Civic Ceremony and Religion in Medieval Bruges c. 1300-1520
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, ISBN: 9780521764452; 384pp.; Price: £55.00
University of Groningen
Date accessed: 4 June, 2023
When Pero Tafur visited Bruges in 1438 he had a keen eye for the material wealth of the town and the splendor in which its citizens seemed to indulge. In his famous travel diary he noted that ‘without doubt, the goddess of luxury has great power here, but it is not a place for poor men, who would be badly received here. But anyone who has money, and wishes to spend it, will find in this town alone everything which the whole world produces’.(1) While Tafur was absolutely correct in observing that Bruges offered all the known world’s luxuries for those who could afford it, he failed to recognize that those with money also chose quite different ways to spend it. The elite of late medieval Bruges invested considerable amounts in activities and objects that promised rewards in the afterlife rather than on earth: liturgy, commemorative services, charity and large-scale public religious ceremonies, such as processions.
However, the religious practices of the citizens of Bruges went beyond the mere saving of souls of individual benefactors. Spending on religious festivities by lay citizens, whether they did so as individuals, as members of guilds or as part of the town government, shaped the religious and ceremonial landscape of the town. This was done in a constant interplay with local religious institutions that were depositories for the relics that played a crucial role many of the town’s public religious festivities. Moreover, the clergy was responsible for the liturgical forms that were used on such occasions. Other parties in the main ceremonial exchanges in Bruges were the town’s overlords, the counts of Flanders, who participated in public festivities in Bruges as well. Sometimes their participation took the shape of active communication between town and prince, especially during entry ceremonies (joyeuses entrées), yet on other occasions the princes seem to have been passive spectators, most notably during the Holy Blood Procession.
The interplay between the motives of Bruges’ wealthy citizens, its clergy and its Burgundian and Habsburg princely overlords in matters of public religious ceremony is the main underlying theme of Andrew Brown’s study Civic Ceremony and Religion in Medieval Bruges, c. 1300–1520. In the introduction Brown first briefly sketches the political and socio-economic development characteristics of Bruges from the early 13th century onwards, and then moves on to an theoretical elaboration of his central analytical categories of ‘civic religion’ and ‘civic ceremony’. The first two chapters subsequently discuss the most important religious public ceremonies in Bruges: the famous Holy Blood Procession in chapter one, and general processions in chapter two. Chapter three explores developments in the celebration of feast days and the liturgical commemoration for the souls. The role of guilds in public religious life forms the topic of chapter four, and in the subsequent chapter the connections between guilds and civic government are treated. Civic activities in the field of charity for the poor are considered in chapter six, while the ceremonies that connected Bruges and their comital overlords are the subject of the last chapter.
An important topic throughout this book is how all these public activities, and most of all the rituals involved in them, were made to work, that is, what the social function of the entire body of rituals was and how it related to the power of civic and clerical authorities. Brown discusses the two most important approaches in the historical and anthropological debates on ritual and social power. The first of these approaches draws on the work of Clifford Geertz and sees rituals as an expression of social identities; rituals seem to articulate or ‘say’ something about the community in which they are performed. The second approach treats rituals in a functional manner: they serve to create, alter or sustain the social order of a community. In this view, rituals ‘do’ something to society rather than ‘say’ something about it. Prof. Brown does not take sides in this debate, but carefully and critically examines the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches, ending up with a rather nuanced view of what rituals in the context of late medieval Bruges might have ‘said’ or ‘done’: ‘Whether treated as a process of symbolic communication or behavioural performance, the ritualized event may reflect or affect social conditions but in an indirect way. The outcome of ceremony might be uncertain: it could not automatically legitimate worldly hierarchy’ (p. 27). At the end of this theoretical section Brown implicitly declares himself an empirically-orientated historian (as so many historians are) rather than a theorist: ‘[…] the application of particular theories of ritual to historical events cannot anyway be done so rigidly. What a ceremony said or did differed depending on its particular social and political context’ (p. 28).
The rest of the book shows Brown from his empirical side and from his empirical side only. Based on an impressive knowledge of the archives of the civic and religious institutions of Bruges, he sets out to describe the development of virtually every single ritual phenomenon he encountered in late medieval Bruges. Whenever possible he underpins his argumentation with quantitative data. For instance, when discussing general processions in Bruges, Brown is able to point out, through the use of a simple figure (fig. 2.1., p. 76) that the number of general processions rose steadily throughout the 15th century. The peak came in the 1470s and 1480s, years of war, pest and famine which needed divine intervention, and thus processions, to stave off these evils. Another example is the rise in the number of feast days from the late 15th century onwards. Appendices three and four provide a solid quantitative fundament for the further exploration of that particular topic. Combined with Brown’s somewhat terse style, this approach does not always make for a compelling read, but that is amply compensated for by the overview it provides.
It is impossible to treat all of Brown’s findings in detail in this review – the book is simply too full of them. However, a few general points stand out. In the first place, the author convincingly shows throughout how the grip of the magistrate of Bruges on public religious ceremonial and ritual grew tighter throughout the period of investigation. In the 13th century it was largely the terrain of the town’s most illustrious religious institutions, most notably the collegiate churches of St. Donatian and Our Lady’s and the parish church of St. Saviour. However, from the late 13th century onwards, and all throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, Bruges’ secular elites became ever more involved with these public religious events, in parallel to their growing commercial successes and correspondingly rising political power in Bruges itself and within the county of Flanders. They did so as part of the town council: the 14th century saw a steady rise in public expenditure on large scale ritual ceremonies, most of all on Holy Blood and other processions. They did so as members of the most important guilds and fraternities: all craft guilds were involved in the religious life of their members, and in this capacity financed their own altars, paid for masses, co-funded processions, benefited charitable institutions and so on. More prestigious were the purely devotional guilds. Some of these, such as the Holy Blood, Holy Trinity and Dry Tree guilds, were socially exclusive fraternities encompassing mainly the very same men that made up the town’s council. The devotional guilds by nature spent substantially on divine service, pilgrimages and processions. And finally, Bruges’ magistrates became involved with public religious ceremonial as individual citizens, spending lavishly on obits, religious works of art and charity. But despite growing civic involvement in religious matters, the role of the town’s religious institutions was not entirely marginalised. As mentioned, they were responsible for the liturgy on festive occasions and kept the relics that were central to the larger public spectacles – without the consent of the clergy of the chapel of St. Basil’s, the Holy Blood procession could not be undertaken.
The reasons laymen became involved with public religious events were manifold. On the individual level honour, prestige and pure piety all played their part, but Brown argues quite rightly that on a more abstract level this civic intervention also had to do with the need of the town magistrate to assert its authority. The prime example of this was the Holy Blood procession (and to a lesser extent other processions). On Holy Blood day the hierarchical order in which the various participating social groups were to proceed was carefully orchestrated. Closest to the relic were the town councilors and the members of the fraternity of the Holy Blood (consisting of magistrates). Members of the clergy and of the towns’ guilds followed in a sequence that suggests a decreasing social position – this way the social order was not only established but also divinely confirmed. The procession then took a route along the most important religious and secular sites of town. It encircled all the town walls of Bruges, thus symbolically incorporating the whole urban community. The procession and its associated festivities enabled the town magistrate to impose civic order and to underline the divine character of their own rule. But not all participants shared this agenda. Brown points out that the relic of the Holy Blood, allegedly brought from Jerusalem by the Flemish count Thiery d’Alsace after the Second Crusade, might have meant different things to different people. Nevertheless, he does stress the possibility that the Holy Blood served as an agent of unification: ‘A symbol with many potential meanings was perhaps inherently better equipped to bring together a complex and divided community than one whose meaning was too narrow and easily fixed’ (p. 64). While this may very well be true, this argument would have been much more persuasive if the Bruges’ case had been set off against the models and theories on symbolic communication that are treated in chapter one.
The Holy Blood procession seems to have been the summit of the deliberate involvement of the magistrates in religious ceremony. While lay influence was large in the phenomena that are described in the rest of the book, the effect on the Bruges urban community were more ambiguous. Yet the evidence provided by Brown convincingly shows the construction, growth and intensification of a ‘civic religion’ during the late middle ages. This ‘civic religion’ manifested itself in several ways. On the one hand, the town itself and town government were sacralised through the participation in and appropriation of certain religious rituals, and the deliberate instrumentalisation of them. As a consequence public worship intensified: throughout the whole period under investigation a marked increase in a large variety of divine services can be discerned. But Brown is quick to remark that this by no means reflected a secularization of civic society, or a large scale encroachment on clerical fields of activity by the lay magistrate. This illustrates the careful reasoning of the author, who shuns all too simple or black-and-white interpretations of the developments he encounters. This is one of the strong points of the book, as far as I am concerned.
This book thoroughly explores all aspects of Bruges’ ‘civic religion’. This should lead to further debate, especially on the interpretation of the ceremonies surrounding the visits of the counts of Flanders. Such a debate will not revolve around the facts, as Brown has comprehensively and impressively unearthed data from the archives of Bruges. As such this book is an invaluable tool for the study of (religious) rituals and events within the late medieval town. Yet the strong focus on the situation in Bruges does carry the risk of distortion. In many senses the town was far from average. It was, for instance, more commercialized than any other town in Northwestern Europe, which meant that the citizenry had a lot of capital at their disposal for investment in civic ceremony and religious ritual. One wonders how the development of Bruges’ civic religion and public ceremony differed from that of Ghent, which had an entirely different relationship to the counts of Flanders, or of Tournai, which housed a bishop. Moreover, the question arises as to whether the manifestation of civic religion in Bruges had a regional character, or if it might be compared to other large commercial towns, such as Cologne or those of North Italy. Admittedly Brown occasionally does refer to the latter, and he does give briefly place Bruges in a wider urban context in his concluding chapter, but the author would have been able to make a stronger case from the results of this study if he had pursued a more rigorous comparative approach using other towns both inside and outside Flanders.
- Pero Tafur, Travels and Adventures, 1435-1439, translated by Malcolm Letts (Oxford, 2004), p. 200.Back to (1)
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.
- On the economy of Bruges, the indispensible book is: James M. Murray, Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism 1280–1390 (Cambridge, 2005).Back to (1)
- 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)
- 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)