Demise of the domain. The financial troubles of fifteenth century, Low Countries princes
How did changes in the composition and exploitation of princely domains in various principalities of the Low Countries influence the development of ‘modern’ public finance systems, including the notion of public debt?
Because of more, different and more intensive wars, combined with a luxurious court life, the expenses of late fourteenth and early fifteenth princes grew enormously. Since it was difficult to raise the revenue of traditional sources of income (domains), sovereigns tried to tap into new sources of income in the form of loans, taxes and annuities. Because they relied for this income on the capital of their cities, the urban elite got more influence over their lords, which led to the creation of proto-states and more representation of subjects.
When princes failed to directly tap into urban capital, they started to use their domains by mortgaging them or using them as securities for loans. This set in motion a financial downward spiral, carrying the danger of permanent alienation of parts of the territory. By opposing these alienations, and paying to get the territory back, the economic and political influence of subjects grew. This eventually led to the political and financial downfall of princes, and to the incorporation of their territories into the Burgundian state-complex (modern day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg).
This research focuses on the ways princes used their domains as securities to get loans and to reward elite subjects for financial and military help by analysing the economic situation of princes prior to the Burgundian incorporation of their territory. It analyses a crucial precondition for the emergence of public finance and public representation. This is not only important for gaining a deeper insight in these developments itself, but also for our understanding of the emergence of later and more powerful state-complexes in the later Middle Ages.
Anyone reading a newspaper will acknowledge the importance and problems of public debt, and the severe implications it can have for countries. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, a default of a ‘head of state’ had even larger implications then in our times. Private subjects could become the victim of imprisonment or had their goods seized by their sovereign’s creditors, since all princely subjects were considered to stand surety for his financial obligations. In the field of research working on public debt, the focus is mainly on the creation of long term debts and the possibilities of states to tax their subjects. Since both financial instruments took advantage of the capital of their subjects, primarily the towns, rulers lost part of their political power to them, which often led to the creation of proto-states and more representation of subjects. However, these ‘new’ financial instruments primarily became important for states and rulers because of the demise of their traditional source of income: the domain. The rise of the new financial instruments and representative institutions, and the demise of the domain were thus strongly interconnected.
In the early and central Middle Ages, the domain formed the core of princely finances – later the finances of the state. The domain existed of a hodgepodge of revenues: income from land, minting, jurisdiction, tribute, etc. In the later middle ages, a growing rift developed between the princes’ increasing expenses and the revenues generated by his domain. Most princes at some point started a noxious policy of alienation of parts of their domain, resulting in a further decrease of income, in some cases in the bankruptcy of the princely courts. The consequences of this development were far-reaching, alienating domains not only influenced princely income, but also state jurisdiction and security. It threatened a smooth functioning of ‘the state’. The only way to change this disastrous development was to ask the subjects for financial support via taxation, often in the form of extraordinary subsidies ( beden). In return subjects demanded that the yields of the taxes were used to redeem alienated domains. In doing so, the character of the domains changed: subjects claimed that domains were an integral part of the land and thus public property, instead of the private property of a prince. Next to that, using public funds - the tax yields - to resolve the private debts of a prince, was a form of or at least paved the way for public debt.
Recently Robert Stein, in his De hertog en zijn Staten, showed that the aforementioned process was one of the main reasons for the ‘unification’ of the Low Countries under the Burgundian dukes in the fifteenth century. Cash starved princes came under Burgundian influence, and the dominant towns preferred the rich and relatively well-organized Burgundian dynasty over their own insolvent princes. Notwithstanding the credibility of his these, Stein mainly used narrative sources and focused on the outcome: the transfer of principalities to the Burgundian dukes. Like many scholars, he mainly focused on the ‘winners’ of this process: the Burgundian dukes.
In this project, I focus on the ‘losers’ of this process: the regional princes, and the regional (financial) politics. I qualitatively analyse the financial situation of the regional princes, focussing on their income from domains. The sources that are central in this research are the so called domeinstaten (states of the domains). These inventories, created by the Burgundian bureaucracy after the incorporation of each principality in the Low Countries, show us the state, diversity and dispersion of the collected rights combined in the domain. The sources specify value (in cash and in kind) the different parts represented, the modalities of their eventual alienation (at what moment and on what conditions could they be bought back?) and the social background of their holders (members of the urban elite, noblemen, institutions).
The first aim of this research project is to reconstruct the alienation of princely domain in the Low Countries at the eve the Burgundian take-over. Central are the nature, location and value of the alienated domain. The second aim is to analyse which social classes and/or interest groups were involved in taking-over parts of princely domains, and what the political consequences of their involvement were. The third aim of the research is to assess to what extent new instruments of public finance, taxation in particular, were used to pay for private debts of princes. The fourth aim, is to analyse to what extent, and in what directions changes in financial domain policies did effect regional power relations, and processes of state formation in the Low Countries before the Burgundian take-over. For this, the principalities of Luxembourg, Guelders, Flanders, Holland, and Hainaut are chosen. Each of these principalities differed in terms of geography, economy, demography, power balance between prince and subjects, and moment of incorporation into the Burgundian state. These structural differences will make an interregional comparison worthwhile from the start.