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Abstract Poor relief provisions in early modern Europe are often considered to have been characterized by a divide between a uniform, compulsory, tax-based, and relatively secure and generous poor law ‘system’ in England, and the more haphazard, voluntary, relatively parsimonious, insecure, and predominantly urban relief practices on the Continent. In this article we challenge these assumptions by arguing that the spread of agrarian capitalism in coastal Flanders fostered a reorganization of poor relief that displayed many features considered unique to the English old poor law, including the levying of poor taxes. By exploring the introduction, diffusion, and effects of poor taxes in the rural district of Furnes in the second half of the eighteenth century, we demonstrate that poor taxes were not unique to England, and sharpen our comparative understanding of the causes, implications, and conflicts associated with this particular way of raising revenue for the poor. This supports our more general contention that the influence of the normative framework should not be overstated: more than differences in legislation, similarities in socio-economic development can explain variations in relief practices in preindustrial Europe.