The Battle of the Golden Spurs (Courtrai, 11 July 1302): A Contribution to the History of Flanders' War of Liberation, 1297-1305

The Battle of the Golden Spurs (Courtrai, 11 July 1302): A Contribution to the History of Flanders' War of Liberation, 1297-1305

The Battle of the Golden Spurs (Courtrai, 11 July 1302): A Contribution to the History of Flanders' War of Liberation, 1297-1305

The Battle of the Golden Spurs (Courtrai, 11 July 1302): A Contribution to the History of Flanders' War of Liberation, 1297-1305


On 11 July 1302, below the town walls of Courtrai, the most splendid army of knights in Christendom, the flower of the French nobility, was utterly defeated by Flemish rebels, common workers and peasants. The French knights, products of a lifetime's training, were ably led; but so too were the Courtrai townspeople, in addition to being well-armed, and their victory, despite their lack of military skills (and golden spurs), put an end to the enduring myth of the invincibility of the knight. A French explanation of the terrible defeat was immediately given, intended to save the honour and pride of the French nobility; in Flanders the victory was glorified as a just reward for the bravery of the townsmen and the competence of their commanders. Unfortunately there were no impartial witnesses. Any account of the battle must therefore pay careful attention to the personalities of the chroniclers, their nationality, and their political and social leanings, as well as their personal sympathies. Verbruggen's study is prefaced by discussion of the problems of reconstruction and extensive consideration of the sources, showing the difficulties faced by medieval military historians in attempts to interpret them. He then offers his own account of the events of that dramatic day, a case study in the reconstruction of events in one of the greatest battles of the middle ages.J.F. VERBRUGGEN lectured at the Royal Military School in Brussels, and then taught in Africa, retiring as Professor of History, University of Congo, and University of Bujumbura (Burundi). He is also the author of The Art of Warfare in Western Europe. Originally published in Dutch in 1954, translated and updated.


From the tenth century to the beginning of the fourteenth century, Western Europe experienced steady progress in all spheres of the economy. The population grew steadily, thus increasing the number of both consumers and workers, as well as encouraging trade and industry. At the beginning of the period, almost all of the population lived from agriculture and was settled in the countryside; at the end, a considerable number lived in the towns. Trade and industry had grown markedly since the eleventh century, giving rise to increased prosperity in which the inhabitants of the small towns, villages and countryside shared. Land was continually being won from the sea, marshes drained, desolate ground and pasture cultivated. Where once there had been forests, there was now arable land; much progress had been made in agriculture. These four centuries of continual advance did have their crises: famines, epidemics, floods, and so on, but the disasters were, nevertheless, limited geographically and could not interrupt the general course of progress.

The fourteenth century contrasted sharply with this. Repeated famines and epidemics devastated the whole of Western Europe. A widespread famine arose in 1315 and raged until 1317. The Black Death claimed thousands of victims from 1347 until 1351. Only a few regions avoided the direct consequences of such disasters. The general crisis that thus arose was felt everywhere. Unlike in earlier periods, there was no growth in population, not even in the towns; and scarcely any new arable land was won.

All indicators point to the fact that the economy, at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth century, had reached its highest point of development with the limited technical means which artisans and farmers possessed at that time. It is during this period of prosperity that Flanders experienced one of the most important phases in its history.

General conditions in the county of Flanders

The favourable geographical position, the industry of its people and the enterprising spirit of its merchants ensured for the county of Flanders, under the wise government of several powerful princes, a very special position in Western Europe. It became an example of a land with towns comparable to Italy, a situation not to be found elsewhere north of the Alps. Ghent and Bruges were among the largest towns of that time, second only to Paris. Having their origins in a first enclosure, of eighty hectares in Ghent and seventy hectares in Bruges, both towns grew by the late thir-

E. Perroy, ‘Les Crises du XIVe siècle’, Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations, 4 (1949), 167–82; and H. van Werveke, ‘Inleiding’, in Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden, II:xi.

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