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The family or the farm: a Sophie’s choice? The late medieval crisis in the former county of Flanders
By Erik Thoen and Tim Soens
The Medieval Countryside, Volume 13, 2015
Introduction: The county of Flanders provides an interesting test case with which to verify the neo-Malthusian Duby-Postan thesis about the so-called late medieval crisis. The reason is that, on the eve of this period, this county was one of the most densely populated areas of Europe. Malthusian theory would therefore lead us to expect a bottleneck between food supply and demand, creating population losses and other crises. Yet few historians believe that Flanders as a whole experienced a profound crisis. Even the Black Death could not disrupt the economy.
A plausible and consistent explanation of the gap between theory and history has never been attempted. Did Malthusian checks fail to materialize because of the area’s local characteristics? Or does the Flemish experience deny the applicability of the Malthusian model? For a long time Flemish historians could only speculate about these questions.
We will show that historians have underestimated the dimensions of crisis in parts of Flanders. Our results demonstrate the need to get past older generalizations in order to formulate better explanations. There was a crisis in Flanders, a crisis that must be explained within the structure of the larger medieval rural economy. Although Flanders is not large, within it different regions experienced the classical elements of crisis in different ways, so a regional explanation is necessary. We will explain how regions of Flanders differed and why distinct areas grew and declined in varied ways. This diversity requires a definition of local economic and social structures, a theoretical framework we call ‘social agro-systemic’ areas.