Antwerp as a Commercial Capital


The city of Antwerp in modern day Belgium was one of the great financial centers of the 16th cenutury.  it benefited from its position in the Lowlands and its protected harbor up river on the Scheldt River.  As a favored city of the Portuguese and later the Spanish, its close proximity to the road routes leading into the Bavarian and silver rich mining centers of Southern Germany allowed it to serve as a city that could survive the rivalries of empire and even the Lutheran Reformation.

Lecture Notes based on S.T. Bindoff’s The Greatness of Antwerp:

The following are a series of lecture notes taken on the classic essay by S.T. Bindoff, “The Greatness of Antwerp,”  in G.R. Elton, ed.The New Cambridge Modern History.  Vol. II:  The Reformation.  Cambridge University Press, 1962, 50-69.

The golden age of Antwerp coincides with the Northern European Renaissance.  It was regarded by contemporaries as an exceptional city, for it was also a commercial center of great wealth.  Even the Florentine historian Guicciardini who visited it after it had reached its zenith, wrote, “never since has there been a market which concentrated to such a degree the trade of all the important commercial nations of the world.”  Antwerp was unique because it was not just a commercial and banking center, but it was also a city of industry and textile manufacturing.


Peeter Van Bradael (1629-1719), The Old Ox Market in Antwerp


Alexander Van Bradael (1663-1720) The Ommegang at the Meir in Antwerp

From the 12th the 15th century the main town of commercial intensity was Bruges in Flanders.  In Then in the 15th century, Bruges was overtaken by Antwerp and for half a century Antwerp held a greater supremacy than Bruges.  Antwerp in time was caught up in the economic change and political upheaval of the mid-16th century and the leadership passed to the northern fringe of the delta to the Dutch where Amsterdam was to take off from the end of the 16th century and into the 17th century.The rise to prominence of Antwerp was the result of the Portuguese choice to make it a port town for the spice trade in 1499.   From about 1460 the Portuguese had chosen nearby Bruges to market their ocean wares and enterprise from their newly developed commercial empire of spice trade with India.  The first consignment of pepper and other gods from Lisbon reached Antwerp in august 1501.  Two years later the first contract for a thousand tons of spices were brought up the Scheldt River by 1504.  The yields of the consignment were spent partly on grain which the Portuguese needed desperately.  But they also wanted metals, and sliver, metals that Antwerp was in a position to receive because of tis overland trade roads to Southern Germany and the mines.  From Antwerp the Portuguese could obtain cloth, silver and metals that could then be traded in the Far East.  In fact, for 50 years the Portuguese factor kept his residence there until 1549 and his withdrawal was a sign of Antwerp’s competitive disadvantage.  The South Germans came to trade copper and quicksilver for spices and in time they became some of the greatest financiers of the age.  All this activity then attracted the English and the Dutch.

The history of Antwerp’s rise from the 14th century was described by Henri Priene in his Histoire de Belgique.  It was able to take off because of the deepening of the waterway form the sea, and the amenities of its safe harbor.  The rise of English cloth trade helped.  It also received the High Germans with their liberal business practices.

Antwerp grew because it had great ease of access.  It did not have a difficult sand bar that hindered access from the sea.  Even though it is inland along the river Scheldt.  There was a great medieval road that went from Cologne to Bruges and ran through Ghent and Mechlin, but another branch road ran to the Scheldt estuary.  This was South Germany’s way to Antwerp.  It was a relatively good but inexpensive route.  In the villages along these roads were inn names like “the Cologne Wagon,” which preserve the sense of this vanished highway.

One of the signs of market transformation at Antwerp and in other towns of Belgium and the Netherlands is the rise of fairs.  There were famous Brabant fairs or markets that were famous in the delta region. These fairs seem to have been regularized under the auspices of duke John II at the opening of the 14th century (p. 55).  Each fair was to last for two weeks, but these eventually lengthened to six.  They eventually overlapped some, and eventually extended to nearly half a year or about 22 weeks.  They began around Easter or the Paaasmarkt, at Bergen-op-Zoom, – it opened on Maundy Thursday and was followed next by the Pentecost Fair or Pinxten or Sinxtenmarkt at Antwerp.  The Antewerp Bismarkt or St. Bavo’s Fair opened at end of August and then came the Bergen Koudmarkt or Winter fair the last week of October.  The proximity of the two towns only 30 miles apart made it easy for merchants to visit both. These fairs grew in importance over time and were more regulated and lengthened as the need to make goods available or to swap goods from English ship based cloth merchants for example.  By the 16th century Bergen-op-Zoom continued as a fair town with hits foreign trade concentrated within the few weeks of its two fairs, but almost non-existent outside them.  However, Antwerp, on the contrary, the fairs flourish, but their activity is more or less continuous during the trading season.  This was the advantage of Antwerp in that it gained the attention and endorsement of the Merchant Adventurer’s Company in the 16th century after about the 1520s.

Antwerp owed much to political good fortune.  There remained the attitude of Burgundian rulers of the Netherlands toward the rising metropolis of Antwerp on the banks of the Scheldt.  (56).

The relation of Burgundy and Habsburg politics to keep influence in the area played a part.  Flanders had given the house of Burgundy its first footing in the Netherlands.  When Antwerp arose, the town’s support of Maximilian during his ten years’ struggle with the Flemish towns to  forged a bond between Antwerp and the dynasty that was to last unimpaired until the advent of Philip II in around 1558.  For the first 50 years of the 16th century the position of Antwerp was linked ot the fortune of Charles V of Spain.  Catholic and Protestant alike were tolerated if they were prominent businessmen, merchants.

The textile trade was most important.  English and Flemish cloth.  There was also a growing consumption of metal.  The German mines were especially important.  Exports of furniture and paper goods, maps, musical instruments for which the Netherlands were renowned.

Italian merchant families, including the Guicciardini family introduced double entry bookkeeping, a marker of commerce.  A credit system was established and a bill paying system.  This enabled the development of banks and over time German banks appeared because Germans were also merchants of precious metals, silver.

Speculative activity in real estate occurred at Antwerp. (65) Marine insurance was just beginning.  Merchants were in the habit of insuring their lives during their absence, a forerunner of modern life insurance.

The downfall of Antwerp, it was never a complete collapse, came when the catastrophes of the third quarter of the 16th century befell the city.  In 1557 Spain and France declared themselves bankrupt. Three years later Portugal declared the same.  For the bankers who had lent the two Iberian governments great sums these were heavy blows.  They saw their loans converted into 5 per cent annuities, which meant not merely a drastic reduction of interest but a large scale amortization of funds.

The state bankruptcies were the receiver-general and a number of towns were immobilized by the losses of smaller scale of capital flows for the money market and investment boom and bust as the effects of failure spread far and wide.

As the Protestant-Catholic wars in Europe spread, in 1576 the city suffered a major invasion by the Spanish known as the Spanish Furty in which about 7,000 civilians were massacred  This marked the formal end of Antwerp’s commercial position until its revival in modern times.


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Sack of Antwerp in 1577 (Source Wikipedia)


Bindoff S.T. 1962.  “The Greatness of Antwerp,”  in G.R. Elton, ed.The New Cambridge Modern History.  Vol. II:  The Reformation.  Cambridge University Press,  50-69.

Rothstein, Bret. 2012. “Beer and Loafing in Antwerp.” Art History 35, no. 5: 886-907.

Winter, Anne. 2009. Migrants and Urban Change: Newcomers to Antwerp, 1760-1860.  Pickering & Chatto Publishers, Limited