Two distinct but often overlapping sets of local rules regulated village life in the medieval and early modern County of Flanders. On the one hand there was the local customary law, originally transmitted orally but since the late Middle Ages and the 16th century increasingly often written down. Local customs ... (Show more)
Two distinct but often overlapping sets of local rules regulated village life in the medieval and early modern County of Flanders. On the one hand there was the local customary law, originally transmitted orally but since the late Middle Ages and the 16th century increasingly often written down. Local customs chiefly concerned penal law and private law, the latter including the rules of inheritances, marital property, orphans, contracts, etc. On the other hand there were rules that governed daily life and took the character of local ordinances. Already in the 13th century the tradition arose to bundle these rules into compilations that were recalled annually before the entire village community, and from the 15th century onwards these rules were increasingly called “police ordinances” (ordonnantien politicque). Regularly the preamble stated that “good police and justice” had been the incentive for enacting them. They regulated the harvest, crop protection, weights and measures, the functioning of taverns, public order (especially also in the church and in the cemetery), the state of the roads, fire safety, local markets, and the quality of the food traded. Taken together, they offer a unique glimpse into the ideals that the local rural authorities stood for. Moreover, their preamble is often a telltale sign of the genesis process of these rules, suggesting both power struggles and forms of cooperation among the lord, the village notables, and the villagers in general.
In this lecture some 70 compilations of police regulations from village lordships (French: seigneuries; Dutch: heerlijkheden) in the County of Flanders, dating from the late 13th to the 18th century, will be analyzed. The topics that were regulated by these police regulations are placed in a long-term perspective. This paper shows the range of action of the seigneurial authorities, and thus indirectly it is a prism to study the local autonomy that came under increasing pressure in the early modern period. Moreover, this lecture will not only map and explain the main developments of these seigneurial police regulations, but also the importance of quantitative research for studying the law, and the usefulness and challenges of tagging the articles by means of a keyword list. Finally, the comparative and quantitative approach of a hitherto largely underexposed source type for a highly urbanized region allows us to reconstruct the organization of rural life in Flanders and to test the extent to which this organization was or could remain a local matter. (Show less)