Reforming outdoor relief. Changes in urban provisions for the poor in the northern and southern Low Countries (c. 1500-1800)

Griet Vermeesch, Elise Van Nederveen Meerkerk

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The history of public services in the Netherlands is incomplete without a study of social care. Nowadays, social protection is probably one of the most important public provisions, being largely a responsibility of central governments, financed by direct taxation. Within Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands together with some other Western-European nations are topping the bill in expenditure on social protection as a percentage of their GDP (29.7% and 28.2% respectively in 2005). However, our modern notion of social provisions as 'public services' is problematic if we apply it to the pre-industrial period. First of all, the providers of these services were almost never strictly public according to our current definition. Pre-industrial social care represented a blend of religious, private and 'public' initiatives and responsibilities, which can perhaps best be referred to as a 'mixed economy of welfare'. Secondly, early modern welfare was constituted at a local, rather than a central level, which, according to scholars such as De Swaan, led to highly inefficient and instable social provisions. Before 1800, the closest to a central welfare state was probably England, where, from the end of the sixteenth century, poor laws led to a more universal administrative and financial system of poor relief, which was primarily funded by direct local taxes.
Western Europe has an age-old tradition of urban provisions for the poor. With the growth of cities in the eleventh century, miscellaneous institutions for social care were established in most towns. Generally, medieval poor relief solutions were very uneven and hardly specialized. Guesthouses typically took care of a diversity of people (orphans, sick people, elderly), and several institutions within towns offered relief to the same spectrum of needy inhabitants. Already from the thirteenth century, city governments tried to enhance their control on most kinds of social provisions, even on monastic charity, because they regarded social care as a civic responsibility as well as a religious duty. In order to take care of the resident poor, many cities in France and the Low Countries established Tables of the Holy Ghost, usually connected to parishes, but supervised by urban magistracies.
This paper seeks to analyze a variety of centralized and more decentralized relief organisations in the Northern and Southern Netherlands, depending on the extent to which comprehensive reforms touched these individual cities. In the 1560s, several provinces in the Netherlands started revolting against the Spanish Crown. Ultimately, seven United Provinces formed the federal Dutch Republic (the Protestant Northern Netherlands), while the Southern Netherlands remained under the influence of the centralized Spanish and - from 1713 - Austrian Catholic Habsburg government. It has been stressed by a number of historians that the federal state structure in the Dutch Republic, with its relatively large autonomy of individual cities, at least for a certain period of time functioned exceptionally well, and contributed to its economic and social success, also with regard to poor relief. As mentioned above, these assessments are primarily based on cases where there were scarcely attempts to centralize relief provisions. The question thus rises to what extent the cities in the North have indeed constituted more 'successful' relief provisions than elsewhere due to their assumed autonomy.
By providing an overview of different degrees to which more 'comprehensive' reforms occurred in early modern cities of the Northern and Southern Netherlands, we aim to discover patterns that may supersede the simple dichotomy of (relatively) autonomous cities in the North and more dependent cities in the South. We strongly believe that the degree of centralization that was imposed upon urban poor relief provisions was both determined by, and in its turn determined, its financial efficiency. The analysis of a large number of Northern and Southern Netherlandish towns will show that, except for the timing of events, similarities between towns in the North and the South were more prominent than differences. Varying economic circumstances played a role in the timing of comprehensive reforms, but, more importantly, the degree of financial centralization constituted the secret of early modern social provisions' success. The limitations of financing early modern poor relief led to recurrent decentralization in the financial organization, countering a linear shift from 'private' to more 'public' initiatives.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationServing the Urban Community. The rise of public facilities in the Low Countries
EditorsManon Van Der Heijden, Elise Van Nederveen Meerkerk, Griet Vermeesch, Martijn Van Der Burg
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)978-90-5260-350-6
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jun 2009

Publication series

NameServing the Urban Community. The rise of public facilities in the Low Countries

Bibliographical note

Manon van der Heijden, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Griet Vermeesch, Martijn van der Burg


  • poor relief


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