Written by Fay Marsden
Stepping off the bus that had taken us from Brussels to Bruges, the difference between the two cities was immediately discernible. Brussels seems to be somewhat sterile – too cosmopolitan for a medievalist. Bruges, in contrast, felt older and more historical. It is much smaller, with rows of short canal-style houses sitting atop the waters, countless lace and chocolate shops, and the beautiful Market Square, which is replete with stunningly preserved architecture, horse-and-carriages, and homely restaurants. Bruges is located in northwest Belgium, about an hour away from Brussels. The size of Bruges is perfect for a small trip. Plus, walking around the city is a treat, with it feeling and looking effortlessly historical. I stayed for three nights at the end of November last year and felt like I had stepped back into the past.
Bruges’ Market Square is home to a twelfth-century belfry and the Provincial Court – both of which are toweringly pretty. The Provincial Court was once the city’s Waterhall – where imports and exports were stored and processed. The history of this grand building can be learnt about in Historium, a ‘historical experience’ also located in the Market Square, which claims to take you through ‘medieval Bruges in a story’. Historium is perhaps the strangest history experience I have been to. It tells the story of the creation of Jan van Eyck’s painting – ‘Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’ (1434-36), – painted in Bruges. While the idea behind this experience is quite original and interesting, the experience is very short. You walk through different rooms which make up the painting’s story, including a tax office (where van Eyck paid the import tax for his paints), a mystic’s house (who sells rosaries), and a bathhouse (also a brothel). The sets were very well done, and if the story had been about the history of Bruges more generally, I think the experience would have been more informative. Whilst it was enjoyable, I found the story too narrow to be interesting.
A short walk away from the Market Square brings you to the Burg Square, which is similarly beautiful. It is home to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a twelfth-century gothic chapel. It is situated next to the City Hall – a tall, classical, pale stone building, built between 1376-1421. The Basilica is juxtaposed by the City Hall – being much darker and gothic, instead of classical. The lower level of the chapel is dedicated to St. Basil the Great, but the upper level was rebuilt in the sixteenth century and contains its namesake – a venerated relic in the form of Christ’s blood. The interior is really beautiful, with big painted walls depicting stages of Christ’s life. The atmosphere is sombre, but welcoming, with the warm colours of the interior wood and paint and the light filtering through the stained glass windows. The main attraction is Christ’s relic, which sits in a glass tube on an altar with a guard sternly watching over it and taking donations, which most of the visitors were watching with interest. I would definitely recommend visiting this very beautiful, small and strange chapel, even if you are uninterested in medieval religious history.
My favourite part of the trip was The Hospital of Saint John. It is a medieval hospital, founded in the mid-twelfth century and functioning until 1977. In the Middle Ages it was a hospital for pilgrims and travellers, but when a monastery and a convent were added, it also became a refuge for poorer patients to receive religious treatment and intervention. The hospital now contains a rich collection of documents, art, and medical instruments relating to the history of the hospital. My favourite piece was Hans Memling’s intricately painted reliquary dedicated to St. Ursula, created in 1489. This was brought out annually on her feast day, highlighting the integral role of religion to medical care and thought in the medieval period. For anyone interested in medical history, this is a great place to visit.
These were, for me, the top three sites to get an insight into the rich medieval history of the city. There’s much more to see – prestigious art galleries, numerous chocolate and beer museums, and even a torture museum to see the darker side of the city. The architecture throughout the city is also beautiful, and incredibly well-preserved. Bruges is a lovely place to visit as a historian, but the city is so vibrant and beautiful that it is welcoming to everybody.