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The emergence of communes in the rich Flemish towns - such as Ghent, Bruges, Arras or Ypres - is gradual. Since the time of the Frankish empire these towns have had their own magistrates or échevins (usually twelve or thirteen in a numerical tradition deriving from missionaries in this region). With growing prosperity the magistrates acquire a certain independence.

The first important step is the right to be appointed by the burghers of the town rather than by the feudal overlord, the count of Flanders. A subsequent development is for the role of magistrate to be reduced from a life appointment to an annual period of office.

This important change, creating a municipal council, is achieved by the major Flemish towns between about 1190 and 1240. As in the Italian communes, the system of government is oligarchic rather than democratic; power tends to be in the hands of relatively few families.

But the Flemish communes remain municipal, concerned with regulating a shared commercial venture rather than establishing rule over a wider rural territory. As a result, during the 14th century, the craftsmen in many places acquire a measure of power. In Ghent, after 1369, three separate groups elect the thirteen magistrates. The merchants choose three; the weavers and fullers choose five; the smaller crafts choose five.

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