On account of our fast-paced and ever-changing lives, I often get the impression that many developments only occurred in the last few decades. This can even be seen in our language – for instance, the term ‘globalisation’ only emerged in the 1960’s. Yet world-wide interactions and networks involving trade, politics, culture and communication between individuals, companies and states go much further back in time, as exemplified in the Early Modern period in what is now East Belgium.
For example, sources from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries are full of reports of soldiers being billeted, of wars, plundering, fires burning down whole towns, the plague, diseases, bad harvests and famines. Life in those days was a permanent struggle for survival. It wasn’t until the 18th century that a longer period without war allowed a more peaceful life and a general rise in prosperity.
But these sources also show that people were able to cope with these unfavourable conditions, doing everything to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Despite all the hardship, there were also impressive success stories, showing how, even back then, the first steps towards globalisation were being taken. Four examples from the region illustrate this development.
Probably since Roman times, calamine (a zinc ore) was mined in Altenberg near Kelmis. In the Early Modern period, the mine’s operators supplied it to copper-beaters in Aachen, Namur or Antwerp. But they also traded further afield, sending calamine to Nuremberg, Sweden and the Lorraine, even if this trade was often interrupted by war. In the 19th century the Kelmis-based mining company “Vieille Montagne” (the French translation of the German “Altenberg”) was to become a “global player”.
Records show that cloth manufacturing in Eupen dates back to the 16th century, privileged by the dukes of Limburg. Responsible for achieving a smooth cloth surface, cloth clippers were indispensable skilled craftsmen. They were also very mobile, quickly moving to where they could earn most. Weavers, cloth clippers and cloth traders from Eupen were to be found working in nearby towns such as Aachen, Monschau or Verviers, or further away in Flanders, Northern France, the Netherlands or in what is now Poland. In the 17th century, Eupen developed into an important cloth-making centre, with fine-woven Eupen cloth sold throughout Europe. The heyday of Eupen’s cloth-making industry was in the early 19th century during Napoleon’s embargo against British trade (1806-1813), which for a short period put a stop to competition from England.
Excellent clay, extensive deciduous forests providing wood for firing ovens and good transport links were the prerequisites for stoneware production in Raeren from the 14th century onwards. During its heyday, more than 100 potters produced the stoneware, demand for which was very high. Pots were sent by road to Cologne, Nijmegen, Liege or Antwerp, where they were loaded onto ships for export to Asia, America, Africa and Australia.
Even the town of Sankt Vith in the remote Eifel flourished on account of its location at the intersection of two main roads linking the Rhine, Meuse and Moselle. Many people there eked out an existence from agriculture, but some earned their living as traders of leatherware, cattle or other goods or as carriers.
But life was constantly overshadowed by the many wars, destruction and hardship. Those wanting to earn their living not just from subsistence farming but as craftsmen or tradesmen were dependent on access to markets further afield. This meant that they needed a functioning infrastructure.
In historical research, this period is synonymous with the heydays of cloth-making in Eupen and stoneware production in Raeren and elsewhere, but for the Belgian Eifel it was a period of great hardship. In the 20th century especially, the fact of being part of the Duchies of Limburg and Luxembourg and the emergence of a German-French language border were misused as arguments for determining to which nation the region belonged. The richness of day-to-day life and global trade relations was only revealed just a few decades ago.
Wine from Chile, strawberries in winter from South Africa, tea from India – all these are just as normal as laptops, mobiles or shoes from China, jeans from Bangladesh or t-shirts from Vietnam. Yet such worldwide networks are nothing new. Even back in the Early Modern period, the first steps towards establishing such networks were taken, and East Belgium was no exception. Looking at such networks, I ask myself: Whom do they benefit? Craftsmen? Manufacturers? Traders? Customers? Just one or everyone? Who is negatively impacted by them? Why? Can they help to keep our planet a liveable place in a hundred years’ time? What do you think?
Carlo Lejeune (Hg.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Band 2: Tuche, Töpfe, Theresianischer Kataster (1500-1794). Eupen 2015.