Law, leverage, and litigation: The legal strategies of foreign merchants before the courts of late medieval Bruges

Onderzoeksoutput: PhD Thesis


When Bruges' commercial zenith had long passed, Lodovico Guiccardini remembered the city for one particular reason: there was proper justice there. Late medieval Bruges was an unparalleled metropolis where different nationalities came together to interact and trade. When people from diverse backgrounds and legal systems come together, justice, order, and the rule of law may not immediately come to mind. In particular, Bruges struggled with three problems. Its legal system was based on customs and the legal practice of the bench of aldermen, consisting of twelve aldermen, twelve councillors, and two burgomasters. How could such a small administrative apparatus control such a large community of merchants? Additionally, each merchant desired specific rights exempting them from the general framework, but giving benefits to one particular nation meant that others were often left out. How did Bruges handle this disparity? Finally, fifteenth-century Bruges had to deal with a rising state in the form of the Burgundian duke, who founded several princely courts where merchants could raise concerns or appeal decisions from Bruges. How did Bruges behave towards these merchants;
The result was a set of strategies. The Bruges aldermen's court adopted a principled and pragmatic position at the same time. The court was principled in that it adhered to its own customs, law, and court as the basis for justice. Demands from merchant communities to apply their own law were largely rejected. In their private sphere, merchants could resolve their conflicts as they wished, but from the moment they came into contact with the bench of aldermen, Bruges customs applied without exception. However, the aldermen were also pragmatic. They had to take into account how much weight the communities could carry and how they still tried to push the aldermen in a certain direction. Especially to cope with the inadequate administrative apparatus, Bruges aldermen used the available networks to control merchants and flexible procedures to reach a desired and final end to a conflict. Ending a conflict once and for all was their goal. Not only did it guarantee peace in the city, but it also prevented merchants from eventually going to a princely court.
However, appeals to princely courts became increasingly common from the 1450s onwards, and Bruges was forced to compromise. The city slightly changed its legal system by introducing written procedures, better control of arbitration awards, and proper - mostly informal - procedures for sensitive issues. However, the legal framework was in constant change, and it offered traders with the right understanding of Flemish law many opportunities. In particular, traders who did not rely on strong merchant communities found refuge in these princely courts. With this PhD, I have tried to show how pragmatic fifteenthcentury law could be, how both aldermen's courts and merchants could take the initiative, but that these strategies were determined by their context and the specific factors in which a merchant or trading community found itself.
Originele taal-2English
Toekennende instantie
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Ghent University
  • Dumolyn, Jan, Promotor, Externe Persoon
  • De Ruysscher, Dave, Co-Promotor
  • Heirbaut, Dirk, Co-Promotor
Datum van toekenning28 jun 2023
StatusPublished - 2023


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