Belgium – Origins Of Ghent

FLANDERS owes everything to its water communications. At this junction of the Schelde with the Lys or Lei, there grew up in the very early Middle Ages a trading town, named Gent, in Flemish, and Gand in French, but commonly Anglicised as Ghent. It lay on a close network of rivers and canals, formed partly by these two main streams, and partly by the minor channels of the Lieve and the Moere, which together intersect it into several islands. Such a tangle of inland water-ways, giving access both to the sea and to Bruges, Courtrai, and Tournay, as well as less directly to Antwerp and Brussels, ensured the rising town in early times considerable importance. It formed the centre of a radiating commerce. Westward, its main relations were with London and the English wool ports; eastward with Cologne, Maastricht, the Rhine towns, and Italy. Ghent was always the capital of East Flanders, as Bruges or Ypres were of the Western province; and after the counts lost possession of Arras and Artois, it became in the thirteenth century their principal residence and the metropolis of the country. The trade in weaving grew rapidly in importance, and the Ghenters received from their count a charter of liberties of the usual mediæval burgher type. As time went on, and the city advanced in wealth, its subjection to its sovereigns became purely nominal. Ghent equipped large bodies of citizen soldiers, and repulsed a considerable English army under Edward I. The Ghenters were also deter-mined opponents of the claims of the French kings to interfere in the internal affairs of Flanders; thus they were mainly instrumental in winning the famous Battle of the Spurs in 1302, when the citizens of Bruges and Ghent put to flight the army of France under the Count of Artois before the walls of Tournay, and dedicated as trophies seven hundred golden spurs, worn by the French knights whom they had routed. This battle, memorable as one of the chief triumphs of nascent industrial freedom over the chivalry and royalty of mediævalism, secured the liberties of the Flemish towns against French aggression.

Early in the fourteenth century, the burghers of Ghent, under their democratic chief, Jacob or Jacques van Artevelde, attained practical independence. Till 1322, the counts and people of Flanders had been united in their resistance to the claims of France; but with the accession of Count Louis of Nevers, the aspect of affairs changed. Louis was French by education, sympathies, and interests, and aristocratic by nature; he sought to curtail the liberties of the Flemish towns, and to make himself despotic. The wealthy and populous burgher republics resisted, and in 1337 Van Artevelde was appointed Captain of Ghent. Louis fled to France, and asked the aid of Philip of Valois. Thereupon, Van Artevelde made himself the ally of Edward III. of England, then beginning his war with France; but as the Flemings did not like entirely to cast off their allegiance — a thing repugnant to mediæval sentiment — Van Artevelde persuaded Ed-ward to put forward his trumped-up claim to the crown of France, and thus induced the towns to transfer their fealty from Philip to his English rival. It was therefore in his character as King of France that Edward came to Flanders. The alliance thus formed between the great producer of raw wool, England, and the great manufacturer of woollen goods, Ghent, proved of immense commercial importance to both parties. But as Count Louis sided with Philip of Valois, the breach between the democracy of Ghent and its nominal sovereign now became impassable. Van Artevelde held supreme power in Ghent and Flanders for nine years — the golden age of Flemish commerce — and was treated on equal terms by Edward, who stopped at Ghent as his guest for considerable periods. But he was opposed by a portion of the citizens, and his suggestion that the Black Prince, son of Edward III., should be elected Count of Flanders, proved so unpopular with his enemies that he was assassinated by one of them, Gerard Denys. The town and states immediately repudiated the murder; and the alliance which Van Artevelde had brought about still continued. It had far-reaching results; the woollen industry was introduced by Edward into the Eastern Counties of England, and Ghent had risen meanwhile to be the chief manufacturing city of Europe.

The quarrel between the democratic weavers and their exiled counts was still carried on by Philip van Artevelde, the son of Jacques, and godson of Queen Philippa of England, herself a Hainaulter. Under his rule, the town continued to increase in wealth and population. But the general tendency of later mediæval Europe toward centralized despotisms as against urban republics was too strong in the end for free Ghent. In 1381, Philip was appointed dictator by the democratic party, in the war against the count, son of his father’s old opponent, whom he repelled with great slaughter in a battle near Bruges. He then made himself Regent of Flanders. But Count Louis obtained the aid of Charles VI. of France, and defeated and killed Philip van Artevelde at the disastrous battle of Roosebeke in 1382. That was practically the end of local freedom in Flanders. Though the cities continued to revolt against their sovereigns from time to time, they were obliged to submit for the most part to their count and to the Burgundian princes who inherited from him by marriage.

The subsequent history of Ghent is that of the capital of the Burgundian dukes, and of the House of Austria. Here the German king, Maximilian, afterward Emperor,married Mary of Burgundy, the heiress of the Netherlands; and here Charles V. was born in the palace of the counts. It was his principal residence, and he was essentially a Fleming. Other historical reminiscences will be pointed out in the course of our peregrinations.

The old waterways, partially artificial, between Ghent and the sea, other than the circuitous route by the shallow Schelde, had silted up by 1827, when a ship canal was constructed to Terneuzen. This canal has since been widened and deepened so as to admit vessels of seventeen hundred tons ; it has thus helped to some small degree to save the town from the fate of Bruges. But as its mouth lies in what is now Dutch territory, and as heavy tolls are levied, it is comparatively little used. Another and somewhat frequented canal leads to Brûges; but Ghent owes most of its existing prosperity to its manufactures — cotton, linen, engines, leather — and to its central position on the railway system.

The important points for the tourist to bear in mind are these, however. Ghent during the Middle Ages was a merchant republic, practically independent, with its guilds and its belfry, the last of which was used to summon the citizens to arms in case of danger. It was also the chief manufacturing town in Europe, as Bruges was the chief commercial centre. By treaty with Edward III., Bruges was made the ” staple ” or sole port of entry for English wool : and this wool was woven into cloth for the most part at Ghent.

Further details of the vicissitudes of Ghent can be found in Van Duyse, ” Gand, Monumental et Pittoresque.”

The chief object of interest at Ghent are the Cathedral, with its great Van Eyck ; and the Town Hall and Belfry. These can be tolerably seen in one day : but a stay of three or four days will not be too much to explore the curious nooks of the early city.