Medieval and Early Modern Migration from Flanders

Morvern French
Friday 27 November 2015

In this first of two postings Morvern French examines factors that led to Flemish people leaving Flanders at various times during the medieval period. In next week’s posting Morvern looks at why some of these migrants decided to go to Scotland.

Introduction: Population Growth

The Flemings are known as a people who in the medieval and early modern periods resettled in various different regions around Europe. Their migration often coincided with times of great social upheaval and movement for European people in general. The High Middle Ages, c.1000-c.1300, was a time of dramatic population growth, urbanisation, and economic expansion. Like their noble contemporaries, ordinary people migrated outwards in great numbers from the western central core of Europe to more outlying regions, and also to rapidly expanding urban centres. Flanders in particular experienced intense growth, as it became the most commercially developed and densely populated region north of the Alps.

The need for more land was addressed by repeated attempts at land reclamation through such measures as the building of dykes. However, the coastal position of Flanders remained precarious. For example in 1134 a storm surge destroyed much of the coastline and killed many people. Incidentally, though, it also created the Zwin inlet which was to have such a beneficial effect on Flemish trade.

It has been estimated that around 40% of the mid fourteenth century Flemish population lived in urban centres.[1] By the third quarter of the fifteenth century, around 35% of the Flemish population lived in towns. Of these, 47% lived in Ghent (60,000 residents) or Bruges (45,000). 40% lived in one of the eighteen small towns with populations of 2,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, including Ypres (10,000).[2] Around 1470, Flanders was the most populous and the most densely populated of the Low Countries territories ruled by the dukes of Burgundy, with 705,000 inhabitants in total and 72 inhabitants per square kilometre. Compare this to the next most populous region, Brabant, which had a total of 399,000 inhabitants and 39 per square kilometre.[3]

Aside from the issues related to increasing urbanisation and population density, Flanders and the wider Low Countries experienced several economic, political, and religious changes unique to its time and place. These will be addressed in this posting: the so called ‘push’ factors that encouraged population movement away from Flanders.

The Decline of the Textile Industry

The decline of the Flemish textile industry from the mid fourteenth century was one of the major factors in the county’s economic decline. There were several causes: international competition, rigid manufacturing restrictions, and a general economic downturn in Europe. Increasing foreign competition reduced Flanders’ domination of the textile market. Brabantine, English, Dutch, and Italian manufacturers increased their share of the market from the late thirteenth century. Until the fifteenth century high quality English wool was directed towards the continent via the entry point of English-occupied Calais. When England began to weave cloth in greater quantities from the later Middle Ages, it posed a threat to Flemish production despite being of lower quality and in a narrower range of types and colours. Flemish manufacturers reacted to foreign competition by using cheaper wools from regions such as Spain to produce coarser, lighter fabrics, in an attempt to wrest back the segment of the market taken over by non-Flemish producers.

Traditional manufacturing processes were believed by Flemish textile workers to produce a superior product. For example, fulling mills, which cleaned and thickened cloth much more efficiently – twenty to fifty times faster – than the traditional method of stamping with the feet, were banned; even in Scotland the fulling mill was known as early as the 1260s at Coupar Angus.[4] Flemish keuren, or guild regulations, aimed to prevent over-production and a subsequent drop in prices by limiting the number of masters and hands, burning masters’ equipment on their death, and restricting the maximum output per day.

The drie steden of Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres suffered particularly from the decline of the textile industry. In Ypres, cloth production peaked in the 1310s at more than 90,000 cloths per year, but this had dropped by the late 1350s and 1360s to around 50,000, and to less than 25,000 from the 1370s to 1390s.[5] To demonstrate the extent to which Ypres’ economy depended on textiles, it is worth pointing out that the town produced far in excess of the textile requirements of the local population. The average person is estimated to have needed two to three ells (2.2 square metres) of cloth per year, while in the early fourteenth century Ypres produced between 69 and 83 ells per inhabitant annually.[6] An oversupply of textile workers in Flemish towns led to falling wages and large-scale weavers’ revolts in Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres during the 1359-61 period, and then particularly in Ypres in 1366 and 1377.

The Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) of Ypres (author's photo).
The Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) of Ypres (author’s photo).

The Decline of Bruges

The economic decline of Flanders had a great impact on Bruges, the hub of northern European trade. The city’s international character was in fact one of its greatest weaknesses. Hanseatic, Venetian, Genoese, Florentine, Milanese, Luccan, Catalonian, Castilian, Portuguese, Basque, Scottish, and English merchants had established ‘nations’ in the city: settlements where they could meet, reside, store their wares, settle disputes, and hold religious services among their own people. The Flemish manufacturing industries relied on these foreign merchants to export their products, leaving Bruges passive and powerless to prevent trade from drying up as it did in the late fifteenth century, when merchants moved on to Antwerp.

Antwerp benefited from free trade measures exercised at its two annual fairs, lasting four to six weeks each, in contrast to Bruges’s corporative and protectionist economy, which made the latter less competitive in the international market. Also, the Zwin inlet, which acted as Bruges’s route to the North Sea, was increasingly silted up. In 1463 the harbour of Sluis was described as being increasingly deserted ‘à cause du péril et dangier de la perfondité d’icellui qui amoindrit de jour en jour’.[7] Even in its most successful days, merchants importing goods into Bruges had had to transfer their cargo to smaller vessels at the outports of Damme, Sluis, and Arnemuiden. However, this became increasingly difficult and Antwerp became the more accessible trading centre by the end of the fifteenth century.

In January 1441 Duke Philip the Good, for a period of four years, lowered the conditions of registration to become a burgher of Bruges and member of a trade guild; fees were temporarily fixed at 300 groats for all. Before and after this period, fees were set at 626 groats for Flemings and 986 groats for foreigners. The measure was a success: from 1441-45, an average of 403 master craftsmen were registered in Bruges each year, whereas before and after respectively only 79 and 158 were registered.[8] In Bruges registers of admission to citizenship, which involved the payment of a fee in return for qualification as a guild master, give an idea of the economic strength of the town. Bruges took in an average of 197 new citizens annually between 1418 and 1450, 142.2 between 1456 and 1478, and 84.6 between 1479 and 1486, indicating its declining economic power.[9]

However, there is evidence to suggest that the economic situation in fifteenth century Flanders was mitigated by several factors. The Burgundian Low Countries as a whole were ideally situated, geographically, to withstand the late medieval economic crisis in Europe. Their favourable maritime location on the North Sea meant that shortages in food, raw materials, or finished goods could be quickly remedied; and the diverse make-up of the territories, including industrial cities, forests, and coastline, ensured that shortages could also be met from within. Furthermore, the region remained one of the most densely populated and urbanised areas of north-west Europe well into the early modern period. In 1500, 31-45% of people lived in towns or cities: the highest proportion in Europe outside of northern and central Italy.[10] The period was viewed as one of peace and prosperity by contemporaries such as Philippe de Commynes, a Flemish diplomat under Charles the Bold, who wrote the following about the time of Philip the Good (1419-67):

At that time the subjects of the house of Burgundy lived in great wealth, thanks to the long peace they had known and to the goodness of their ruler, who imposed few taxes upon them. Therefore it seems to me that these lands, more than any other principality on earth, could be called the promised lands. They overflowed with wealth and lived in great peace, the like of which were afterwards unknown to them. People had money to spend, the clothing of both men and women was luxurious, meals and banquets were larger and more sumptuous than in any other place I know.[11]

By the mid fifteenth century Bruges was still the wealthiest city in the Low Countries. It paid 15.7% of Flemish taxes to the central government, with a smaller population than that of Ghent, which paid 13.8%.[12]

Civic Strife in Flanders

Politically, Flanders was unique in that its people were accustomed to a high degree of self-determination in their affairs. The region has been described as having a ‘stubborn spirit of independence […] that explains why those tiny countries on the North Sea are still, to this day, sovereign states.’[13] The Flemish cities’ strong traditions of autonomy and self-governance had an effect on the history of the county, and caused resentment when the ruling count attempted to intervene in civic affairs.

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of civic strife in Flanders is the uprising led by Ghent weaver Jacob van Artevelde, from 1338 to 1346, who established himself as the leader of fellow weavers from the large towns of Flanders. The rebels’ aim was to protect their incomes during the Hundred Years War, as the pro-French policies of Count Louis I of Flanders threatened vital English wool imports. Van Artevelde’s son Philip assumed the mantle of rebel leader in the 1380s, again in order to safeguard Flemish trade with England, cementing Ghent’s reputation as a troublesome city. In May 1382 Ghent won a victory over the army of Count Louis II and seized Bruges, but six months later was defeated at Westrozebeke by a coalition of the count, his son-in-law Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and the French king.

Another example of popular revolt caused by comital interference in civic affairs is that of Ghent from 1449 to 1453. In 1447 Flanders rejected a proposal of Philip the Good to introduce a permanent salt tax in the Low Countries, which would have provided him with a regular income without the need to request financial subsidies from his territories. The refusal of the General Council of Ghent to consent to the tax was a factor in the duke’s 1450 recall of his bailiff from the city, which made it impossible to carry out correct legal procedures. This caused Ghent’s artisans to strike the following year and government forces to institute a military blockade of the city. Full-scale war between Ghent and the duke broke out, leading to the death of the duke’s illegitimate son Corneille at the Battle of Bazel in 1452. The revolt was finally put down on 23 July 1453 at the Battle of Gavere, at which around 15,000 Gentenaars were killed. In the aftermath of the revolt Philip the Good extracted an enormous fine of 840,000 pounds from the city, reduced the powers of the craft deacons over municipal administration, and required the surrender of the guilds’ banners, which had marked the civic identity of Ghent’s citizens during the revolt.

After the death of Duchess Mary of Burgundy (r.1477-82) the regency of her husband, future Habsburg emperor Maximilian I, brought a period of war, financial instability, and urban revolt to the Low Countries. Contrary to the Great Privilege of 1477 issued on Mary’s accession, which required the consent of the Estates General for ducal military action, Maximilian undertook campaigns in Liège and Artois. He also debased the coinage, and crop failures caused the price of grain to rise to many times its normal price.

In the winter of 1487-8 both Ghent and Bruges revolted against high taxes, the debasement of the coinage, and Maximilian’s warmongering. The citizens of Bruges went so far as to hold the regent prisoner for three and a half months in the Craenenburg house on the Markt of Bruges, from which he was released only on the arrival of an imperial army. The conditions of his release – governance by a regency council including the Estates of Flanders, and recognition of the privileges of the Low Countries territories – were soon broken when he resumed hostilities against France.

Maximilian conducted ‘a kind of economic warfare’ against the rebellious towns of Flanders, ordering foreign merchants to leave Bruges in favour of Antwerp, in Brabant. His blockade of Sluis, the port town of Bruges, continued until October 1492, when the rebels were finally defeated and their recognition of Maximilian as regent confirmed.[14] However, by then Antwerp was already well on its way to usurping Bruges’s position as the jewel in the mercantile crown of the Low Countries. The scale of migration to Antwerp is clear from population figures: in 1480 it had 33,000 inhabitants, and this had increased to 55,000 by 1526.[15]

Religious Motivation for Migration

Religious conflict was a major factor in migration away from Flanders and the rest of the Low Countries. Reformation ideals found great support in the cities of Flanders and Brabant, where there was a long-held tradition of free-thinking, autonomy, and openness. Antwerp in particular became a Protestant centre where reformed teachings were popular among those involved in wool weaving and textile manufacturing. Alongside cities such as Ghent, Lille, Tournai, and Valenciennes, Antwerp became a destination for French Calvinists.

The issue of religion caused a great divide between the Low Countries and the Madrid-based Spanish government of Philip II (r.1556-98), which valued centralisation, religious unity, and divine right monarchy, and sought to impose Catholic worship in its territories. In 1522 Philip’s father Charles V had instituted the Inquisition in the Low Countries and condemned all heretics to death. There was a strong relationship between the ecclesiastical courts and the Spanish administration, the former prosecuting and convicting heretics and the latter punishing them. Between 1521 and 1550, the courts tried an average of thirteen people per year; by the 1550s the average was sixty per year; and between 1561 and 1565 it had risen to 264.[16]

The Dutch Revolt (1568-1648) was kicked off on 10 August 1566 in the village of Steenvoorde in western Flanders. The Calvinist congregation’s iconoclastic purging of Catholic imagery – known as the Beeldenstorm (‘statue storm’) – became a symbol of opposition to oppressive Spanish rule, and the movement spread to the towns of Ypres, Diksmuide, Ghent, Mechelen, and many other large centres in the Low Countries. Although peace was restored within a year, the duke of Alba, governor of the Netherlands, in August 1567 occupied the cities of Flanders and Brabant with 10,000 of his soldiers and instituted the so-called Council of Blood: a court empowered to punish ‘serious offences against God and the crown’. The Council of Blood beheaded the counts of Egmond and Horn, convicted for lèse-majesté due to their toleration of Protestants within their territories. The Council’s large-scale executions and banishments – 11,136 people were banished and their property confiscated – led to mass emigration from the Low Countries to France, England, and western Germany.[17] A proportion of these migrants to England then resettled in Scotland, where Flemish Protestant weavers were encouraged to settle by the government of James VI.[18]

Cornelis Kruseman - Philip II and William of Orange (1832)
Cornelis Kruseman – Philip II and William of Orange (1832)

1584 and 1585 saw the fall of Ghent, Brussels, and Antwerp to Spanish forces, as well as the death of rebel leader William of Orange, marking a milestone in the history of the southern Low Countries. Under the terms of surrender to the Spanish crown, heretics were ordered to leave the re-conquered cities within two years. Some 150,000 people migrated to the northern Netherlands, where in large cities Flemings and Brabantines constituted up to one third of the population, while others left for England or the Empire. By 1589, the population of Antwerp had been reduced to 42,000, less than half of what it had been in the 1560s.[19]

Isabella and Albrecht, the daughter and son-in-law of Philip II appointed by him in 1598 to rule the Spanish Netherlands, established the region as a bastion of Counter Reformation thought to the extent that English and Irish Catholics migrated there to seek refuge from religious persecution in their homelands. Conditions for Protestants in these territories deteriorated as strict regulations were imposed on educational and devotional practice. For example, the poor were required to send their children to Catholic Sunday schools in return for financial assistance. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were significant periods of mass migration from Flanders and Brabant. Between 1540 and 1630 – especially between 1577 and 1589 – some 150,000 people, primarily skilled artisans and intellectual elites, left for the newly formed Dutch Republic in the north.[20]

The independence of the Dutch Republic (the Seven United Provinces of Guelders, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Overijssel, Frisia, and Groningen and Ommelanden) was not permanently recognised by Spain until 1648, when on 30 January the Peace of Münster was signed. Spain recognised the Republic as a sovereign state and abandoned any claim to it. The Dutch Revolt split the Low Countries into the southern Netherlands, which remained under Spanish rule, and the northern Netherlands, which became the Dutch Republic. The southern Netherlands was held by the Spanish and later by the Austrian Habsburgs until it was conquered by France in 1794. The northern and southern Low Countries were reunited as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands from 1815 to 1830, when the southern region seceded to become the Kingdom of Belgium.[21]


As has been briefly outlined, Flanders experienced a range of economic, political, and social events that caused many thousands of people to migrate to other Low Countries territories and further afield. These were, in brief,

– Overpopulation caused by intense urbanisation and population growth.
– The late medieval decline of the textile industry, causing job losses and strikes.
– The decline of Bruges as a commercial centre and its usurpation by Antwerp.
– Popular rebellion and the struggle for urban autonomy.
– Early modern religious persecution of Protestants by the Spanish government.

As one of the most industrialised and wealthy regions of Europe, Flanders held great significance for its Burgundian and Spanish rulers. These major powers’ attempts to maintain their grip on power over the Low Countries appears to be a common theme in the narrative of Flemish population history. Next week’s posting will examine medieval and early modern factors in the choice of Scotland as a destination for Flemish migrants.

Morvern French
November 2015

Morvern is a third year PhD student at the University of St Andrews and a contributor to the Scotland and the Flemish People project.


[1] P. Stabel, Dwarfs among Giants: The Flemish Urban Network in the Late Middle Ages (Louvain/Apeldoorn, 1997), p. 19; Jessica Dijkman, Shaping Medieval Markets: The Organisation of Commodity Markets in Holland, c.1200-c.1450 (Leiden, 2011), p. 327.
[2] Walter Prevenier, ‘La démographie des villes du comté de Flandre aux XIVe et XVe siècle: État de la question: Essai d’interprétation’, Revue du Nord 65 (1983); P. Stabel, ‘Demography and Hierarchy: the Small Towns and the Urban Network in Sixteenth-Century Flanders’, in P. Clark (ed.), Small Towns in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 210-3; Dijkman, Shaping Medieval Markets, p. 326.
[3] Wim Blockmans and Walter Prevenier, The Promised Lands: The Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule, 1369-1530, trans. Elizabeth Fackelman (Philadelphia, PA, 1999), p. 152, table 4, based on a census of the number of households in each territory, estimated by Blockmans and Prevenier at five persons per household in the countryside and four in the town.
[4] Walter Endrei, ‘The Productivity of Weaving in Late Medieval Flanders’, in N. B. Harte and K. G. Ponting, Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E. M. Carus-Wilson (London, 1983), p. 108; David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders (London and New York, 1992), p. 277; A. A. M. Duncan, Scotland: The Making of the Kingdom (Edinburgh, 1975), p. 520, no. 24.
[5] Harry A. Miskimin, The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 1300-1460 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1969), p. 95.
[6] H. van Werveke, ‘De omvang van de Ieperse lakenproduktie in de XIVe eeuw’, Mededelingen Kon: Vlaamse Academie (Antwerp, 1947); R. van Uytven, Stadsfinanciën en stadsekonomie te Leuven van de XIIde tot het einde der XVIde eeuw (Brussels, 1961), pp. 353-8; N. W. Posthumus, De geschiedenis van de Leidsche Lakenindustrie, vol. I (The Hague, 1908), pp. 370-1; E. Scholliers, Loonarbeid en Honger: De levensstandaard in de XVe en XVIe eeuw te Antwerpen (Antwerp, 1960), pp. 159-61, cited in Blockmans and Prevenier, Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule, p. 160.
[7] R. van Uytven, ‘La Flandre et le Brabant, terres de promission.. sous les ducs de Bourgogne?’, Revue du Nord XLIII, 172 (1961), p. 282.
[8] W. Blockmans, ‘The Creative Environment: Incentives to and Functions of Bruges Art Production’, in M. W. Ainsworth (ed.), Petrus Christus in Renaissance Bruges (New York and Turnhout, 1995), pp. 13-4, cited in Blockmans and Prevenier, Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule, pp. 168-9.
[9] J. A. van Houtte, An Economic History of the Low Countries, 800-1800 (London, 1977), pp. 64-5.
[10] Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden: Middeleeuwen, vol. IV (Haarlem, 1981), pp. 44-6, cited in Andrew Brown and Graeme Small, Court and Civic Society in the Burgundian Low Countries, c.1420-1530 (Manchester, 2007), p. 4.
[11] B. de Mandrot (ed.), Mémoires de Philippe de Commynes (Paris, 1901), p. 15, quoted in Blockmans and Prevenier, Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule, p. 141.
[12] Blockmans and Prevenier, Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule, p. 169.
[13] Ibid., p. 28.
[14] Ibid., p. 203.
[15] Ibid., p. 214.
[16] W. P. Blockmans, ‘The Formation of a Political Union, 1300-1600’, in J. C. H. Blom and E. Lamberts (eds.), History of the Low Countries, trans. James C. Kennedy (New York, 1999), p. 131.
[17] Ibid., pp. 132-3.
[18] See Silke Muylaert, ‘The Stranger Churches and their Link with Scotland’, (10 April 2015).
[19] Blockmans, ‘The Formation of a Political Union, 1300-1600’, p. 140.
[20] C. Bruneel, ‘The Spanish and Austrian Netherlands, 1585-1780’, in Blom and Lamberts (eds.), History of the Low Countries, p. 229.
[21] See Alexander Stevenson, ‘Changing Definitions of Flanders and the Netherlands – Part 2’, (17 October 2014).

Further Reading

– Peter Arnade, Realms of Ritual: Burgundian Ceremony and Civic Life in Late Medieval Ghent (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1996)
– Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (London, 1994)
– Kelly DeVries, ‘The Rebellions of Southern Low Countries’ Towns during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’, in Wayne te Brake and Wim Klooster (eds.), Power and the City in the Netherlandic World (Leiden, 2006)
– John Munro, ‘Industrial Protectionism in Medieval Flanders: Urban or National?’, in Harry A. Miskimin, David Herlihy and A. L. Udovitch (eds.), The Medieval City (New Haven and London, 1977)
– David Nicholas, Town and Countryside: Social, Economic, and Political Tensions in Fourteenth-Century Flanders (Bruges, 1971)
– Herman van der Wee, The Low Countries in the Early Modern World, trans. Lizabeth Fackelman (Aldershot, 1993)
– Herman van der Wee, The Growth of the Antwerp Market and the European Economy (fourteenth-sixteenth centuries), vol. II: Interpretation (The Hague, 1963)

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