there were some wild times in Bruges. It was a city that had the virtue of living dangerously for a while. Their innovations on medieval financing through the Bill of Exchange and expertise as serving as a market maker that connected traders, buyers and sellers, led mistakenly, to the belief that a new religion of the spirit was being born; an expectation that a new human and humane society was being revealed. But instead of radiating love and charity, it was cold business practices that would have repercussions that would alter, and help expand upon a new relationship between man and the cosmic configuration. But while the wine was flowing, capital was also revealing itself to be highly mobile, and extremely unloyal.
Two of the most spectacular occasions of Bruges’s golden century were wedding celebrations. In particular that of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal in 1430, and that of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in 1468. Philip used the splendid setting for the announcement that he had just founded the Order of the Golden Fleece, in memory of the profit in wool. Charles put on a banquet that lasted for several days and filled pages and pages of Burgundian chronicles. To work on the setting, painters were summoned to Bruges from Ghent, Brussels, Ypres and many other towns. The table decorations included such marvels as a sculptured tower forty-six feet high, a lifelike whale with forty people in it, birds flying from the mouth of a dragon, four wolves playing flutes, and madame de Beaugrant, a female dwarf, dressed as a shepherdess and riding a golden lion.
However, by 1500, Bruges had totally lost its importance. Ship arrivals declined from one hundred and fifty in 1456 to thirty-three in 1499. Although the accumulation of silt in the channels leading into Bruges as well as the harbour itself filling up with sand were significant factors, it was likely not the major cause of decline. There were less specific causes of perhaps greater importance. The tightly controlled European economy of the Middle Ages was relaxing into the beginnings of ”laissez-faire” capitalism , and the governing merchants of Bruges neither wanted, nor understood he change. In 1477, when the foreign trading colony was already unhappy enough, they could think of nothing better to do than to construct a new Tolhuis , or customhouse. Confronted by the rapid rise of Antwerp, where trade was relatively free, they refused to alter the old fashioned restrictions; instead they tried to halt traffic to the competing port by means of a coastal blockhouse, whose garrison was promptly seized by Antwerp militiamen and sent to the gallows.
As their confidence ebbed, their ancient fighting ferocity seems to have turned into undisguised sadism. Between 1477 and 1488 there were a hundred and thirty-four executions in the Markt, by rope, fire, axe, boiling oil, breaking on the wheel , and dismemberment with horses; and the crowds are said to have howled their disapproval when the victims were allowed to die too quickly. Something of the sickening cruelty in these spectacles has been preserved in Gerard David’s diptych, ” The Judgement of Cambyses, one of whose panels depicts the slow flaying of a middle aged man who is still hideously alive. The picture, now in the Groeninge Museum, was commissioned for the delectation of the city fathers in the Stadhuis, the town hall.
These same city fathers made political mistakes that look like manifestations of a death wish. They antagonized Ghent, their natural ally in the new and hard times that were obviously on the way. In 1488, they seized Maximilian, the future Holy Roman emperor,and locked him up for three months in a house on the Markt. Although Gerard David was sent for to decorate the shutters of the house, the humiliated sovereign proved actively unforgiving. As soon as he was released he officially invited the foreign merchants in the town to move their permanent installations to Antwerp, promising them advantages in addition to those offered by the new port itself.
The majority of them made the move within the next two decades. A municipal remonstrance speaks of five thousand empty houses in 1494. In 1513, not a single ship appeared at the entrance to the Zwin. There were of course some spells of hope. In 1521 the town still had enough of its old Burgundian extravagance to welcome Albrecht Durer with a banquet; he was given, he says in his travel diary, ”twelve cans of wine,” and then ” the whole assembly, more than sixty persons accompanied me home with many torches”. In 1535 it still had enough artistic energy to erect a handsome Renaissance building, the Oude Griffie, in the square where Baldwin Iron Arm’s castle had once stood. But by the middle of the sixteenth-century the essential Bruges, the vital Bruges of the Middle Ages, was extinct.
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