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Stories of Bruges

More stories to tell

There are so many stories to tell about Bruges (and Belgium) so this is where you'll find them.

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Bruges, Ghent and a dragon

Uncategorised Posted on Mon, April 27, 2020 19:11:53

It is generally know there is a tremendous rivalry between the cities of Bruges and Ghent. The Battle at Beverhoutsveld on 3 May 1382 is a moment where troops of both cities engage in battle. The army of Ghent won against the – somewhat drunk – troops of Bruges. Bruges was pillaged, they took our golden dragon. Coming from the Blind Donkey Street, turning in the Eekhoustraat street towards the Gentpoort, which obviously leads to Ghent! With those two poor, blind donkeys pulling the wagon with a golden dragon on it… or so the legend says…

A golden dragon in Bruges, at Eekhoutstraat 5

This rivalry started a long, long time ago!

Under the command of Count Baldwin IX, the troops of Ghent and Bruges occupied the city of Constantinople. The daughter of the king, Blanca, captured by the men of Bruges was held captive in one of the many towers in the city. Not long after the door was locked, a dragon flew pass the tower, scaring off the guards (probably men from Ghent). The dragon took a position at the tower, letting no one pass. This girl was his prisoner now!

A desperate king asked the help of the troops of Ghent. Baldwin IX gathered his men and faced the dragon. However, when they approached this foul beast, it simply blew them back in a cloud of stinking smoke. The brave men attempted a second run, but the dragon was simply too strong. There was no other thing to do but retreat. 

The dragon on top of the Belfry of Ghent

The disappointed king offered the men of Ghent a chest filled with gold together with a golden sculpture of the dragon, but they knew their attempt would be futile, so thanked the king for the offer. The men of Bruges heard of this chest with gold and golden dragon, and the failed attempts of the men of Ghent. The men of Bruges went to the king and promised him they would free his daughter. Of course, the reward should be the same. The king, desperate to have his daughter back at his side, agreed.

The men of Bruges gathered around a steaming, big cooking pot, where the contents of a mysterious bottle were added. They placed the pot in proximity of the dragon, which sniffed it carefully, apparently liked the smell and voraciously emptied the pot. After that delicious meal, he felt sleepy; with his stomach filled, he decided to take a nap. Taking advantage of this situation, the men of Bruges approached the dragon, tiptoeing closer, and killed the dragon by stabbing a sword through its heart. The king was ecstatic, gave the promised reward to the men. The men of Bruges left Constantinople by ship soon after, with their reward and Blanca, back home. The men of Ghent were left behind.

A few months later, the men arrived at the most beautiful beaches, with wavy sand dunes, close to Bruges. In honor of Blanca, the place where they landed was named after her. The sand dunes looked a bit like small mountains, so they gave it the name ‘Blanca-bergen’ (Blanca mountains). Today this place still exists and is named Blankenberge.

When they arrived in Bruges, the golden dragon was placed on top of the Saint Donatian church.

The Belfry of Ghent, with a fire-breathing dragon !

The men of Ghent were out on revenge. Under the command of Philip van Artevelde, they chose 3 May 1382, the day of the Holy Blood procession, to attack Bruges and conquer that dragon, at last. 

The noble lady with naked breast who saved France!

Uncategorised Posted on Thu, March 26, 2020 12:23:32

On my walk I sometimes tell the story of the golden crowns you can find above the chimneys of City Hall.
The way Charles VII is portrayed in this story is less than flattering. Having so many mistresses and giving them houses and castles? When looking deeper in this, I found two names of mistresses: Antoinette de Maignelais and Agnès Sorel. This last lady played, next to Joan of Arc, a very important role in the life of Charles and France!
Born in 1422, living in a family of lower nobility, Agnès soon stood out for her uncanny and enigmatic beauty. No need to tell you this lovely lady was soon noted by Charles VII. He had many vices, a weak for women and a nose for beauty.
François-Frédéric Steenackers, a politician and essayist, wrote in 1868, “Charles VII had a flock of anonymous mistresses or for lack of a better word, a harem, following him everywhere.”
Agnès Sorel was different: she wasn’t only a gorgeous girl, but also incredibly intelligent and kind.

Charles VII by Jean Fouquet (1445-1450)

Steenackers continued, “It was a rare privilege, to have both a superior beauty of body and soul, with a physical and moral vitality complying with all the requirements of love.” The king was addicted.
Agnès was seen at the king’s side at almost every occasion. He took her to numerous official parties. No gift was left out, jewelry, clothing, even an estate! It is believed Charles gave her what is thought to be the first cut diamond. He gave her Château de Beauté, a castle straight from a fairytale. Charles never gave her a wedding ring, but the next best thing: the official recognition as his mistress.
It was the first time in history such a recognition every happened. This led to astonished reactions.
Steenackers wrote, “A mistress officially recognized by the king was not only a novelty, it was a revolution that, like all revolutions, couldn’t take place without causing outrage and hate.”Agnès was named a devilish manipulator and licentious slut.
Georges Chastellain, ally of the biggest opponent of Agnès, Louis XI, the Dauphin of France, son and heir of France accused her of making and designing inappropriate styles of clothing.
This clothing was described by politician Jean Jouvenel des Ursins as “with openings at the front through one could see the breasts and nipples of women.
Reading this, it made me remember the fuss when ‘nipplegate’ happened in on 1 February 2004, when during the halftime show of Superbowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake pulled Janet Jackson’s blouse open and for about half a second Janet Jackson’s breast – adorned with a nipple shield – was exposed. What would Georges Chastellain or Jean Jouvenel des Ursins say about that?

Virgin and her Child by Jean Fouquet (1450)

Painter Jean Fouquet is responsible for the image people have today of Agnès Sorel. It is generally assumed the Holy Virgin in his Virgin and her Child is based on Sorel. This image caused medieval writers to describe Agnès Sorel as the ‘first bimbo of France’.
It is through Steenackers we get a more correct picture of who Agnès really was. He writes, “The last years of the Hundred Years’ War introduced the saddest period of French history. The king didn’t care anymore. Instead, he indulged in entertainment. Gambling, drinking, orgies and female beauty were the only things to his interest. However, when Sorel appeared he changed. He took up his duties, realizing he had been blind to the situation in his country. Honest and capable men, friends of Sorel, took up leading positions in parliament and within two years France was – except for a small part – united again. Sorel urged the king to act and not idly stand by. Charles became interested in his duties, used common sense and a practical mind to hear solid, founded advice, assigning the right people for the tasks within the government.”
Sadly, this couldn’t last and when Sorel died in 1450 at the age of 28, pregnant of their fourth child, Charles’ spirit dies with her.
The official cause of death was dysentery, but the rumors of poisoning were confirmed in 2005 by forensic researcher Philippe Charlier.
Who was responsible? The theory Louis XI had his finger in all of this is very plausible. In his hunger for power, he made it his mission to undermine the rule of his father and Agnès, practically sharing the crown, stood in his way.
But it was the young lady, forever depicted with her breast naked, that was indirectly responsible for the unification of France in its darkest moment.

The carriage from hell

Uncategorised Posted on Mon, March 23, 2020 16:21:37

The streets Hemelrijk and Oliestraat are without any doubt the most peculiar streets in Bruges.  Brick walls where-ever you look. Definitely this is so far off the beaten track of tourism. I’m convinced you’re not seeing any tourists here, even anyone at all! Only people, who really need to be here, come here.

Two poor farmers, with many children, had a small farm in this area. In winter, every night a carriage passed through this street (which didn’t even had a name yet). A carriage pulled by four black horses. With a thundering noise, sounding like a hundred wild animals were unleashed, they passed the farm. You could hear the horses stomping and snorting. Fire was coming out of the horses nostrils, eyes as glowing pieces of coal. The carriage made rattling and creaking noise, making you think it would buckle any second. On the stage sat the Devil himself. Every night, at midnight, the carriage left at the cemetery, with inside the souls of those who went to purgatory and hell. At least that is what was told, for no one ever saw the carriage.

The farmer and his wife lay in bed, listening until the carriage was passed. The children, up on the attic cried in fear, “Mother, what is that? What is happening outside?”
Every time their mother answered, “Will you sleep now? It’s the carriage from hell. It’s taking the children who are not sleeping to hell.”
One night, when the family heard the carriage approaching, the wife said to her husband, “I would like to see what this carriage of hell looks like. I’m wondering what is making all that noise outside.”
“Stay inside and try to sleep.” her husband replied, not really trusting the hole thing. But – as so many women are – his wife was way too curious to just lie there and listen. Plus, she was stubborn.
She opened the window to see what was happening outside, but all she saw was a piece of hot-glowing coal in the middle of the road.
“There’s no carriage to be seen, only a piece of coal. If I would have that, it’ll much easier to light the fire tomorrow morning.” she said.
Sighing and reluctant her husband got out of bed, got the coal shovel to get the piece of hot coal.
“Tomorrow I only need to blow the coal a bit and we’ll have a nice fire going quickly.” his wife said. Soon they fell asleep…

The farm “Hemelrycke” in 1895.

The next morning, at the break of dawn, the farmer’s wife got up, took the piece of coal to get the fire going. Her husband was still putting on his socks when he heard her shouting in the living room. “What’s going on? Did you burn yourself?” he asked as he got in the room.
Without saying a word and trembling, his wife pointed towards the fireplace. The wood and ash was gone, even the piece of coals wasn’t there any more, but a green skull with red eyes was in its place.
“So it was the carriage of hell.” whispered the farmer.
They were too afraid to try and start a fire that day. When the children had left for school, they went to see the priest in St Anne church, to tell him the story and ask for help. When the priest heard the story, he turned white in fear. The wife asked the priest to come to the house and bless the house to exorcise the evil in the fireplace. But the priest knew he was no match for the Devil himself! Instead he gave the farmers the advice to throw the green skull on the carriage when it would pass by the following night.
That evening, the farmer and his wife were in bed, waiting for the carriage. The only thing they did was pray as they waited. As the bells on the belfry struck midnight, they heard the thundering noise in the distance.
The husband ran to the living room, took the green skull, ran back upstairs where his wife already opened the window. As he looked outside, for a brief moment, he gazed straight in the carriage for one split-second, but it felt almost like eternity to him.
He saw demons, men and women wriggling in fierce flames. The demons were laughing, but the unfortunate souls of humans were clearly in agonizing pain.
Quickly he threw the skull through the open window towards the carriage. Luckily, the green skull went through one of the windows, landing in the carriage. A strong smell of sulfur and pitch was almost overwhelming the farmer, so he closed his eyes and put his hand over mouth and nose. When he thought it was safe and opened his eyes, the carriage was nowhere to be seen. Since that night the carriage never passed by again.
Maybe it was then that this street got the name ‘Hemelrijk’ (Heavenly or Kingdom of Heaven).

The skull at the Smedenpoort

Uncategorised Posted on Thu, January 09, 2020 19:09:52

From ‘t Zand, one of the biggest squares in the city and if you feel like walking a bit, then follow cross the square to the Northwest corner, in the Smedenstraat, to find the Smedenpoort, one of the four gates there is left. When you’re there, go on the outside of the city and look at the gate. Don’t be frightened when you see the green skull smiling at you, it’s not a real skull… anymore!

The skull at the Smedenpoort

It was a warm summer’s day on 25 June 1691. The sun was high in the sky, burning down on the metal helmets of the soldiers guarding the Smedenpoort. There was a certain tension in the air, as everyone knew the French king; Louis XIV ordered a large army to move north to invade Bruges.

The guard duty was long. The city was constructed in such a way to be easily defendable and at every city gate soldiers were on high alert, keeping an eye out for any invading army. During the day, everyone coming in or going out of the city had to undergo a thorough check for any suspicious activity. At night, the gates remained firmly closed. Not only soldiers staffed the fortifications around Bruges, but also civilians helped where needed. Nobody wanted to imagine what would happen if the French would occupy the city!

The French knew Bruges would go down without a fight, and a long-lasting siege wasn’t something the invaders wanted to undergo with the high temperatures. An extra problem for the French was the lack of money. They weren’t able to pay their troops, for several months now, so there was much dissatisfaction with the men. To make victory a bit easier, they looked for a henchman in Bruges.

One of the gatekeepers who lived outside of the city of Bruges, François van der Straeten, made a deal with the French. Did he go for the money the French offered him? We don’t know. The arrangement was he would unlock the Smedenpoort at night during his shift. The day before this, a small group of French soldiers would hide in barracks near the Waterhouse, just outside the city walls. They would go through the unlocked gate to overtake the guards inside, thus securing the gate itself. Next early morning, the major part of the French troops – who would be waiting in the woods of Tillegem – would be able to get in the city easy and conquer Bruges.

In theory, a simple and fail-safe plan. On the evening of 25 June, the skies were overcast with dark clouds. Soon the first big raindrops fell. Heavy storms were about to end the hot day. A premonition of what was to come? Sweat ran down the face of François van der Straeten. Tomorrow he would be a rich man and flee south. 

However, that evening a skipper from Bruges, Jacob Wyndekens, sailed to the city of Bruges, coming from Damme. He docked just past the Boeveriepoort (on the map a bit north of the Smedenpoort) and walked towards the Waterhouse. The gates of the city were already closed for the night, so it was no use to try to get inside the city. He knew he would be able to find shelter for the night in one of the barracks at the Waterhouse. He already slept there before. At night, the barracks were empty, except for the occasional stray cat and mandatory rats.

It was there he discovered the French troops. How they got there, or what they were planning to do, he didn’t know, but it was without a doubt they were up to no good! Making sure they didn’t see or hear him, he returned to the Boeveriepoort. The guards let Jacob inside, where he told them about the French troops at the barracks. This news spread like wildfire through the city. While a sense of panic also spread with the news, several bold civilians gathered and armed themselves with whatever they could find. They went to the barracks to overcome the surprised French soldiers. 

Meanwhile, François van der Straeten, our traitor had unlocked the Smedenpoort, but saw what happened at the Waterhouse. He tried to escape but alert guard captured him. After a few medieval interrogation techniques, he confessed the conspiracy. 

The secretary noted for this event: “… He named François van der Straeten was condemned to be hanged with rope by the neck, at the gallows on Burg Square until death occurs. His dead body was carried outside the Smedenpoort to the Gallowsfield (Galgeveld) along the road to Dixmuude, to be hang by the feet upwards at a gallows. His head was cut from the body, and the head was placed on a pole above the Smedenpoort.

The next morning, 26 June 1691, the sun rose with a golden glow at the northeast, with the promise of another beautiful summer’s day. That same day the traitor hanged. His head cut, placed on an iron pole on the Smedenpoort… The crows feasted on his eyes.

True or not?

Well, for that you’ll have to wait until my book is out!

The witch of the Lendestraetkin

Uncategorised Posted on Wed, November 27, 2019 11:50:40

When you’re walking from ‘t Zand to the main shopping street (Zuidzandstraat) there’s a narrow street on the right hand side: Lendestraat. No need to go down this street. Maybe better to stay in the crowds for this story… as it’s said witches roamed this tiny street!

Troublesome times in Bruges, with a constant threat of war. A couple of years ago, in 1631, Frederik Henry, Prince of Orange stood at the walls of Bruges with his army. One year later, the Plague broke out, taking so many lives. Crops died, harvests failed. The price of grain had never been this high, and kept on climbing. Death by hunger or disease came with the poor families. Why was the city dealing with this much disaster? It seemed as the Devil had a finger in all of this…

Back then, an old widow, Mayken Karrebrouck, lived in this narrow street, Lendestraetkin. She lived here with her son, Jan. They were poor people, trying to make a living by selling milk and butter. There was also a bit of money coming in by helping other people in the household here and there.
Mayken had the habit of hanging the root of mugwort on the wall of her house, to keep the Devil and other evil spirits out. Sometimes she made wreaths of mugwort for other people, so they could place this on the wall of their homes or barns in protection for evil spirits, fire or strike of lightning. Three years ago Mayken and her son got really sick. A tailor from Bruges, Simon Verstraete, gave them notes in parchment. With holy words on them, to keep them from water and fire. Keeping the notes in their pocket, making crosses – a lot – to empower the holy words. Mayken paid him with milk and butter, and their got better.
Mayken knew walnuts helped holding off witches, or when a mad dog bit you. Ruta graveolens was also good to have in the house, when the Plague broke out. Not only that, but it als provided protection against the Devil, witches, poison and black cats. Yes, you could say this little old lady knew her herbs and what they were good for. It was no trouble for her to make a potion if you needed something. She helped a blind lady once, and a young man, Peter. His feet all swollen, infected. She tried to help him, but alas.

One of her neighbors, Maye Luucx, was always arguing with Mayken. One time, one of the black chickens of Mayken broke out, ran straight in the house of Maye, scaring her husband. Maye grabbed the chicken and threw it over the half door in Maykens house. A couple of days later, the family Luucx moved away. Somewhat later Mayken heard that Maye and her husband were spreading the rumor their chickens didn’t give any more eggs. Even worse, their son, Adriaen, got very sick shortly after. They got help from the best healers, but he died.
After this, every time Mayken ran into Maye somewhere in the city, Maye loudly accused her of being a witch, responsible for the death of her son, Adriaen. Claiming Mayken bewitched him by giving her son five or six apples with a bit of black powder on them. Husband Luucx believed his wife, one evening he chased Mayken down the street and beat her up. Yes, not the most healthy situation between those two women. Maye Luucx turned up the rumors by telling Mayken conspired with the Devil. She saw with her own eyes how those two were dancing, on the Fridaymarket, six to eight times she witnessed this. Not only Mayken was there, having a good time with the Dark Lord. No! Grietken zonder Ziele (Griet without Soul) and Cathelyne Ide were there. Cathelyne was not only selling brooms during the day, but she was the personal supplier of those women on those gatherings!

No need to tell you, soon enough everyone believed these stories and Mayken was named witch. So it happened one day a girl in the school next to the house of Mayken had an epileptic attack. It couldn’t be coincidence that this only happened just at the moment the dog of Mayken started barking. A neighbor of Mayken claimed her husband was bewitched with a herring, because he got very sick after eating it. There was also the son of Betkin Moerynck, a widow living in a street named Meers. This man witnessed Mayken giving prunes, covered with a powder to a child. The child got very sick after eating the prunes.

Officers arrested Mayken, and they interrogated her with gruesome techniques. During the torture a bat flew in the room through the open window. Judges interpreted this as a visit of a young demon. A more obvious indication of her bond with the Devil and his demons couldn’t be possible. The judges weren’t that interested in the so-called harm she inflicted on her neighbors, but more in her connection with the Devil. They wanted to know if witches were arriving on broomsticks to the meetings, where it was they gathered to praise the Dark Lord, where the orgies took place or where the cauldron was they used to make ointment out of babies fat. Mayken told the judges she knew Cathelyne with her brooms. How she bewitched cows, horses, pigs and chickens. She was responsible for the Plague because she added a powder to the milk and butter she sold. She bewitched the daughter of Mary, who sold wine in the Langestraat, by tapping on the girl’s back three times. The Devil learned Mayken to make a preparation of herbs, so when given to children they would suffer first for several months before dying. She attended several witch gatherings. More than one hundred women were there. They all denied God, in the presence of the Devil. During the interrogations, Mayken begged the officer to remove the collar with nails. Instead, the collar tightened a bit more while they asked her who taught her the dark arts. Mayken ignored the question, but when the collar closed a bit more, she confessed, in excruciating pain, that Grietken zonder Ziel who was her mentor. Everyone suspected Grietken had to be a witch. She once spat on a cross and she refused to be baptized. Grietken had met the Devil about nineteen years ago. He appeared to her in a human form, asking her if she wanted to learn things. She agreed to this offer.

On 22 June 1634, Mayken and Grietken were strangled to death on Burg Square. Their bodies were then burned. On 10 July Cathelyne Ide suffered the same fate. After the executions the judges, interrogators and executioner had a meal. Justice had prevailed.

True or not ?
This story, with the exception of a couple of details, is sadly true! The women mentioned in this story lived here and were executed in Bruges. It is a dark page in the history of the city, but it shows how life was during the times of the hunt and prosecution of witches in the 17th century. Mayken Karrebrouck and Maye Luucx had a confrontation with each other. Records of these trails are still kept in the archives.
The witch prosecution took place between 1450 and 1750, costing the lives of over many ten thousands. Most estimations run from thirty to sixty thousand executions, of which 80% female. Most of these women were older (around 60), poor, single and powerless. Mayken Karrebrouck was 66 at the time of her execution.
It is a common mistake people make, thinking the hunt for witches took place in the Middle Ages, while this happened more during the Renaissance-era. If you were harming other by means of supernatural ways, this was considered witchcraft.
Around 1375 the thought of sealing a pact with the Devil was added to the accusations. Most witches confessed to all accusations due to extended torture. Many didn’t even survive the interrogations. If they reformed to Catholicism after their confessions, then after strangulation to death their bodies were burned, so they would be granted access to heaven.
Before the 16th century the punishment remained simple fines, possibly with exile from society. Only later the more bloody prosecutions came. Shortly after 1590 a bonus-feature was added!
Not only did those poor people make a deal with the Devil, but they also slept with the Devil. This happened during one of the withes gatherings. People were tortured to name all those present at the gatherings. Large-scale trials took place, accusing numerous innocent people. Upon reading the scripts of the interrogations, certain things are noticeable.
For instance, how they met the Devil is in many cases about the same; also telling the penis of the Devil felt ice-cold is something you can find on regular bases. If you read between the lines, it is obvious the confessions are the result of series of suggestive questioning, rather than a real account of the interrogated person. The named bewitchments are classic: sickness; death of a husband, wife or child; sickness or death of cattle after touch or even an evil eye of a suspected witch. If you had a bad name in the streets, that was enough to be accused of sorcery. With limited knowledge of medicine, considering an unexplainable illness to evil sorcery by a witch was easier. In addition, sometimes this was a way to get rid of unwanted competition.

The Southern Netherlands (of which Bruges was a part) most certainly had a part in this dark period of European history. At the end, roughly estimated, in this region at least 922 witches were burned to the stake between 1450 and 1685. Around 1660 there was a huge change in mentality considering these matters. People became more skeptical and rejected the concept of immaterial beings. Judges weren’t condemning people to the death during the prosecution of witches any longer, the ways to enforce confessions were no longer allowed by law. By 1720 there were practical no more witch trials happening anywhere in Europe.