In Bruges, it is said that holy candles burn all night in the houses on the eve of All Souls, and the bells toll till midnight, or even till morning. people, too, often set lighted candles on the graves. A very common custom in Bruges is to eat ”soul cake” or ”soul bread” on the eve of the day of All Souls. The eating of them is believed to benefit the dead in some way; the ghosts were thought to enter into the bodies of their relatives and so to share the victuals which the survivors consumed. …
”One of those many timeless carriages, which are available to tourists, stopped for me. The coachman looked very, very old… but he offered me kindly a free ride. ’Sir,’ I said, ‘you who drives day and night over the cobblestone roads of Bruges-la-Morte, you must have seen a lot of strange and terrible things… For instance, the ghosts of Bruges, sir … Are they real? Or do they exist only in our imagination?’
‘Ah, buddy,’ the coachman smiled. “I dwell now for over five hundred years through Bruges-la-Morte, and believe me: I never have seen a ghost here!’The coachman showed me a map of medieval Bruges, which had little or no differences with a map from this century. ’The city still is a labyrinthic spiral that does not interfere with the laws of time and space,’ the coachman said, ‘and in which the unsuspecting tourist, not equipped with map or compass, constantly returns on his departure, mislead by medieval architects and the city urbanists who have built the city in their black magick circles.” ( Georges Rodenbach, Bruges La Morte, 1892. )
‘Bruges. Rodenbach’s vision of Bruges as a wasteland and a ghost city was not unique; a city filled with restless phantoms with too much time on their hands and a tendency to be be more harmful than helpful. Elliott O’Donnell also wrote about the ”Strangling Ghost in Bruges” ; a tall gaunt monk with cold bony fingers and a talent for slow strangulation of tired travelers who happened to be given a hotel bed in the oldest section of the city and made the mistake of sleeping on its left side.
In her book on spiritism “There Is No Death”, published in 1891, Florence Marryat told the story of a séance that was held in a haunted house in Bruges, that soon would be known as “Bruges-la-Morte”, because of the famous novel of Georges Rodenbach, except her book is a recounting of paranormal phenomenon which was observed in 1879 from a murder in the late fifteenth-century:
”Motioning them to be seated, Mr Eglinton stood before the party in the light of a lamp. “I have to tell you the story of this unhappy and disturbed entity,” he said. “The spirit is present now. The confession of his crime, through my lips, will help him to… throw off! off! off!…. the earthbound condition… to which he was condemned…”
And so they were told now that this house once had been a convent, with four subterranean passages. In this convent lived a most beautiful nun, while on the other side of the canal there was an Italian priest residing in the monastery there. This priest had conceived a forbidden passion for the nun. At night he would steal his way to the nun’s convent, by means of one of the underground corridors, attempting to make her listen to his tale of love. But she was strong in the faith, and she resisted him… until one one night, when he hid himself here in the dark, maddened by his guilty passion and her repeated refusals, waiting for her to pass him on her way to the chapel. When she resisted him again, he stabbed her on the very spot where Mr Eglinton first perceived him.
The priest dragged the body of his beloved down the stairways to the vaults beneath, and buried it there. The pure soul of his victim found immediate consolation, but the spirit of the priest was chained down to the scene of his awful crime… Mr Eglinton walked up to that spot and knelt there for some minutes in prayer.”
It is a silt bound city that has hardly changed since the time of its glory as a trading port of the Middle Ages. And what a glory it was. By the time of Chaucer, a revolution in commercial affairs was contributing to the town&
7;s prosperity. Trade for men of importance was becoming a sedentary activity, enormously facilitated by one of the most notable of medieval inventions; the bill of exchange. Although this invention was largely Italian, a share of the glory for its use and development should certainly go to Bruges; and the elegantly Gothic business building called Ter Beurze.
In 1384, the dukes of Burgundy acquired Flanders by marriage, and within a generation they were treating Bruges as a northern seat only slightly less important than their southern one at Dijon. Partly owing to the frequent presence of their court, the town entered the golden era of its cultural history. The brightest decades coincided with the long reign, from 1419 to 1467, of Duke Philip the Good, but there was a fine afterglow that lasted through the time of his son Charles the Bold, 1467 to 1477, and well into the post Burgundian complexity of Habsburg times.
Simply to name some of the painters working in Bruges during this period; Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, Gerard David, is to realize how close the place was to emerging from the Middle Ages and flowering into a Renaissance rival of Florence and Venice. Indeed, it was for many years far ahead of the Italian cities in terms of technical innovation and at sheer skill at fooling the eye with painted images. Although the legend that Van Eyck invented the oil medium can no longer be credited, there is no doubt that he was the first major artist to realize its potential for magic realism.
The music of the fifteenth-century cannot be localized in the way the painting of the period can, since composers tended to travel with their patrons and to change patrons frequently. Many of the strongest talents however, were flemish, and Bruges led an active musical life, both with its own resources and with those of the Burgundian court. The Church of St. Donatien ran a singing school in which gifted boys were taught without tuition if they happened to be poor.
Gilles Binchois, whose learned charm attracted some interest from record companies, served the ducal establishment, and a painting by Van Eyck bears the title of one of his songs. Duke Philip and Charles the Bold both played the harp, and Charles, instructed by the great Guillaume Dufay, became a competent composer of motets. Even a rich merchant could have his musical side: Giovanni Arnolfini, who made a fortune in silk and alum and became the subject of one of Van Eyck’s best known pictures, had originally come up from Lucca to Flanders as a wandering singer.
The burghers seem never to have thought of having a local university or of founding anything like the Florentine academy; they were interested in more practical kinds of education. There does appear, however, to have been some demand for books, or at least William Caxton thought there was. In 1474, after more than thirty years in the Low Countries as a member of the English trading colony, he and a Bruges illuminator named Colard Mansion set up a press in the city, and the next year they published ”The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye”, the first book published in English.
Architecturally, Bruges is a late Medieval style with an urban image that was beautifully legible: there was always a visible spire, tower, square, or waterway to tell a person where he was and to remind him of the pattern of the whole city. And the image was kept fairly clean and safe, at least by medieval standards. The streets had been paved since 1285, litterers were punished by law, special police killed stray dogs, and fire wardens stationed in the Belfry sounded the tocsin when they spotted a flame. Bruges has changed physically very little since the Middle Ages. But of course it is like a theatre with a closed play. We cannot fully appreciate its streets, facades and Gothic interiors in the absence of the movement, color, noise, and people that animated them in the fifteenth century.
That animation means imagining the interminable mystery dramas, whose disjointed treatment of time and space clearly influenced Flemish painting; the religious processions, with the bells ringing all day long; the twenty chivalric tournaments, charged with allegories of love and cloth of gold, staged by the Burgundians in the Markt; the Lombard moneylenders, scurrying under the arcades with their little tables; the weavers fingering the stout wool cloth on display; the robed monks, some of whom formed the municipal fire department; the shouts of the bargemen at the Waterhalle; and everywhere the babel of nearly all the tongues of Europe; by 1429 the city buzzed with commercial representatives , many with their own buildings, from thirty-four countries.
”He answered that Bruges had once been chosen to be a Holy City, because of the Holy Blood of Christ that was brought here by the Templars and the Count of Flanders. “So it must be in Bruges-la-Morte that Satan also unleashes the worst of his devils! And that’s why the Powers of Darkness and Light will fight each other more fiercely here than anywhere else in the world!”
“You drive day and night on these cobblestone roads…” I sighed. “You really must have seen a lot of strange and terrible things…”
“I sure have, Sir! Under the Tree of Eden, for instance, I have seen the old paganism incarnation of Venus mating with her Priape. It’s only much later that Our Lady of Lust became a Christian sin.”
“You mean St John’s Whore of Babylon?”
“Aye aye, Sir! And I saw many of these poor allegorical deities of paganism become new demons too, because in Bruges-la-Morte, you have to be satanical or mystical, Sir! You can’t stay on the threshold of purity or lust, you have to choose between heaven and hell, between Memlinc and Rops. Isn’t that wonderful? Purity is the Sense of the Divine, Sir… She has inspired and enhanced the talent of the Flemish Primitives, and it sure took some time before Our Lady of Lust has given birth to a number of artists who were ready to explore the unknown Antarctic regions of the soul! But at last, Mr. Félicien Rops, as some upside-down Flemish Primitive, has done the opposite of what Memlinc did!”
“Who dares to go down into this underworld?” the coachman murmured. “It is said that the Templars have hidden a treasure there, but no-one has dared to explore these subterranean areas. The few that have made an attempt have never returned. But that’s hardly a surprise, because as I already said, the city still has the shape of a maze, something like the inner work of a watch.”
He turned… and vanished, leaving me alone under a crescent moon with the horror in the hall. A woman was lying on an altar, naked, her legs spread apart. Some creature was bending over her, the arms as thin handles on each side of the body – a skeleton, nothing more, with on top a horse’s head that had two holes for eyes in it, and the one gigantic red and sharp hook of its tongue was flashing down into the lower abdomen of the woman, whose nails were creeping the stone while she was crying in sheer horror and desperate pleasure.
Motionless and without mercy the Demon was camping in the body of his victim, crowned with the Horns of a Moon shining through heavy clouds and thinking – or so it seemed – of the faraway land it had left behind, ugly and grandiose. And now it was bathing in blood, possessing and possessed, a symbol of lust that acute had stranded in death, desperately wanting and making every of its wishes come true.
And then the woman turned her head to me, and it was the Lady of Lust.” ( Patrick Bernauw )