Explaining the great litigation decline. The impact of social-economic change on litigation patterns in the Franc of Bruges (1670-1795)

Start - End 
2014 - 2018 (ongoing)
Department of History



Recently, research on civil court archives of different European regions revealed the vast fluctuation of litigation patterns during the early modern history. From c.1560 onwards, there is a steep rise in the settlement of disputes by legal institutions. Never before did, relatively, so many people of all ranks of society opt for settling their quarrels in front of a judge. Richard Kagan referred to this period as the ‘legal revolution’, which lasted for almost a century, c.1560-1650. After this period of increase, the number of lawsuits diminished and around c. 1730 the amount of lawsuits had almost collapsed. The ‘great litigation decline’, as this phenomenon is called in historiography, evokes a lot of questions: Why did so many people abandon court as place for dispute settlement in the course of the eighteenth century, while a century before people started lawsuits for the pettiest troubles? Until now, historiography did not succeed in understanding the underlying dynamics of this decline of litigation. This project will focus on the impact of social-economic change on the litigation decline in Bruges and the Liberty of Bruges for the period 1650-1795. First, I will examine the archives of the different courts and tallying the number of lawsuits, so I can bring out the fluctuations in court business. I will examine shifts in clientele, as well as shifts in case matter. The second part of the research will focus on the possible explanations for the litigation decline. This research wants to approach litigation as a part of the social and economic daily life, rather than the outcome of institutional developments and legal evolutions. Therefore, the Franc of Bruges offers the ideal surrounding for this case study, as different ‘social agrosystems’ exists in this rather confined area. The socio-economic difference resulting from this variation in soil composition allows us to give us clues about the full impact of social-economic positions of clientele on possible shifts in litigation.



Phd Student(s)


Griet Vermeesch