The Rhine constituted the great central waterway of medieval Europe; the Flemish towns were its ports and its manufacturing centers. They filled in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries much the same place that Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, and Birmingham fill in the nineteenth. Many causes contributed to this result.
Flanders, half independent under its own counts, occupied a middle position, geographically and politically, between France and the Empire; it was comparatively free from the disastrous wars which desolated both these countries, and in particular it largely escaped the long smouldering quarrel between French and English, which so long retarded the development of the former. Its commercial towns, again, were not exposed on the open sea to the attacks of pirates or hostile fleets, but were safely ensconced in inland flats, reached by rivers or canals, almost inaccessible to maritime enemies. Similar conditions elsewhere early ensured peace and prosperity for Venice.
The canal system of Holland and Belgium began to be developed as early as the twelfth century (at first for drainage), and was one leading cause of the commercial importance of the Flemish cities in the fourteenth. In so flat a country, locks are all but unnecessary. The two towns which earliest rose to greatness in the Belgian area were thus Bruges and Ghent; they possest in the highest degree the combined advantages of easy access to the sea and comparative inland security.
Bruges, in particular, was one of the chief stations of the Hanseatic League, which formed an essentially commercial alliance for the mutual protection of the northern trading centers. By the fourteenth century Bruges had thus be-come in the north what Venice was in the south, the capital of commerce. Trading companies from all the surrounding countries had their “factories” in the town, and every European king or prince of importance kept a resident minister accredited to the merchant republic.
Some comprehension of the mercantile condition of Europe in general during the Middle Ages is necessary in order to understand the early importance and wealth of the Flemish cities. Southern Europe, and in particular Italy, was then still the seat of all higher civilization, more especially of the trade in manufactured articles and objects of luxury. Florence, Venice and Genoa ranked as the polished and learned cities of the world. Further east, again, Constantinople still remained in the hands of the Greek emperors, or, during the Crusades, of their Latin rivals. A brisk trade existed via the Mediterranean between Europe and India or the nearer East. This double stream of traffic ran along two main routes-one, by the Rhine, from Lombardy and Rome; the other, by sea, from Venice, Genoa, Florence, Constantinople, the Levant, and India.
On the other hand, France was still but a half civilized country, with few manufactures and little external trade; while England was an exporter of raw produce, chiefly wool, like Australia in our, own time. The Hanseatic merchants of Cologne held the trade of Lon-don; those of Wisby and Lubeck governed that of the Baltic; Bruges, as head of the Hansea, was in close connection with all of these, as well as with Hull, York, Novgorod, and Bergen.
The position of the Flemish towns in the fourteenth century was thus not wholly unlike that of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston at the present day; they stood as intermediaries between the older civilized countries, like Italy or the Greek empire, and the newer producers of raw material, like England, North Germany, and the Baltic towns.
In a lost corner of the great lowland flat of Flanders, defended from the sea by an artificial dike, and at the point of intersection of an intricate network of canals and waterways, 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, Reye, once navigable, now swallowed by canals; and the Reye flowed into the Zwin, long silted up, but then the safest harbor in the Low Countries. At first the capital of a petty Count, this land-locked internal harbor 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 neighboring peoples. Already in 1200 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 broadcloths, laces, tapestries, and linens. Canals soon connected it with Ghent, Dunkirk, Sluys, Furnes 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 ram-parts, now largely abandoned or given over to fields and gardens. It was the wealthiest town of Europe, outside Italy.
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 our Flemish cities, to the silting of the Zwin, and the want of adaption 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 500 tons, leads through Belgian territory to Ostend; but few vessels now nagivate 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 medieval population.
The commercial decay of Bruges, however, has preserved its charm for the artist, the archeologist, 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; but many public buildings remain, and the domestic architecture is quaint and pretty.
Bruges was the mother of 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 book printed, tho strong grounds have been adduced in favor of Cologne. Colard Mansion, the great printer of Bruges at that date, was one of the leaders in the art of typography… .
The very tall square tower which faces you as you enter the Grand Place is the Belfry, the center and visible embodiment of the town of Bruges. The Grand’ Place itself was the forum and meeting place of the soldier citizens, who were called to arms by the chimes in the Belfry. The center of the place is therefore appropriately occupied by a colossal statue group, modern, of Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breidel, the leaders of the citizens of Bruges at the Battle of the Spurs before the walls of Courtrai in 1302, a conflict which secured the freedom of Flanders from the interference of the Kings of France. The group is by Devigne. The reliefs on the pedestal represent scenes from the battle and its antecedents.
The majestic Belfry itself represents the first beginnings of freedom in Bruges. Leave to erect such a bell-tower, both as a mark of independence and to summon the citizens to arms, was one of the first privileges which every Teutonic trading town desired to wring from its feudal lord. This brick tower, the pledge of municipal rights, was begun in 1291, to replace an earlier one of wood, and finished about a hundred years later; the octagon, in stone at the summit, which holds the bell, having been erected in 1393-96.
It consists of three stories, the two lower of which are square and flanked by balconies with turrets; the windows below are of the simple early Gothic style, but show a later type of architecture in the octagon. The niche in the center contains the Virgin and Child, a group restored after being destroyed by the French revolutionists. Be-low it on either side are smaller figures holding escutcheons. From the balcony between these last, the laws and the rescripts of the counts were read aloud to the people assembled in the square.
The Belfry can be ascended by steps. Owing to the force of the wind, it leans slightly to the southeast. The view from the top is very extensive and striking. It embraces the greater part of the Plain of Flanders, with its towns and villages. The country, tho quite flat, looks beautiful when thus seen. In early times, however, the look-out from the summit was of practical use for purposes of observation, military or maritime. It commanded the river, the Zwin, and the sea approach by Sluys and Damme; the course of the various canals; and the roads to Ghent, Antwerp, Tournai, and Courtrai. The Belfry contains a famous set of chimes, the mechanism of which may be inspected by the visitor. He will have frequent opportunities of hearing the beautiful and mellow carillon, perhaps to excess. The existing bells date only from 1680; the mechanism from 1784.