The not-so-dark middle ages

Darkness, famine, poverty and sickness are amongst the more popular words to describe the high middle ages. In a certain way this is true, but like all eras even the high middle ages had its ups and downs. There most certainly was corruption, civil war, famine and poverty but on the other hand the 13th and 14th centuries brought innovation and progress. This text will try to point out some of the reasons for this boom and helps to illustrate why the average Flemish town was doing well.


During the 13th century agriculture for example saw some technological advance, but especially a change in estate management yielded substantially higher production. As the towns grew, demand for agricultural goods rocketed. Lords and farmers in rural areas started cutting down yet more forests in order to cultivate more land. They also concentrated on improving their existing farming methods and the 13th century saw higher yields and less waste for the same area of land. Most farmers and rural lords were relatively better off than in the years before and some even got modestly rich.

Copyright KB Brussel Ms. 1175, fol. 156v
Better cultivation techniques yielded higher production.


The urban population of Flanders boomed and this evolution brought further dramatic changes. It is estimated that around 1300 Bruges had a population of around 35,000, while Ghent saw its number of burghers increase to almost 60,000. Of all Northern European towns, only Paris was larger and had a population barely exceeding 65,000. All these mouths had to be fed and many people started working in the cloth industry. Weaving linen and woollen cloth first started as a trade practised by many individuals, but at the end of the 13th century merchants started to control the entire production process. These merchants not only sold the finished goods all across Europe, but also started buying in the raw materials in Flanders and England. From there it was only a small step in making them industrial entrepreneurs in what can be called a factory s cattered through hundreds of town houses. The industrial putting-out system was born.

The invention of the spinning wheel in the late thirteenth century could only speed up this process. The toothed warper, a square frame for preparing bundles of equal-length warp threads, also started to be used in Flanders together with the vertical two-beam loom. Technology and production went hand in hand.

Finance and Accounting

This pre-industrial revolution also had its impact on the way the merchants conducted their business. Temporary joint companies to spread the risks of overseas trading became quite common. Several merchants would rent one or more ships to spread their cargo and thus their trading risks. Courier services between the major commercial centres of the North and the Italian towns ensured that letters got across safely and in time. Account books, ledgers with debiting and crediting pages, started to be used to keep track of all transactions.

The fourteenth century saw the birth of the bill of exchange, a paper instrument for transferring money. Several Italian banking companies started financing both trade and war in the North. Florence and Lucca were well known banking centres lending huge sums of money to European monarchs and nobles. Flanders had truly become an international marketplace. The major towns in Flanders accepted most currencies from its neighbouring countries. Paying your linen cloth in Pound Parisis was absolutely no problem.


The skyline of most towns in Flanders was dominated by churches, cloth halls and other examples of gothic architecture. Construction works on the town halls of Bruges started in 1283 and the project got finished some eighty years later. The construction industry provided a steady income for many generations of masons, quarriers, carpenters and smiths and involved hundreds of carts, wagons and boats to transport the buildings supplies into town. Complex techniques, ingenious tools and machinery and artistic rule-of-thumb methods resulted in sky-high churches and cathedrals. Towers of more than 100 meters were not at all uncommon.

Hallen en belfort van Brugge
Cloth hall and belfry of Bruges, construction started in 1280.
Only the upper white stone part of the tower was not yet present in 1302.


As the commercial and industrial revolution progressed, the strain on the road transport system steadily increased. The old Roman roads formed the backbone of the transport system and were repaired over and over again. But new ones were constructed as well and by the 13th Century Flanders could rely on a dense web of roads. Cobbles and broken stones on a bed of loose sand was the most common construction technique for major roads leading in and out of the major towns. The Romans used to build better and stronger streets, but our medieval ancestors had a cheap and easy to repair road system. Bridge building boomed as well, and in most towns many new bridges of wood and stone were constructed.

The number of road vehicles multiplied also. Wagons and carts gradually catered for all transport needs and were further developed throughout the high middle ages. Four-wheeled wagons became common, but still had a fixed forecarriage. Their wheels were strengthened by small iron plates which were nailed on. Shrinking heated bands onto the wheels was not invented until the 1500s. Wagons and carts became stronger and more reliable while smaller carts started to be pulled by breast harnesses. A wagon could carry goods between twenty and thirty-five kilometres a day at a relatively cheap cost.

Pack animals still carried most of the short distance freight and achieved even better speeds than wagons and carts. Fifty-five and sixty kilometres a day when travelling alone was not uncommon. Messengers did even better and carried letters and small parcels at amazing speeds across the countryside. Noblemen, prelates and retinues had to travel in convoys and did rarely better than forty-five kilometres a day. It still was an enormous achievement and the fact that you could leave Bruges in the morning and cross the border of Brabant at dusk was an enormous factor in the growth of the town.

The Flip Side

But in these modern towns, problems of waste disposal and pollution soon arose. Too many people wanted to live within the same town walls and disposed of their waste in open ditches and rivers. Traffic crowded the narrow streets and collisions were becoming a problem. The medieval town was filled with smoke from cooking and heating, the fire hazard was extremely high and nearby woods were chopped down at alarming rates. Towns became also very expensive to live in because everything had to be imported from outside.

The great famine of 1315-1317 showed how fragile the system was. Several consecutive years of poor agricultural production lead to a enormous famine in north-west Europe. The growth of the towns stabilised and even fell back in some places. During 1348 and 1349 the Black Death struck our regions and devastated the already diminishing population. Yet our towns and countryside survived and these consecutive calamities could not stop progress. When Flanders was taken over by the Burgundians in the 15th century, it was still one of the most prosperous regions of the low countries.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
The miniature comes from "Le Viel Rentier des Seigneurs d'Audenarde", Copyright KB Brussel Ms. 1175, fol. 156 v.
The picture of the Bruges cloth hall and bellfry comes from "Gotiek", R. Toman
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on March 30th 2001.