- Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries 500-1600
Before the sixteenth century, Flanders was the economic heart of northern Europe. Its urban communes used the profits of woolen-cloth production to extend their commercial influence across the North and Baltic Seas. The achievements of artists and architects in Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges and surrounding towns rivaled those of the Italian masters. By the seventeenth century, however, the power of Holland, its neighbor to the north, had eclipsed that of Flanders. The conventional explanation for this shift rests on events growing out of the Revolt of 1568 to 1648, specifically, the blockade of the Scheldt, the decline of Antwerp, and the flight of hundreds of Calvinist merchants northward. But in Manors and Markets, Van Bavel counters that argument with one that stretches back centuries in a genuine example of longue durée history. He argues that the dominance of the Dutch Republic that emerged from the Revolt was actually the result of socio-institutional factors with their roots in the early Middle Ages.
Van Bavel launches his investigation at the point when Roman authority disintegrated, leaving behind neither central authority nor economic integration; the various divisions of the territory under study were left to follow whatever paths of local development best suited their individual landscapes. He identifies some twenty to twenty-five regions that thus emerged, each with distinctive land-tenure systems and property rights, social structures, urban development, and market orientation. [End Page 300] The book's first three chapters show how these differences grew larger over time, as competition among the regions led to specialization. As circumstances changed, different social and institutional frameworks were better suited to nurture economic growth, leading to the changing dominance of one region or another. Specialization also led to the development of markets, which is the focus of the next part of the volume. Van Bavel traces how markets for land, capital, labor, and goods took form, beginning in the tenth century. Finally, chapters on the late Middle Ages demonstrate the continuing relevance of regional differences, even as central authorities began the process of unification. The fact that the institutional frameworks deriving from the earliest phase of this history did not easily adapt to secular trends explains how the Meuse and Guelders regions were replaced by Flanders in economic dominance, and how Flanders was in turn replaced by Holland.
Van Bavel's immense synthesis of economic, archeological, and geological research covers a thousand years. To bring coherence to such a wide range of studies, he makes use of path-dependency theory, which emphasizes the contingent nature of economic change. The book is a valuable source of data not only for historians of the Low Countries but also for interdisciplinary historians seeking insights into the nature of long-term change. However, the book would benefit from more than four maps, given the significance of regional variation to the analysis. The discrepancy between the twenty to twenty-five regions that are supposed to make up the geographical framework of Bavel's inquiry and the book's map of "Regions in the Low Countries," which identifies only thirteen regions, could be confusing to those unfamiliar with the Low Countries (26, 16). More importantly, the structure of the volume tends to confound Van Bavel's detailed, complex argument. An introduction that asserted more explicitly that the point of the book is to reveal the socio-institutional factors behind fundamental historical change would help to ground the information in this otherwise useful book.