3. Utrecht

Owing to the fact that Utrecht has such a rich history, it has been the subject of much research over the years. This makes Utrecht an even more attractive case study, placing a new focus on recent material and innovative methods of analysis. Particularly in the study of economic space, the publications by Van Asch Van Wijck (1838-1846), Van der Monde (1844-46), Van Vliet (1995; 2002) and De Groot (1997) have proven extremely useful. Finally, the work of Brugman, Buiter and Van Vliet on the markets of Utrecht throughout the centuries has provided a very good starting point for studying these markets in their urban form (Brugman et al. 1995).

3.1. Background

Utrecht is located in the centre of The Netherlands
Figure 14: Utrecht is located in the centre of The Netherlands

The town of Utrecht is situated in the geographical centre of the Netherlands on elevated ground in a marshy landscape, mostly reclaimed during the 13th century (Struick 1974, 9). Utrecht is only bordered by higher and sandier grounds on the east side; the spurs of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug created during the penultimate and last glacial period (Montforts 1995, 11). During the medieval period Utrecht owed its importance mainly to the proximity of several rivers, the Kromme (Crooked) and the Oude (Old) Rhine and the Vecht, all of which used to be navigable. Moreover, the see of the bishop was also an important factor for the town.

Utrecht has been occupied since the Romans established a castellum there as part of the limes fortifications during the 1st century AD. This castellum was located on the site of the so-called Domkerk (the former Cathedral until 1581) and was later reused and rebuilt as a medieval (fortification) burgh. Presumably the Romans vacated Utrecht in the 3rd century, since there is no conclusive evidence for any continuous occupation between the end of the Roman occupation and the arrival of the Merovingian King Dagobert in AD 630. He took possession of the old Roman Burgh, and built the first church (probably dedicated to Saint Martin) on that site. However, it was not until Saint Willibrordus was sent to Utrecht, where he started his missionary work that religion began to play an important role in the development of Utrecht as a town. His church of Saint Salvator (or Saint Martin) became the centre of Christianity in the Netherlands for several centuries (Broer and de Bruijn 1997; van Vliet 2002, 72). As a result of Viking raids, Willibrodus' see was fortified. Those Viking raids also caused the destruction of Dorestad, the leading commercial town up until the 9th century. Dorestad's fall enabled Utrecht to rise in its place. Before this event Utrecht was mainly regarded as a bishop's seat, whereas Dorestad was the market town, as testified by Alcuin and Liudger (Dummler 1881, 220-21). However, Utrecht's supplanting Dorestad's position was a gradual process. Like Dorestad, Utrecht also suffered from Viking raids, most notably in AD 857, when the bishop had to flee to Odilienberg and later to Deventer, and trade only recovered after the bishop's return in AD 925 (van Vliet 2002, 144-45). The bishop was central to the growth of Utrecht as a commercial town, since he was granted the royal privilege to mint. Such rights were given with the aim of concentrating trade in particular towns and to promote long-distance trade. This also made the establishment of a bureau de change necessary, since in Utrecht locally minted coins had to be used for payment. However, it was only from the 13th century onwards that coins became a regular occurrence (van Vliet 1995, 10). In 1122 Utrecht received town rights and the right to charge a market toll. These were granted by the German Emperor Henry IV on 2 June 1122, and documented in a charter as requested by the burgesses of Utrecht (van Asch van Wijck 1838-1846, appendix).

The market toll was a necessary requirement to set up trade and it became an important factor in Utrecht's commercial expansion. Commerce increased constantly as a result of these rights, and so did the power of the bishop. This toll allowed him to levy a tax on all goods traded in Utrecht, the level of which depended on their origin. Utrecht reached its commercial peak in the 11th and 12th centuries, and declined towards the end of the 13th century, but then continued to grow, especially from the 16th century (van Vliet 1995). It was Utrecht's urban textile industry (cloth weaving), in particular, which provided a living for the citizens for many years to come.

Utrecht was the largest town in the northern part of the Low Countries in the 12th century, with 3000 inhabitants, most of whom belonged to the ecclesiastical community or were employed by them (van Vliet 1995, 29). There was also a large middle class and a patrician community, which mostly consisted of merchant families. These owned large plots of land in Stathe. This was the merchants' settlement, which had been established on the opposite side of the canal to the burgh in the 10th century. Moreover, they also owned property along parts of the Oudegracht, along which at a later stage their large stone houses were built. However, in common with other medieval towns, Utrecht's largest class was its lowest. Unfortunately, not much detail is available about the professions, if any, they had. It is, however, reasonable to assume that these lower classes were composed of craftsmen and small farmers. Most of the former would have been employed by the bishop, as self-employed craftsmen did not exist in the 12th century. As in other towns in the 11th century, the population of Utrecht exploded and by the 13th century had risen to 5500-7000, 9000-10000 by the 14th century, and to 20000 by the 15th. Utrecht's population was not overtaken by Amsterdam until the 16th century (van Vliet 1995, 30).

Despite various revolts by the guilds, the first of which dated from 1304, the bishop remained the ruling power until 1528 when he renounced his temporal powers to Charles V of Spain (van Vliet 1995, 32).


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