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Explaining public service provision by religious and charitable organisations in the late-medieval Low Countries


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Main topic



With the state being much smaller in preindustrial society than it is today, many of the public goods we associated with it were provided by the church. Social expenditures, education, and even law and order were among its responsibilities. However, even a hierarchical monolith like the medieval Catholic church in fact consisted of a many separately endowed and very independent organisations. Taken together, these organisations were very important. In some of the principalities of the Low Countries, their combined income could reach as much as 14 per cent of GDP.


This project investigates the extent to which these organisations were used for welfare or for strictly religious purposes. Explanations are sought in the political and social environment in which the organisations existed.


To do this analysis, a cross-sectional dataset has been constructed of all religious organisations and their budgets in what are roughly the current-day Dutch and Belgian provinces of Utrecht, Holland, Brabant, and Flanders at the end of the Middle Ages. Through a detailed analysis of the accounts of a sample of the organisations, expenditure patterns could be established for each type of organisation. By combining this data with uniquely accurate  tax registers on religious organisations, a complete dataset of budgets could be reconstructed, reflecting the creation and management of these organisations during the late Middle Ages.


Explanations are sought in a dataset of political and social variables of late-medieval cities which exploits the great local diversity that existed in the preindustrial Low Countries. One important aspect are collective-action structure that could stimulate or substitute for the services provided by religious organisations, either by lobbying, regulations, or their own provision of public goods. Preliminary results suggest that the presence of guilds had a very large negative effect on the amount of welfare provided by religious organisations.


This project forms a part of the larger research project on 'Economic growth and stagnation in the pre-industrial era', led by Prof. Dr. Bas van Bavel of Utrecht University.


Publication in progress (2011)


  • Utrecht University: Prof. dr. Bas van Bavel, Auke Rijpma MA

Funding body

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)


Auke Rijpma MA

Contact details

Auke Rijpma MA

Drift 10

3512 BS  Utrecht


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