City and Society in the Low Countries, 1200-1850

Janna Everaert, Marjolein Schepers, Frederik Buylaert, Anne Winter

Research Historical Research into Urban Transformation Processes (HOST)

Belspo (Belgian Science Policy Office) funding, 2012-2017

City and Society in the Low Countries is a vibrant network of senior and junior researchers devoted to the study of the urban history of the historical Low Countries (present-day Belgium and the Netherlands), that builds on the know-how acquired during the previous phases III, IV, V and VI of the Interuniversity Attraction Pole Program (IAP) of the Belgian Science Policy Office (Belspo). The current phase VII (2012-2017) coordinates a new collaborative research project entitled City and Society in the Low Countries (ca. 1200-ca. 1850). The ‘condition urbaine’: between resilience and vulnerability. The enlarged network includes six Belgian universities (UGent, UA, ULB, VUB, KULeuven and FUNDP), two Belgian federal scientific institutions (RMFAB, KBR) and two European partners (the Universities of Leiden and Utrecht).

Environmental problems, issues of social identity, and of community building have claimed their place on the world’s social sciences programs, and are therefore of great historical interest. Yet, the questions and results of this historical research often remain isolated and, therefore, need to be reintegrated in a questionnaire that claims not only historical but also wider social relevance. It is our firm belief that urban history is a specific field that allows for a holistic approach since in the cities of the past (and the present) all of society’s problems come together and push for a collective answer. A thorough understanding of how urban societies in the past tackled similar problems and tried with or without success to come to terms with them, is necessary in order to formulate an answer to the compelling problems caused by present-day urbanisation.

From a historical perspective, one of the most striking features of urban society is its capacity to undergo moments of stress and extreme crisis or long-term destabilisation, but to re-emerge in the end. This remarkable resilience of the urban phenomenon – or condition urbaine – is one of the leading concepts that binds this research network together. The common goal of the different research projects proposed by the network is to give a realistic and contingent evaluation of the opportunities, challenges, successes and failures of urban societies.

The historical Low Countries constitute an important case-study, since from the Middle Ages onwards this region has was one of the most densely urbanised areas of Europe and the world. Yet, on a larger scale, it is the explicit goal to develop an international perspective by widening the research questions through European, and in some cases even global, comparisons. Driven by the need for wider comparisons and a better understanding of patterns of transformation, our network intends to extend the chronological scope of its research until ca. 1850, allowing the transition to modern society to be included in our research. The study of transformations and continuities between, on the one hand, the medieval and early modern period and, on the other hand, the early modern and modern period, will therefore be at the core of our research.

Inspired by the challenges of present-day urbanisation, the network coordinates its engoing research on 'urban resilience' in the historical Low Countries along three work packages:

    (1) Environmental Challenges of City Life: Resilience and Precariousness;

    (2) Urban Memories and Counter-Memories;

    (3) Urban Community Building: Inclusion and Exclusion.

These themes are the object of a resolutely international and interdisciplinary analysis, including – besides history – such disciplines as the study of visual and literary culture, archeology, and geography.

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