Skip to content

Response to Review of Civic Ceremony and Religion in Medieval Bruges c. 1300-1520

I must begin by thanking Dr Weststrate for such a detailed review of my book and for finding good things to say about it. It is a slight pity that the invitation to ‘respond’ is probably not intended to allow me the pleasure of dwelling on these. So instead, I will focus on two problematic issues that the review raises: first, the exceptional nature of Bruges and the difficulty this poses in considering ‘civic religion’; and secondly the use of theoretical or ‘empirical’ approaches to source material. Both involve a wider problem that most historians encounter: how to go about generalising from the particular.

Bruges was a remarkable place. Pero Tafur was indeed astonished by the luxury and exotic products he saw in the town: oranges from Castile, wine from Greece, spices from Alexandria, furs from the Baltic, brocades from Italy (quoted p. 30). Bruges was extraordinarily wealthy, and its citizens – at least those able to profit from the ‘new economy’ (1) – had more cash to splash than their counterparts in other towns. There is a risk, as Weststrate rightly says, that arguments made for Bruges may not apply elsewhere. Yet the risk seems worth taking. Tafur refers to the cosmopolitan character of the town. Few other towns in the later Middle Ages were potentially such a melting pot of influences from all over Europe; in this sense, few towns could be said to be so representative of so many others. On the other hand, Tafur does not trouble to mention any of the religious practices and ceremonies that are the focus of the study in my book: there was simply nothing exotic or exceptional about them.

The wealth of Bruges citizens, and what it was spent on, was unusual more in degree than in kind. ‘What distinguished Bruges most from other towns in the region, and beyond, was the scale and complexity of its liturgical celebrations’ (p. 288). This comment is unlikely to be accounted profound, but it is not quite inevitable. The availability of surplus capital does not explain how and why it was spent, or when. Why should town councillors have chosen to direct civic money towards processions or merchants their profits towards commemorative endowments? Why was the late 14th century one of the key periods of investment in ceremony of all kinds? One of the main arguments linking chapters one to six is that, from the late 14th century onwards, more began to be spent on the Holy Blood procession, more on feast-day foundations by individuals and guilds, more on parish and prison poor-tables. This is a theme I return to in a comparative section in the conclusion (pp. 281–9). While some reasons for this trend may be specific to Bruges, similar trends are apparent in other towns both within the region (Ghent, Oudenaarde) and without (Bologna, York, Nuremburg, Valencia) – towns of greatly varying size and economic fortune (pp. 281–2 for references). It would be easy enough to attribute these trends to the widespread social effects, direct and indirect, of the Black Death and subsequent plagues, but this is one of many explanations that are more complicated than first appears (pp. 45–9, 107–8, 282–3). At any rate, the wealth of Bruges, and evidence for its disposal, makes the town a particularly good case study for trying to explain reasons for phenomena that were common to many late medieval towns.

As Weststrate rightly says, further comparison with other towns would be instructive. This is a tall order, especially over a long chronological range (2). A more rigorous approach demands the assembling of further ‘empirical’ data (which would presumably be unwelcome); and it also demands precise comparisons of comparable evidence. But even within towns of the same region, surviving evidence is uneven: the town accounts of Brussels, for instance, begin at a much later date to those of Bruges. The far greater supply of surviving wills in Douai would alter any characterisation of ‘civic religion’ for this town compared to that in Bruges, where there is a relative dearth of such evidence. Secondary works on other towns do not allow straightforward comparisons to be made: there are some excellent books on the ceremonial and religious history of Ghent (3), but none of them deal precisely with themes such as ‘civic religion’. I suspect that a more rigorous comparative approach would conclude, at a certain level, that every town was ‘exceptional’: Ghent in its rebelliousness, Tournai in the presence there of a bishop… But this is defeatist talk. Further comparative work would be valuable and revealing, and well worth the effort by historians who are more familiar than I am with the full range of primary sources in other towns.

My last paragraph adds weight to Weststrate’s comment that implicitly I am ‘empirically-orientated’. It is consoling to read also that in this orientation I would enjoy the comfort of good, or at least plentiful, company. ‘So many historians’ are probably not theorists because they find that theories from other disciplines are drawn upon in ways that are too arbitrary or too restrictive. The search for fashionable models (they might say) resembles a technique that has all the discrimination of a magpie gathering baubles. Then (were they to switch metaphor), once selected like a suit off the peg, the model is used as a straightjacket into which primary sources are uncomfortably stuffed. On the other hand, theories undoubtedly allow new questions to be asked of primary sources. Most historians find it necessary to decide how or how far they wish to apply particular theories to the ‘raw data’ of sources – while recognising that no data is truly ‘raw’ and that no approach they take to it is truly objective.

I have not adopted any particular anthropological model of ritual, but I have found several theorists particularly useful in shaping my approach to the ceremonies discussed in the book. The ideas of Geertz, Bloch, Sangren, Humpheys and Laidlaw (pp. 24–7) are behind my comment that: ‘[t]he kind of displacement that occurs in a ritual event makes the connections between “ritual” and “power” indirect … and indeterminate’ (p. 27). This informs my subsequent discussion of processions in chapters one and two, and of the ceremonial relationship between the town and its rulers in chapter seven. The Holy Blood procession might tend towards furthering of political power, but without certainty of outcome (p. 72). General processions both ‘did’ and ‘said’ things about orderly behaviour, but only indirectly (pp. 98–9). The entry ceremonies of princes have been subjected to various theoretical approaches (p. 236), often with a view to establish how far they were used to bolster princely or urban power. Yet what often emerges from attention to these entries is how unclear the political message was (p. 244). I return to this theme in the conclusion (pp. 285–6). Part of the purpose is to counter the assumption common among historians generally that ceremonies were relatively straightforward tools of political power (pp. 3, 22). Ceremonies that involved the liturgy were particularly problematic in this respect (e.g. pp. 27–8, 71–2, 99, 244, 267). Part of the purpose too is to enter more specific historiographical debates, for instance on the relationship between towns and princes, and the nature of the ‘theatre state’ (if there was one) in the Burgundian Low Countries (pp. 27, 286). In exploring these themes, I find myself more theoretically-orientated, and less needful of comparisons with other towns. Striking the right balance between ‘theory’ and evidence, or between generalisation and case-study, is tricky, and deserves more thought than can be given here or in a review.


  1. On the economy of Bruges, the indispensible book is: James M. Murray, Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism 1280–1390 (Cambridge, 2005).Back to (1)
  2. For an exemplary study (on a different subject) that compares three towns in the region fully and equally, and therefore within a narrower period, see: Jelle Haemers, For the Common Good. State Power and Urban Revolts in the Reign of Mary of Burgundy (1477-1482) (Turnhout, 2008).Back to (2)
  3. I cite several times the pioneering work of Peter Arnade (Realms of Ritual. Burgundian Ceremony and Civic Life in Late Medieval Ghent (New York, 1996)) and the valuable studies of Paul Trio on guilds in Ghent and elsewhere (De Gentse broederschappen (1182–1580) (Ghent, 1990); Volksreligie als spiegel van den stedelijke samenleving: de broederschappen te Gent in de late middeleeuwen (Leuven, 1993)).Back to (3)