Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Bruges

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BRUGES (in Flemish Brugge), a city of Belgium, the capital of West Flanders, is situated in the midst of a fertile plain, intersected by the canals of Ghent, Ostend, and Sluys, in 51° 12′ N. lat. and 3° 13′ E. long. It is, in a direct line, about 7 miles from the sea, 12 miles E. of Ostend, 24 N.W. of Ghent, and 60 miles in the same direction from Brussels. The history of Bruges dates from about the 3d century of the Christian era. In the 7th it had emerged into importance; and its corporation of weavers, which afterwards in its best days numbered 50,000 men, was already highly renowned in the time of Charlemagne. In the 9th century Bruges became subject to the counts of Flanders, who resided there, and made the city one of the most populous and wealthy in Europe by the great advantages and immunities which they offered to merchants and manufacturers. The inhabitants guarded with the most jealous care the privileges which they sometimes received and sometimes exacted from their rulers, and not unfrequently rose in arms for their defence. Though Bruges, and Ghent, and other Flemish towns owned a common lord, their interests were never identified, and they seldom let an opportunity pass of doing each other as much injury as possible. In the middle of the 14th century Bruges passed by marriage into the hands of the dukes of Burgundy, under whom it reached the highest point of its prosperity. The magnificence of the Flemish court was such that no European monarch could equal or approach it. When the wife of Philip the Fair of France visited Bruges at the beginning of the 14th century, “There are hundreds here,” she exclaimed, “who have more the air of queens than myself;” and to such an extent was this extravagance ultimately carried that Charles V. was obliged, in the 16th century, to repress it by severe sumptuary laws. In 1430 Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, instituted at Bruges the chivalric order of the Golden Fleece, a compliment to the town, no small portion of whose prosperity arose from its woollen trade. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Bruges was the chief emporium of the cities of the Hanseatic league; and merchants from every quarter of the world found there a ready market for their goods. The argosies of Venice and Genoa came laden with the produce of the East; ships of every nation took in and discharged their cargoes at the quays; the warehouses were filled with bales of wool from England, and with silk from Persia. Not the least famous of the manufactures was that of tapestry, in which the people of Bruges acquired great skill a century before the looms of Beauvais or the Gobelins were set up. The prosperity of Bruges was undiminished till it passed under the dominion of the house of Hapsburg. For a violation of some of their prerogatives, the inhabitants imprisoned the Archduke Maximilian in 1488, and a terrible vengeance was inflicted upon the town for this outrage. Its trade was transferred to Antwerp, and its ruin was ultimately completed by the religious persecutions of the bloody duke of Alva at the end of the 16th century. Such of the inhabitants as escaped with their lives fled to England and introduced into that country many of the arts and manufactures which they and their forefathers had cultivated with success for many generations. In more modern times the town has frequently suffered from the effects of war. In 1704 it was besieged by the Dutch, and in 1708 and 1745 it was captured by the French. The contrast between the Bruges of the 15th century and the Bruges of recent time's is as striking as it is painful. As Wordsworth says—

In Bruges town is many a street
Whence busy life hath fled,
Where, without hurry, noiseless feet
The grass-grown pavement tread.”

The great circumference of the city, its numerous squares and streets, and the number and magnificence of its public buildings, all attest its former importance; while the comparative absence of commercial activity, and the general air of desolation, bear witness to its present insignificance. Its trade has, however, considerably revived during the present century, and its great advantages in canal and railway communication, its spacious docks and excellent quays, and the great fertility of the surrounding country, are once more restoring it to its high place among cities. Of the public buildings of Bruges the most remarkable are the Church of Nôtre Dame, containing a sculpture of the Virgin and Child, said to be by Michel Angelo, effigies in copper of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy, who are buried in the church; the cathedral of St Sauveur, built of brick, but internally the handsomest church in Bruges, with some fine pictures by Hemling (or, more correctly, Memling, — see Athenæum, No. 2513) and Peter Porbus; the hospital of St John, a charitable institution, where sick persons are attended by the sisters of charity; the exchange, which is the oldest in Europe; the courthouse, a fine building, partly on the site of the old palace of the counts of Flanders; and the Hôtel de Ville, a small but handsome edifice, dating from 1377 and restored in the present century, in the niches of which there were formerly statues of the old counts of Flanders, which were destroyed by the French revolutionists in 1792. The belfry-tower in the great square, of which Longfellow sings so finely, is the most beautiful structure of the kind in Europe, and its chimes are the best in Belgium. It was erected at the end of the 14th century, and is still used for communicating the alarm of fire by a flag or a light to all parts of the city. In this same square is a house in which Charles II. resided during his exile from England. Among the conventual establishments the most important are the Béguinage and the English nunnery. The town is likewise well provided with the means of education. There is a medical school, to which is attached a museum of natural history and a botanical garden. For the higher departments of school training there is an excellent athenæum, annually subsidized by Government, besides a theological seminary, a school of navigation, and an institution for the deaf and dumb and blind. The academy of painting is in a very flourishing condition, and offers many advantages to the student, as instruction is given gratis in drawing and architecture. The public library in the town-hall contains upwards of 15,000 volumes. The charitable institutions of Bruges are both numerous and well organized. They are all the more necessary, that the number of persons in the city requiring support is unusually great. In the poorhouse alone there is accommodation for nearly 600 individuals, and it is almost always completely filled. The most important manufacture in Bruges is that of lace. The other manufactures consist of linens, woollen and cotton goods, soap, leather, tobacco, starch, pottery, and bells. There are also some small breweries and distilleries, and dyeing and bleaching establishments; and ship-building is also carried on. The exports from Bruges comprise the products of the rich agricultural district that surrounds the town; the imports include metals, dyewoods, wines, fruits, oil, cotton, and wool. Despite the number of canals, the inhabitants of Bruges are very ill supplied with water for domestic purposes; every house is accordingly provided with a tank or butt to receive rain-water. The quantity collected in the public tanks is distributed through the city in pipes. Of the canals the largest is that to Ostend, wide and deep enough to allow vessels of 500 tons to pass up from the sea. The ramifications of these canals intersect the city in all directions, and are crossed by upwards of fifty bridges, whence the name of the town is derived. Population in 1838, 44,374; in 1846, 49,308; in 1851, 50,698; in 1866, 49,819.

See Weale's Bruges et ses environs, 1865; Gilliodts van Severen, L'Inventaire des archives de la ville de Bruges, 3 vols.