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Listing Sovereignty: Archive and Rebellion in the Low Countries, 1300-1578


My dissertation argues that archive keepers created a late medieval information state in Flanders around the year 1400 through escalating responses to urban rebellion. It tracks how documents created power, under three dynasties, all of which attended to the charter treasury of Lille: Dampierre (1244-1385), Valois (1385-1482), and Habsburg (1482-1667). Modifying the older traditions of cartulary- and register-keeping, these dynasties’ administrators created sophisticated archival lists – inventories – that remained in use for three centuries. These inventories facilitated the confiscation, creation, organization, and mobilization of archival documents that enabled the counts of Flanders to expand their sovereignty, which in late medieval Europe meant magnifying their own power vis-à-vis other local institutions and expanding the range of their authority. This was not a linear process: through use and abuse, archives were produced as spaces of truth and repositories of political power. At different stages, archives might be shared between princes, between princes and towns, or between princes and churches. The transformations in the ways documents made power were as much about interaction between different institutions as they were about the innovations of princely authorities themselves.

Around the year 1100, regional princes began issuing charters of privilege to communities in Flanders. Two hundred years later, the charter was a necessary foundation of urban life, and in response to twin traditions of internal rebellion against patrician municipal regimes and urban rebellion against the prince, the counts of Flanders began to regularly revoke and re-issue these charters as part of a long-standing ritual of penitence used to mend the relationship between ruler and ruled in the wake of conflict. As they did so, comital administrators gathered information on the contents of their urban subjects’ archives and eventually began to seek monopolies over certain types of archival documents. Initially, princely administrators showed interest primarily in charters of privileges, but over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they began confiscating increasing numbers and types of documents in an attempt to create regional exclusivity over the rights to make war and grant privileges. Only as they built up this informational sovereignty did counts begin to emphasize their own symbolic power by practicing the rites of power previously associated in Flanders with the kings of France. But as the confiscation of archival documents became a routine element of their ceremonial repertoire, the rituals of rebellion and repression became routine. Only a disproportionate repression of urban constitutional rights under Emperor Charles V could break the legal hold of the regime of privilege founded around 1100, but the legacy of privilege and sovereignty established over the previous half century lived on in early modern rebellions.

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