Flanders anno 1302

Flanders is situated right in the centre of Europe. It lies right between France, the German Empire and the Northsea. The count of Flanders is vassal of both the king of France and the German Emperor. This unique position makes that the county is a crossroads of all important trading routes.

The Flemish Cities

Flanders is a region of cities. Bruges was the biggest harbour of Northern Europe, where the known world gathered to do business. Ghent, Ypres, Lille and Douai are the four other big cities of the county, next to numerous other little towns. Who owns the towns, owns Flanders. Nobody can rule Flanders against the will of the cities. They force the count to grant them more privileges and charters. With their walls and strongholds, their cathedrals and halls, belfries and city halls they not only symbolise Flanders' grandeur, they determine themselves this grandeur. The inhabitants of the cities can be divided into two specific groups: patricians and commoners.

The Patricians and the Commoners

The patricians make up about ten percent of the town's population. They own tracks of land inside the town walls. Most of them made their fortune trading, most often in cloth fabric sales. They try to copy the lifestyle of the nobility. The richest of them carry a blazon, live in great stone halls, wear expensive clothing and serve in the town militia as crossbowman or even in the cavalry. The government of town lies in their hands. All members of the Town Council and the aldermen come from their midst. The aldermen are responsible for the general government of town and justice. The town council guarantees public order, carries out punishments and takes care of the town's interests. The mayors are chosen from within the town council, they take care of the daily matters and keep the administration in order. They painstakingly make sure that only members of specific patrician families are chosen within these official bodies.

Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag KA XX, fol. 11 rb
Patricians in front of a gate of their town.

The commoners on the other hand, are made up by the big majority of the people. Most of them are artisans, united according to the trade that they practice. The weavers have the biggest representation, about half of all artisans. Flanders' wealth at the end of the 13th century is owed almost exclusively to the wool trade. English wool is imported in Flanders and is processed by cheap labour forces. The trade unions of the razors, weavers, fullers and wool dyers are big in numbers, but even here the patricians have more than just a say in their affairs. Not all artisans are poor of course. Some managed to gather a bit of wealth by hard work, but even they are considered half-citizens just like their poor colleagues. They have no part in the town's government and even their rights are limited. Having a strike was forbidden and punished by banning or even death.

The Count and the Cities

The wealth, created by the artisans and enjoyed by the patricians, enabled the towns to become real centres of power. The town councils no longer accepted the interference of the count's administration in their affairs. In case of conflict they turned directly towards the French king, liege lord over the Flemish count. By doing this, they realised too late that what they thought to be a big independence, turned out to be the French king's direct rule over them. With the cities the king had the ideal weapon to get rid of his vassal and annex Flanders to his royal domains.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
The miniature comes from "Spiegel Historiael", Jacob van Maerlant, Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag KA XX, fol.11 rb.
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on March 30th 2001.