The arming of the craft guilds was nicely depicted in the medieval frescos of the chapel of the Leugemeete in Ghent, demolished in 1911 (drawings from the original) | Ghent, STAM, Bijlokecollectie

Power & Resistance
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Social Revolutions in the Towns of Flanders and Brabant

In the early morning of 18 May 1302 rebellious townspeople entered Bruges by stealth. They murdered the French garrison that was stationed there to keep unruly Flanders under control. The French king decided on a severe response, but on 11 July the French army of knights suffered a crushing defeat near Kortrijk against the militias of the Flemish towns. That unexpected victory continued to resound for a long period.

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The Flemish count Guy of Dampierre had been at war with his liege lordlord who allowed his liegeman to use land in exchange for personal loyalty and military assistance. , the French king Philip the Fair since 1297. Philip sent an army to the county, placed it under his direct authority and imprisoned the count.

The rich merchants in the town councils of Bruges and Ghent took the side of the French king. But they were in conflict with the common people, organised in the craft guildsorganisations of people with the same occupation. . The latter therefore formed an alliance of convenience with the count’s party.

On 11 July 1302 it came to a pitched battle between the French troops and the supporters of the count: the so-called Battle of the Golden Spurs. The French underestimated the determination of organised foot soldiers against mounted knights. The victory of the common people made an impression all over Europe. A few years later the French successfully counter-attacked, but finally the French king failed to subdue the county of Flanders.

Charter Kortenberg.

Leuven, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief 1296

Duke John II of Brabant (1275-1312) defeated the forces of the Brussels craft guilds at the Battle of the Vilvoordse Beemden (1306). In the statute of Kortenberg (1312) the duke sealed an agreement with the nobility and the urban elites in which he acknowledged the rights and freedoms of his subjects. In that sense this document was a distant precursor of what we today would call a constitution.

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Social Revolutions in the Towns of Flanders and Brabant

The revolt of 18 May 1302 and the military encounter on 11 July 1302 were etched in the national memory by 19th-century Belgian writers and historians as national historic feats. In reality the events formed part of a feudalfeudal refers to the relationship between the liege lord, here the French king and the liegeman, here the count of Flanders. and social struggle that extended over a longer period.

The large-scale textile industry and trade in the towns of Flanders and Brabant made those towns sizeable, but also very turbulent. The population of the towns did not want to be governed according to noble whims, as still prevailed in the countryside. For that reason the towns regularly rebelled in order to assert their common interests. The frequency of such ‘democratic’ revolts was much higher in the Southern part of the Low Countries than elsewhere in medieval Europe.

In a first period of revolts the urban elites wanted to wrest rights and freedoms from the sovereign. For them political power was based on pacts between the ruler and his subjects. As a result you were entitled to resist an unjust ruler if he did not respect laws and customs.

In later revolts the common people, organised in the craft guilds, demanded its rights with respect to the urban elites. Common people also wanted their say and expected accountability from the town authorities. After 1302 the guilds of Bruges and Ghent obtained a far-reaching say in local government. A social revolution also took place in Mechelen, but the revolts in Brussels, Leuven and Diest failed.

Focal points

Lakenhal Leuven.

Leuven, Erfgoedcel Leuven, KU Leuven

The Cloth Hall in Leuven, today the seat of the Catholic University of Leuven, dates from the 14th century and was rebuilt after its destruction during the First World War.

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The Medieval Cloth Industry

After agriculture, the cloth industry was the most extensive economic activity in the county of Flanders. Sheep grazed on the coastal strip, many people could be employed in wool processing and the location on rivers and the North Sea made sure that the materials could be easily exported.

From the 12th century on the textile industry became larger-scale. When sufficient wool could no longer be produced on the Flemish coastal strip, merchants switched to mass importing of quality wool from abroad, mainly England, Scotland and Spain.

Textile production itself was strictly regulated and on a large scale. The various stages in the processing of wool into cloth were carried out by workers who moved in droves to the textile towns. Women were also active, especially in combing, cardingdisentangling wool. and spinning. Then the weavers got to work. Fullers matted the wool into tough, water-repellent material and dyers applied striking colours. Merchants exported the cloth all over Europe and even as far as the Middle East.

The cloth industry first began in the county of Flanders, but soon spread across the Southern part of the Low Countries and made the whole region an important export-oriented industrial area. Because of the cloth industry the towns attracted large numbers of tradesmen and became very prosperous. Hence from the 13th century on the tradespeople who contributed to that wealth wanted more of a say in things.

Vleeshuis Antwerpen.

Antwerp, Museum Vleeshuis, Toon Goblet

The huge dimensions of the 16th-century Meat Market in Antwerp say a great deal about the power of the butchers’ guild in the city.

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The Importance of the Craft Guilds

As a result of the flourishing of trade and industry, from 1000 on the number of tradespeople in the towns of the Low Countries grew. They started to work with other members of their trade group. At first informal groups were created. For example, people with the same trade often lived together in the same street. That is still noticeable in modern streets with names such as the Smedenstraat (Smith Street) or Volderstraat (Fuller Street). Gradually they formed trades guilds: urban trades organisations that during the Middle Ages had an important economic, political and military function.

The trades formed part of the town militias and gradually demanded more autonomy and greater involvement in decision-making. Their greatest influence was on the organisation of the town’s economy. They helped determine industrial and commercial regulation, insisted on qualitative norms for raw materials and finished products, checked weights and measures and had their say on working conditions and working hours. The guilds also had a social role. For example, they offered financial support to indigent members and their families in the case of illness, old age or death. As a kind of intermediary they supported the medieval urban population ‘from the cradle to the grave’.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the guilds gradually lost influence, because the Habsburg monarchs increasingly concentrated the administration in their own hands. Nevertheless, they continued to play an important role in the social tissue of the town until the French Revolution of 1789.

De keure van Sint-Omaars is de oudste originele Vlaamse stadskeure. In 1127 onderhandelde de gemeenschap van burgers of de ‘commune’ van Sint-Omaars (Noord-Frankrijk) in het toenmalige graafschap Vlaanderen met de nieuwe graaf Willem Clito (1102-1128) om stadsprivileges te verkrijgen.
Saint-Omer, Archives communales, AB XIII n° 1a Diplomata Belgica DiBe 158

The statute of Sint-Omaars (Saint-Omer) is the oldest original town statute. In 1127 the community of burghers of the ‘commune’ of Sint-Omaars (now Northern France) in the then county of Flanders negotiated with the new count Willem Clito (1102-1128) to obtain town privileges.

Schepenhuis Aalst.
Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed, Kris Vandevorst

Towns in the Low Countries erected belfries as symbols of their power and freedoms. The belfry of Aalst, also called the old aldermen’s house, dates from approximately 1225.

Charter Hasselt.
Liège, State Archives

Arnold IV, count of Loon, in this statute of 1232 accords rights to the town of Hasselt.

Kist van Oxford.
Oxford, New College, Wikimedia Commons

The Oxford Box depicts the entanglements of war in 1302 from the Good Friday rebellion (shown here) to the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

Slag bij de Pevelenberg.
Versailles, Paleis van Versailles, Galerie des Batailles

Charles-Philippe Larivière, The Battle of Pevelenberg, 1840. In 1304 Flemings and French again fought a bloody battle at Pevelenberg near Douai. On the battlefield there was no clear winner, but in 1305 a disadvantageous peace ensued for the Flemings.

Breydel en De Coninck.
Wikimedia Commons, Tim Dobbelaere

Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breydel in the market-place in Bruges, sculpture unveiled in 1887. They were the main characters in De Leeuw van Vlaenderen (1838) by Hendrik Conscience, a novel about the Battle of the Golden Spurs. The weaver Pieter de Coninck was the leader of the revolt. Breydel’s role is largely fictional.

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