Belgium – Origins Of Bruges

IN a lost corner of the great lowland flat of Flanders, defended from the sea by an artificial dyke, and at the point of intersection of an intricate network of canals and water-ways, there arose in the early Middle Ages a trading town, known in Flemish as Brugge, in French as Bruges (that is to say, The Bridge), from a primitive structure that here crossed the river. (A number of bridges now span the sluggish streams. All of them open in the middle to admit the passage of shipping.) Bruges stood originally on a little river, the Reye, once navigable, now swallowed by canals : and the Reye flowed into the Zwin, long silted up, but then the safest harbour in the Low Countries. At first the capital of a petty count, this landlocked internal harbour grew in time to be the Venice of the North, and to gather round its quays, or at its haven of Damme, the ships and merchandise of all neighbouring peoples. Already in I200 it ranked as the central mart of the Hanseatic League. It was the port of entry for English wool and Russian furs : the port of departure for Flemish broad-cloths, laces, tapestries, and linens. Canals soon connected it with Ghent, Dunkirk, Sluys, Fumes, and Ypres. Its nucleus lay in a little knot of buildings about the Grand’ Place and the Hotel de Ville, stretching out to the Cathedral and the Dyver ; thence it spread on all sides till in 1362 it filled the whole space within the existing ramparts, now largely abandoned or given over to fields and gardens. It was the wealthiest town of Europe, outside Italy. In the fourteenth century, Bruges was frequently the residence of the Counts of Flanders ; and in the fifteenth, it became the seat of the brilliant court of the Dukes of Burgundy. Under their rule, the opulent burghers and foreign merchants began to employ a group of famous artists who have made the city a place of pilgrimage for Europe and America, and to adorn the town with most of those buildings which now beautify its decay.

The foreign traders in Bruges lived in ” factories ” or guilds, resembling monasteries or colleges, and were governed by their own commercial laws. The Bardi of Florence were among its famous merchants : the Medici had agents here : so had the millionaire Fuggers of Augsburg.

Bruges is the best place in which to make a first acquaintance with the towns and art of Flanders, because here almost all the principal buildings are mediæval, and comparatively little that is modern comes in to mar the completeness of the picture. We see in it the architecture and the painting of Flanders, in the midst of the houses, the land, and the folk that gave them origin. Brussels is largely modernized, and even Ghent has great living manufactures; but Bruges is a fossil f the fifteenth century. It was the first to flourish and the first to decay of the towns of Belgium.

The decline of the town was due partly to the break-up of the Hanseatic system ; partly to the rise of English ports and manufacturing towns; but still more (and especially as compared with other Flemish cities) to the silting of the Zwin, and the want of adaptation in its waterways to the needs of great ships and modern navigation. The old sea entrance to Bruges was through the Zwin, by way of Sluys and Kadzand; up that channel came the Venetian merchant fleet and the Flemish galleys, to the port of Damme. By 1470, it ceased to be navigable for large vessels. The later canal is still open, but as it passes through what is now Dutch territory, it is little used; nor is it adapted to any save ships of comparatively small burden. Another canal, suitable for craft of five hundred tons, leads through Belgian territory to Ostend; but few vessels now navigate it, and those for the most part only for local trade. The town has shrunk to half its former size, and has only a quarter of its mediæval population. The commercial decay of Bruges, however, has preserved its charm for the artist, the archæologist, and the tourist; its sleepy streets and unfrequented quays are among the most picturesque sights of bustling and industrial modern Belgium. The great private palaces, indeed, are almost all destroyed: many public buildings remain, and the domestic architecture is quaint and pretty.

Bruges was the mother of the arts in Flanders. Jan van Eyck lived here from 1428 to 1440: Memling, probably, from 1477 till 1494. Caxton, the first English printer, lived as a merchant at Bruges (in the Domus Anglorum or English factory) from 1446 to 1476, and probably put in the press here the earliest English printed book (though strong grounds have been adduced in favour of Cologne). Colard Mansion, the great printer of Bruges at that date, was one of the leaders in the art of typography.

Those who desire further information on this most interesting town will find it in James Weale’s ” Bruges et ses Environs,” an admirable work, to which I desire to acknowledge my obligations.

At least two whole days should be devoted to Bruges : more if possible. But the hasty traveller, who has but time for a glimpse, should neglect the churches, and walk round the Grand’ Place and the Place du Bourg to the Dyver : spending most of his time at the Hôpital de St. Jean, which contains the glorious works of Memling. These are by far the most important objects to be seen in the city. The description in this Guide is written from the point of view of the more leisurely traveller.

Expect the frequent recurrence of the following symbols on houses or pictures : First, the Lion of Flanders, heraldic or otherwise, crowned, and bearing a collar with a pendant cross, secondly the Bear of Bruges, thirdly the Golden Fleece (Toison d’or), the device of the Order founded by Philippe le Bon in 1430, and appropriate to a country which owed its wealth to wool; it consists of a sheep’s skin suspended from a collar. The Flemish emblem of the Swan is also common as a relief or deco-ration.

St. Donatian, Archbishop of Rheims, is the patron saint. His mark is a wheel with five lighted candles.