Price-setting, Free Market and Back again. Meat Price (De)regulation in Early Nineteenth-century Brussels

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


With the 1795 French conquest of the Southern Low Countries and their abolishment of the corporative framework, the three main pillars of the early modern Brussels meat trade were abolished. Century old guild-monitored legal limits on who could sell meat, where and at which price, disappeared overnight. The first would never return, even if new players appeared on the meat market only slowly (Libert, 2001). The second was restored only a few years later as meat sales were once again limited to the city’s two main meat halls (Arnout, 2018).
Direct price regulation, however, took a third and radically different direction. For 18 years meat prices were left over to market forces, before legally set maximum prices made an abrupt return in 1817. Such early-modern-like regulation was kept in place for over a decade, before disappearing abruptly in 1830. These major shifts, from a heavily regulated part of the economy to deregulation, back to regulation and back to deregulation take centre part in this paper.
International research has shown how the nineteenth century (western) urban world saw a shift from regulated to deregulated to differently regulated urban food markets (Baics, 2016; Albrecht, 2021), often equated with developing liberal ideas; a decreasing influence of food sellers on urban policy and a concomitant rise in power of medical and scientific experts (Horowitz, Pilcher and Watts, 2004). However, nowhere in the nineteenth century did early modern market controls return so intactly after so many years or did it remain in place for such a long time. The often assumed Polanyian shift from regulated embedded moral markets to deregulated disembedded free markets after a fashion took place twice in Brussels in less than forty years, with no less than three complete turn-arounds of the regulatory principles in 1795, 1817 and 1830. However, the political economy underlying such consecutive and diametrically opposed sea changes thus remain obscured from view.
This paper explores how the regulation and the political economy underlying it could oscillate on such an unseen scale and for such sizeable amounts of time. Combining regulatory texts, appeals to regulators, municipal council discussions and police records in seeks to reconstruct how these profound regulatory transformations came about. In doing so, this paper traces which urban actors were capable of swaying urban regulators and especially how they sought to convince them. As regulation itself flailed between early-modern-like price restrictions and a more modern free market, it is above all interested in the interaction between early-modern-like arguments on Nahrungsprinzip (or the right of producers to make a living (De Vries, 2019)) and more modern consumer-centred arguments and how actors called upon such arguments to navigate and attempt to shape an ever-changing regulatory framework.
Period14 Apr 2023
Event titleEuropean Social Science History Conference 2023
Event typeConference
LocationGothenburg, Sweden
Degree of RecognitionInternational