The de facto city-state of Antwerp was the dream of every libertarian in the 16th century. Merchants and traders were welcomed from far and beyond. Antwerp had a large foreign population, including many people of English and Italian descent. The city harboured a colourful and vibrant blend of cultures.
The Antwerp stock exchange is widely considered the world’s first modern stock exchange. It included an art trading exchange on its top floor, where art could be traded as an asset. Paintings by Albrecht Dürer were traded like stocks in Roche or Apple. An entire ship could be insured with one of Dürer’s paintings. Furthermore, Antwerp boasted a flourishing printed media industry that was far ahead of its time.
When compared with other 16th-century cities, women in Antwerp enjoyed considerable rights. The wives of traders often acted as directors while their husbands were away on business trips – in other words, basically all the time. The husbands were then presented with a fait accompli upon their return.
Antwerp in the 16th century was similar to modern New York, Zurich or Hong Kong (before recent unpleasant events) of today. Unfortunately, the city soon fell into decline, as a result of two main factors. Firstly, the actions of the eternally envious Dutch Spaniards of the Counter-Reformation, who considered Antwerp’s success – and its associated cosmopolitanism and progressiveness – to be “decadent”. They, together with the surrounding rural population, ruined the city because they hated it. Secondly, Antwerp’s own population became envious of successful foreign émigrés living in their city, despite benefiting from the wealth those émigrés created for them.
The Antwerp of the early 17th century was a beautiful, but unimaginative and economically disconnected city. Without much life in the streets, it gradually became dull and dreary.
We can see similarities in the “urban-rural conflicts” of today. Certain groups in modern nation-states increasingly live off the fruits of past successes. These people are becoming more and more envious of – and annoyed by – successful, hardworking people. As we observe these changes taking place in modern society, we would do well to learn from the history of Antwerp.
This is an amended version of an article previously published in the Schweizer Monat Monthly by Thomas Sevcik.