And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.(Exodus.2:12)
”In Paris, there’s Berthe Courrière, kabbalist, devotee of the Black Arts and serial mistress (her lovers included George Sand’s sculptor nephew and writer Rémy de Gourmont). Her flat was a Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen nightmare of Catholic and Satanic bric-a-brac and she liked feeding communion hosts to stray dogs. During a visit to Bruges, Courrière was found by the police cowering naked in bushes on the Rempart des Marechaux. They were unimpressed by her story that she’d barely escaped the clutches of a Satanic Catholic priest, and she was promptly shut in an asylum.”( Suzi Feay )
Bruges was a city that was both pious and permissive; mixed bathhouses, conspicuous consumption and religious fervor. It rose to prominence as the first really international trading city, a burst of instant urbanism that accompanied a declining feudal order. The confusion of authority between church, state, local and international, feudal allegiance and craft or trade based allegiances, allowed the birth of a capitalist trading centre that created the archetypical sedentary trader through the invention of the bill of exchange and the first stock market. It defied the conventions of the stereotypical medieval city that enjoys a special mythical status in Western culture. William Caxton, published the first book in English in Bruges, which revolutionized the English world ; the notion of printing” indulgences” and selling them for large sums served as a proxy for pilgrimages and altered our relationship to religion in the same way the Bruges stock market and sophisticated banking and lending were to introduce an age of mercantilism. Literacy was no longer confined to the clergy. There was even rumor that the holy grail was stored in Bruges, and the image of the mystical and paranormal has always hung over the city.
In the imagination, the medieval city is littered with formidable castles and soaring cathedrals, and is the habitus of fairy tales. The term “medieval,” the time in between, presumes that Roman culture and Renaissance culture, the bookends that enclose it, were somehow superior, better organized, more like us on our path to ultimate efficiency. So medieval also comes to represent a time when cities disappeared or closed in on themselves, when language is confused, the clarity of Latin dissipated into numerous barbaric vernaculars.Bruges represented this religious distrust of the urban agglomeration , for its merchant population was mobile, and its wealth not necessarily tied to ownership or tilling of land.
Bruges is in the lowlands between France and Holland in the heart of a major textile producing area; like Venice highly urbanized and with a minimum of landed gentry and peasants. It takes its name from its function as a bridge across the Reie River, where a small castle town was set to regulate commercial traffic. The city was favored by a literal historic wave in 1134 when a storm altered the configuration of the coast and brought Bruges within one mile of the sea, the port of Damme was set up and the river was used as a canal to bring goods to the city, with at first the major trading partner being England across the channel. The counts of Flanders who were the lords of the city allowed it to have an annual trade fair beginning in 957 and guaranteed privileges for those involved in commerce to build in the city in the form of freehold estates. The traders, shops, money changers and such were allowed to deal outside of the gates of the bourg or castle compound, in an area called a Faubourg, meaning outside the bourg. The new residents of the faubourg as they grew wealthier separated into economic classes, the Poorters, the commercial elite from the draper craft were analogous to the nobility of Venice. They formed a self-governing body that communicated with the Counts of Flanders and were allowed to own property. Already by the 12th century the city had become self-governing with a council of elected officials and a large collection of magistrates which among other things collected customs taxes and supervised the public works on canals and markets that would make the city attractive and efficient for foreign merchants. Once the Genovese in the 1270s had perfected the Atlantic route from the Mediteranean, the fortunes of the city escalated as the central merchandising site for wool and linen in the world. The new port of Sluis was opened in 1290. Major alterations to urban form would follow, financed from the revenues put on exchange and consumption.
Unlike Venice, those who had the greatest capital, the foreignors, had no commitment to the city, and when water access and markets became more favorable in Antwerp further east, they pulled out of Bruges without second thoughts, leaving a financial vacuum. From Bruges the center of European exchange moved to Antwerp, then to London and Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries. Bruges establishes a pattern to be followed by Antwerp and Amsterdam of public investment in infrastructure, waterworks, street building, and monumental civic structures to encourage the processes of exchange from which the population would gain residuals. The art of space making in Bruges was not as refined as that of Venice, for instance the major square was lined with narrow, step-gabled buildings each not more the 15 to 25 feet wide and did not have the look of consciously shaped space. Although the patronage was usually guided by the Council, the elements were added piecemeal and the spaces were cut out of dense fabric as residual rather than figural.
The women of Bruges were rich matrons, with smooth brows and hooded eyes, of the type favored by Memling; plainly disagreeable housewives like the Margareta Van Eyck painted by her husband; languid damsels in the mode of Gerard David; and of course working mothers who could not afford the immortality of art. Jerome Munzer, a german doctor who visited the city in 1494, noted: ”The women are very beautiful with small bodies; they dress well, often in bright red; they are very inclined toward love and just as much toward religion, for in these northwest regions people go t
tremes all or nothing…” One wonders if, undressed, many of them really looked like the long-stemmed , bulbous nudes in Flemish painting; and apparently finding out would not have been difficult. A Spanish visitor in 1438 was surprised by the mixed bathing in public bathhouses, which ”they take to be as honest as church-going with us”.
Several of the prominent men of the period have for us a reality the women seldom achieve. In addition to his strange, somnabulistic Arnolfini in a preposterous hat, Ven Eyck gives us the canon George ven der Peale, in whose huge meaty face we can read the whole story of Bruges; the toughness, the energy, the extravagance, the avarice, the piety, and the desperate refusal to die. Memling presents notably the English courtier Sir John Donne; the Medici agent Tommaso Portinari; and, according to some authorities, other memebers of Bruges’s Florentine colony, naked and saved, in his ”Last Judgement”
Portinari who appears also in Hugo van der Goe’s masterly ”Adoration of the Shepherds” , had a career that would have been possible in few other cities. A descendent of the exiled family of Dante’s Beatrice, he entered the Medici firm’s branch in Bruges in 1437, when he was twelve. He worked his way up in spices, alum, tapestries, woll cloth, and banking, and in 1465 became the local Medici chief executive. Favored by Charles the Bold in return for substantial loans, he supplanted Arnolfini as a firnisher of silk, bought two galleys with his own money, exported merchandise and art to Italy, and became the local Florentine consul. The death of Duke Charles and a liquidation of the Medici branch nearly ruined him, but he went on to serve as as occasional businessman-diplomat for Maximilian I and for Lorenzo the Magnificent. He managed to keep his Bruges enterprises going until 1496, when he turned them over to his sons and retired to Florence.In the end, the main cause of Bruges’s decline was the silt that accumulated in the channels leading to the port and warehouses.England was also a main cause. Previously regarded a peasant colony, the English had tired of their colonial status as a supplier of raw materials for Flemish manufacturers and had begun to export high-grade cloth instead of wool. Bruges was thus faced simultaneously by a formidable rival in the market for its most important finished product and by a grave lack of raw material for its weavers since Spanish wool was not proving to be a very satisfactory substitute.