Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Bruges; Fair City of Flanders; a Medieval Centre of Commerce

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Bruges; Fair City of Flanders; a Medieval Centre of Commerce

Article excerpt

TOWARDS the end of the fifteenth century Duke Philip the Fair brought his young bride Joanna of Castile to his native city of Bruges. On her return from a walk in the city the future mother of the Emperor Charles v, surprised by the rich apparel of the patrician ladies, is said to have remarked: "I thought I was the only queen in this country, but I have seen many others!" The story may be apocryphal, but it says much for the opulence and splendour of what has been called "the Venice of the North". One might just as well speak of Venice as "the Bruges of the South" without in any way offending the prestige of the city of the Doges. Numerous canals crossed by picturesque bridges, imposing public buildings, rich patrician houses, winding old streets make up the charm of both cities--each of which, however, has its own special character and each of which was a nerve centre of trade in the Middle Ages.

The sea wind still blows in Bruges, although nowadays the city is about fifteen kilometres from the sandy beaches of the North Sea, to which it was connected in the Middle Ages by the estuary of the Zwin, which provided access to the city for vessels of every kind. Today the Zwin is a protected natural reserve where fauna and flora typical of the region continue to survive.

Although he never set foot in Flanders, in his Purgatorio Dante mentions the Flemish towns, which were amongst the most important of his time. Bruges comes first on his list. These towns which developed very early in medieval Flanders were soon known all over the western world for the quality of their fabrics, manufacture of which was one of the chief industries in the Middle Ages.

Trade grew very rapidly. Initially it was conducted mainly during annual or bi-annual trade fairs, when merchants travelled from town to town according to a well-regulated calendar. Although a system of fixed trade centres came to be preferred to this arrangement, this did not mean that fairs ceased to exist, at least not immediately. It was at this time that the rise of Bruges began. Its growth was stimulated by a favourable geographical situation at the heart of busy, densely populated western Europe, where important countries and kingdoms met on the frontiers of two currents of civilization, the Germanic and Roman. The town was easily accessible by land and sea. When the silting-up of the Zwin estuary, by which Bruges was connected to the North Sea, later prevented vessels from entering the town itself they could still come within a short distance of it and moor in the outer harbour of Damme.

The people of Bruges were actively engaged in trade until the thirteenth century. They travelled to England and Scotland for their precious wool and they sailed along the Atlantic coasts, from which they brought back grain, wine and cheese. Bruges was a leading member of the Hanseatic League of Flemish towns.

A profound change took place in this economic pattern when the English merchant adventurers started to bring wool to the continent themselves. Bruges gave up active trade and concentrated on other activities. First it became an industrial town where the manufacture of cloth and clothing was stimulated and improved. Other textile-related industries also developed, as well as the manufacture of furniture, tapestries and other articles of interior decoration. Amber rosary beads were a highly esteemed speciality.

Above all, Bruges became a major international trading centre, the greatest market north of the Alps. Merchants came there to get supplies of the striped or single-coloured cloth from which the best clothes were made. This product was highly appreciated throughout Europe and even beyond. Thirteenth-century German poets sang the praises of Bruges breeches and in Russia the word bryukish was coined to describe Bruges cloth. Actually Bruges did not have a monopoly of this speciality but shared her skill in making it with a number of Flemish and Brabancon towns. …

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