About the NWO VIDI project (2018-2023)

Managing multi-level conflicts in commercial cities in northern Europe (c. 1350-1570)

We all want to know how to end conflicts. That is why conflict resolution has been at the centre of academic debates in relation to individual, group and large-scale clashes. Yet conflicts are not only brought to an end, they can escalate or linger on. They are being managed. The current challenge is to reconsider classical paradigms for dealing with conflicts and anchor this change in historical reflection. In this project, ‘conflict managers’ in premodern cities in northern Europe open new doors to understanding how conflicts were dealt with in the past, and lead us to new questions about the present.

We propose a five-partite model of conflict management, consisting of
- prevention,
- provocation,
- maintenance of the status quo,
- escalation and de-escalation
- and finally, resolution.

Combining insights from economic, legal and political history, and aiming to contribute to these fields with a fundamentally novel approach, we analyse individual, group and large-scale conflicts as one system of relations. They were connected through the applied strategies and an astounding variety of tactics, as well as through the group of people who dealt with them: the faces of institutions in premodern Europe.

Conflict managers were embedded in merchant networks and fulfilled multiple and flexible roles such as mediators, judges and urban diplomats. We hypothesise that the development of sophisticated management strategies, designed by and put into practice by experienced conflict managers, was essential for safeguarding the autonomy of premodern commercial cities in northern Europe. A transregional and comparative analysis of city cases from c. 1350-1570 involving varying degrees of autonomy will test this hypothesis and reveal how cities in northern Europe responded to state formation and complex changes.

The insights from this project will contribute directly to research on contemporary conflicts by showing why we today should look beyond conflict resolution and fixed roles of conflict managers. The project is thus a relevant contribution to modern Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and economic diplomacy, disciplines which combine theory with practice to explore alternatives to law and political intervention.

More information on the project in the article of the PI: Wubs-Mrozewicz, J., (2018) Conflict Management and Interdisciplinary History. Presentation of a New Project and an Analytical Model. TSEG/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History. 15(1), pp.89–107


Ester Zoomer  ‘Economic diplomats: Hansards in Bruges, Antwerp and London (c.1350-1570)’ (PhD project)

This research project focuses on Hanseatic diplomatic actors and merchants residing in London, Bruges and Antwerp, between c. 1350 and 1570. It centers on how Hanseatic actors and institutions (especially the Kontore) handled conflicts abroad. These conflicts range from individual mercantile court cases to large scale events, often intertwined with overarching developments in the premodern world, the Hanseatic cities and their trading rivals. I am especially intrigued by the cross-border, interregional aspect of the Hanse. In particular, I am interested in the differences between their cities’ autonomies and loyalties, and how the sense of a Hanseatic merchant cooperation and community, combined with urban rivalry and relations with their host regions, influenced the conflict management in London, Bruges and Antwerp. By analyzing source material such as diplomatic correspondences, legal cases and urban administrations, I aim to identify Hanseatic individuals as ‘conflict managers’, i.e. individuals who took on certain roles within economic diplomacy and legal cases, and I will analyze the strategies and tactics that these actors, and the institutions that they represented, used while handling multi-level conflicts.

Christian Manger ‘The Hanse and the game of conflict management: Lübeck, Reval (Tallinn) and Stockholm’ (PhD project)

This research project studies the management of conflicts in and around the late medieval cities of Lübeck, Reval (Tallinn), and Stockholm. Throughout the period of investigation (c.1370-1570), these three cities – while separated by large spatial distances – were closely connected on the economic and political level by the common networks of their merchants and family ties of their burghers, as well as by common political and legal traditions and institutions. Due to these numerous links and connections, economic and political conflicts not only often involved more than one of these towns, but also their different overlords, courts, and – sometimes in the background, sometimes central – the Hanse. By combining a wide range of legal and diplomatic sources – with a focus on letters and inter-urban communication – I aim to gain insight into the complexity of these conflicts: who was tasked or entrusted with managing them? Which strategies and tactics did actors use to do so? At the current stage of the project, I am particularly interested in the reciprocity in interactions between individuals, city councils, nobles, and states. How did burghers and city councils make use of contesting ideas about urban autonomy, Hanseatic cooperation, royal claims of superior jurisdiction, and the authority of courts?

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz ‘Subsidiarity and social embeddedness of conflict managers: Danzig (Gdańsk), Thorn (Toruń) and Elbing (Elbląg)’ (PI/ postdoc)

Conflict managers from these Prussian cities had three things in common. They were 1) merchants with international connections in the North Sea who cooperated in the Baltic grain export, 2) Hansards who regularly met each other, also in the regional setting, 3) subjects of the Teutonic Order and, from the mid-fifteenth century, the Polish Crown and thus facing similar political conditions. I will study the impact of the complex interrelations generated by these multiple roles on conflict management.
    The concept of subsidiarity will be applied to determine how the tasks of dealing with conflicts were divided in this area, and what role social embeddedness in networks played (especially important for cases involving mobile family members). The chosen focus also helps to tackle a historiographical challenge: conflicts related to these cities have been understood in political terms and placed into the framework of Polish and German national historiographies, with differing interpretations of the sources. For instance, the increasing intervention of the Polish king in the sixteenth century has been seen by Polish historians as a sign of a growing integration of the cities into the Polish Crown, while German historians have underlined the loss of autonomy of especially Danzig. Loyalties of town councillors have sometimes been interpreted in quite contradictory ways. Here, the analysis of how conflict managers operated in multiple social contexts makes this topic part of a transnational debate, beyond the German-Polish historical narrative.

The three subprojects will constitute the basis for the synthesis of ‘Managing multi-level conflicts in commercial cities in northern Europe (c. 1350-1570)’

Associate project

Alex Collin 'Knowledge, Non-Knowledge, and Decision Making: Theories and Practices of Politics in Early Modern Bremen'

As an associate project, this research covers slightly different issues to the “Managing Multi-level Conflicts” project, but it also overlaps with it in important ways and shares many of the project’s core goals. Firstly, the projects share a similar geographical and chronological space, which provides mutual benefits by facilitating comparisons between cases, as well as exploring the continuities of urban life in northern Europe in the decades after the period covered by the “Managing Multi-level Conflicts”, while simultaneously grounding the decision making research in the deeper past covered by the project as a whole. Secondly, there are also affinities between the projects at the conceptual level. The study of decision makers, much like the study of conflict managers, offers a perspective on historical change in which human agency can be given a central role. Decisions were, of course, shaped in part by institutions, not only those of politics and law but also those in the social and cultural realms, but decisions were never straightforwardly the products of such constraints. Arriving at a decision, or managing a conflict, depended on one’s ability to navigate such situational constraints. This agency is manifested in the knowledge, experiences, strategies, and tactics that conflict managers and decision makers applied to problems as their conflicts or decision situations developed. By comparatively examining the evidence from private sources like letters and diaries with the evidence from governmental sources, this project aims to construct a detailed empirical account of the intersection of agency and constraint as it was experienced in the early modern city.