"City & State". Interuniversity Attraction Pole-project Phase IV  


Description of the research at Utrecht University

Economic historians have increasingly realised that institutions play an important role in organizing production and exchange, and that corporations were fundamental in developing and transforming these "rules of the game". In his seminal work on merchant guilds Greif, for example, sees the formation of these guilds in the Late Middle Ages as the distinguishing moment in European economic development. Guilds underpinned the "community responsibility system" according to which communities (i.e. towns) threatened to boycott each other if individual members of these communities did not honour their obligations (for example defaulted on their debts) (Greif 2006; see also Greif, Milgrom, and Weingast 1994, 745-76). This laid the foundation for the institutional development of Western Europe in later periods as well. Others have stressed the role guilds played in the transfer of technology (Epstein 1998; Prak 2003; Van Zanden 2005). More in general, recent social and economic-historical historiography has seen a remarkable "return of the guilds", thanks to detailed work on the actual operation and development of these institutions (Prak et al. 2006; see also the programme of the conference “The Return of the Guilds”, held in Utrecht in October 2006).


Interest in these phenomena (the flowering of "corporate bodies" in western Europe since the eleventh and twelfth centuries) has also been growing as a result of new insights from the social sciences. This is linked to the concept of "social capital", developed by Robert Putnam in his seminal "Making Democracy Work". He suggested a strong link between the medieval presence of guilds and communes, and social capital formation in the long run. Where, in the North of Italy, these corporate bodies emerged during the Middle Ages, he sees a tradition of high levels of social capital continuing into the twentieth century. By contrast, the South did not participate in the corporatist movement of the Middle Ages, and in his view still lacks the social capital that makes a democracy work. One of the reasons for hypothesizing about these relationships is that corporate bodies are in principle governed by the members themselves, through meetings, elections, councils, and forms of delegated authority (that is, delegated from below), and therefore act as schools for "democratic" skills and rules. Moreover, these organisations also formed the institutional infrastructure for collective action by interest groups such as merchants (who dominated the communes and often had their own guilds), craftsmen, peasants, journeymen and other social groups. The emergence of a variety of forms of corporate collective action – besides guilds also beguinages, commons, friendly societies, waterboards) – all during the late Middle Ages and in the Low Countries suggests that this kind of collective action may have been essential for the advanced political and economic development of Europe.


Recent research indicates that the degree to which Western Europe from the twelfth century onwards (in the wake of the "legal revolution"of the eleventh and twelfth centuries) (Berman 1983) developed and used the concept of "corporate body" (universitas), clearly differed from other parts of Eurasia. There similar concepts and corporatist forms of collective action did not emerge, or the concepts concerned (e.g. the Waqf in the Islamic Middle East) did not have the same kind of flexibility and popularity. De Moor (2006) demonstrates that there were many similarities in the institutional design of various forms of corporate collective action that started to emergence in town and countryside to a previously unknown extent and intensity in North-Western Europe from the late middle ages onwards. Hypothetically, a combination of factors such as weak family ties, decentralised and weak stately powers and developing labour markets made this "silent revolution" in North-Western Europe possible. 


The project aims at capitalizing on acquired know-how ('Urban Society in the Low Countries') and at the same time at enlarging and rejuvenating the network in order to fulfil expanded scientific goals. Available know-how on urban history in Belgium (and in the Netherlands through collaboration with a Dutch team, consisting of Tine De Moor, Maarten Prak, and Claartje Rasterhoff) is brought together in order to explore topics which reflect current trends in historical research and to evaluate methodological innovation. Three research packages are proposed whose subjects emphasize the socio-cultural and spatial historical approach:  

  1. urban space;
  2. knowledge and culture;
  3. social capital. 


The project is funded by Belgium Science Policy.

Co-ordinator of this project

Prof. dr. Marc Boone (Ghent University)


  • Ghent University: Marc Boone (director), Hilde Symoens, Jelle Haemers, Susie Sutch, Hannes Lowagie, Tim De Doncker, Anne-Laure van Bruaene, Remco Sleiderink, Barm Vannieuwenhuyze, Jan Dumolyn, Jonas Braekevelt, Frederik Buylaert, Bert Verwerft, Thérèse de Hemptinne, Bart Lambert, Claudine Colyn
  • Utrecht University: Maarten Prak, Tine De Moor, Claartje Rasterhoff
  • University of Antwerp: Bert de Munck, Bruno Blondé, Guido Marnef, Peter Stabel, Maarten Van Dijck, Tim Bisschops, Marloes Craane, Wouter Ryckbosch, Jelle De Rock, Ellen Burm, Jord Hanus, Dries Raeymaekers, Elke Ortmanns, Jan Demeester, Dries Lyna, Veerle De Laet, Reinoud Vermoessen, Arjan Van Dixhoorn, Ilja van Damme, Luc Duerloo
  • Free University of Brussels: Monique Weis, Claire Billen, Paolo Charruadas, Sébastien Afonso, David Kusman, Chloé Deligne, Xavier Stevens, Michèle Galand
  • Royal Library of Belgium (KBR): Bernard Bousmanne, Céline Van Hoorebeeck, Ann Keldrs, Renaud Adam, Antoon-Michaël Verweij, Paul De Ridder
  • Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium (KMSKB/MRBAB): Sabine Van Sprang, Tine Meganck, Irene Schaudies, Stefaan Hautekeete
  • International Experts: Willem Blockmans, Elisabeth Crouzet-Paven, Derek Keene, Herman Pleij


The composition of the teams (UGent, ULB, UA, KBR, MRBAB/KMSKB and Universiteit Utrecht) came about in order to take maximum advantage of available competencies and in response to a clear wish both to redirect research in the direction of cultural studies in a broad interdisciplinary sense (hence the incorporation of the Royal Museum) and to explore the link between urban economy and the diffusion of intellectual knowledge (hence the incorporation of the University of Utrecht as European partner).


Projectcode Utrecht University




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