What the tides created, the tides destroyed. It left a silt bound city that has hardly changed since the time of its glory as a trading port of the Middle Ages. If Bruges had not existed, it might have been invented by the Neo-Gothics of the nineteenth century. Its significant paintings are genuinely pre-Raphaelite, its urban prospects picturesque, and its appeal to the literary mind certain. Nearly all of its architecture exemplifies Ruskin’s sixth principle, the Lamp of Memory. its hard to fathom that a country known so much today for its chocolate could have spilled so much blood in its heyday.
More precisely, Bruges is the best town in Belgium, perhaps in Western Europe, for a traveler who yearns to forget the industrial revolution. A network of quiet canals mirrors masses of foliage, flowers and Flemish brickwork. Gulls come in from the North Sea, nine miles away, and Lohengrinesque swans sometimes cruise by moonlight, materializing suddenly around the bends of the dark water. There a venerable spires, twilit naves, fortified gates,street after street of quaintly gabled facades, and some fifty bridges, many of them with Gothic humps. The municipal Belfry has swallows and a carillon.
The cityscape is preternaturally close to what it was at the end of the Middle Ages. A visitor to the Groening Museum, where part of the local collection of Flemish masterpieces is kept, can find in paintings of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the same perspectives and landmarks he has just admired from the canal quays outside. Bruges, however, is not only the pocket Venice of the North and a fascinating entry for an account of Romantic nostalgia in architecture. It is also the Pompeii of the North, minus the rain of hot ashes. Or, seen in the touristless winter, it is the urban equivalent of one of those sad Siberian mammoths, frozen in the posture of the moment when things went fatally wrong.
And the record; in chronicles, art and economic data of the life and death of the brilliant medieval town can be read more as a classical tragedy, complete with classical ”hubris”, than as a romantic idyll. One has only to accept the non-Aristotelian notion that businessmen can be both heroic and tragically flawed. The most probable derivation of the name Bruges is from a german word Norse or possible Old English, meaning ‘landing place”. In any case that is apparently what Bruges was in the ninth century, although its access to open water seems to have been ominously subject to the North Sea’s habit of biting at random into the flat Flemish coast. The place was also at a crossroads and, after 1865, the site of a castle built by Baldwin Iron Arm, Count of Flanders. It grew into a small commercial center during the next two centuries, when European trade in general was recovering from the long depression provoked by the pagan incursions.
Then, probably, in 1134, the local merchants had a piece of luck that must have seemed a sign of heavenly approval of their theoretically un-Christian profit making. A tidal wave, strong enough to wash away dikes and bore channels through silt, transformed the previously eccentric Zwin estuary into a gulf of the North Sea that extended south to a point about four mles north-east of Bruges. During the last quarter of the twelfth century, a well equipped foreport, called Damme, was constructed at this point and linked by a canal and the Rei to the heart of the walled inland city.
Sea captains had to be careful, for the Zwin channels soon showed a tendency to silt up again. Large ships were obliged to transfer their cargoes to barges and scows for the trip through the canal and the Rei. But throughout the High Middle Ages the merchandise got through: Coal, cheese, and above all wool from England; furs from Russia and the Baltic kingdoms by way of Lubeck; wine from Poitou and the Rhenish vineyards; metal from the Balkan states; alum, used as a binder in dyeing, from Islam and eventually the Papal states; fruit from Moorish Spain; fine fabrics from Italy; spices from the Orient; and even an occasionasl load of slaves.
In general, Bruges became the chief pivot of commerce between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. At abot 100,ooo people, it was a big city by medieval standards. London as late as the fifteenth century seems to have had only about 40,000 inhabitants. Given the complicated and frequently dangerous problems that confronted traffic on the Zwin, the Rei, and the canals, such a tremendous and enduring boom can look mysterious. The main explanation is that Flanders was one of the earliest and most active manufacturing regions of non-Mediterranean Europe, specializing in the mak
of cloth from English wool but also producing bricks, tiles, linen and red dye. A merchant of Venice, Genoa, barcelona, London, or Lubeck who sent a cargo to Bruges could be sure his ship would return with marketable goods.
Another explanation is that the burghers of Bruges firmly believed that ”will” can make history. At least economic history. In their great period they fought untiringly, with carefully situated dikes and with some fantastic attempts to control the tide so as to deepen the channels, against the filtering sand and mud that constantly menaced their life line to the sea. Less admirably, they were alert to the opportunities for monopoly offered by the rigid medieval system of corporations, guilds, charters, and special trading privileges granted by feudal authorities.
They were always ready to use force. They attempted, without success, to maintain a local weaving monopoly by organizing loom-smashing forays into the surrounding territory. They resorted to a flaming punitive raid when Sluis, the littel seaport at the entrance to the Zwin, not unnaturally thought of doing some trading on its own. During the French occupation of 1302, which was a threat to the supply of English wool in addition to being an affront to local patriotism, they staged the Matins of Bruges, slaughtering all who could not pronounce the Flemish ”Schild en Vriend” ( shield and friend ).
Strangely, in the midst of so many bloody quarrels the physical plant of Bruges was never subjected to a particularly destructive attack, not even in the twentieth century. One of the few important medieval campaigns in which it may have risked an eventual sack followed the Matins massacre and ended at Courtrai, thirty miles to the south. There in the Battle of the Golden Spurs, so called because of the quantity of such trophies carried off the field; an army of some 20,000 Flemish militiamen, with the wevers of Bruges forming the largest contingent, defeated a French army of some 50,000 and wiped out a large section of the French aristocracy.
This event is often presented, by writers who take a Whig view of history, as a victory of the common man over the forces of reaction; and perhaps it was. But what is most impressive of the old accounts is the savagery of the Flemish foot. Armed with heavy staffs and razor-sharp pikes, they caught a company of about a thousand French knights on marshy terrain, clubbed them from their saddles, and dispatched them while they lay helpless in the mud. The watching french host, demoralized by this unchivalric lack of quarter, took to its heels. The ”those of Bruges” according to ”La grande Chronique de Saint-Denis” , stripped the dead and ”went back to Bruges in great joy”, letting ”carrion eaters, birds, dogs, and beasts of the field devour the poor, noble bodies left naked on the plain”.
At this point such single minded courage, tenacity and ferocity, in both business and politics and against both silt and seigners, had begun to pay off fabulously. The burghers of Bruges and their wives were becoming notorious for their wealth and readiness to display it on their persons and in their homes. When Jeanne de Navarre, the French queen, made her royal entry in 1301, she is said to have remarked rather cattily, ” I thought I was the only queen , but I see hundreds of them.”