Reconstruction of Monnikerede, one of the flourishing Zwin ports | Ghent University – Timescope – Westtoer

Landscape, Environment & Mobility
c. 1100 - 1500
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The Lost Harbours of the Zwin

Bruges, Linked to the Sea

Mude, Hoeke or Monnikerede. Those names do not mean much to us today, but in the Middle Ages they were bustling harbour towns along a tidal channel of the North Sea: the Zwin. Those secondary ports, together with the cosmopolitan town of Bruges insured communication with all important European ports.

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The medieval character of Bruges still shows how important the city was as a centre of trade, industry and art. But it could only play that role through its exceptional network of secondary ports, situated along a great tidal channel: the Zwin. Through that channel sailed ships, goods, people and ideas in and out of Flanders. In this way a unique trade environment was established.

After a flourishing period in the 13th and 14th centuries, an irreversible decline set in from the end of the 15th century. The merchants left because of the political and economic unrest in Bruges, the Zwin channel silted up and together with the channel the prosperity of Bruges and the secondary ports also disappeared.

Ghent University – Timescope – Westtoer

Reconstruction of the Spiegelrei: heart of port activities in Bruges (1430).

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Bruges, Linked to the Sea

Bruges already existed as a port in the Roman era, but only in the Middle Ages did the town expand into a great trade centre. The town had one great challenge: it was not on the coast and so constantly had to maintain the link with the North Sea. That was done originally via narrow waterways: first a tidal channel from Blankenberge to Bruges, then a canal dug to a tidal channel near Oostkerke and then an extension of that canal to a bay near present-day Knokke.

Perhaps as a result of a flood in the early 12th century a new, deep and wide tidal channel was created to the north-east: the Zwin. This gave Bruges for three centuries a good sea connection with the rest of maritime Europe and also with the rest of the then known world. Along that channel a series of harbour towns sprang up from the middle of the 12th century. Large ships could moor there, and numerous foreign merchants were based there. Goods were transferred to smaller ships with a shallower draught which via a lock at Damme and from there along the Reie Canal could reach Bruges. In this way the Zwin became a twenty-kilometre-long economic artery for the town.

Moreover, Bruges was on an important overland trade route. At that crossroads of sea and land routes, the town was able to develop into an economic, artistic and sometimes even a political metropolis in medieval Europe.

Focal points

Grootboek van Collard de Marke.

Bruges, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, reeksnr. 305: Koopmansboeken

Ledger of banker Collard de Marke from 1369, in which he noted down his financial transactions. No less than 900 of these were with foreign traders. Collard de Marke was initially prosperous but eventually went bankrupt.

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Bruges, ‘Cradle of Capitalism’

Everyone who mattered in the commercial world came to Bruges. In the 13th and 14th century the town became the hub of European trade networks and capital flows.

The town council itself laid the basis. It ensured a climate of security and justice and took responsibility for the maintenance of cranes, market halls and weighing stations. The international trade elite were accommodated in inns, the location par excellence for commercial activities. Cellars and attics served as storage spaces for goods. The hostellers provided legal and financial support for their guests.

Capitalist innovations ensured the smooth course of transactions. The square in front of the inn of the Van der Beurze family, where Genoese, Venetians and Florentines had their headquarters, became the centre for trade agreements, financial operations and the exchange of vital economic information. Merchants traded in debentures or speculated on exchange rates. In this way the concept ‘beurs, bourse, Börse, borsa’ as ‘the exchange’ came into being, which derives its name from the owners of the inn. That exchange had a successor in Antwerp in the 16th century and in Amsterdam in the course of the 17th century grew into a true stock exchange.

Pot uit Damascus.

Middelburg, Zeeuws Archeologisch Depot

All kinds of luxury products reached Bruges, sometimes from very far away. This pot from Damascus may have contained rose water, which was used for hygienic and medical purposes.


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Bruges, Metropolis

If in the Middle Ages in North-West Europe you were looking for pepper, ginger, lemons or oranges, or did you perhaps want to see a real-life monkey or a parrot? Then Bruges was the place to be. Those exotic products and animals illustrate how closely Bruges was linked with what was then the known world.

The town was located at the intersection of trade routes from all points of the compass. Overland carts left for Germany, France and Northern Italy. Via seagoing ships there were connections with the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Iberian peninsula, Italy and even the Middle East. In those ships and carts goods and people travelled to the town. And with those people there followed technologies, ideas and customs. In the paintings of Jan van Eyck, who was active in Bruges from 1425 to 1441, Valencian floor tiles and Syrian earthenware appear. The citizens of Bruges came into contact with new mathematical concepts and developments in cartography. They became acquainted with the Chinese compass and the astrolabean instrument for determining one’s position at sea by the use of heavenly bodies. from the Middle East.

Bruges and its secondary ports in this way became a cosmopolitan region, where the visitor could hear many languages, and from where knowledge and technology reached the Low Countries from the rest of the world.

Kerk Damme.
Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed

The church of Our Lady in Damme. On the gable is a palette of some 20 natural stones of diverse origin. This illustrates the contacts of the Zwin ports with the wider world.

13e-eeuws astrolabium uit het Midden-Oosten.
London, The British Museum, 8074001

13th-century astrolabe from the Middle East

Doosje met ijkgewichten.
Bruges, Musea Brugge, Raakvlak

Box of standard weights, around 1330. In a city full of foreign traders all kinds of strange coins circulated. Money-changers weighed coins, determined their value and exchanged them for local money. With their safes they also served as the first bankers.

London, The National Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

Portrait probably of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Jan van Eyck, 1434. The newly-weds from a rich Italian trading family had themselves depicted with oranges (by the windowsill). Such exotic luxury products were a status symbol.

Ter Beurze.
Ghent University – Timescope – Westtoer

Reconstruction of the square with the Van der Beurze inn (centre left) and various houses of the Italian ‘nations’ in 1441.

Kaart Zwin.
Bruges, Musea Brugge, Lukas Web

Map of the area of the Zwin and the Scheldt estuary from 1501 by Jan de Hervy. The Zwin channel is already silting up, as can be seen from the sand banks and the fact that only smaller ships can reach Bruges (at the far left of the map).

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