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A Comparative History of Brugge, Antwerpen and Amsterdam

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kang, Jun-suk
Term Paper, AP European History Class, September 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Background
II.1 Definition of the Golden Ages
II.2 Brief History before the Golden Ages
II.3 Why the Low Countries
III. Brugge in the 13th to 15th century
III.1 The Zvin and the Peace between France and England
III.2 Woolen Textile Industry
III.3 Commerce and Finance
III.4 Burgundian Rule and Culture
IV. Antwerpen : the 16th Century
IV.1 The Decline of Brugge
IV.2 Commercial Revolution
IV.3 Spanish Fury, Blockade of the Schelde and Decay
V. Amsterdam : the 17th Century
V.1 Surge of Immigrants
V.2 Dutch East India Company
V.3 Various Factors of Decay
VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            After the revival of commerce and the acceleration of urbanization, many medieval cities experienced the growth in both population and wealth. Especially in the low countries, where the urbanization was the fastest and trade was benefitted from adjacency to the Atlantic, the three cities displayed the remarkable historical vicissitudes in many aspects such as economy, culture and politics. By portraying the golden ages of Brugge, Antwerpen and Amsterdam, all of which are well-known for their conspicuity in urban history, this paper is to inquire the factors of ups and downs of these cities.

II. Background

II.1 Definition of the Golden Ages
            Usually, the golden age of each city is defined in this way: the thirteenth to fifteenth century for Brugge, the sixteenth century for Antwerpen, and the seventeenth century for Amsterdam. These periods fall on each other by decades, and in case of Amsterdam, it is ambiguous to define 'the second golden age' in the end of the nineteenth century. However, to cleary understand the relationship of the golden ages of these cities, it is preferable to view these ages in a consecutive, continuing chronology. In this perspective, there are some evidences of the definition of the golden age for each city. The following demographics is one evidence for the definition of the golden ages. The colored shades represent the span of the golden ages of the cities: blue for Brugge, purple for Antwerpen and yellow for Amsterdam.

Population of Brugge, Antwerpen, Amsterdam 1300-1784 (1)

            Considering that population is often used to be the index of urban development, the graph which shows the change of population predominance can help grasp the idea of such definition of the span of golden ages.

II.2 Brief History before the Golden Ages
            The earliest city to be established of the three is Brugge, of which foundation dates back to Julius Caesar's conquest during the first century BC, and the first foundation of Antwerpen can be found in the late second century AD. After Gallo-Roman era, Flanders which includes both was taken over by the Franks. After the tenth century, Brugge was under rule of the County of Flanders, a French fiefdom, and Antwerpen under the Marquisate of Brabant, a part of Holy Roman Empire. In contrast, Amsterdam, of which celebrated year of foundation is 1275, is the youngest of the three. Similar to Antwerpen, it was under the rule of a fiefdom of Holy Roman Empire, the County of Holland. During the period of development before their golden ages, the three cities underwent fast urbanization, fortification and receipt of city charters, which gave basis of commercial development .(2)

II.3 Why the Low Countries
            The prosperity of the Low Countries in the middle ages is mainly geographic. The common geographic feature of these towns is the adjacency to the Baltic sea and the Rhine river. It was not until Renaissance that pathways on land became efficient enough to be utilized for active trade; most international roads were half-millenium-old Roman roads in the process of attrition and deterioration. Owing to this, almost all remote transportation during the middle ages were taken place on the waters, such as seas and navigable rivers.
            In this way, the Rhine river, which originates in Swiss Alps and flows through Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Alsace, and the Netherlands, linked the local economies around its stream, transporting agricultural products of the Southern Europe and industrial products of the Northern Europe. Also, the Baltic sea enabled the merchants to easily approach to Britain, Scandinavia, France, and Germany, and the other Baltic areas. In conclusion, many of the towns of the Low Countries were the nodes that connect the inter-terrestial trade of the Rhine and the inter-aquatic trade of the Baltic, inducing a lot of merchant seeking for the optimum location for international trade. (3)

III. Brugge : the 13th to 15th Centuries

III.1 The Zwin Channel and the Peace between France and England
            Brugge had trade relationship with England and Scandinavia. After the fortification of the city, the trade could barely resume. Since then, Brugge had grown slowly in population and wealth until the twelfth century, during which it was equipped with commercial infrastructure such as canals. (4) However, it was not until 1134 that Brugge was provided with very momentum of encountering its golden age. Since the early eleventh century, Brugge's directly entrance to the Zwin, the bay facing Brugge, had been disappearing owing to natural accumulation of soil. This meant that Brugge could had lost its function as a port in which international trade activities used to take place. Fortunately, however, the storm in 1134 created a new entry to the Atlantic; a new channel from Brugge to the Zwin enabled the revival of trade. (5) This natural benefit revitalized the urban life and industries in Brugge, calling up the golden age of three centuries.
            Not only that, the peace between France and England also provided the stable environment for commerce in Brugge. (6) Since the main industry of Flanders, including Brugge, was woolen textile manufacture, the constant supply of raw wool was one of the critical factors for economic success. At that time, the largest supplier of raw wool was England, which means if the war had broken out between England and some other country, the merchants of Flanders would have a number of restrictions in securing provision of raw material. Such crisis really happened during the Hundred Years' War, during which England prohibited the export of raw wool. (7) Fortunately, between 1066, when William of Normandy took over the throne of England, and 1337, when the Hundred Years' War broke out, there was no considerably serious warfares between two states; this guaranteed stability for the basis of the flourishing Brugge.

III.2 Woolen Industry and Trade
            From the thirteenth century, woolen textile production was the major industry in the Low Countries along with central Italy. As a leading trade center of Flanders, the port and canals of Brugge were packed with ships importing raw wool from England. This raw wool manufactured into woolen textile exported by merchants. Also, trade profit of these merchants, thanks to support of the counts of Flanders, could be protected with military safety. (8)
            These factors enabled Brugge to be one of the best wool manufacture region in Europe; not only manufacture industry but also raw wool market and wool cloth market all produced wealth in Brugge. Merchants of Brugge even dominated the wool market in England and Scotland, economically colonizing these countries. (9)
            Based on this success, Brugge became the center of trade in northern Europe. The first arrival of Genoese merchants in 1277 meant that Brugge became the trade hub between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. No sooner had spice been first imported from Levant, enormous inflow of capital activated the banking in Brugge. The first bourse was opened in 1309, and Brugge became the center of finance to have the most elaborate money market in the Low countries during the fourteenth century.

III.3 Burgundian Rule and Culture
            The cultural prosperity in Brugge and Flanders is intimately linked with the reign of the Burgundian. Before the Burgundian rule, two main powers, Flanders and Brabant, stirred up political fragmentation of this region. However, after the death of the last count of Flanders in 1384 and that of Holland in 1417, Burgundy grew rapidly in the Low countries and, by 1425, completed the subordination of the Low countries under the rule of Burgundian dynastic union. Since then, dukes of Burgundy unified and reorganized the political system, and built one of ducal palaces in Brugge. This caused and encouraged the cultural, artistic activities around the ducal court, courts of the magnates who were familiar with Burgundy's French style of rule, and courts of senior clergymen.
            Such cultural splendor in Burgundian Low Countries is represented by the increase of production of tapestries, paintings, fine furniture, sculptures, silk furnishings, jewelry, painted glass, and courtly music. (10) The level of this cultural prosperity was the highest in contemporary north of the Alps, and such culture was concentrated in a few cities with ducal court such as Brugge. Especially, in Brugge, painter Hans Memling and Flemish school of art developed techniques of oil painting, and merchant William Caxton contributed to the growth of press printing industry and published the first printed English language book in the world.

IV. Antwerpen : the 16th Century

IV.1 The Decline of Brugge
            Beginning of the golden age of Antwerpen during the sixteenth century is very much related to the decline of Brugge. The heyday of Brugge, in which great wealth was accumulated and elaborate culture bloomed, barely could commence thanks to the natural open of the Zwin channel; the age came to an end because of the natural close of the Zwin channel. By 1500s, Brugge was losing its link to the ocean, and international trade was ebbing away from the city.
            By the end of the fifteenth century, in order to find a direct way to the ocean, trading houses and guilds shifted themselves from Brugge to Antwerpen. Being a new trading hub of the Low Countries, Antwerpen was ready to reach a climax in the sixteenth century. Before that time, Antwerpen already took a considerable part of trade in the North Sea, and had been headquarters of several feudal lords like Marquis of Antwerpen and the exile court of several English Kings such as Edward III. (11)

IV.2 Commercial Revolution
            The main factor which eventually helped Antwerpen consummate its golden age was the commercial revolution. Approximately 180 tons of gold and 8200 tons of silver brought from South America resulted in severe inflation. This resulted in the collapse of feudal system, mainly owing to the dramatically increased burdens of lords for the wages of serfs, and the activation of worldwide trade triggered by numerous discoveries of trade routes. Landholding noblemen, who had used to give small amount of wages to their peasants, could not afford soaring wages, so they started to sell their land to rich merchants in order to support their noble lifestyle. Also, the increase of silver coins triggered the development of banking and money market, producing more added value for merchants. (12)
            In this situation, Antwerpen was the main link of Spanish-American trade and Portuguese-Indian trade, which meant the city is the center of money flow. Besides, it was home to hundreds of merchants, tens of guilds and several trading houses. This fact can be seen from that the first bourse in the world was established in 1531 (see the picture "BVRSA" at the previous page (13)), and that it was the second largest city in the North of the Alps. At Antwerpen gathered Baltic forest products, Venetian silk, Iberian food products such as pepper et cetera. Also, it held highly lucrative industries such as works of cloth, tapestry, silk, sugar, and the diamond, which made Antwerpen the greatest European center of industries. (14)
            Such unprecedented prosperity was often praised and witnessed by the records of contemporary foreigners who lived in Antwerpen. Guicciardini, the embassador from Venetian republic, specifically depicted the port bustling with vessels and the market in which over 2,000 carts gathered together to convey various commodities.(15) Also, according to Fernand Braudel, Antwerpen was "the center of the entire international economy - something Bruges had never been even at its height." (16)

IV.3 Spanish Fury, Blockade of the Schelde and Decay
            For centuries, Antwerpen had have a political tradition of religious tolerance, represented by Jewish community and Protestant churches. Such religious diversity helped the city not restrained by religious prejudice in terms of economic activities. However, when Spanish king Felipe the second, in order to exterminate "heresy" from his empire, sent the Duke of Alba as the governor-general of the Netherlands and Belgium and called up the Eighty Years' War which broke out in 1568, everything changed. Antwerpen became the center for the Protestant faith during Dutch Revolt, which in return deteriorated the prosperity of Antwerpen.
            In 1576, the city was looted by the Spanish army which slaughtered between 6,000 and 18,000 citizens and burnt over eight hundred buildings. (17) This let most of the Protestant merchants and commercial groups, in pursuit of security, fly away to the northern Netherlands. Then again, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, practiced the long siege from 1584 to 1585. At that time, the Protestants were already ebbing away, and only one third of the entire citizen of Antwerpen could boldly identify themselves as the Protestants, most of them being Calvinist; after the siege, the Protestant was only a minority in the city. (18)
            After the Eighty Years' War, Antwerpen was among the other Dutch regions where Spanish prevailed; in order to best prevent another Spanish intervention, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, demanded by the United Provinces, was approved. Owing to the treaty, navigation in the Schelde, the river flowing through Antwerpen, was banned. It was 1795 that the blockade was removed, but a century and a half was long enough for Antwerpen to lose its functions completely.

V. Amsterdam : the 17th Century

V.1 Surge of Immigrants
            Before its heyday, under the rule of William I the Silent, Amsterdam was already successfully defending itself from the Catholic Spanish invasions; most of Catholic priests were expelled, the religious communities such as monasteries were secularized, and the Catholic Church of Amsterdam was forced to reformed-actually losing its identity of Roman Catholicism. (19)
            Unlike Antwerpen, of which security was threatened by the Spanish, Amsterdam was the safe place for the Protestant rich and Jewish merchants; after the decline of Antwerpen in the late sixteenth century, and then the Jew's deportation from Portugal, a great number of Jews and Protestants immigrated into Amsterdam to spur its intellectual, cultural, and commercial development. Once having been a tiny port in the northern Netherlands, Amsterdam began to grow to one of the largest cities in Europe.
            Especially, because all craftsmen in the city were forced to join the guilds to serve the city patrol and to cooperate with local districts, the integration of skilled immigrants was smooth and quick. Such institution is the reason why Amsterdam could utilize the immigrants as its source of power. (20)

V.2 Dutch East India Company
            During its golden age, Amsterdam could get great amount of wealth not only from Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic trade but also from the East Indian trade. Before the seventeenth century, European merchants usually underwent trade deficit with East Indies, because they did not have many kinds of product to be sold to Asians while they had to purchase tea, silk, ceramics and so forth. This interrupted the enough supply of money(gold and silver) for trade. Also, Dutch merchants especially suffered from the cease of trade with Spain and Portugal after the Eighty Years' War. This situation motivated Dutches take risk of pioneering new trade route in the East Asia.
            In 1602, Dutch East India Company(Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) was founded, and by 1630s, the Dutch republic was benefited from colonies of its chartered companies. Then, Dutch could sell gems and metallurgic products to the East Indies, as well as importing oriental commodity, mainly spices. This established trade equilibrium between Europe and Asia, while the amount of imported goods from Asia increased enormously.
            In addition, Dutch West India Company (Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie), founded in 1621, traded slaves in Africa, gold and silver in the Caribbean, and plundered silver shifting vessels bounding for Spain. It also established many settlements in North America and the Caribbean; New Amsterdam, nowaday's New York, is one of them. (21)
            Thanks to this commercial success, Amsterdam, the strong-point of trade in which the headquarter of VOC was located, was filled with incoming silver and spices. As the merchants of Amsterdam could satisfy Europeans' need for Asian products with cheaper prices than any other merchants, and as the influx of silver enabled more sophisticated and larger money market, Amsterdam accumulated great wealth from selling spices and finance.

V.3 Various Factors of Decay
            However, since the late seventeenth century, VOC was losing its power in Asia; the loss of the trade post in Formosa in 1662 and Japanese Shogunate's restriction over precious metals closed direct trade route of silk, gold and silver from China and Japan. Also, the Netherlands underwent four times of Anglo-Dutch wars subsequentially during the next a century, which in the short term obstructed pepper trade to cause oversupply of pepper by VOC. This almost led VOC to bankruptcy in the 1680s. More importantly, VOC could no longer enjoy the profit from East Indian trade as much as it had used to gain, because the East India Companies of Denmark, France and England along with VOC competed against each other. This meant no more extravagant profit would be alloted for Dutch merchants.(22) Similar to VOC, GWC also experienced decline in competence with rivaling European countries like England.
            Moreover, the bubonic plague, supposed to be infected from Algiers during 1660s, killed more than ten percent of its population, directly knocking off the commerce of Amsterdam. The plague was highly contagious but no one could verify the cause and remedy of the disease; rich people drained out of the city in order to avoid being infected. (23)
            Also, the wars the Dutch republic underwent in the seventeenth and eighteenth century brought about the unrecoverable stagnation of Amsterdam. The four Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652-1654, 1665-1667, 1672-1674, 1780-1784) and the Franco-Dutch War(1672-1678), in which the Netherlands fought against the alliance including France and England, severely weakened both military and economic power of Amsterdam.
            After all, the loss of commercial hegemony and the plague brought the fading out of the Dutch golden age, and eventually called up the end of the golden age of Amsterdam in 1672. Since then, Amsterdam was in stagnation or involved in warfare such as Napoleonic conquest in 1795, except for its temporary cultural golden age in the late nineteenth century.

VI. Conclusion
            Brugge, Antwerpen, and Amsterdam were all specialized in maritime commerce during the 13th century to the 17th century, blessed with possessing geographic priorities such as the Rhine and the Baltic. Then again, the golden ages of these cities are closely related to each other, and they showed the variety of factors which influence the rise and fall of a city.
            First, The golden ages of the cities arrived and ended in a consecutive way; Antwerpen could greet its golden age just after the decline of Brugge, and Amsterdam could prosper because Antwerpen was debilitated. It is because these cities shared the same regional identities; they were parts of the north and south Netherlands and trade posts of the north of the Alps. Considering that the Low Countries were relatively small area while they were important for linking the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Baltic, and later the East Indies, these cities' roles had been analogous with each other although their heydays spanned different periods of time; all of them had played the role as the center of international trade.
            Furthermore, these cities showed various reasons for their up and down. In case of Brugge, its rise and fall was determined by whether the channel was open to the Zwin and whether the peace was kept between England and France. In contrast, the factors which affected the vicissitudes of Antwerpen and Amsterdam were closely related to each other's destiny; Antwerpen could thrive because Brugge lost its function, and Amsterdam met its golden age because it could protect itself from Spanish attacks while Antwerpen could not.
            To supplement more details, the catalysts which let these cities reach their climaxes were very characteristic. For Brugge, woolen textile industry, enabled by the security system which had been set earlier than any other city, promoted its trade activities, and Burgundian ducal court in the city triggered cultural blooming which occurred simultaneously with economic development. In Antwerpen, commercial revolution brought the prosperity of banking, which invoked the proliferation of merchants' wealth in Antwerpen. Besides, in Amsterdam, Dutch imperialism represented by VOC and GWC fetched great wealth to the city.

IX. Notes

(1)      It was graphed according to statistics of Belgium and Holland from Historical Population Statistics
(2)      City charters are official documents which warrant the status and privileges of a city.
(3)      Blom and Lamberts 1999, p.37
(4)      Article : Brugge, Origins, in Wikipedia .
(5)      Article : Brugge, "Golden Age (12th to 15th century)", in Wikipedia
(6)      A. Ganse, October 2008, in the lecture in Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
(7)      Article "Flandre", in Doosan Encyclopaedia
(8)      Rice and Grafton 1994, p.46
(9)      Article : Brugge, "Golden Age (12th to 15th century)", in Wikipedia
(10)      Israel 1995, pp.21-22
(11)      Article "Antwerp", in Encyclopaedia Britannica
(12)      Article "Commercial Revolution", in Wikipedia
(13)      A figure from Rice and Grafton 1994, p. 47. "BVRSA" means bourse in Latin.
(14)      Rice and Grafton 1994, p.48
(15)      Article "Antwerp", in Encyclopaedia Britannica
(16)      Braudel, 1985, p. 143, quoted after article "Antwerp" in Encyclopaedia Britannica
(17)      Israel 1995, p. 185. Article "Antwerp", in Encyclopaedia Britannica
(18)      Blom and Lamberts 1999, p.129
(19)      Article "Amsterdam", in Encyclopaedia Britannica
(20)      Israel 1995, pp.120-121
(21)      Israel 1995, pp.318-327
(22)      Article "Dutch East India Company", in Wikipedia
(23)      Article "History of Amsterdam", in Wikipedia

X. Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited in September 2008.
1.      Israel, J., The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806 Oxford : UP 1995
2.      E. F. Rice Jr., A. Grafton, The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559, 2nd ed. NY : W. W. Norton 2nd ed., 1994
3.      Article "Amsterdam", Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, 15th ed. 1998.
4.      Article "Antwerp", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. 1911.,_Belgium
5.      Article "Bruges", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. 1911.
6.      Article "Flandre", in Doosan Encyclopaedia EnCyber, in Korean
7.      J.C.H Blom, E. Lamberts, History of the Low Countries, NY : Berghahn 1999
8.      Jan Lahmeyer, Historical Population Statistics,
9.      Article : Brugge, in Wikipedia
10.      Article "Commercial Revolution", in Wikipedia
11.      Article "Dutch East India Company", in Wikipedia
12.      Article "History of Amsterdam", in Wikipedia

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