Bolton J.L. and Guidi Bruscoli F. (2008) When did Antwerp replace Bruges?

Bolton, Jim L. and Guidi Bruscoli, Francesco (2008) “When did Antwerp replace Bruges as the commercial and financial centre of north-western Europe? The evidence of the Borromei ledger for 1438”, The Economic History Review, 61/2, 360-379.


This article is part of the on-going research project, the Borromei family and its banks in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries

The classic account of the rise of Antwerp

In the 1940-60s, the Belgian scholar J. A. van Houtte produced what was to become the classical account of the rise of Antwerp. In his view, Bruges was not only the entrepôt where goods from the Mediterranean and the Baltic were exchanged, but also the door to and from the dynamic Flemish market, which at the time was boosted by a large urban population, a wealthy bourgeoisie and the magnificent court of the dukes of Burgundy.

During the late 1300s-early 1400s, the English cloth exports crowded out the Flemish fabrics, but Bruges itself would not decline before the 1460s (p.362). The dukes of Burgundy banned the sale of English textiles in their realm for the first time in 1359. As a consequence, the English Merchant Adventurers moved their trade to Antwerp – then under the control of the dukes of Brabant (p.363). The English exported unfinished cloth, which was dyed in Antwerp and brought prosperity to the whole region in the process. In 1430, Philip the Good of Burgundy inherited Brabant and impeded the development of Antwerp until 1460 when the last ban on imports was lifted (p.364).

During the 15th century, as England and Burgundy competed for bullion, the value of silver rose significantly around the North Sea. The ensuing arbitrage attracted the output of the quickly growing South German mines to the Low Countries. The availability of specie and the South German traders demand attracted to gradually Antwerp the English, Portuguese, Italian, etc. traders and finally the city definitely overtook its southern rival (p.365).

The Borromei bank

The branch of the Borromei bank in Bruges in the 1430s, despite a very unfavourable conjuncture, was still handling formidable sums (a £252000 sterling turnover in 1438). Its staff was limited to eight members. Bills of exchange and other international transfers accounted for 53.1% of the turnover transfers between clients accounted for 40.9% and trade (mostly purchase of luxury cloths and sale of Palermo sugar) for 6%.

“The main function of the bank in 1438 was to draw on Venice, and (p.368) particularly on messer Antonio Borromei and Lazzaro di Giovanni (…), to raise the credit needed for the branch in London to buy English wool and cloth for export”. But English wool and woollens could also be purchased in Antwerp, Calais, Bergen op Zoom and Middleburg where the staff travelled regularly; in this effect, the Borromei own a house in Antwerp (p.369).

The Borromei kept significant accounts in Antwerp and Bergen to accommodate their clients who attended the almost unbroken 24-weeks Brabantine fairs cycles starting in Easter (p.370). On the trading side, the Borromei bought madder at Middleburg, fustian at Antwerp and Bergen and re-sold locally English wool brought from the Calais staple (p.371).

Serviteur de deux maîtres

Even after bans on English imports were lifted in 1439, it is unlikely that the activity of the Borromei bank in Brabant decreased. Indeed, the English Merchant Adventurers, nor the South German traders moved to Bruges, so it would made sense for the Italians to have remained were their clients and providers stayed. Bruges remained important for the company as a relay for credit from Venice and Barcelona to London.

On the other hand, the Brabantine cities seem to have been already benefiting from the attention of numerous Bruges-based merchants in the 1430s and to have had the infrastructures to accommodate them and their business (p.377).


“Where does this leave the debate about the decline of Bruges and the rise of Antwerp? It is likely that some revision is needed for the period between 1421 and the 1460s. It cannot be convincingly shown that there was a sustained boom in exports of unfinished English cloth in those three decades. That did not come until the 1460s. However, by 1438, there was already a strong South German presence at Antwerp, and a viable infrastructure of innkeepers with warehousing who could act as agent for the Italians and other merchants. (…) Middleburg and Arenmuiden handled the larger ships but, madder apart, business was done at Antwerp and Bergen”.

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