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Now a town of quiet tree-lined canals and fine medieval architecture, Bruges once led a very different life it was the trading centre of the whole of north-west Europe.
On a January day in 1430, the Flemish city of Bruges was on its best behaviour. Thousands of its citizens lined the narrow streets, jostling and straining to catch a glimpse of the Princess Isabella of Portugal as she passed by. She had arrived from her homeland to be with her future husband, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy.
Among the Duke's enormous entourage that day was no less than 40 varlets de chamber. One of them was Jan van Eyck. For the last part of his life, Van Eyck was based in Bruges, a port on the Zwijn River, almost 10 miles inland from the North Sea. His works helped to characterize the city as the cradle of Flemish painting. But Bruges had already won an enviable reputation as a major centre of the medieval cloth industry, and as the main international emporium of north-west Europe.
As one French chronicler noted, when describing that royal entry of 1430, Bruges was 'thronged with visitors from foreign lands . . . a centre for merchandise and a meeting-place for those of other lands, where pass greater quantities of goods than, perchance, in any other city of Europe'. The chronicler added, 'and a great shame it would be if ever Bruges were destroyed. .
In subsequent centuries Bruges declined, but it never was destroyed. Thus the city of Van Eyck's era has not completely disappeared from view. Many of the homes of the medieval bourgeoisie are still standing tall, thin houses, mostly built of brick, subtly decorated with pink or grey sandstone, white stone from Brabant or blue Tournai limestone. Their large rooms are lit by spacious windows, which once allowed the householder's prized oil paintings to be seen to their best advantage. The old Market Hall can still be identified from afar by its distinctive belfry. The Town Hall, the Church of Notre Dame and the Beguinage a retreat for secular nuns all survives to recall the city's former prosperity.
Yet this tangible legacy can easily mislead. The quiet canals and the dignified Gothic architecture create an atmosphere of tranquillity, even of serenity. But this belies the turmoil of the city's early history, when its citizens fiercely resisted the efforts of Flemish counts and French kings to subdue them; in their halcyon days the Three Members from Flanders' Bruges, Ghent and Ypres virtually governed the province between them. Bruges was no quaint medieval backwater. It was a tumultuous commercial city, where merchants from 17 nations operated, and 20 states were represented by official ministers.
In medieval times, the continent comprised two main commercial zones that of the Baltic and the North Sea, and that of the Mediterranean. Bruges began to prosper as a textile centre within the northern zone, and also as a convenient port for the commercial traffic between England and Flanders. As the Flemish cloth industry came to rely more and more heavily on English supplies of wool, so the trade of Bruges expanded rapidly.
The port then evolved into something far more than a simple Anglo-Flemish trade junction. Germans, Normans, Bretons and Spaniards came in increasing numbers to buy and sell at Bruges's annual fair, established in 1200. Before the end of the 13th century, the great galleys of Genoa and Venice were heading regularly for the northern port. So at a time when land communications were unreliable, Bruges became the destination of seaborne merchants from both the northern and southern commercial centres of Europe.
The native Flemings did not themselves develop as international merchants. Instead, the foreign community of Bruges grew larger and it became a truly cosmopolitan city. Its prosperity came to rely not on intermittent fairs, but on permanent trade. Merchandise was sent there for distribution in all directions and the commodities which found their way on to the quayside came from around the world. There were Russian furs, northern cloths, wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhine, and metals from Germany. There was wool, tin and cheeses from England, butter and pigs from Denmark, corn from Prussia, and salt fish and dried fish from Norway. And there was Baltic timber in abundance, and fruit from Spain. Perhaps the most exotic goods were those stocked in the warehouses of the spice-importers, cinnamon from Ceylon, cloves from the Molucca Islands, mace from Arabia not forgetting the saffron, cinnabar, ivory and oil of white poppy which were used as artists' materials.
Such a thriving commercial centre naturally attracted businessmen. By 1369 there were 15 separate 'merchant banks' there. Italian bankers and money-lenders were keen to establish their northern branches in the city. In 1469, the Medici of Florence had a staff of eight at Bruges, one of whom was responsible for purchases of cloth and wool, while another had the duty of selling silks and velvets to the Burgundian court. Giovanni Arnolfini, whose wedding portrait was painted by Van Eyck, was himself an Italian expatriate from Lucca. He was one of the leading importers of alum, a substance essential for the dyeing of wool.
Germans as well as Italians found the city to be a profitable home-from-home. Bruges was one of the Hanseatic League's overseas trading posts, along with London, Bergen and Novgorod. The League had been formed by German merchants to give political backing to their trading agreements. The trading posts, or kontore, were independent from their host country. Within them, members were under the jurisdiction of German law; houses, offices and warehouses were all corporately owned and here the League members lived and traded.
Communities of foreign merchants at this time, were often encouraged to live in a particular area of a city, separate from the native citizens. In Bruges, however, the Hanseatic League were not confined to specific quarters of the city but lived among the Flemings. Elsewhere in northern Europe, these privileged German League communities often encountered native resentment, but their kontore was welcomed in Bruges and seen as a source of extra trade and revenue, increasing the city's prosperity.
A large proportion of the citizens, however, did not share in the general affluence. They had to endure the rigours and squalor of medieval urban life as best they could. 'This is no place for poor people', wrote Tafur of Seville, a scandalized visitor, in 1435. He also commented with disapproval on the bourgeoisie, with their 'baths for men and women in common, a practice which they look on as normal and decent as we do going to Mass. There is no doubt he went on, 'that there is considerable licence . . .' He probably noticed local zeal for alcohol too in 1420 the annual consumption of wine per head of the population was 100 litres.
There were certainly plenty of opportunities to over-indulge on occasions such as the 24 great tournaments held at Bruges between 1405 and 1482 for example. Those well-heeled burghers, who liked to have themselves depicted in attitudes of pious austerity, also revelled in their conspicuous consumption. Bruges in the mid 15th century was, however, a city that had already started to decline. The river Zwijn began to silt up during the 14th century. By 1490 it was completely blocked and Bruges then ceased to be an important port commercially, although it flourished artistically under the Dukes of Burgundy.
By 1500, Antwerp had taken over the commercial mantle and some people began to talk of 'Bruges le mort' (Bruges the dead). But it could almost be said that its great painters at this time had already conferred a kind of immortality on the city.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish