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Social vulnerability, social structures and household grain shortages in sixteenth-century inland Flanders

  • Eline Van Onacker (a1)


‘Vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ have recently become hot topics in historiography. The main focus is on systemic vulnerability: the reasons why certain societies were better able to overcome crisis. In this article I want to address another type of vulnerability – inspired by the insights of Wisner and Blaikie: social vulnerability, and the differentiated impact of crisis on different social groups. Based on a unique corpus of sources – the grain censuses drafted during the grain crisis of 1556/57 – and a reconstruction of household budgets, I will reconstruct vulnerable groups, the root causes behind their vulnerability, and their coping mechanisms. By doing this I will show how systemic resilience could go hand-in-hand with vulnerable people, thus adding more depth to a growing research strand.

La ‘vulnérabilité’ et la ‘résilience’ sont devenues récemment des sujets d'actualité en historiographie. Les études sont surtout centrées sur la vulnérabilité systémique ou raisons pour lesquelles certaines sociétés ont été mieux à même que d'autres de surmonter les crises. Dans cet article, on aborde un autre type de vulnérabilité, inspiré par les idées de Ben Wisner et Piers Blaikie: la vulnérabilité sociale et l'impact différencié de la crise sur divers groupes sociaux. Sur la base d'un corpus de sources unique − les recensements de réserves de grains établis lors de la crise frumentaire des années 1556–1557 − et une reconstitution du budget des ménages, l'auteur reconstruit les groupes vulnérables, les causes profondes de leur fragilité, ainsi que leurs mécanismes d'adaptation. Cela fait, il est montré comment la résilience systémique pouvait aller de pair avec les personnes vulnérables, ajoutant ainsi une notable profondeur à un domaine de recherche en croissance.

„Verwundbarkeit” und „Belastbarkeit” sind in der historischen Forschung neuerdings zu wichtigen Themen geworden, wobei der das Hauptaugenmerk auf der Frage der systemischen Verwundbarkeit liegt: Aus welchen Gründen konnten bestimmte Gesellschaften Krisen besser überwinden als andere? In diesem Beitrag möchte ich, angeregt durch die Einsichten von Wisner und Blaikie, einen anderen Typus der Verwundbarkeit behandeln, nämlich die soziale Verwundbarkeit und die Frage, inwieweit unterschiedliche soziale Gruppen in unterschiedlichem Ausmaß von Krisen betroffen waren. Auf der Basis eines einzigartigen Quellenkorpus – Getreideregister, die in der Getreidekrise von 1556/57 entworfen wurden – und der Rekonstruktion von Haushaltsbudgets identifiziere ich verwundbare Gruppen, die Hauptursachen ihrer Verwundbarkeit und ihre Bewältigungsmechanismen. So zeige ich, wie systemische Belastbarkeit mit Verletzlichkeit der Betroffenen einhergehen konnte, und verleihe damit einem wachsenden Forschungszweig mehr Tiefgang.


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1 Quarantelli, E. L., ‘Disaster studies: an analysis of the social historical factors affecting the development of research in the area’, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 5, 3 (1987), 285310.

2 Adger, W. N., ‘Social and ecological resilience: are they related?’, Progress in Human Geography 24, 3 (2000), 361.

3 Appleby, A. B., ‘Disease or famine? Mortality in Cumberland and Westmorland, 1580–1640’, Economic History Review 26 (1973), 403–31. For an overview of Appleby's work and historiography following his thesis, see Walter, J. and Schofield, R., ‘Famine, disease and crisis mortality in early modern society’, in Walter, J. and Schofield, R. eds., Famine, disease and the social order in early modern society (Cambridge, 1989), 174.

4 Appleby, A. B., ‘Grain prices and subsistence crises in England and France, 1590–1740’, Journal of Economic History XXXIX, 4 (1979), 865–87.

5 Vanhaute, E. and Lambrecht, T., ‘Famine, exchange networks and the village community: a comparative analysis of the subsistence crises of the 1740s and 1840s in Flanders’, Continuity and Change 26, 2 (2011), 155–86.

6 See, for example, D. Curtis, Coping with crisis: the resilience and vulnerability of pre-industrial settlements (Farnham, 2014).

7 Van Bavel, B. J. P. and Curtis, D., ‘Better understanding disasters by better using history: systematically using the historical record as one way to advance research into disasters’, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 34, 1 (2016), 143–69.

8 Pfister, C. and Bradzil, R., ‘Social vulnerability to climate in the “Little Ice Age”: an example from Central Europe in the early 1770s’, Climate of the Past 2 (2006), 126.

9 As in the current European Research Council-funded project, ‘Coordinating for Life: Success and Failure of Western European Societies in Coping with Rural Hazards and Disasters, 1300–1800’ (Bas van Bavel, Utrecht, 2015–2019).

10 Cannon, T. and Müller-Mahn, D., ‘Vulnerability, resilience and development discourses in context of climate change’, Natural Hazards 55 (2010), 621–35. Some authors even see resilience as the handmaid of neoliberalism, strengthening its discourse on personal responsibility, but this is a ‘responsibility without power’, as in MacKinnon, D. and Derickson, K. Driscoll, ‘From resilience to resourcefulness: a critique of resilience policy and activism’, Progress in Human Geography, 37 (2012), 255.

11 Sudmeier-Rieux, K. I., ‘Resilience: an emerging paradigm of danger or of hope? A critique of resilience policy and activism’, Progress in Human Geography 37 (2014), 6780.

12 Soens, T., ‘Resilient societies, vulnerable people: coping with North Sea Floods before 1800’, Past & Present 241 (2018), 143–77.

13 Chambers, R., ‘Editorial introduction: vulnerability, coping and policy’, IDS Bulletin 20, 2 (1989), 1.

14 For examples, see Swift, J., ‘Why are rural people vulnerable to famine?’, IDS Bulletin 20, 2 (1989), 9. He describes how Sen showed that in South Asia, mostly agricultural wage labourers were particularly vulnerable, whereas in Africa, it was mainly pastoralists who easily got into trouble. See also Sen, A., Resources, values and development (Oxford, 1984).

15 Wisner, B. et al. , At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disaster, 2nd edn (London, 2004), 4.

16 Ibid.

17 Tierney, K. J., ‘Social inequality, hazards, and disasters’, in Daniels, R. J., Kettl, D. F. and Kunreuther, H. eds., On risk and disaster: lessons from Hurricane Katrina (Philadelphia, 2006), 113. Even within present-day European welfare states, disasters such as floods can have a highly varied impact, affecting different groups to different extents and in different ways; see Kuhlicke, C. et al. , ‘Contextualizing social vulnerability: findings from case studies across Europe’, Natural Hazards 58 (2011), 789.

18 Vanhaute, E., ‘From famine to food crisis: what history can teach us about local and global subsistence crises’, The Journal of Peasant Studies 38, 1 (2011), 60.

19 Walker, P., Famine early warning systems: victims and destitution (London, 1989), 28. Similar arguments can be found in Watts, M. J. and Bohle, H. G., ‘The space of vulnerability: the causal structure of hunger and famine’, Progress in Human Geography 17 (1993), 4367.

20 Engler, S., ‘Developing a historically based Famine Vulnerability Analysis Model (FVAM) – an interdisciplinary approach’, Erdkunde – Archive for Scientific Geography 66 (2012), 157–72.

21 For an example of this approach in historical research, see Engler, S., Werner, F. Mauelshagen, J. and Luterbacher, J., ‘The Irish famine of 1740–1741: famine vulnerability and “climate migration”’, Climate of the Past 9 (2013), 1161–79. The socially differentiated impact of famine is, however, not part of Engler et al.’s analysis.

22 While this type of source is rare, it is certainly not unique in the early modern period, although it is seldom used due to the time-consuming nature of the analysis required. Paul Warde, for example, used grain inventories to investigate peasant household and market strategies unrelated to a crisis: Warde, P., ‘Subsistence and sales: the peasant economy of Württemberg in the early seventeenth century’, Economic History Review LIX, 2 (2006), 289319.

23 The County of Flanders still used the ‘Easter Style’ calendar, meaning that each new year started at Easter. All dates in this article are expressed in the current-day ‘Modern’ or ‘Circumcision’ Style.

24 Buisman, J., Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in De Lage Landen, Deel 3: 1450–1575 (Franeker, 1998), 550–1. Buisman furthermore mentions grain scarcity in England and France.

25 See, for example, the tithes collected in Thoen, E., ‘Landbouwproductie en bevolking in enkele gemeenten ten zuiden van Gent gedurende het Ancien Régime (14e–18e Eeuw)’, in Verhulst, A. and Vandenbroeke, C. eds., Landbouwproduktiviteit in Vlaanderen en Brabant, 14e–18e Eeuw (Ghent, 1979), 131–97.

26 For Nijvel (in the south of Brabant), Daelemans suggests a drop of 15.05 per cent in the harvest year 1556/57, compared to the average harvest. See Daelemans, F., ‘De tienden van het Sint-Geertrudekapittel van Nijvel (15e–18e eeuw): een eerste benadering. Bijdrage tot de conjunctuurstudie’, in Verhulst, A. and Vandenbroeke, C. eds., Landbouwproduktiviteit in Vlaanderen en Brabant, 14e–18e Eeuw (Ghent, 1979), 201366.

27 Thoen, E., Landbouwekonomie en bevolking in Vlaanderen gedurende de Late Middeleeuwen en het begin van de moderne tijden. Testregio: de Kasselrijen van Oudenaarde en Aalst (Ghent, 1988), 1242.

28 Van Tielhof, M., The ‘Mother of All Trades’: the Baltic grain trade in Amsterdam from the late 16th to the early 19th century (Leiden, 2002). Van der Wee points out that domestic production in the 1560s could only meet three quarters of the demand. See Van der Wee, H., ‘De handelsbetrekkingen tussen Antwerpen en de Noordelijke Nederlanden tijdens de 14e, 15e en 16e Eeuw’, Bijdragen voor de geschiedenis der Nederlanden 20 (1966), 284.

29 Limberger, M., ‘Feeding sixteenth-century Antwerp: food imports, local supply, and the agrarian structure of the town's rural surroundings’, in Van Cruyningen, P. and Thoen, E. eds., Food supply, demand and trade: aspects of the economic relationship between town and countryside (Middle Ages–19th century) (Turnhout, 2012), 3147.

30 Soly, H., ‘Een Antwerpse Compagnie voor de levensmiddelenbevoorrading van het leger in de Nederlanden in de zestiende eeuw’, Bijdragen en mededelingen betreffende de geschiedenis der Nederlanden 86, 3 (1971), 350–62.

31 A. Friis, ‘An inquiry into the relations between economic and financial factors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I: the two crises in the Netherlands in 1557’, The Scandinavian Economic History Review (1953), 193–241.

32 These are the author's own calculations, based on Verhulst, A., ‘Prijzen van granen, boter en kaas te Brugge volgens de “slag” van het Sint-Donatiaans-Kapittel (1384–1801)’, in Verlinden, C. ed., Dokumenten voor de geschiedenis van prijzen en lonen in Vlaanderen en Brabant (Bruges, 1959), 370.

33 A. Wyffels, ‘Prijs van tarwe per hoet te Diksmuide in Groten Vlaams, 1482–1615’, in Verlinden ed., Dokumenten voor de geschiedenis van prijzen, 58–61.

34 Scholliers, E., De levensstandaard in de 15e en 16e Eeuw te Antwerpen: Loonarbeid en honger (Antwerp, 1960).

35 Wages in the building industry may not of course be representative of urban society as a whole, but they were, however, the only continuous series at our disposal. See Blondé, B. and Hanus, J., ‘Beyond building craftsmen: economic growth and living standards in the sixteenth-century Low Countries: The case of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (1500–1560)’, European Review of Economic History 14, 2 (2010), 179207.

36 Scholliers, De levensstandaard, 134.

37 This would only change in the course of the nineteenth century, as described in Vanhaute and Lambrecht, ‘Famine, exchange networks and the village community’.

38 Such bans were nothing new, bans on grain exports were issued repeatedly from 1531 onwards, particularly during times of war, such as the Habsburg-French war of 1551–1559. See Scholliers, De levensstandaard, 52.

39 Van den Broecke, R., Het hongerjaar 1556–1557 in Gent (Ghent, 2001), 158–9.

40 Cooman, C., Een bijdrage tot de studie van de crisis van 1740: de Kasselrij Oudenaarde (Ghent, 2004), 3741.

41 Thoen, E., ‘A commercial survival economy in evolution: the Flemish countryside and the transition to capitalism (Middle Ages–19th century)’, in Hoppenbrouwers, P. and Van Zanden, J. L. eds., Peasants into farmers? The transformation of rural economy and society in the Low Countries (Middle Ages–19th century) in light of the Brenner debate (Turnhout, 2001), 102–57.

42 Van Bavel, B. J. P., ‘Early proto-industrialization in the Low Countries? The importance and nature of market-oriented non-agricultural activities on the countryside in Flanders and Holland, c. 1250–1570’, Revue Belge de philologie et d'histoire 81, 4 (2003), 1121–2.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.; Vanwelden, M., Productie van wandtapijten in de regio Oudenaarde: een symbiose tussen stad en platteland (15de tot 17de eeuw) (Leuven, 2006).

45 The old and the young are usually identified as being particularly vulnerable. Gender inequalities in vulnerability are also mentioned, but there are two opinions in the literature about the form these take, some authors arguing that women were more vulnerable, due to their ‘inferior’ position and the responsibility for caring for the sick, while others believe they were less vulnerable, due to their control over the preparation of food. See Walker, Famine early warning systems.

46 The Moen inventory is contained in the archival class with the censuses of 1556/57, but on closer scrutiny it was compiled during the grain crisis of 1565/66.

47 As the inventories were compiled in the second half of February, most of them indicate how much grain each household would need to survive through the next five months, until the end of July, after which the next harvest season would begin.

48 Many thanks go to Thijs Lambrecht (Ghent University) for tracking down the 1565 censuses.

49 Thoen, Landbouwekonomie en bevolking, 1242.

50 See the supplementary material for all the relevant sources, to which a link is provided at the end of this article.

51 These inventories were drawn up when the deceased had underage (under 25 years old) children.

52 Used in Thoen, Landbouwekonomie en bevolking, 1142–5.

53 As also stated in Curtis, D. et al. , ‘Low Countries’, in Alfani, G. and Gráda, C. Ó eds., Famine in European history (Cambridge, 2017), 119–40.

54 Castelain, R., ‘De pest in Oudenaarde 16de–17de eeuw’, Handelingen van de geschied- en oudheidkundige kring van Oudenaarde van zijn kastelnij en vanden lande tusschen Maercke en Ronne XXXIX (2002), 319–34. See also Vanwelden, Productie van wandtapijten, 116.

55 Alfani and Ó Gráda, Famine in European history.

56 Howe, P. and Devereux, S., ‘Famine intensity and magnitude scales: a proposal for an instrumental definition of famine’, Disasters 28, 4 (2004), 353–72. For a more extensive version of this argument, see De Waal, A., Famine that kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984–1985 (Oxford, 1989).

57 Only people giving the exact same name, which often included their patronymic, in both sources were deemed as linked. Together with the time lag between the sources this explains the relatively low number of people identified.

58 Whittle, J., ‘Population mobility in rural Norfolk among landholders and others, c. 1440–c. 1600’, in Dyer, C. ed., The self-contained village? The social history of rural communities, 1250–1900 (Hatfield, 2007), 2845.

59 A farm with one hectare of arable land usually had a total surface of 1.1 to 1.5 hectares, as in most cases it also consisted of some meadows.

60 Thoen, E. and Soens, T., ‘The social and economic impact of central government taxation on the Flemish countryside (end 13th–18th centuries): some reflections’, in Cavaciocchi, S. ed., Fiscal systems in the European economy from the 13th to the 18th centuries (Firenze, 2008), 957–71. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the impact of taxation, but also of the amount paid in rent significantly increased, culminating in an impressive burden on the rural population as a whole in the second half of the eighteenth century. On this topic, and the strategies the Flemish peasants developed to secure survival, see Graef, P. De, Urbs in rure? Urban manure and fertiliser improvement in 18th-century Flemish farming (Antwerp, 2016).

61 Thoen, Landbouwekonomie en bevolking, 784–91.

62 State Archives of Ghent (hereafter RAG), Kasselrijarchief Oudenaarde, 492. Kohieren van de aanwezige veestapel, 1591.

63 State Archives of Bruges (hereafter RABr), Oud Archief Pittem, 275 B&C, 1551–1570.

64 Slavin, P., ‘Market failure during the Great Famine in England and Wales (1315–1317)’, Past & Present 222, (2014), 949.

65 Dijkman, J., Shaping medieval markets: the organisation of commodity markets in Holland, c. 1200–1450 (Leiden, 2011), 82–3.

66 In the region around Ghent, in the sixteenth century, only three rural settlements with markets are mentioned: Zottegem, Sint-Niklaas and Izegem. Dijkman, Shaping medieval markets, 78.

67 Limberger, ‘Feeding sixteenth-century Antwerp’; Scholliers, De Levensstandaard.

68 In 1457 it was ordained that one quarter of the freight grain that traders were transporting was required to be unloaded and sold in Ghent. In the second half of the sixteenth century there was a slight change: ships going upstream only had to unload one sixth of their cargo, for all other grain traders (that is, those going downstream), the rules remained in place. See Van den Broecke, R., Het hongerjaar 1556–1557 in Gent (Ghent, 2001).

69 Calculation of meuken to litres based on: [accessed 1 March 2018].

70 Van den Broecke, Het hongerjaar.

71 Ibid., 43.

72 Stabel, P., De kleine stad in Vlaanderen: Bevolkingsdynamiek en economische functies van de kleine en secundaire stedelijke centra in het Gentse Kwartier (14de–16de eeuw) (Brussels, 1995), 226–7.

73 Stabel, P., ‘De Bourgondische periode’, in Buyck, R., Delcourt, A. and De Mits, E., De geschiedenis van Eeklo: Zevenhonderdvijftig jaar Eeklo (Eeklo, 1990), 54–5.

74 Soly, ‘Een Antwerpse Compagnie’.

75 It is important to note that in the 1740s there were no back-to-back harvest failures, or harvest failures in three consecutive years (as occurred during as the fourteenth-century Great Famine), which would have made them easier to cope with. Nevertheless, even during the Great Famine, the population of Flanders was characterised by marked differences between groups in their ability to cope, indicating that vulnerability was strongly context-dependent, see Geens, S., ‘The Great Famine in the County of Flanders (1315–17): the complex interaction between weather, warfare and property rights’, Economic History Review 71, 4 (2018), 1048–72.

76 Vanhaute and Lambrecht, ‘Famine, exchange networks and the village community’.

77 Walker, Famine early warning systems.

78 Ibid.

79 See E. Van Onacker, ‘An (a)social economy? Peasant communities and the relationship between formal and informal relief during the grain crisis of 1556/57 in the Low Countries’ (unpublished paper presented at the Rural History Conference, Leuven, 2017). Based on: RAG, OGA Kalken, 132. Wettelijke passeringen; Wever, F. De, ‘Rents and selling-prices of land at Zele (sixteenth–eighteenth century)’, in Van der Wee, H. and Van Cauwenberghe, E. eds., Productivity of land and agricultural innovation in the Low Countries (Leuven, 1978) and National Archives of Belgium (hereafter ARA), Chambre de comptes, 14329. Baljuwsrekening Petegem-aan-de-Schelde.

80 Onacker, E. Van and Masure, H., ‘Unity in diversity: rural poor relief in the sixteenth-century Southern Low Countries’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis 12, 4 (2015), 68–9.

81 RABr, Oud Archief Pittem, 275 B&C, 1551–1570.

82 Van Onacker and Masure, ‘Unity in diversity’, 79.

83 Vanhaute and Lambrecht, ‘Famine, exchange networks and the village community’.

84 Lambrecht, T., ‘Reciprocal exchange, credit and cash: agricultural labour markets and local economies in the Southern Low Countries during the eighteenth century’, Continuity and Change 18, 2 (2003), 237–61.

85 Ibid., 245.

86 Fontaine, L., ‘Antonio and Shylock: credit and trust in France, c. 1680–c.1780’, Economic History Review 54, 1 (2001), 39-57.

87 Ronsijn, W., Commerce and the countryside: the role of urban weekly markets in Flemish rural society, 1750–1900 (Ghent, 2011), 268.

88 Basic findings: Source: City Archives of Ghent (hereafter SAG), Reeks 28. 618/622. Penningkohier, 1571. In the village of Petegem-aan-de-Schelde, 21 farms were larger than 10 hectares. The penningkohier provides the area of arable land each cultivated. The number of labourers was estimated by assuming that one labourer could cut and bind 0.10–0.15 hectares per day. See Vervaet, L., Goederenbeheer in een veranderende samenleving: Het Sint-Janshospitaal van Brugge, ca. 1275–ca. 1575 (Ghent, 2015), 180–1.

89 Vermoesen, R., ‘Paardenboeren in Vlaanderen. Middelaars en commercialisering van de vroegmoderne rurale economie in de regio Aalst 1650–1800’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis 7, 1 (2010), 12.

90 Vervaet, Goederenbeheer, 203–50.

91 Moor, T. De, ‘The silent revolution: a new perspective on the emergence of commons, guilds, and other forms of corporate collective action in Western Europe’, International Review of Social History 53, supplement (2008), 179212.

92 Thoen, E., ‘Rechten en plichten van plattelanders als instrumenten van machtspolitieke strijd tussen adel, stedelijke burgerij en grafelijk gezag in het Laat-Middeleeuwse Vlaanderen. Buitenpoorterij en mortemain-rechten ten persoonlijken titel in de Kasselrijen van Aalst en Oudenaarde, vooral toegepast op de periode rond 1400’, in Les structures du pouvoir dans les communautés rurales en Belgique et dans les Pays Limitrophes (12e–19e Siècle): Actes du 13e Colloque International, Spa, 3-5 Sept. 1986 (Brussels, 1988), 469–90.

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