Crewing the Galleys to Turkey:  Forced Labour in the Fifteenth-Century Low Countries Conrad Grünenberg, Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem, Badische Landesbibliothek, Cod. St. Peter pap. 32, ff. 5v-6r (detail), 1487. Source: https://digital.blb-karlsruhe.de

Crewing the Galleys to Turkey: Forced Labour in the Fifteenth-Century Low Countries

In 1464, twenty-five men were sentenced to penal labour on the galleys by the reeve of the bailiwick (meierij) of ’s-Hertogenbosch in Brabant. Who were these men and how did they meet this fate?

In the fifteenth century, the migrant, working poor in Europe’s urbanized regions was increasingly cut off from access to charity. Casual workers were forced to survive off seasonal labour. In this period, authorities made efforts to enforce different statuses on labourers, talking about the migrant, working poor in moral terms as idle miscreants. A cluster of ordinances issued by cities in Brabant arranged for those considered able to work, to either find employment, leave the city or face punishment. In extension, a statute issued by the duke of Burgundy in 1459 regulated the impressment of vagrants, who were sentenced to hard labour on the galley ships.

Casual labour after the Black Death

Who were these casual labourers? In the wake of the Black Death (1347-1353), a growing number of working poor in the Low Countries, northern Italy, southern Germany and France took to the road in search of work. Making up 15-20% of the population, these migrants toiled as seasonal labourers on larger manors, in the cottage industry, as temporary hands in towns and cities, as porters, cleaners and household servants, and in public works, army and naval services. Despite an increasing demand for workers in response to the demographic decline caused by the pandemic, the position of the poor deteriorated in this period. Their predicament was partly in the hands of the authorities, who regulated the workers’ status and conditions, reducing access to support networks of charity. In doing so, the magistrates differentiated between so-called able-bodied poor, expected to live off manual labour, and vulnerable orphans, the elderly, sick and disabled people, allowed to live off alms. To expand the pool of cheap workers, authorities also organized penal labour, such as crewing the galley ships.

Qualifying able-bodiedness

Able-bodiedness was the criterion used to distinguish the working poor from the men, women and children supported by charitable good works. The able-bodied and the vulnerable were categorized according to age, health and disabilities. In 1456, the city of Louvain, for instance, decreed that only children under the age of twelve and workers above sixty, the mentally disabled, sick and parents burdened with the care for young children, were allowed to collect alms or beg for bread (Stadsarchief Louvain, 1528, fols. 112r-113v). The city authorities thereby used a visual system to distinguish those men and women who had access to support, using lead tokens suspended around their necks. Hospitals, taverns and innkeepers were held responsible for ensuring that only the bearers of such tokens be admitted to their properties. Proprietors who failed to enforce these rules risked being fined or having their businesses closed down. Healthy men and women immediately had to hand in their tokens upon recovery from sickness. Appointed officials enforced these regulations and policed the streets, ensuring that miscreants were punished along with gamblers, pimps and arsonists. However, the head of the Heilige Tafel responsible for charity support was still allowed to hand out alms at his own discretion.

2900 Loodjes nl 2900 Loodjes nl
A fifteenth-century poor token from Dordrecht (front and back). Source: https://loodjes.nl/Dordrecht.html

Useless, surplus workers

That the ordinances mention migrant able-bodied poor in the same breath as gamblers and arsonists is not a coincidence. Studies of racial capitalism observe that to differentiate between various workers’ statuses, employers often use morally encoded language. Thus, in the fifteenth century, authorities condemned able-bodied workers who supposedly did not make a proper effort as idle persons. They are pejoratively called ribalds or ‘useless persons’ (onnutte personen), do-nothings, dicers, known for loitering in taverns and making fires. In this they differed from the truly vulnerable, who in the economy of salvation were rightful recipients of Christian charity. In this manner, the authorities were pushing the migrant poor into the zone of the useless, the non-productive, beyond the boundaries of capitalist society that determines value in terms of contribution to production. The line between useful and expendable was, for that matter, thin. Some managed to secure low-paying work in the city, for instance as cleaners, working for the so-called Lord of the Ribalds in Ghent and Bruges, or as slijkburgers (‘dirt citizens’) in Utrecht. Others, the city expelled.

Penalizing the working poor

In addition to refusing them charity, urban authorities also took to penalizing the presence of migrant, working poor unable to support themselves. In many cities, regulations determined that the beggars had to leave the city within one or several days. On 9 October 1424, the city of Sint-Truiden in present-day Belgian Limburg, stipulated that so-called ribalds and sex workers only stay in the city and the vrijheid for the duration of one night, under penalty of having their mandibles, or jaws marked with a hot iron (Stadsarchief Sint-Truiden, Nachtegael, fol. 21v). Louvain, in 1456, ordained that pilgrims and poor vagrants stay in the villages for one day and one night, and in the towns for two nights and one day. Exceeding these terms automatically led to penalization, unless one could argue convincingly that one was unaware of these regulations. In Louvain, the authorities sentenced begging women to three days imprisonment in the St Michiel's Gate, on bread and water. The sentence was doubled in case of regression. Men were shamed to spending three hours on the pillory. The ordinances often also penalized other forms of behaviour, such as in the case of Louvain, where gambling in the city hall, creating small fires and other general disorderly conduct, including toppling the tables in the meat hall (‘dobbelen oft spelen die bancken omme werpen’), was condemned.

Konrad von Grünenberg Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem Blatt 005v 006r Konrad von Grünenberg Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem Blatt 005v 006r
Venetian galley transporting pilgrims to Jerusalem in 1486-87. Conrad Grünenberg, Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem, Badische Landesbibliothek, Cod. St. Peter pap. 32, ff. 5v-6r, 1487. Source: https://digital.blb-karlsruhe.de

Forced labour

It is within the context of these regulations that we can begin to understand the fate of the twenty-five anonymous men sentenced to row on the galleys to Turkey in 1464. For those condemned for idleness could also, conveniently, be subjected to forced labour. Thus, on 14 August 1459, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, issued an ordinance for the duchy of Brabant, in his own words for the ‘peace in our good territory of Brabant’, to feed the poor and amend many needs (Recueil des ordonnances des Pays-Bas. Première série: 1381-1506. Deuxième section, ed. P. Godding (Brussels, 2005), II, 439-447). In keeping with the earlier urban ordinances, he ordered that all vagabonds ('ledichgangers', idlers) above sixteen and under sixty, without rents or proper business, who frequented the taverns, leave Brabant within three days after publication or be set to work, serving ‘good men’ daily, living and sleeping in their houses. Those eligible for charity should wear a lead token suspended on a string attached so tightly around their bare necks, that it could not be slipped over their heads (and lent to others). In this case, however, transgressors not only were to be put on bread and water for two months, but afterwards transferred to the galleys, at the cities’ expense. Non-workers in the city who were able to earn a living and did not qualify for a token, should also be arrested and sent to the galleys, in the same manner as the ledichgangers. The duke ordered that officials police the hospitals and ‘bad’ taverns at night, to check ‘for any adventurers, and whether they included suspects of any misdemeanors’ (‘wat gasten dair sijn op avonturen, oft dair iemand waere dairmen suspicie van ennigen quaden fayten op hadde’).

The fate of the galley rowers on crusade to Turkey

In the above ordinance, Philip the Good’s self-professed motive for regulating the work force was concern for the poor and public order. It is not unlikely, however, that other matters also pressed on his mind. After all, five years before, in 1455, the Burgundian duke had unsuccessfully tried to muster an army. This endeavor followed a long-standing promise to go on crusade to Turkey, whose capital Constantinople had fallen to the Ottomans in 1453. Costs and unwillingness among the aristocracy had thwarted his plans, but this did not put him off indefinitely. On 22 November 1463, in a revived attempt, the duke accordingly requested that oars be transferred from Boulogne to Sluis to use them on the galley ships for the voyage to ‘Turquie’. The duke seized all the ships at Sluis and other ports, as well as recruiting seamen and fitting out the ships with food and materials In Antwerp and Nieuwpoort he began to equip the galleys. By 16 February 1464, Simon de Lalaing, admiral of Flanders, had at his disposal nineteen caravels, of which ten were given to Antoine of Burgundy, Philip’s bastard son. Eventually, the expedition from Sluis headed by Antoine consisted of fifteen ships: three galleys, a galliot, ten caravels and a nave. To crew the galleys, however, Philip also needed strong men, rowers, coerced into doing hard labour. To this end, on 20 January 1464, the duke wrote to the reeves of Holland and Zeeland, ordering them to arrest ‘men of suspect behaviour’, who at the end of March and early April were transferred to The Hague and from there to Sluis. On the 26th of February he further requested men to crew the caravels, who at the end of March were sent to Sluis and handed over to Simon de Lalaing (The Hague, Nationaal Archief,, inv. nr. 164, fol. 171v-174v).

It is likely that Philip the Good also summoned his officials to round up suspects in Brabant. On 10 March 1463, the reeve Ywayne de Mol ordered to take prisoner young, strong men of low rank ('gesellen van cleynen regimente'), of dishonest behaviour ('ontameliken leven'), gamblers, idlers ('ledichgangers'), and sentence them to labour on the galleys. On 2 April 1464, the duke demanded they were to be transported directly to Sluis. The reeve accordingly arrested 25 anonymous men and handed them over to the deputies in the city of Sluis, as recorded in a letter of receipt of Peter le Pipper, delegate of Roberde de Smet, receiver of the ‘Lord of Turkey’. The campaign departed on 20 or 21 May 1464, making a detour via Santiago de Compostella and Ceuta, after which the ships were caught up in a storm. Some of the ships stopped briefly at Barcelona, after which they proceeded to Marseille. This was to be their final destination. The coffers were empty. Plague broke out. Many of the men who boarded in Sluis did not survive.

We still know little about how labour was organized, normatively and in practice, in the emerging capitalist societies in this period. Clearly, the differentiation of workers’ statutes meant the imbrication of health and labour. Who was involved in determining the status and value of workers in this period, is the topic of my current research.

Select literature

Gargi Bhattacharyya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival (London, 2018)

Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, Poverty and Capitalism in Pre-Industrial Europe (Brighton, 1982)

Jacques Paviot, La politique navale des ducs de Bourgogne, 1384-1482 (Lille, 1995)

Fernand Vanhemelryck, Europa tegen de Turken: De kruistocht van Filips de Goede (Louvain, 2009)

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