Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The city of Antwerp became northern Europe’s most important commercial, financial, and cultural center, taking over from the prominent port town of Bruges, whose Zwin River became ineffective as a trade route because of silt buildup.

Summary of Event

Situated in the heart of Western Europe, the plains of Flanders lay at the crossroads of the trade routes that linked France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the North Sea. A buffer state against the Vikings, the county of Flanders was created in 864 after one of many divisions of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s old empire. As French vassals, the counts of Flanders ruled Europe’s most valuable, and perhaps most difficult to govern, fiefdom. Economy;Europe Antwerp Maximilian I Farnese, Alessandro Moretus, Jan Plantin, Christophe Medici family Fugger family Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) Plantin, Christophe Moretus, Jan Farnese, Alessandro (duke of Parma)

The port of Antwerp in a drawing by Albrecht Dürer.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The most important, though not most populous, Flemish town was Bruges, at the time northern Europe’s busiest harbor. Called the Venice of the North because of its many canals, Bruges was accessible to the North Sea after the great Dunkerque Floods of 1134 profoundly altered the coastline. The Zwin River, mostly an estuary, stretched to Damme, where the River Reie then connected the North Sea to Bruges two miles inland. Nearby Ghent’s population was second only to that of Paris in northern Europe. Elsewhere, market towns, monasteries, and castles dotted the countryside.

Europe’s economic functioning had changed fundamentally by the late Middle Ages. An interdependent economy arose with the advent of product specialization and the development of new trade routes. Integration meant that imports could offset local scarcities. Such dependence, however, could also easily spread one area’s misfortune to another. For example, Flemish cloth, woven from local and English wool, was exported throughout Europe. Production was controlled by merchant guilds, composed of the city’s elite traders, while highly disciplined, often militant craft guilds served as unions for virtually all urban occupations. Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, and other towns were able to win charters and rights from the counts.

Medieval commerce was based on a system of grand fairs and local markets. Linking northern and southern Europe, a highly organized cycle of six grand fairs emerged in the French county of Champagne in the late 1100’. Visiting several markets on their way to fairs, traveling merchants journeyed considerable distances, employing couriers to ride ahead and advertise their goods. In the thirteenth century, the fairs declined with the development of Atlantic shipping and the rise of Bruges and other towns as permanent trade centers engaging in year-round commerce. The Hanseatic League Hanseatic League , a powerful trade alliance of northern cities, extended from Holland to Novgorod in Russia and linked Britain and Flanders in the west with Asia’s Silk Road in the east. Textiles, salt, wine, fish, furs, hemp, honey, oats, amber, timber, and pitch entered what was increasingly a world market. One of the most important Hanseatic League offices was in Bruges.

The existence of a cash economy and respect for contracts encouraged Flemish economic activity. Temporary joint companies became the norm for long-distance trade. Several merchants would lease ships to spread both their cargos and their risks. Italian bankers provided loans to merchants and nobles to finance both trade and war. Europe’s most important bankers, the Medici family of Florence and the Fugger family of Augsburg, opened branches in Bruges and Antwerp, respectively. Amid the fourteenth century’s constant inflation, speculation, and coinage debasement, bankers cooperated with broker-hoteliers to provide accounts, loans, investments, and even banknotes for local use to traders. Later bills of exchange were developed to transfer money. Courier services between the major commercial centers of northern Europe and Italy ensured that documents arrived safely and on time. Flanders became the hub of a “paper” economy unknown in much of Europe at the time. The financial services of Bruges were focused around the warehouses of Genoese, Florentine, and Venetian traders, where the Van der Beurse family ran an inn noted as a venue for transactions. In 1302, their inn developed into the world’s first securities market and the family’s name metamorphosed to “bourse” or “burse,” the term for “stock exchange” in several languages.

However, Flanders had a rebellious reputation. In 1302, Bruges successfully challenged French domination. Ghent also rebelled frequently, most seriously under rich burgher Jacob van Artevelde, who made a treaty with England in the 1330’. Infighting within and among towns, however, sparked a long decline. When markets began to shrink after 1350, many merchants began to bypass the guilds by manufacturing their own products at lower costs. Rulers and traders alike began looking to Antwerp, the eastern neighbor of Flanders.

Arising from a Gallo-Roman settlement on the River Scheldt, Antwerp was a modest local-market town with a fairly important port by the seventh century. Rebuilt following Norse raids in 836, it became a margravate (border province) of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 900’. Chartered in 1291, the city was known for its abbey and later its vast cathedral, one of the largest religious buildings north of the Alps. In the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the dukes of Brabant ruled the city and favored it with numerous commercial and political privileges. However, the duchy of Brabant was annexed by Flanders in 1356, and Bruges and Ghent rebounded. In 1446, the English Merchant Adventurers and other traders moved their operations from Bruges to Antwerp. By then, Bruges was in rapid decline as the silt-clogged Zwin became unnavigable, marking Antwerp’s accession as the commercial capital of northern Europe.

The marriage in 1477 of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III’s oldest son, Maximilian I, to Mary of Burgundy, the only child of Duke Charles the Bold, led to Habsburg control over the Low Countries (modern Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg). Unaccustomed to the region’s deeply rooted civic traditions, Maximilian ignored the rights of rebellious Flanders and offered inducements to foreigners settling in Antwerp and other Brabantine communities along the Scheldt and Dender, where support for him was strong. Eventually, the Burgundian inheritance passed on to Maximilian’s grandson and heir, Charles V.

Known as the Burgundian city of the North, Antwerp became northern Europe’s hub of commerce, shipping, finance, and culture. Influenced by Italian and Iberian merchants, it diversified beyond the traditional textile trade. Established in the 1400’, Antwerp’s diamond industry expanded considerably after the arrival of Jewish artisans who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490’. In 1531, the city opened its bourse, the model for future stock exchanges.

Antwerp became also a center of northern Humanism Humanism;Antwerp . The city’s printing presses Printing;Antwerp produced some of the most important works of the age, including the first printed announcement of a major world event, Thierry Maertens’s Latin translation of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 letter announcing his New World discoveries. The era’s most important printer was Christophe Plantin, whose masterpiece was the Antwerp Polyglot Bible Bible;Antwerp Polyglot Antwerp Polyglot Bible . He and Jan Moretus, his son-in-law and successor, brought fortune to the city with a monopoly on the production of devotional books throughout Spain’s vast empire. Artists Albrecht Dürer, Quentin Massys, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, worked there. Thomas More wrote parts of his Utopia in Antwerp, where humanist philosopher Desiderius Erasmus and cartographers Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Oertel all spent time.

Antwerp, however, became the focus of conflicts between Protestant Holland and Catholic Spain. In August, 1566, radical Calvinists vandalized its cathedral and numerous other churches. Hatred of Spanish domination flared with the atrocious rule of the duke of Alva. In 1576, Spanish troops sacked the city, killing six thousand of its inhabitants. In 1584-1585, the Spanish, under Alessandro Farnese, captured Antwerp after a fourteen-month siege. The city lost more than half its population, including most of its commercial elite. The vital wool trade with England was disrupted. The Protestant Netherlands to the north closed off the Scheldt.

Economically devastated, the city nevertheless continued to flourish culturally until the mid-1600’, with painters Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Adriaen Brouwer, and David Teniers; anatomist Andreas Vesalius; and mathematician Simon Stevin. Musicians and composers, such as German-born George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and England’s Peter Philips (1561-1628) and John Bull (c. 1562-1628), played instruments made by Antwerp’s Ruckers family. Among these notables, Antwerp’s most distinguished citizen was painter and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens.


After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Scheldt was formally closed to navigation. Amsterdam’s status rose, while Antwerp’s dwindled to that of a provincial town. In 1863, the Dutch ended shipping restrictions on the Scheldt. Since then, apart from the interruptions of two world wars, Antwerp has experienced steady growth. During the twentieth century, it became the world’s second busiest port, the world’s most important diamond center, and a European “City of Culture” in 1993. Its cultural prominence has continued, too. Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and Flemish novelist Hendrik Conscience (1812-1883) worked and studied there.

Meanwhile, Bruges, with its thousands of medieval buildings, has reemerged as a major tourist destination. More important, the histories of these cities reveal the origins of the world economy, capitalism, socialism, labor unions, banking, securities trading, industrialization, mass politics, mass production, and mass media.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bindhoff, S. T. “The Greatness of Antwerp.” In The New Cambridge Modern History. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1958. This chapter in volume 2 provides a good description of sixteenth century Antwerp.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blom, J. C. H., and E. Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries. Translated by James C. Kennedy. New York: Berghahn Books, 1999. An excellent history of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, with much on Bruges and Antwerp.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fegley, R. The Golden Spurs of Kortrijk. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 2002. Describes the significance of Bruges and other Flemish cities since late medieval times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholas, David. Medieval Flanders. London: Longman, 1992. This history covering late antiquity to Charles V’s time is particularly good on Flemish economic and urban affairs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van der Wee, H. The Growth of the Antwerp Market and European Economy. The Hague, the Netherlands: 1963. A description of Antwerp’s economic significance.

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