From a commercial peasant economy towards a commercial economy: landscape and society in coastal Flanders (13th-16th centuries)
By Tim Soens, Alexander Lehouck, Nele Vanslembrouck, and Erik Thoen
XIV International Economic History Congress (2006)
Introduction: Strolling through the Flemish coastal ‘polders’ at the beginning of the 21st century, visitors capable of mentally eliminating the wall of high-rise blocks along the coastline, the motorways criss-crossing the countryside, and the often chaotic development of residential areas, are still impressed by the emptiness of the land, the wide views, the – for Flanders – large and scattered farms, the heavy clay soils, the large plots of land. As such the present-day rural landscape perfectly fits a large scale commercial agriculture with a high labourproductivity. This however, has not always been the case. At the end of the thirteenth century, rural society in the coastal area in many ways resembled the situation in other parts of Flanders, with a predominance of small and very small holdings, combining arable farming and animal husbandry with proto-industrial activities in order to make a living for themselves and their families. However, from that period on rural society in the Flemish coastal plain would make a gradual shift towards large scale market-oriented agriculture, introducing a structural transformation of both economy and society.
In this paper, we will argue that this transformation of rural economy was reflected in a transformation of the rural landscape. Both the core-elements of the rural landscape, such as field systems, settlement patterns, infrastructure but also secondary characteristics such as the energy-management, the food production and the environmental sustainability were affected by radical changes in the structures of rural economy and society. This of course is not a completely new idea: for instance, the interrelation of agricultural commercialisation and the enclosure of the English rural landscape has always been one of the main themes in British agrarian history. In most cases however, the main focus is either on the landscape or on the agriculture. The connection between both variables is often based on intuition and theoretically and methodologically less solid. Furthermore, for coastal societies in the North Sea Area it’s still quite new to interrelate rural transformation and landscape, as the transformation on both fields has been so radical that it has long time been difficult to study the former situation, which in case of the landscape, has been sometimes literally erased by impressive amounts of more recent sedimentation.