Gravensteen Castle in Ghent. Source: Wikipedia

The City of Ghent

We visit Ghent for the magnificent altarpiece painted by Hughes and Jan van Eyck in the 15thcentury,  but the Flemish city promises much more in terms of medieval charm

Sunset over the Natural park, the Bourgoyen south of Ghent. Source: Wikipedia
Sunset over the Natural park, the Bourgoyen south of Ghent. Source: Wikipedia

In Celtic times, Ghent was known as “Ganda” meaning confluence or river mouth. The name makes sense as Ghent was located at the confluence of the rivers Lys (Leie) and Scheldt with the River Kale or Dune to the North; right in the corner between the loamy and silty fertile farmland to the west, and the sandy moors and dense forests to the north and east. While in the south-west, a marshy riverine landscape crisscrossed by rivers, ditches, canals, and other waterways was suited to the cultivation of grain, the sandy moors came to offer a favourable pastoral landscape after the reclamation 1000 – 1300.

The region or pagus – Pagus Candensis – was settled by a Roman influx of people in the first two centuries, but abandoned in the late 3rd century together with the rest of Flanders. At this time, massive incursions of the sea led to the general abandonment of Maritime Flanders, followed by migration to the south and east into the valley of the Meuse. After 400, the Romans abandoned Flanders, following which, the Salian Franks settled in the valley between the Leie and the Scheldt. Perhaps, the Justinian Plague and the deterioration of the climate it the 6th century also contributed to the demographic decline. A handful of Roman place-names have been preserved in the district to the west of Ghent, but to the north, only three are in use today. The coast remained deserted well into the 8th century.

The earliest land reclamation took place in the 7th century and was orchestrated in connection with the foundation of two major abbeys founded by St. Amand of Maastricht (584 – 679). Initially, a small double monastery, called Blandinium, was founded between 629 – 39 at Blandijnberg on land obtained from the Merovingian king, Dagobert I. Perhaps this was followed by the first church in “Ganda” consecrated to St. Bavo, whose relics were translated here around 675. It is likely this church with its Abbey was constructed on the ruins of the Roman castell. Another foundation was St. Pieter’s, which was located to the south on a hill and in the midst of a tract of farmland, worked by slaves or non-tenanted labourers, with relatively independent tenanted farmers paying taxes but not labour-dues.

St. Bavos Abbey in Ghent before the destruction 1534
St. Bavos Abbey in Ghent before the destruction 1534

Early on, these Abbeys came to assemble tracts of arable land that was cultivated as open fields, soon within a three-year rotation system. Some historians consider the economic growth fostered by these seigniorial initiatives as the key to understand the growth of the Flemish cities in the early Middle Ages. However, this growth came much later after a series of Viking incursions and destructions taking place between ca. 800 and 880. These raids led to the ultimate destruction of Dorestad to the north and Quentovic to the west. Although Ghent also suffered numerous incursions, this city seemed to be able to fill the vacuum between the two larger emporia in the 10thand 11thcentury.

In 865, the first written records of trading activities at Ghent mention a harbour. Archaeologically excavated, the settlement next to this port seems to have been enclosed by a wall. At the centre lay a parish church, St. Jan, which today is known as the Cathedral of St. Bavo. This church was consecrated in 947, and was part of the construction of the city as the future powerbase of the Flemish Counts.

Thus Ghent originated as a trading emporium located at the confluence of rivers, different types of landscapes and in betwixt two political powers – France and the Holy-Roman Empire. Thus, during the 10th and 11thcenturies, Ghent became an critical node in the political manoeuvres of the German emperors against the French kings and leaders.

Gradually, Ghent grew to city-like proportions, and the settlement at the Oudburg Island became an important centre, where the Count of Flanders, Arnulf I the Great, built the first castle. Remains of a rectangular wooden building and a castle church, the later St. Verlekeerk, have been excavated. In the 11th century, a stone keep in the form of a hall measuring 13,5 x 31 metres was built. This early building was later encapsulated in the Gravensteen constructed in 1180.

At the same time as the first fortified castle, another port was built along the embankment of the River Leie. Likely, this port served local trade, while the port at the Abbey channelled international trade.

Viel Rentier de Oudenarde ©
Viel Rentier de Oudenarde ©

Industrial Centre

Shepherds in the Milan-Turin Hours by Van Eyck, Fol 38v. By the courtesy of, © KIK-IRPA, Brussels
Shepherds in the Milan-Turin Hours by Van Eyck, Fol 38v. By the courtesy of, © KIK-IRPA, Brussels

During this period, Ghent flourished as a vibrant commercial centre with regular markets trading in grain and foodstuff. However, from the earliest time, trade in wool and cloth seems to have played a significant role. The earliest reference concerns the import of wool from Tournai in the late 10thcentury. Soon followed the construction of quarters for textile workers in suburbia. Thus, the foundation was laid for the formation of the largest industrial centre of northern Europe, known for its production and trade in woollen and later linen cloth.

The primary precondition for this development was the widespread reclamation of land in the period 1000 – 1300, providing homesteads for numerous settlers and migrants on both the thick forests, the heaths, the valleys and maritime Flanders. Settled on small plots – three to five ha – these people needed extra income, which spinning, fishing, gardening, the cultivation of dyes like woad and madder, as well as transportation might provide. Thus, with the reclamation and resettlement of land around 1000 – 1200 and the corresponding demographic explosion as well as the easy import of victuals from France (grain) and wool from England, the foundation was laid for the formation of the cloth industry and trade in Ghent and the other Flemish cities in the high Middle Ages.

Another important precondition, though, was the technical shift in Northern Europe from the vertical to the horizontal loom in the 11th century. Although the horizontal loom was invented in Roman times, with the technology for damask-weaving introduced ca. 400, and archaeological evidence from Haithabu indicates the vertical loom may have been introduced in the 10th century, it seems a date between 1000 and 1100 is appropriate. Whatever the precise date, the introduction of this new form of technology would result in a production four times as effective.

Milan-Turin Book of Hours, Fol 124 r. With painting by Jan van Eyck By the courtesy of, © KIK-IRPA, Brussels
Milan-Turin Book of Hours, Fol 124 r. With painting by Jan van Eyck. By the courtesy of, © KIK-IRPA, Brussels

Flemish Counts and Independent Cities

The techniques of the textile trade called for the organisation of import of victuals and wool as well as export of the finished product. But it also called for the political organisation of the city handling monopolies and markets, the policing of the brand (Ghentish Cloth) and the collection of taxes. This led to well-organised city-councils manned by aldermen as well as merchant’s and craftsmen’s guilds. In the same period, the city was walled and fitted with four gates, while the “virii hereditarii” took over the leadership. These wealthy merchants and nobles built fortified houses, some of which may still be seen in the city (e.g. the Gerard de Duivelsteen). In the 13thcentury, these patricians constituted the so-called “39 men”, who de facto ruled the city until the calamities the early 14thcentury set its mark. It is estimated the city held between 50 -60.000 inhabitants ca. 1300.

After 1300 the patrician oligarchy crumbled and a new system of leadership was organised manned by 26 aldermen. At this point, the Belfry was constructed as well as the “Prinsenhof”, the residence for the Counts of Flanders. The Belfry was the foremost symbol of the municipal pride in the Flemish cities. Of the preserved belfries, the Ghent monument is the most impressive.

After the ravages of the Black Death followed a series of rebellions and wars, ultimately causing the loss of the unique trading position in the cloth market. It has been estimated that the population shrank by more than 50% between 1357 and 1385. By the end of the 16th century, the population in Ghent levelled at ca. 30.000.

Milan-Turin Book of Hours, Fol 113 r. With painting by Jan van Eyck By the courtesy of, © KIK-IRPA, Brussels
Milan-Turin Book of Hours, Fol 113 r. With painting by Jan van Eyck By the courtesy of, © KIK-IRPA, Brussels

The Arts and Crafts

In the 12th century, Ghent thrived as the commercial hub trading in unprocessed wool, meat, dairy products, fish, salt, peat and madder produced in the rich marshy forelands.

This trade created a milieu where metalworkers and the tapestry-weavers were able to organise their own guilds. These came to witness to the important role different industries played in the commercial life of Ghent. However, much of this artistic work was carried out by itinerant artists and craftsmen, and art historians talk about the “Ghent-Bruges School” and the “Flemish School” when characterising the artistic milieu of the Late Middle Ages.

Of special importance was the production of illuminated manuscripts by artists like Bening and the Master of Mary of Burgundy, but also the work of Jan van Eyck as an illuminator should not be forgotten. Another important industry was the tapestry-weaving, which Ghent came to be known for in the 15th century.

Medieval Highlights of Ghent

Late medieval Ghent has left us significant vestiges of major building projects in the form of private homes (Grote Moor), guildhalls (Hoogport), the new town-hall (the Stadhuis), and the beguinages (Begijnhofdries). Especially important are:

    1. St. Bavo and St. Jan.
      The Adoration of the Lamb. Restored. Detail of the altarpiece in Ghent. © KIK-IRPA
      The Adoration of the Lamb. Restored. Detail of the altarpiece in Ghent. © KIK-IRPA

      Not much is left of the ancient Abbey founded in the 7th century. Destroyed by fire in 813, it was ravaged by the Vikings in the mid 9th century, and following this, deserted by the monks until the 10th century. The new foundational stone was laid in 985, but the cathedral was not finished until the mid 12thcentury. Following the religious wars, the emperor tore down the Abbey in 1540, an act followed by the Calvinists who tore down the rest cathedral. Today, only the ruined cloister, the lavatorium, and the conventual building stand next to the north wall of the church. However, we know what it looked like from a map made in 1534, a few years before the destruction. Also, archaeological excavations have helped to gain a sense of the Romanesque Church from the 12thcentury. Measuring 111 metres, it was a major edifice. After the destruction, the local parish church, St. Jan – originally built at the site of the hermitage of St. Bavo – was rededicated to this saint and turned into the present cathedral. Parts of the Romanesque forerunner of the present Gothic church exists, mainly the crypt, and a chapel dedicated to St. Jan. The most important object of art to see in the cathedral is the Adoration of the Lamb, the Altarpiece painted by the Hughes and Jan van Eyck. But visitors should also take not of the Calvary triptych by Justus of Ghent from ca. 1465, and the otherwise opulent Baroque interior.

    2. Gravensteen – The Castle

      Gravensteen in Ghent. Source: Wikipedia
      Gravensteen in Ghent. Source: Wikipedia

      The castle is an imposing stone edifice with parts dating back to the 12thcentury. Until the 14th century it functioned as the stronghold of the Counts of Flanders. Later, it was turned into a jail, a cotton mill, and a store. Owned by the city, it shows the medieval (unfurnished) lodgings of the counts as well as an armoury and a collection of medieval torture instruments. Good advice is to keep children away from these horrors.

      Gravensteen was soon considered uncomfortable, and at the end of the 13th century the Counts of Flanders were on the look-out for a new, modern residence. The following period was marked by rebellions and upheavals, and something new and comfortable was not located before 1366, when the counts bought a residence formerly belonging to the financier Simon de Mirabello. Simon, who had married a sister to the count, was murdered in 1343. Following this, the residence came under the guardianship of the marshal of Flanders and later fell into the hands of Counts. Today, only the gatehouse remains of the Prinsenhof.

    3. The Belfry

      Ghent’s Belfry is an important hallmark of the city. Built in 1380, it towers 91 metres above the city centre. Heavily restored in the 19th and 20th century, its carillon sounds every Sunday morning between 11 and 12. The Ghent Belfry is listed as UNESCO World Heritage together with 56 other European Belfries, 33 of which are Belgian.
    4. The Cloth Hall

      Below the Belfry is the Cloth Hall, which served as the home of the guild as well as the place where the quality inspections was carried out. The first part of the Cloth Hall was built between 1425 and 1444, but the building was not completed until the end of the 19th century. The hall is closed for visitors, but may occasionally be seen as part of a guided tour.
    5. The Beguinages

      The City of Ghent holds three Beguinages, Late Medieval homes for lay women wishing to live contemplative and industrious lives dedicated to God. The last Beguine died in 2013. The best preserved is the Klein Begijnhof, Our Lady ter Hoyen founded in 1235 by the countess of Flanders. Although heavily rebuilt in the 17thcentury, the enclosure still secures a home for more than a hundred pensioners. The Klein Begijnhof is listed as UNESCO World Heritage together with twelve other similar institutions Flanders.