were written in a judicial register,
using familiar legal constructions, so that they could, if accepted, be incorporated directly into a law. In fact, some points of the Leuven petitions are
included literally in the charters which were granted by duke Wenceslas in
1378 and 1383, others however were further negotiated. The first petition
was handed over by the leaders of the craft guilds (die goede knapen ende
gesworne van den ambachten) to the aldermen of town and duke Wenceslas
in March, the second was composed by the aldermen that the craft guilds
had appointed after the revolt of July. Both documents were handed over to
the duke on a meeting in the city. We do not dispose of the original documents; both were copied by an anonymous ducal officer who made a report
of these meetings.18 A comparison with petitions that were composed in
contemporary Bruges and Ghent shows that the Leuven complaints were
highly similar to those in these (and other) cities, both what concerns the
form, as well as their contents. Therefore they are an excellent source for
the study of the political beliefs and ideas of common craftsmen. It strikes
the historian that the Leuven texts, just as their Flemish counterparts, are

16. For many case-studies on petitioning in late medieval cities, see H. Millet (Ed.),
Suppliques et requtes. Le gouvernement par la grce en Occident (XIIe-XVe sicle). Rome, 2003;
C. Nubola; A. Wrgler (Eds.), Bittschriften und Gravamina. Politik, Verwaltung und Justiz in
Europa (14.-18. Jahrhundert). Berlin, 2005; W. Ormrod et al. (Eds.), Medieval Petitions: Grace
and Grievance . Woodbridge, 2009.
17. J. Dumolyn, Our Land is only founded on trade and industry: economic discourses
in fifteenth-century Bruges, Journal of Medieval History, 36 (2010), p. 375-7. See also M. Prak,
Corporate Politics in the Low Countries: Guilds as Institutions, 14th to 18th Centuries,
M. Prak et al. (Eds.), Craft Guilds in the Early Modern Low Countries: Work, Power and
Representation. Aldershot, 2006, p. 104.
18. The report was edited by A. Schayes, Analectes archologiques, p. 334-98 (petitions on
p. 346-7 and 358-9).

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

scarcely studied, although many publications are already dedicated to urban

revolts in the medieval Low Countries.19
The petitions contained four main requests. As in Bruges and York, the
first point in the popular agenda of the rebels was an insistence upon the
principle of political accountability. The processes of accountability had to
be both public and regular. This was important because, so long as urban
governors were accountable to the citizenry (or at least were seen to be accountable), there was an expectation that civic magistrates would rule in
the interests of the whole community. It was the force of this logic which
impelled the crafts of Leuven to demand that the seal of the city would be
lead into the hands of the good men, the craft guilds and the brothers of the
Gilde.20 According to the craft guilds, the aldermen had sealed documents
that were to the detriment of the city. Therefore, a strict control on the use
of the seal, and thus on the legal activities of the aldermen, would be the
keystone of the power the craftsmen had gained during the revolt. The guilds
also called for legal accounts of the city (wittege rekeninghe), which had to
be written in the vernacular.21 With these documents, they could investigate
what had happened with the urban revenues in the past. What concerns the
near future, the petition asked that the crafts could appoint two exchequers
of the city who should from then on receive and expend the common good
of the city (al tgemeen goet van der stat) without interference of those who
were formerly responsible for it. Clearly, the crafts wanted to install sufficient
checks and balances within the urban institutions which would guarantee
them that, henceforth, the city would be well governed, that is taking their
interests into account.
The second part of the craftsmens agenda elaborated on the financial
aspect of the citys government, for there was sustained popular dissatisfaction with the management of its corporate finances. This was only in part
the expression of a familiar pattern of suspicion and complaint directed at
the personal failings of individual members of the inner circle of urban government. What happened in fourteenth-century Leuven, as in Bruges and

19. The exception are the studies of J. Dumolyn, Rebelheden ende vergaderinghen.
Twee Brugse documenten uit de grote opstand van 1436-1438, Bulletin de la Commission
Royale dHistoire, 162 (1996), p. 297-323; W. Prevenier, Conscience et perception de la
condition sociale chez les gens du commun dans les anciens Pays-Bas des XIIIe et XIVe
sicles, P. Boglioni; R. Delort; C. Gauvard (Eds.), Le petit peuple dans lOccident mdival.
Terminologies, perceptions, ralits. Paris, 2002, p. 177-89; and J. Haemers, Geletterd verzet.
Diplomatiek, politiek en herinneringscultuur van opstandelingen in de laatmiddeleeuwse en
vroegmoderne stad (casus: Brugge en Gent), Bulletin de la Commission Royale dHistoire, 176
(2010), p. 5-55.
20. A. Schayes, Analectes archologiques, p. 347.
21. Ibidem, p. 359.



Jelle Haemers

York in the last quarter of the fifteenth century was something more systematic, comprehensive and constructive than mere grumbling about fiscal mismanagement of the common good of town. The grievances of the craftsmen
and the solutions which they proposed to resolve them reflected a fundamental concern of taxpayers who believed that urban government should
be fiscally sound and stable and that it should not live beyond its means. According to the petitioners, the fiscal stability had an economic goal that would
be in the interest of every citizen. In the past, they argued, many merchants
of Leuven were imprisoned outside the legal quarter of the city (that is the
surrounding countryside in which only the aldermen of Leuven could judge
the inhabitants) because the city had failed to pay its debts to creditors who
had bought rents and annuities on the total amount of urban revenues. Consequently, trade could no longer flourish because of the risk merchants run
when they left the city. The petitions claimed that the city should pay its debts,
and additionally it proposed a remedy for the acute shortages, namely the
immediate collection of fiscal contributions which were not paid in the last
years. The petition of March planned an investigation of the accounts of the
consumer taxes with the aim to demonstrate whose debts (achterstelle) the
city could cash in the near future. In the meanwhile, the duke was requested
to extend the validity in time of a recent charter in which he had guaranteed
free circulation for Leuven citizens in the duchy.22 Furthermore, the craftsmen
wanted that the revenues of the consumer tax should be in the hands of the
craft guilds or of those who they would appoint. Each month, the petitioners stated, these people should give a demonstration for the common city
(die ghemeine stad) what they had done with the collected contributions.23 In
short, these fiscal measures, and the requirements concerning the political
accountability of rulers show that the crafts had firm and sophisticated beliefs
on what the financial government of the city should be: their demands were
not just about remedying financial excesses of rulers, but also about profound
changes in the administration of the common good of town. Clearly, the
rebels did not want an abolition of taxes, but they wanted to renegotiate the
decision making process of their expenditure.24
Thirdly, these financial concerns lead the petitioners to ask for a permanent representation in the citys governmental institutions. It was a predictable requirement, as the craft guilds had lost their political participation in

22. Ibidem, p. 346 and 359.

23. Ibidem, p. 346.
24. A comparison with the similar demands of rebels in other places can easily be made,
see for instance the analysis of a revolt in Norwich: C. Liddy, Bee war of gyle in borugh.
Taxation and political discourse in late medieval English towns, A. Gamberini et al. (Eds.),
The Languages of political society. Western Europe, 14th 17th centuries. Rome, 2011, p. 470.

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

the urban affairs in the course of 1373. Remarkably, the craft guilds did not
claim to monopolize urban government as their political opponents had done
in that year. In the petition of August, they proposed that, henceforth, the
council of the city would be half van den goiden luden van de geslechte ende
half van den goiden luden van der ambachten.25 Both quarreling parties of the
last year should thus be equitably represented in the citys administration.
The craftsmen were well aware of the fact that the duke and his powerful ally
(the geslechten) never would accept a domination of craftsmen in town the
wishes of the Leuven craftsmen are not comparable to those of the Florentine
Ciompi who installed a monolithic urban regime by weavers during the revolt
that followed their grab for power in the same year.26 Though, a parallel between Florence and Leuven can be drawn. Exception made for the radicals in
the textile guilds, the leaders of the craft guilds in both towns strove for a kind
of consensus politics.27 A striking difference with Italian towns, however,
is the fact that the craft guilds of Leuven, as those of others cities in the Low
Countries, particularly wanted to be present in existing institutions, while
the popolo in most Italian towns added new political institutions to old ones
when gaining power. In Leuven, in contrast, the craft guilds wanted to share
urban government.
The ideas that motivated this specific political demand can be compared,
too, with the Italian case. In their revolt, the craft guilds in Leuven, as those in
Italian towns, criticized the former governors for moral deficiencies and failure to embrace justice and the common good, a concept that was identified
with the good of the commune, thus affirming the priority of the communes
welfare over that of any individual, family or group. Therefore, the petition
took the idea that those who provided the common welfare of town should
govern it for granted. Such demands were quite common in European towns
in which artisans had gained rights to govern themselves. According to the
crafts corporate beliefs, no city council could rule without extensive cooperation from those over whom it governed. The most obvious reason why the
urban elite in Leuven, and elsewhere, gave in, was that the council normally
lacked enough means of coercion to resist a military assembly of the guilds, as
they had access to weapons and arms. But, a more deep-routed explanation
for demands of political representation is that limitations on the powers of urban elites should be seen as integral to the system of urban politics, a system

25. A. Schayes, Analectes archologiques, p. 358.

26. A. Stella, La rvolte des Ciompi. Les hommes, les lieux, le travail. Paris, 1993.
27. John Najemy used this term to describe daily Florentine politics. For this, and what
follows, see J. Najemy, A History of Florence, 1200-1575. Oxford, 2006, p. 182-7; E. Coleman,
Cities and communes, D. Abulafia (Ed.), Italy in the central Middle Ages. Oxford, 2004, p. 4856; E. Crouzet-Pavan, Enfers et paradis. LItalie de Dante et de Giotto. Paris, 2001, p. 198-201.



Jelle Haemers

in which different groups within the community attempted to pursue their

objectives within a framework of traditional customs and expectations.28 It
is true, however, that craft guilds are selfish too, in the sense that they denied
political participation of groups that did not belong to the corporative bodies
of town. As medievalists know, such a collective selfishness about personal
freedoms and legal self-determination among commoners was a characteristic of every city in medieval Europe and a central feature of the political and
judicial identity of townsmen.29
The right to govern itself and to determine the conditions of membership
of the craft guild was the basic assumption on which the craft guilds political
power was founded. For that reason, it is not a surprise that the petitions asks
that the craft guilds of the city shall govern themselves, and that they can gather
about the common welfare of town when they want.30 Related to this request,
was the demand that the city should be well protected. For the petition of August asked that headmen and constables (hoetmannen ende conincstavele)
should guard over their areas, on their own costs.31 These officials were appointed by the different districts in the city, which each separately paid for the
defense of the district and the military inspection of the adjacent part of the
city walls.32 Each corporate body, district and guild, should thus be governed
properly by those who constitute it. This military demand had of course to do
with the possibility of an armed attack by the duke and, more likely, by troops
paid by the geslechten in 1378. The political request to govern and gather without the interference of the citys administration, on the other hand, is a more
profound utterance of the permanent desire for autonomy. Consequently,
the craft guilds interpreted their tradition of self-government in terms of a
deeply-held belief that their government should be in the hands of craftsmen rather than outsiders and that the urban authorities (not to mention the
28. Compare with C. Friedrichs, Artisans and urban politics in seventeenth-century
Germany, G. Crossick (Ed.), The artisan and the European town, 1500-1900. Aldershot, 1997,
p. 41-55; J. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914. Cambridge, 2000; H. Swanson, Medieval
Artisans: an urban class in medieval England. Oxford, 1989.
29. See, for instance, L. Attreed, Urban identity in medieval English towns, Journal of
Interdisciplinary History, 32 (2002), p. 571-2; B. Diestelkamp, Freiheit der Brger Freiheit
der Stadt, J. Fried (Ed.), Die abendlndische Freiheit vom 10. zum 14. Jahrhundert. Der
Wirkungszusammenhang von Idee und Wirklichkeit im europischen Vergleich. Sigmaringen, 1991,
p. 485-510; and A. Black, Political thought in Europe, 1250-1450. Cambridge, 1992, p. 28-31.
30. Item, dat dambachte van der stat henselven regeren selen ende vergaderen alsy willen
omme tgemein orbor van der stat (A. Schayes, Analectes archologiques, p. 359).
31. Ibidem, p. 359.
32. Raymond Van Uytven places the creation of the conincstavels in 1477, but presumes
that these are older institutions; the petition of August 1378 shows they are (R. Van Uytven,
Stedelijke openbare diensten te Leuven tijdens het Ancien Regime, in Het openbaar initiatief
van de gemeenten in Belgi, historische grondslagen (Ancien Rgime). Brussels, 1984, p. 27-8).

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

duke) should interfere as little as possible in the craftsmens affairs. This was of
course not a particular concern of the Leuven craftsmen, but more an expression of widespread guild ideology in late medieval Europe. The general view
was that guild officials might legislate and judge matters related to the trade
or craft; this followed from the principle that any corporation can make rules
about its own economic and political businesses.33
3. To assemblee
The right to gather freely not only referred to the possibility of a meeting of the members of one craft guild, but also to the general gathering of
all craft guilds of Leuven. A remarkable charter that dates from 16 October
1360 informs us about the exact meaning of the word gathering when it was
used by the Leuven craftsmen. With a discursive framework that is typical
for corporative thinking, the charter of 1360 sealed a treaty of the 45 craft
guilds of Leuven in which they promise that all of them would stay together
in order to have and to feed the love, peace and unity among each other.34
The fact that the charter forbid one craft guild to part from the others, can illustrate that the unity among them was crumbling away in October 1360. On
its promulgation, the revolt against the aldermen was already three months
ago, and maybe some guilds doubted about their loyalty to the coalition that
governed Leuven. Whatsoever, the charter learns us two notable things about
their revolt and gatherings. Firstly, it demonstrates that the leaders of the
guild were pulling the strings of their men. For one of the central points of
the charter stipulated that no craft guild can gather, nor shall make a gathering, without the advice and the consent of their sworn men.35 We do not have
the names of these sworn men, who were the chosen leaders of the crafts, but
this passage makes clear that the common craftsmen had to obtain the permission of his superiors if they wanted to assemble. This shows that not only
the artisans but also the course of events of the revolt was kept on a tight rein
by these men. This observation reminds us at the revolts of the craft guilds in
the county of Flanders, which were lead by master artisans, called the urban
middle class. These urban middle classes belonged neither to the patrician
33. A. Black, Guilds and civil society in European political thought from the twelfth century
to the present, London, 1984, p. 24.
34. Omme mine, pays ende geode eendrechtecheden onder ons the vuedene ende te hebbene
(edited by H. Sermon, Geschiedenis van Peeter Coutherele. Antwerp, 1860, p. 74). The seals of all
craft guilds are attached to the charter. About its corporative discourse: J. Dumolyn, Privileges
and novelties: the political discourse of the Flemish cities and rural districts in their negotiations
with the dukes of Burgundy (1384-1506), Urban History, 35 (2008), 1-23.
35. Item, dat negheen ambacht ghaderen en sal noch gaderinghe maken, sy en selent doen
met rade ende met consente van haren gheswoernen (Sermon, Geschiedenis van Peeter, p. 75).



Jelle Haemers

elites, who based their power and status on commercial activities and landed
property inside and outside the city, nor to the lower groups of humble wage
labourers. A social analysis of the leaders of the craft guilds and their representatives in the city benches (once they had gained power), showed that
these people were relatively wealthy, but that they were not extremely rich.
Mostly, they were in leading positions within their guild, being dean or sworn
men.36 Though further research is needed, it seems that the Leuven revolts
also were lead by those who had accumulated a certain wealth in the city, and
a powerful position within their guild.
Secondly, the charter of 1360 informs us about the perception of the
craftsmen about their collective actions. The term which they used to describe their protest, namely gathering (gaderinghe), is a more neutral one than
those which chroniclers habitually used to depict revolts. While their notions
such as commotion, upset, conspiracy, and rebellion contain a certain unfavorable judgment about the meetings of craftsmen, the term gathering shows
that the protest is considered to be a legal act. The use of the word rebel in the
charter of 1360 confirms this view. Rebel appeared twice in the text, namely
when it condemned a craft guild that eventually would break the alliance, and
also when it described a craftsman who would act against the will of those
who govern the ambacht. The document stipulated that all craft guilds will
resist together against a craft guild which wanted to separate or make himself rebel against the others (sciede ochte rebel maecte). Likewise, it dictated
a single craftsmen to obey the orders of the governors of his guild, without
making rebel against it. Such phrases of course had to justify the punishment
of a deserter, and to prevent him to break the treaty in the first place, but it
confirms our conclusion that the protest was strictly organized by the leaders
of the craftsmen. In general, the charter shows that the craft guilds considered
the privilege to gather freely, without the interference of the authorities, as
a gained right. Though, the charter predicts that custom should be obeyed,
namely the hierarchy within the craft needed to be respected. If not, the gathering was seen as an illegal act that was against the will of the leaders of the
protest. Therefore, the charter implicitly gave the urban authorities the right
to repress a gathering that was not lead by the chiefs of the guilds. As a result,
the latter presented themselves as the mouthpiece of the craftsmen, and those
who should be listened at by the urban governors.

36. J. Dumolyn; J. Haemers, Patterns of urban rebellion, passim; J. Dambruyne, De

middenstand in opstand. Corporatieve aspiraties en transformaties in het zestiende-eeuwse
Gent, Handelingen van de Maatschappij voor Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde te Gent, 57 (2003),
p. 71-122; M. Boone, Le comt de Flandre dans le long XIVe sicle: une socit urbanise face
aux crises du bas Moyen Age,M. Bourin; G. Cherubini; G. Pinto (Eds.), Rivolte urbane e
rivolte contadine nellEuropa del Trecento: un confronto. Florence, 2008, p. 17-47.

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

A last word should be said about to the justification of the protest. Again,
the charter of 1360 uses the welfare and profit of the city and the community of
craft guilds as the ultimate motivation to join forces.37 Anthony Blacks reading of this well known phrase helps us to understand its regular use in the
petitions and charters of the craft guilds. His book, and numerous case-studies for medieval and early modern Europe, have outlined that the common
good was the phrase most frequently used in official documents and philosophical treatises when referring to the goal or morality of government. It
could refer to the need to maintain the fabric of society, a basis for good relations between people, but often procedural justice, and fair equal treatment
of all before the law was what was meant private interests had to be put
aside.38 Of course, the thinking about the common good was also frequently
used by the urban authorities when they stipulated laws, or by the dukes of
Brabant when they repressed rebellions. Therefore, we can consider the discourse on the common good as a generally used justification of political action that referred to the collective character of government, or in the case
of the guilds, to a regime in which corporative interests should set the lines.
This was not a revolutionary request in the second half of the fourteenth century, as craft guilds had fought already many years for the recognition of their
wishes and rights. But it can neither be considered as a conservative reaction
to an attack on privileges. In the struggle of the Leuven craft guilds which
lasted for a quarter of a century, their gatherings and petitions had the aim
to change urban government. As in York, Bruges, and many other places, the
Leuven artisans wanted to transform the autocratic regime of their town into
a corporative rule of collective welfare. Ideological notions, such as the common good, had to justify this point of view.
4. Conclusion: corporative liberty
In a erudite, but also provocative book on popular protest in late medieval Europe, Sam Cohn argued that rebels in the post-plague fourteenth
century strove toward an implicit sense of equality.39 According to Cohn, a
decade after the first plague epidemic (1347-8) a new spirit for societal change
and a desire for liberty had become deeply rooted in the individuals that had
37. Omme orber ende profit der stad ende der ghemeynte ambachte (Sermon, Geschiedenis
van Peeter, p. 76).
38. A. Black, Political thought, p. 25-9. Case-studies can be found in E. LecuppreDesjardin; A.-L. Van Bruaene (Eds.), De Bono Communi. The discourse and practice of the
common good in the European city, 13th-16th centuries. Turnhout, 2010.
39. S. Cohn, Lust for liberty. The politics of social revolt in medieval Europe, 1200-1425.
Italy, France, and Flanders. Cambridge Mass., 2006, p. 239. See also my review of his book in
Social History, 33 (2008),p. 371-73.



Jelle Haemers

defined liberties as special corporate privileges since the central Middle Ages.
Instead of defending conservative rights, peasants, artisans, and petty shopkeepers became emboldened with a new self- and class-confidence after the
Black Death. In the opinion of Cohn his material proves that by 1355, medieval insurgents rebelled with increasing frequency to change the here and now,
to gain liberty.40 From this point of view, one must honestly admit Cohns
commendable analysis rightly revaluates medieval revolts. In contrast to previous literature, the book shows that popular protests were not perpetrated
by a revolutionary mad crowd or unstable elements that were ready to attack
the rights of the lord and the upper-class violently at any moment. Cohn also
breaks with the tradition to describe the wishes of rebels as a conservative
claim to restore lost privileges. Politics and the acquisition of political rights
were at the heart of these conflicts; rulers, not landlords, were the objects of
peasant anger and urban resentment. As Cohn rightly argues, rational arguments and well-thought motivations inspired artisans and peasants to rebel,
to gather and (in some cases) to govern the city.
But I disagree with Cohn on two points. Firstly, as studies on the protest in late medieval Flanders have shown, the chronological shift which he
means to detect, is quite an imaginary one. Also in pre-plague Europe, rebels strove for the acquisition of political rights, as they did in the second half
of the fourteenth century.41 In both periods, the same issues were at stake:
political participation, the recognition of corporative rights, fiscal equality, etcetera. Secondly, the Leuven case shows that urban craftsmen wanted to gain
rights or privileges for their corporate group, not the same political and
social rights as those who governed them. Corporate privileges remained the
basis of society, and the liberty rebels, among which the Leuven artisans,
defended or wanted to gain, were privileged liberties, not a constitutional
sense of equality, nor political freedom as we understand it now. The Leuven
evidence seems to fit more into Anthony Blacks view, who wrote that liberty
was indeed a basic political value. But for him, it concerned a widespread
striving to secure for oneself, ones family and descendants the social status of
freedom. Freedom should be widely understood as immunity from seigniorial justice. This could be acquired through membership of an immune community, such as a town. Craft guilds saw their right to corporate organization,
which gave their members economic security through an exclusive right to
ply in a given area, as a form of liberty. Political communities had the right to
govern themselves and this was a kind of liberty which could be vindicated,
40. S. Cohn, Lust for liberty, p. 242.
41. See for instance the synthesis on the medieval history of the urban society of the Low
Countries and its numerous political conflicts in M. Boone, A la recherche dune modernit
civique. La socit urbaine des anciens Pays-Bas au bas Moyen Age. Brussels, 2010.

Governing and gathering about the common welfare of the town...

by law or if necessary by force, against those seeking to suppress.42 In fourteenth-century Leuven, but presumably also in other places in the western
part of the Holy Empire, as in York and Bruges in the fifteenth century, similar ideas motivated craftsmen to take up arms, and pencils, with the aim to
change urban government. The Leuven craftsmen clearly wanted to reform it
into a regime that had a wider political basis, but also into one that remained
unequally open to all citizens. Namely, the common welfare which they strove
for, was above all a welfare in which corporative interests were taken into
account. In 1378, the Leuven craftsmen petitioned to obtain rights for those
who belonged to the corporative structures of town. These corporative liberties were not granted to everyone.

42. A. Black, Political thought, p. 29.


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