19.12.05 Brown/Dumolyn (eds.), Medieval Bruges, c. 850-1550

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Neil Murphy

The Medieval Review 19.12.05

Brown, Andrew and Jan Dumolyn, eds. Medieval Bruges, c. 850-1550. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press , 2018. pp. 568. ISBN: 978-110-8303-842 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Neil Murphy
University of Northumbria
neil.murphy@northumbria.ac.uk

While Bruges was one of the most important cities in medieval Europe, it has until now lacked a major modern global overview of its history. As well as offering a synthesis of the widespread research done over recent decades on various aspects of the city's history, this book employs theoretical and comparative approaches to the study of Bruges, so that the significance of this work extends far beyond that of a history of an individual city. The book covers the history of Bruges from its development in the ninth century to its decline by the sixteenth century. While Bruges reached its height in the later Middle Ages--when it was the principal commercial centre of northern Europe--the chronological range of this book means that it will be of interest to a range of medieval scholars. Seeking to present a "total history" of Bruges during the Middle Ages, the editors, Andrew Brown and Jan Dumolyn (themselves two leading historians of the late medieval Low Countries who have worked extensively on Bruges) have brought together over twenty scholars to highlight the connections between different aspects of urban history. It is model of collaborative scholarship with each chapter having between two to seven individual authors. In less capable hands, this could have resulted in a disjointed work, but the finished work reads very well.

Chapter one examines the origins of Bruges, making good use of archaeological evidence to augment the limited written materials for this period. It extends the chronology back beyond the ninth century to consider the early settlements in the region. It does more than just provide a precursor to the city's later transformation into the commercial centre of northern Europe, and uses evidence from Bruges to revisit long-standing debates on the medieval urban resurgence and how we define a town. Chapters two to seven, while continuing the general chronological approach, are structured according to key themes: "urban landscape," "production, markets and socio-economic structures," and "social groups, political power and institutions." This structure allows the book to track key themes in the history of Bruges from c. 1100, when it began its rapid expansion, through to c. 1500, when the city went into decline. While Bruges developed as a military centre for the counts of Flanders, chapter two considers how the period of economic and demographic growth which occurred between the mid-twelfth and late-thirteenth centuries transformed the urban landscape, which became more complex and more diverse as it reflected the city's new political, economic, and religious institutions. Chapter three moves on to consider how Bruges became one of Europe's leading cities, taking its place alongside Barcelona, Florence, and Venice. As well as looking at the city's commercial activity, this chapter shows that industrial production--particularly in textiles--was key to its growth, as was the exploitation of the surrounding countryside.

Chapter four considers the development of the commune and examines the merchants who established their domination over its political and economic structures during the twelfth century. In the following century, the craft guilds struggled to gain access to political power. This culminated in the "revolution" of 1302 which sought to break the rule of the narrow merchant elite and restore broader representation to government. Chapter five looks at the transformation of the urban space from the late thirteenth century, a process which can be more fully traced because of the abundance of archival material surviving from this period. It considers the multifaceted uses of space, showing how buildings and spaces represented political, economic, and military power, as well as examining the city's social topography. Innovative forms of architecture developed in the city during the later Middle Ages and the "Bruges style" spread to other parts of the Low Countries.

Chapter six examines Bruges as it entered its golden age, when the city grew wealthy and became an international centre of banking and commerce. It shows that rather than just representing a continuation of earlier developments, it was a move away from textile production towards a specialisation in luxury goods, a product of the crises of the late thirteenth century, which fuelled the city's massive growth during the later Middle Ages. Chapter seven--the final of those looking at the relations between political authority, demography, and the urban fabric--considers power structures in the later medieval town, particularly the major role that the guilds came to play in the administration following the "revolution" of 1302. It shows how the commercial elites in the late fourteenth century, with the support of the Valois dukes of Burgundy, the new political power in Flanders, successfully stripped the guilds of their power and ruled as an oligarchy. This chapter also makes interesting points about the nature of late medieval urban elites and emphasises that they were not as closed to incomers as is sometimes believed.

Chapters eight and nine look at how the cultural practices and values of medieval Bruges were shaped by the political and socio-economic developments outlined in the previous six chapters. The chapter on late medieval religion provides a lucid discussion of the complex relationship between the secular population's religious practices and the strong influence the clergy continued to have on them. It examines a range of religious forms and considers how they were shaped by political power, urban spaces and the groups and individuals who lived in the city. Chapter 9 looks at music, visual arts, literature, and manuscript production, and, as with the previous chapter, it situates these within the city's wider socio-economic context. By the mid-fifteenth century Bruges was at its cultural peak. Artists such as Jan van Eyck were based there, rhetoricians competed for literary prizes, while music production increased with the use of polyphony. From the late fifteenth century, Bruges was also a centre of printing, with men such as William Caxton setting up workshops in the city.

Rich cultural production continued at Bruges well into the second half of the sixteenth century, including the magnificent map of the city produced by Marcus Gerards in 1562 (now the subject of a major work to digitally reconstruct the city: http://www.magisbrugge.be/geocms/web/view/Summary). Yet while this map showed a city in its prime, Antwerp had already displaced Bruges as northern Europe's principal commercial centre. Bruges' population declined and it would not recover the levels of its medieval heyday until the twentieth century. Yet the city's decline can be overstated as it remained a major centre of provincial trade and was the seat of a bishopric from 1558. The conclusion looks broadly at Bruges' position within Europe and situates the developments outlined in the book firmly within the wider historiography. While dealing with modern theoretical concepts, such as those relating to space, this book remains a very readable study of medieval Bruges which will be of great interest not just to historians of late medieval Flanders but to a range of scholars working on various aspects of urban history.

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