a1 Vakgroep Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis, Universiteit Gent, Blandijnberg 2, 9000 Gent, Belgium
a2 Dept Geschiedenis, Universiteit Antwerpen, Stadscampus, S.R.A11, Rodestraat 14, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium
Though the phrase ‘public services’ is a nineteenth-century invention, which was supported by a developed rhetoric of political economy, this article shows that the concept, practice and supply of such services could also be found in the medieval city. It specifically analyses three areas of urban service provision: jurisprudence and legal security, infrastructure and finally health care and poor relief. Although the available sources tend to stress the involvement of municipal authorities in providing public services, it turns out that in fact the furnishing of services was highly multi-layered. In all three areas studied, a wide range of public and private institutions offered services to specific groups within late medieval urban society. In contrast to what the notion of ‘public services’ lets us presume, however, public services in the medieval city were not available to all inhabitants. Instead, the provision of services was usually quite restrictive, and targeted particular groups in society.
* The research for this article was financed by the IAP-project (VI, 32) ‘City and society in the Low Countries, 1100–1800’ of the Federal Science Policy of Belgium and by the Research Foundation of Flanders (FWO). We want to thank Shennan Hutton, Christian Liddy, Manon van der Heijden, Peter Stabel and Griet Vermeesch for their comments on a first version of this article, which was presented at the Ninth European Urban History Conference in Lyon (30 Aug. 2008).