Bruges: "A Fucking Fairy Tale"

If In Bruges' killers turn that charming medieval town into a bloodbath, that's nothing compared to what its own citizens used to do. Joel Bleifuss explains.

A "fairy tale fucking town" is how an emphatic Harry, the mob boss of In Bruges describes it. And indeed Bruges is a city full of "beautiful fucking fairy-tale stuff."

While the sleepy, medieval backdrop to Martin McDonagh's hitman comedy certainly appears like the setting for a fairy tale, it also hides a very dark past, one full of fundamentalist depravity and dank dungeons as well as knights and ladies. It was a city of contradictions-host to one of the most spectacular banquets in medieval times and the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch's hellish visions. The center of a burgeoning middle class as well as a secret aristocratic clan, Knights of the Golden Fleece (an order created by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy) and a famously cheerful executioner who gleefully tortured and then burned homosexuals at the stake. Indeed the happy city of Bruges rose to fame (and fell from it) as the cultural divide between an old feudal order and an emerging capitalist economy.

Bruges, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, is located in the lowlands of northwestern Flanders, near the North Sea. As a monument to the age of chivalry, Bruges has few equals.

While the actual city existed for centuries, the modern notion of it as a fairy tale city emerged in the 19th century as budding travel writers found it a convenient place on which to project their romantic fantasies of a bygone Europe.

In her travelogue Belgium and Western Germany in 1833, Frances Trollope, the novelist and social critic (most famous for her 1832 book Domestic Manners of the Americans), noted Bruges' "mouldering grandeur" and "splendid relics of its brighter days." Indeed at its apex in the 14th and 15th centuries, Bruges was the center of trade and commerce — the New York, if you will, of the Western world. In the 14th century, 17 kingdoms and principalities had official representatives stationed in Bruges.

But like all great cosmopolitan cities, its glory faded. Mrs. Trollope, as she was known, goes on to write, "I am very gravely assured, that its principal trade at present is in beer and manure." (And the beer remains. Ray: "I assume they have beer in his fucking country." Ken: "They have over three hundred different types of beer.")

This post-mortem view of Bruges was picked up by others. In 1892, Georges Rodenbach, the Symbolist poet and novelist, wrote a short novel set in the decaying city, The Dead City of Bruges.

The city's architectural treasures became evidence of its exotic past. Bruges, once a major port, has an extensive network of canals. Traveling to Bruges by canal boat, Mrs. Trollope informed her readers: "In China only, as we were told, can a still more superb canal be seen." Indeed, Bruges is known as "Venice of the North" — a comparison that was first made in 1438 by a Spanish merchant, Petro Tafur, who was referring to both the canals and the libertine lifestyle of the town's elite.

Bruges was pivotal in the development of the international trade routes and banking systems that changed Europe's economy and culture. James M. Murray's recent Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390 demonstrates that the banking and shipping interests in this little town helped change the economic fabric of the western world. In its heyday, from the Baltics to Venice, traders made their way to Bruges. Merchants and bankers from Eastern Europe (the Osterlings — hence the word sterling), England, Spain, Genoa and Florence were so numerous that they established their own neighborhoods. A tally of ships at port on one day in the 15th century included "three galleys from Venice, a hulk from Portugal, two Spanish caravels, six Scottish ships, 42 caravels from Brittany, 12 vessels from Hamburg, and a fishing fleet that includes four whalers, and some 40 herring boats." Adrien de Meeüs, in his definitive History of the Belgians (1961) writes, "Vessels from far countries unloaded monkeys, lions, and parakeets there to ornament the princely menageries of Europe."

In the towns of Belgium lowlands, in the late 13th century, feudal Europe saw the emergence of both an ascendant bourgeoisie and the first European democracies. These "burghers" made their money controlling trade and particularly the cloth industry, having a cartel on English wool with the help of the English kings. But neither the church nor the heredity nobility took kindly to these developments. As for the workers, they were in a state of near constant revolt. From the 13th to the 17th century, Bruges and neighboring cites were riven with first rebellion and counter-revolution and the reformation and counter-reformation.

This constant reshuffling of social and economic classes left a bloody legacy in Bruges. Among the most legendary battles between the nobility and the ascendant merchants was the Battle of the Golden spurs, which occurred near Kortriji on July 11, 1302.

The game site for Medieval War II: Total War describes it this way: "The principle achievement of the Brugois must be the battle of Kortrijk in 1302: a citizen army of some 8,000 men — 6,000 of whom came from Bruges — fought against a royal French army [of Philip IV, known as Philip the Fair for his beauty.] ... Taking up a strong defensive position behind a small stream, the citizens, fighting entirely on foot, used spears, pikes, and their popular local weapon, the goedendag, to defend against waves of French cavalry. The goedendag was a pole-arm weapon of relatively short length — perhaps 1 to 1.5 meters long — with a broader metal base at the end with a dagger blade protruding from it. It could be used both as a type of spear (stabbing oncoming cavalry) and a club, the metal base being excellent at bashing dismounted knights."

The dead included the heads of 75 of France's greatest families, who, pulled from their steeds by traditional Flemish lances called goedendags and then bludgeoned to death. Following the battle it was said that the Flemings picked up hundreds of golden spurs, a symbol of noble rank, hence the name Battle of the Golden Spurs.

A Flemish poem of the time told of the death of Robert d'Artois, the leader of Philip the Fair's forces:

"I am, so he said in French, the Count of Artois! They replied: there is no one here who speaks your language; after which they struck him down."

European nobility, chosen by God as they were, were scandalized by the way the commoners from Bruges had treated them. For the next 200 years, battles between the burghers and the nobility would rage.

During the one period of relative peace, under the rule of Philip II, the Duke of Burgundy, Bruges blossomed. Known as Philip the Good, between 1419 and 1467, he governed Flanders from his court — which rotated between in Bruges, Brussels and Ghent.

During the reign of the Burgundy dukes, Bruges was a playground for the aristocracy — the Cannes of Medieval Europe.

In Bruges, the dukes and their court lived in the Prinsenhof, a huge palace that contained a zoo that was home to bears, lions and a camel. The palace was also the site of the world's first tennis court, built in 1453. According to palace accounts, Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold both bet large sums on the matches that they played.

Philip the Good founded the Order of the Golden Fleece, inspired by Arthurian legend and the English Order of the Garter, which was based on Arthurian legend of the Knights of the Round Table. Between 1405 and 1482, Bruges played host to 20 international jousting tournaments.

Court life became very ceremonial, with the courtiers each having their and place in the palace pecking order. The Dukes of Burgundy took all their meals separately, so as to prevent poisoning.

And it was in Bruges, during the famously fabulous marriage in 1468 of Charles the Bold (son of Philip the Good) to Margaret of York (the sister of Edward IV of England) that "the fabulous luxury of the court of Burgundy reached it peak," writes De Meeüs.

Margaret arrived in town on a litter that was draped with gold cloth and slung between two white horses. The entourage that accompanied her to Bruges included 13 English ladies riding white horses draped in scarlet cloth.

On July 8, 1468, after the wedding, John Paston III, who accompanied Margaret to Bruges, wrote (in middle English) to his mother: "And she was browt the same day to Bruggys to hyr dener, and ther sche was receyvyd as worchepfully as all the world cowd devyse, as wyth presessyon with ladys and lordys best besyn of eny pepyll that ever I sye or herd of. ...And as for the Dwkys coort, as of lardys, ladys, and gentylwomen, knytys, sqwyris, and gentyllmen, I herd never of non lyek to it save Kyng Artourys cort."

Describing the wedding banquet, De Meeüs writes: "On this occasion, a gigantic wooden house, richly decorated by the greatest artists of Flanders, Brabent, Hainaut and Artois, was brought down from Brussels to Bruges by canal barge. It as full of enormous toys, including a 40-foot-high tower filled with mechanical animals — monkeys, wolves and boars — who danced and sang. A mechanical 60-foot whale walked about the room. There were 30 8-foor-high trees, an elephant and a pelican tossing fish into its ample beak." It is reported that the whale opened its mouth and emitted dancing mermen and two singing sirens, which when they had finished performing it swallowed and then departed.

Even today, every 5 years Bruges reenacts "the marriage of the century," the next one being scheduled for 2012.

(Nine years after his wedding, Philip the Bold died in a battle against the Swiss. His body was discovered two days after the battle mired in a frozen pond. He was half eaten by wolves and was only identified by his clothes.)

It was in Bruges that what is known as the International Goth Style was born. Created by painters — the paparazzi of their day — who like Van Eyck moved as official emissaries from court to court, International Gothic became the common aesthetic among European nobility. Philip the Good staffed his court with artists like Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling, who in turn painted the wealthy residents of Bruges. Since many of them were foreigners, the resulting portraits and the fashions portrayed in them were distributed throughout Europe.

Stan Parchin writes: "Memling's Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer depicts a youthful half-length gentleman of some late-medieval social stature, illuminated delicately from a light source emanating from beyond the balustrade to his immediate left. To this day, the sitter's identity remains a mystery. His attire is entirely Spanish. The Oriental rug that drapes the windowsill suggests that he had commercial ties to the Spanish wool trade in cosmopolitan Bruges, an international banking city in Northern Europe. Bruges' bustling economy attracted Italian bankers and international merchants during the Fifteenth Century, some of whom were Memling's most prominent patrons."

As a manufacturing center, Bruges was the leading producing of cloth in Europe, a distinction that, along with its wealthy merchant class, made it Fashion Week's Bryant Park of medieval Europe. In 1301, Phillip the Fair of France and his queen, Joan I of Navarre, traveled through Flanders and were astounded by the wealth of the patrician class that ran controlled the wool and cloth trade. When they came to Bruges, the town's bourgeoisie organized an elegant reception. "I though I was the only queen here, but around me I see more than a hundred," Joan is said to have exclaimed.

In the middle of the 14th century, what we know as modern fashion was invented in Bruges in the court of Philip the Good. Europe, its fashion sense united in the International Gothic Style, looked to Bruges to define what was in and what was out. From Florence to London, the European aristocracy kept up with the styles of Burgundy. Though rather than magazines or television, they turned to the painters — like Memling and Van Eyck — and anonymous manuscript illuminators.

International Gothic clothing often featured two colors — blue and red, green and purple, pink and orange — separated vertically with one color on one the left and the other on the right.

Shoes had pointed toes and were often 18 inches in length or longer. Like stiletto heels this style was wildly impractical — if the point of the shoe was tied to the ankle it would allow the wearer to more easily walk.

Men's faces were always cleanly shaven until the fashion changed in the 16th century when beards came into fashion.

Women's hairstyles were flat to the head during one year, and the next the hair was piled so high that doors of castles had to be rebuilt. Headdresses, draped with gauze veils became enormous and elaborate. Sometimes they were conical and sometimes in the form of two stuffed horns, often draped with veils. The goal: make the face, from which eyebrows were often entirely plucked, seem smaller and more delicate.

Like Philip the Good, who ate almost nothing in order to preserve his gaunt figure, the nobility in the Court of Burgundy — and by extension the rest of Europe — believed that you couldn't be "too rich or too thin," as Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, would say 500 years later.

Allison Green, at the University of British Columbia, puts it this way: "Ideals of beauty in the late Middle Ages favored emaciated bodies with unnaturally elongated limbs. Women were portrayed in a slouching, S-curve pose, hips thrust forward, with distended bellies and round breasts — as if pregnant. Costume reinforced this ideal by lengthening and narrowing the silhouette." Court dogs, like greyhounds, were breed to compliment their masters' skeletal frames. (Two hundred years later during the Flemish Renaissance, people strived to become Rubenesque — women plump and men muscular.)

In the late middle ages, attire in the Burgundy court became highly sexualized. Some social critics speculate this was do to the fact that with the bubonic plague ravaging Europe, human society needed to encourage as much procreation as possible.

With plunging necklines, the breasts became almost completely uncovered. And men padded their shoulders to such an extent that they needed help undressing. They pinched their waist to make their hips seem slimmer. Tunics, or doublets, of men became shorter, going from half way down the calf to the waist, thereby leaving little room for imagining what was under tight fitting stockings.

One of the most peculiar inventions of International Gothic Style, was the codpiece fad. Codpieces, a pouched flaps that covered the genitals, sometimes depicting anatomical details, suggested sexual availability. They could also be used as pockets, and were used to carry valuables-hence the term "family jewels."

This male style of tight-fitting tights scandalized moralists, and in Flanders priests, doctors and lawyers reacted to the fashions by wearing long robes in an effort to retain their dignity. A desexualized form of dress still popular among some priests and judges. During the reign of Bruges' Burgundy Dukes, De Meeüs writes, "Immorality became a common practice among all classes of society. Prostitution became a social scourge and public bathing establishments places of debauchery." Philip the Good, for example, had 24 known mistresses who gave issue to 18 bastard children.

The Duke's godson, Philippe de Commynes, considered one of the first modern writers, observed of the Burgundy court: "The subjects of the house of Burgundy were at that time [1464] very wealthy, by reason of the long peace they had enjoyed, and the goodness of their prince, who laid but few taxes upon them. ...if any country might then be called the land of promise it was his country, which enjoyed great wealth and repose ... The expenses and dresses both of women and men were great and extravagant: and their entertainments and banquets more profuse and splendid than in any other place that I ever saw. Their baths and other amusements with women, lavish and disorderly, and many times immodest: I speak of women of inferior degree."

Similarly, Munzer, a Nuremberg doctor, visited Bruges in 1494. Commenting on the ability of the women of Bruges to entrap men, he wrote, "The women are slight of figure and very beautiful, and they often dress in bright red... They might well, be known as the daughters of Venus."

Writing about the people of Bruges, Munzer observed, "They are much given to love and also to religion, for in these regions of the northwest, people are wont to go to extremes — all or nothing."

The town's shifting social mores were a reflection of the emerging capitalist model that celebrated excess but thrived on privation. As the historian de Meeüs explains, "In this town where fortunes were made and unmade within a few days, where chance and mischance were normal ingredients of life, the transition from piety to debauch could happen at a moment's notice."

But while the society reflected continually shifting standards of finance, fashion and luxury, the government of the Dukes sought, often by death, to enforce their control over social values. This was the dark side of the Bruges fairy tale. While the Burgundy Dukes, particularly Phillip the Good, used pageant and public spectacle to assert their dominance, and entertain the populace, they alternatively used repression to violently assert their dominance in society — whether over upstart political rebels or those who deviated from social norms.

One such extreme was persecution of same sex unions. Condemned homosexuals were regularly put to death. In fact, Bruges burned more sodomites at the stake than any other city in Europe — particularly during the city's glorious years between 1450 and 1475, when the Burgundy court was at its most spectacular. During that time political dissidents were in short supply, forcing the city elders to search of other scapegoats.

The city's Christian fundamentalists were inspired by Jean Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris, whose book Concerning the Confession of Masturbation (1405) set the stage for the persecution that would come. Gerson discussed the dangers posed by nocturnal emissions and morning erections, which he warned could lead men down a slippery slope: masturbation, mutual masturbation and finally sodomy. Historian Andrea G. Pearson writes, "As a result of Gerson's denunciation, sodomy came to be considered so offensive to both divine will and public order in Bruges that it was punishable not only by fines and corporal punishment, but also and most frequently by execution in its severest form: death by burning." (The most effective way to burn someone at the stake was with a very small fire, since a blaze would use up all the oxygen and the victim would suffocate before they had properly suffered.)

Philippe Wielant, who wrote the criminal law book for the Dukes of Burgandy, deemed sodomy to be a sin against nature. He defined sodomy as masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality — though it was only the later two that were deemed punishable by death.

Bruges kept detailed records of convicted sodomites and their fates — though not the exact nature of their supposed crimes. For example between 1490 and 1515, 21 people were convicted of sodomy and 16 burned at the stake. Among the five spared was a young boy: instead of being sent to the stake his hair was burned off, he was whipped and then exiled from the city for 50 years.

All told, in Bruges between 1385 and 1515, 90 sodomites were burned at 44 stakes. Of those condemned, 24 were burned singly and in 66 were burned in groups of two to six. Of the 90, 17 were boys. This was a record for medieval Europe. (Though thousands of men were accused of sodomy in medieval Venice and Florence, fewer were condemned to death.)

Writing in the Journal of Medieval History, Marc Boone observes, "[T]he tragic fate of the 90 Bruges sodomites invites us to reconsider the splendour of the Burgundian theatre-state in Bruges. Seen in the light cast by the 44 burning stakes, its cracks and tarnishes are visible."

He writes: "Demonized since the 14th century, sodomy had evolved gradually to become [in the 15th century] the internal enemy to be beaten (more or less like witches [in the 16th and 17th centuries]). The fact that homosexuals adopted a sexual life not exclusively oriented towards reproduction made them an easy target for those who saw them as a real threat to society. Their behavior threatened the order given by God and defended by the prince. Repression of sodomy furthermore helped to shape the collective mentality and to strengthen the grip of the ruling elites of both state and city. Others have recently argued that the creations of marginal people in late medieval society proceeded via a process of labeling and scapegoating."

All done of course in preserving the name of God (as represented on earth by the aristocracy) and public order.

The man who burned some of the sodomites at the stake was Wissel Geerts van Utrecht, the Lord Executioner of Bruges between 1509 and 1536. This scherprechter was known as a friendly man who always tried to cheer up the condemned as he hung them, severed their heads or, in the case of homosexuals and heretics, roasted them alive in the Groote Markt, the square that plays such a leading role in In Bruges. Should the punishment only call for torture, Geerts van Urtrcht was famous for cutting off the ear or hands of thieves and heretics, or stigmatizing them with a glowing iron brand-all in the most pious and cheerful manner.

After 1515, sodomites were spared his voluble ministrations. It was now the witches turn at the stake.

When not at work on the scaffold or in the cells, he could be found praying in St. Saviors Church. Geerts van Utrecht was also the town dogcatcher. It is not known what he did with the dogs of Bruges.

Joel Bleifuss is a writer who lives in Chicago. He is the editor and publisher of In These Times, a national independent monthly magazine based in Chicago, for which he has worked and written since 1986. He is the author with Steven Freeman of Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen: Exit Polls, Election Fraud and the Official Count (Seven Stories, 2006).