Monday, August 1, 2016

Wealth And Power: Does One Necessarily Lead To The Other?: The Curious Case Of Flanders

While wealth and power are usually highly correlated, with each feeding into the other positively most of the time, it is not always the case.  Curious are cases where there has been substantial economic wealth, but no  great power.  One example of this is Flanders, the northwestern part of Belgium, currently the most densely populated part of Europe, as it has been for many centuries, although the data becomes weak and unreliable as one goes further back in time.  Furthermore, it has often been an economic leader in Europe, and when not  an outright leader such as in the High Middle Ages, it has always been near the top in per capita real income, not a Malthusian disaster.  Yet it has never been the center of a great political power, essentially always ultimately ruled by outsiders, even though nearly always those outsiders were poorer than the Flemish.

The historian Fernand Braudel was a great student of Johan Heinrich von Thunen, author in 1826 of The 1State, in which land use patterns appeared as rings around a central place, the main market location for all that is produced on the homogeneous plane of his estate and his broader speculations.  Braudel ties these economic rings to population density, and saw Flanders at the center for centuries of the Europe-wide pattern of such rings, with income falling with population density as one moved out from that central place in Flanders.

Much economic theory says that if an area can avoid a Malthusian disaster or drag, density of population can be a positive for economic growth for multiple reasons, including such things as endogenous technological change and reduced transportation costs leading to agglomeration economies.  Flanders may have been one of the first parts of the Roman Empire to replace slavery with serfdom, and then it was one of the first places to move beyond serfdom.  The first industrial strike in the world happened in a textile mill in Douai in 1245.  Canals were being built as early as a thousand years ago around Bruges/Brugge, with the flat and wet land seeing many built since then. Bruges was one of  the largest cities in Europe in the 1200s, limited at its river silted up, with textile  manufacturing Ghent the third largest after Constantinople and Paris in the 1300s.  World-powerful Hapsburg Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, was born in Ghent in the late1400s, but he chose to rule from other cities.   While he spoke Flemish/Dutch to his mother, he is reported to have said, " I speak Spanish to God, French to men, Italian to women, and German to  my horse."  The latter may reflect his battling with the Protestant Reformation among Germans, which started during his reign.

Flanders and Tuscany co-led the mercantile capitalist revolution in the 1300s, and traded intensely with each other, even as they also  saw a major development of art.  However, neither dominated other territories, despite their high real per capita income and cultural activities, with the Renaissance coming out of Tuscany thereafter.

Then Ghent and other parts of Belgium would be the first places on the European continent to follow Britain and introduce the industrial revolutions.  Per capita income in Flanders remains high today, if not at the very highest levels in Europe.

I really do not have an explanation why such a region that was for centuries a leading economic powerhouse in Europe never dominated or ruled others.  One issue, which one can see in some other places such as Lower Egypt, is that its wealth attracted outsiders to conquer it to obtain its income and riches, starting with the Romans and then the Franks, who may have made the best shot at making it a conquering territory, even as they moved their capital to Paris (the Flemish language as spoken in Bruges is probably the closest thing to Old Frankish spoken anywhere  now, and is viewed by linguists as the oldest form of Dutch).  While there was always a Count in Flanders, he was almost always subject to somebody else, the Romans or Holy Romans and later the Burgundians  with more outside Holy Romans, even when the  Holy Roman came from there as in the case of  Charles V.

Later on one can attribute their inability to rule themselves due to Catholic-Protestant religious conflicts and wars, with this split the key to the split between Catholic Belgium and Protestant Holland. In any case, the Spanish and then the Austrians got in to running Flanders.  They have now achieved regional autonomy within modern Belgium, but they are very far from ruling anybody else, even as they remain the most densely populated part of Europe with a very high per capita income.

Barkley Rosser


  1. Not quite true to say that the Netherlands was always ruled from elsewhere. The Netherlands were the core of the Carolingian Empire- hence Charlemagne's palace at Aachen. And it was the centre of Burgundian power in the late middle ages for a century or so.

  2. Peter,
    But Aachen is in Germany, if near the border with Netherlands and Belgium and not very close to Flanders. Indeed, you are making my point. The Benelux nations, with Flanders as the richest and most denselyh populated part, was the economic core of the Carolingian Empire, but rule came from outside of there, if not too far outside. After the trifurcation at Verdun, Lotharingia (to morph into Lorraine) in the middle was viewed as the richest part because it contained the low countries, but it came to be ruled from Burgundy, far to the south. Everybody wanted its action, but it was unable to assert itself to dominate that, with the outsiders calling the shots, and when a local had a chance in the case of Charles V in the 1500s, he ran off to France and Spain to rule (of course Spain at that time was accumulating huge territories in the Americas).

  3. The downside of being Flanders and being the ruled not the rulers was that repeatedly it became the scene of battles and wars -- not just the Western Front of the First World War and Napoleon's Waterloo.
    The Eighty Years War for Dutch independence ushered in the golden age for the Dutch, but it was often pretty miserable in Flanders. When the United Provinces achieved independence in 1648, the terms of the peace closed the Scheldt and ruined Antwerp.

    Napoleon saw the potential in reviving Antwerp as a major port, but the establishment of the United Netherlands after 1815 left what would become Catholic Belgium politically and economically disadvantaged. The Belgian Revolution didn't help, as political power and wealth shifted heavily toward Wallonia. Ghent, pioneer of industrial textiles outside Britain saw its economy collapse, when prolonged disputes cut off access to the sea. Flanders, oppressed in language by French-speaking Wallonia and without the latter's iron and coal, was enveloped in poverty well into the 20th century. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century, as the First Industrial Revolution of Coal and Iron faded into obsolescence that wealth again tipped its scales decisively to Flanders.

  4. One possibly interesting sidelight: William Caxton, an English merchant attached to the household of Margaret, married to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and sister to Edward IV and Richard III, printed the first book in English in Bruges around 1473 and subsequently set up the first press in London in 1476 or 1477, bringing Wynkyn de Worde and others. It has been suggested that some of the irregularities of English orthography are attributable in part to the prominence of Flemish speakers among early London typesetters and printers.

  5. When the Pepinids ruled, neither Germany nor Flanders nor France nor Belgium existed. So Aachen was not over the border (as draining the fens had not gone far at that point, the best areas were a bit further east in any case). And as well as Aachen, Tournai and Tertry were major Carolingian centres in what was then Austrasia.

    The Burgundian Valois ruled mostly from Ghent. Indeed, the name "Burgundy" transferred to the low countries ("all the meads of waterish Burgundy..").

    The protestant revolt against Phillip II started in Flanders, not the north. It ended up holding only the northern provinces as they were more defensible.

    Interestingly, the same point can be made about China. From around 450, the richest part of China has been the Yangtze delta, but the key to power has always been holding the north. One clue is the pattern of land-holding - the state tried hard to keep the north a land of free peasant farmers, as they provided the military power needed to fend off steppe tribes. The south was a land of tenants and landlords - more wealth, less military power.

  6. Maybe some interesting parallels to Scotland, Edinburgh at one point (16th C?) was the most densely populated city in Europe and the Scots pioneered urban intellectual culture and mass higher education (Scotland at one point provided the majority of university trained physicians in the UK).

  7. Flanders, Belgium, Northern France, and Northern Germany appear to be perpetual battlegrounds. Viking invasions, the Teutoberg Forest disaster, the battle of the Somme, etc.

    Power doesn't reside on battlegrounds, but it does find its ultimate expression there.

    "The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact."
    George Orwell

  8. The same physical geography that made Flanders rich ensured that it was ruled by others rather than ruling others. It is militarily indefensible.

    Compare with other great traders - Venice, or Constantinople, or island Britain. They had the location to get rich but also the natural fortification to keep those riches to themselves.


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