A brief historical background
The history of Bruges begins around 2000 years ago. At that time there was a Gallic-Roman settlement on the site of the city. The inhabitants did not live by agriculture alone, they also traded with England and the rest of Gaul. Around 270 the Germanic people attacked the Flemish coastal plain for the first time. The Romans probably still had a military fortification here at the end of the third century and during the fourth century. So it is very possible that Bruges was inhabited in the transition period to the early Middle Ages. When Saint Eligius came to spread Christianity in our area around 650, Bruges was perhaps the most important fortification in the Flemish coastal area.
Around a hundred years later trade started with Scandinavia in Bruges. The name Bruges in fact comes from the Old Norse "Bryggja" which means landing stage. The name Bruges has appeared on documents and coins since the middle of the ninth century. At that time there was already a strong citadel in Bruges (the Burg). And the city was not plundered by the Norsemen. The overseas trade between Bruges and Scandinavia, the Norsemen's home, probably continued.
So Bruges has a long tradition of international port activity. The oldest trade settlement of Bruges and the early middle age port was accessible from the sea until around 1050. The second area of occupation outside the Burg was close to the present day Steenstraat and the Oude Burg. It was here that the city grew fastest until around 1100. The two oldest parish churches in Bruges, the Church of Our Lady St.-Saviour's, were then at the edge of this district. They date from the ninth century.
In the eleventh century Bruges had expanded to become a commercial centre for Europe. But during this period the natural link between Bruges and the sea silted up. A storm flood in 1134 changed the appearance of the Flemish coastal plain however. A deep channel appeared, the Zwin, which at the time reached as far as present day Damme. The city remained linked to the sea until the fifteenth century via a canal from the Zwin to Bruges. But Bruges had to use a number of outports, such as Damme and Sluis for this purpose.
So in the Middle Ages it was possible for Bruges to become the most important trade centre of north-west Europe. Flanders was then one of the most urbanised areas in Europe. Flemish cloth, a high quality woollen material, was exported to the whole of Europe from Bruges. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries Bruges had between 40,000 and 45,000 inhabitants, double the number now in the historic inner city. In the fourteenth century Bruges had expanded to become a rich international port city. Merchants from northern and southern Europe came together here. For their business they used Bruges brokers and landlords. In the city itself there was not only Flemish cloth manufacture but all kinds of other (craft) trades had developed. It is significant that in Bruges at that time there were already real bankers in operation, both natives of Bruges and Italians. Merchants could open a current account here, transfer large sums, change money and even pay with notes.
But we should not forget that hard times also occurred regularly in Bruges. The differences in income between the ordinary people (the tradesmen) and the merchant entrepreneurs (the patricians) were huge, regardless of those in the middle. Violent revolts, like those of 1280 and 1436-1438 were roughly suppressed. In the 1302 uprising the ordinary people took the side of the Flemish count against the king of France and the propertied classes. This struggle, in which Bruges played a prominent role, resulted in a victory for the tradespeople and the Flemish count in the Battle of the Golden Spurs on 11 July 1302. This historic date is now the feast day of the Flemish community in Belgium.
The fourteenth century, a period of crises for Bruges and Flanders with revolts, epidemics, political unrest and war, ended with the dynastic merger of Flanders and Burgundy. The Burgundian period in Bruges started in 1384. Bruges would remain the most important trade centre to the north of the Alps for another century. Cloth production was partly replaced by luxury goods, banking services, crafts. The Burgundian court provided a great deal of local purchasing power. This was promoted further by the foreign merchants with their international contacts from Portugal to Poland. Prosperity increased, travellers came and were deeply impressed by the sumptuousness and luxury of the city scene. Art and culture flourished as never before. But all this came to an end with the sudden death of Mari of Burgundy in 1482. The revolt against her widower Maximilian of Austria meant that Bruges suffered political uncertainty and military force for ten years. Local prosperity disappeared from the city along with the Burgundian court and the international traders.
In the sixteenth century Bruges recovered to an extent. But the city had clearly lost its leading position to Antwerp. However Bruges remained important as a regional centre with a lot of international commercial contacts and a flourishing art sector. The split from the Netherlands, final from 1584, led to the final decline of Bruges.
Around 1600 Bruges was a provincial city with a modest maritime reputation. The Bruges merchant spirit had still not disappeared in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Commercial life had international roots. Bruges shipowners and merchants still traded with the Spanish empire, England and the East and West Indies.
Bruges experienced the revolution period from 1789 to 1830 in a passive way. The first industrial revolution hardly disturbed the city. Around 1850 Bruges was the poorest city in the country. The middle classes spoke French, the illiterate people only knew their local dialect. French was decreed to be the official language for public life in 1885. But Guido Gezelle (1830-1899), the most important Dutch speaking poet of the nineteenth century, was a native of Bruges. In European literature Bruges was made famous by the French language novel "Bruges la Morte" by Georges Rodenbach (1892). The book describes Bruges as a sleeping, dead, but mysterious city.
When "Bruges la Morte" appeared, Bruges had just begun some ambitious new projects. The new sea-port, inaugurated in 1907 in Zeebrugge, did not achieve full prosperity until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Since the end of the nineteenth century Bruges was also known throughout Europe as a city of art and a tourist centre. The Bruges monuments, museums and particularly the unspoilt historic cityscape attract millions of visitors every year. The port of Zeebrugge and the cultural/historic patrimony of Bruges give the city a European and international dimension.