When we visit one of Europe’s historic cities, we tend to wander around and serendipitously immerse ourselves in the past. We find ourselves on a journey of the mind, transported in our imagination to another time and place – and this effect is so much more intense if, like me, we normally reside somewhere in the anonymous outskirts of a modern city: the contrast then is dramatic and we experience an almost childlike fascination with these visible remains of the past right there in front of our eyes.
In our tourist euphoria, we tend to overlook the reasons why that city rose to prominence so long ago – the economic forces responsible for its construction as well as the brutal reality of people’s lives then. We are not in the right frame of mind to really confront the darkness of the past.
These generalisations were certainly applicable to me when in the autumn of 2022, Anya and I rode our bikes from The Netherlands to the city of Brügge in the north of Belgium and stayed there for two nights in a small hotel near the centre. It was shortly after the Covid restrictions had been phased out and tourism was a pale shadow of what it became in 2023.
(Whilst English speakers call it ‘Bruges’, the Flemish call it Brügge – pronounced, as far as it can be pronounced by English language speakers ‘Broogger’. Given that the city was established during the early middle ages by the Dutch speaking Flemish – and that the city to this day is located fairly and squarely in the Dutch speaking region of Belgium, Brügge must be considered its correct name).
During our tourist’s rounds of this beautiful city we read on an information board near the main square that Brügge came into existence during the middle ages because of wool.
The idea that an entire city with its surfeit of imposing buildings, squares, cathedrals, churches, statues, canals, bridges and maze of cobble stone streets lined with charming houses – because of wool seemed outlandish, to say the least.
In our modern times, wool plays a very minor role in the contemporary fabrics industry. In the Middle Ages there was no such thing as synthetic fibres, let alone vast modern factories where hundreds of workers sat behind sewing machines (like Bangladesh or China today).
Ironically, when I was actually in Brügge, I found it hard to place myself in the distant past. The why’s and the wherefores of how wool somehow led to the rise of a beautiful historic city remained in my mind’s peripheral vision – my main focus during our innumerable walks around the city being through the lens of my camera.
Later, back in our small third story apartment in Rotterdam, one amongst so many others – and when I had no inspiration to take photos – I began surfing around on the net.
And this is what I found:
In Medieval Europe, wool was the most commonly used material for clothing (as well as beautiful giant tapestries which adorned the walls of the aristocracy). The quality of the wool, dependent on the kind of sheep it was taken from – laboriously cut off with large scissors – could range from the very coarse and undyed wool worn by the lower classes – peasants and labourers – to very fine wool with designs and colours worn the nobility. Wool garments could be very thick and warm or thin, light and airy.
The manufacture of woollen cloth required several different processes. The sheared wool was graded according to its quality, then combed before being spun into yarn. The yarn was then woven into cloth on a loom. Afterwards it was died, pounded either underfoot or by hammers powered by a water mill and then attached to wooden frames to be dried and stretched.
It was a somewhat involved as well as time consuming process and must have taken decades if not longer to develop. But the demand was enormous and not only as result of an increasing population. During the middle ages, tens of thousands of people from all over Europe joined the Crusades – a massive and ultimately futile attempt to retake the Holy Land today’s Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip – from the Moslems. The Crusades began in the 12th century and continued until the 15th century. Clothing and feeding the enormous number of people on their way to the Middle East was an industry in itself. So too with advancements in shipping, also a result of the Crusades, new markets became accessible.
A merchant class sprang into existence who began to co-ordinate the processes involved in manufacturing wool cloth; they contracted spinners, weavers, fullers and other cloth-workers to produce at home and return the product to the merchant after completing their work. The merchants organised the production and arranged for the sale of the finished cloth.
Besides local and regional demand, the merchants also negotiated to sell their cloth all over Europe. The merchant needed technical knowledge, from buying wool to dyeing, as well as marketing skills. Throughout the cloth-making process they had to monitor quality and ensure that products were completed and delivered on time and at an acceptable cost. In turn the production and marketing of wool cloth led to the rise of a class of merchants who became wealthy in a way never seen before – along with a far larger class of artisan workers. Here was the first form of nascent capitalism at work long before Karl Marx wrote his monument ‘Das Kapital’ in the 19th century.
A basic requirement for wool cloth capitalism was security. Only a city surrounded by high walls and with a permanent standing army could provide a place where the merchants could store their goods, bank their money and hire ships to take their goods to other countries. Safety and stability were basic prerequisites for trade and a flourishing economy – as well as one of the world’s stock exchanges.
The flourishing wool industry in Brügge gave rise to other industries with major export markets: the production of wine and flour, for example. It also attracted traders and investors from Genoa and Venice, city states which had become power houses of trade and finance thanks to their role in providing shipping and clothing for the Crusades, along with transferring money from Europe to the Middle East.
The safety of a well-guarded city was also a place where writers, poets and artists could work in safety. In Brügge and the other city states in Northern Belgium, new oil-painting techniques of the Flemish school gained world renown. In an ironic form of exchange, Brugge and the other Flemish cities which had benefitted from the capital exports from Italy, later exported oil painting to Italy, which led to a small revolution in Italian painting and led to the rise of a generation of brilliant Italian painters.
Behind the elegant and beautiful buildings of Brügge is a history with a complexity of stories, each one seemingly different and yet interrelated, woven together like the yarns of a woven woollen tapestry….
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