Cloth has been exported from Bruges since the 11th century, but always by land. In 1277, Genoese merchants arrive for the first time by ship. It is not long before a large share of the trade is transported by water. Bruges becomes a meeting point for merchants, bankers and investors from all over Europe.
They mainly trade in luxury goods – from amber to ivory and illuminated books of hours to memorial brasses. The city pulls out all the stops to facilitate the merchants’ activities: a covered unloading quay, a spacious Cloth Hall, and subsidies for the construction of prestigious nation houses.
The foreign guests find accommodation in the many inns. They also conduct business and store their merchandise there. The hoteliers or innkeepers act as intermediaries. The Van der Beurse family does this with such success that it gives its name to a new phenomenon: the 'beurs', which means stock exchange in Dutch.
You can see it immediately: this is about money and trade. The many inns and hotels were the linchpin of trading activities in Bruges. They provided the infrastructure for trade. Innkeepers and hoteliers were middle men who not only provided people with accommodation, but also stored goods, put merchants in touch with each another and facilitated transactions... One such Bruges hotelier families was called Van der Beurze. The word 'beurs' - Dutch for stock exchange - is derived from their name.
The money literally rolled into Bruges: here you can see a box with a weighing scale and weights. They were used to weigh coins to prove their value and authenticity. Or to expose them if they were counterfeit or too light.
This intense money trade resulted in the emergence of new institutions, professions, products and... paperwork: supporting documents and bookkeeping... Look, for example, at the receipt, a waiver of debt, which you can see here.
Infrastructure, goods, money, enterprising people from various corners of the world: 15th-century Bruges had it all. Italian traders played a major role in the development of money dealings. What's more, there were lots of traders from Spain, Portugal, England, and Northern and Eastern European cities that Bruges worked closely with, the so-called Hanseatic cities. This intense activity provided an unprecedented boost for the city.
Bruges was a hub for international trade and was therefore an attractive city for the Dukes of Burgundy. Key to this trade were numerous luxury products. The screen in this room gives you an idea of the trade routes and shows the diverse products that found their way to Bruges from all over the world, and which were then shipped elsewhere.
You are looking at a few objects made from amber, resin that flowed from pine trees millions of years ago and fossilised. It produced a soft rock that is warm yellow to dark red in colour. It is mainly found in the Baltic Sea region and was already used to produce luxury objects in antiquity.
In the Middle Ages, Bruges was given the international privilege of working amber, along with the German city of Lübeck. Craftsmen used it to make beads for rosaries, as you can see here. They used the leftovers to produce varnish. Amber processing in Bruges flourishes mainly in the 14th century. After this, the price of amber rises and in 1420, exports to Bruges are stopped.
You can also see examples of other luxury products here, such as a copper memorial plaque, part of a diptych in ivory, splendid manuscripts and luxury Spanish pottery. And can you see the corbel? It decorated Sint-Jansweeghuis, where cloth was weighed and its quality assessed. It was the trade in wool and cloth in the 1200s that made Bruges great. This laid the foundations for the city’s subsequent heyday.
The scene with Cain and Abel alludes to his name, as do the pigs.
Here the English and Scots had their goods weighed.
The flourishing international trade hub of Bruges attracted people from other countries, who also came and settled here: craftsmen, artists and many traders and their families.
This is the Spaniard Juan Lopez Gallo with his three sons. All four of them are praying. The prayer stool is decorated with the family's coat of arms. Traders such as Lopez Gallo stayed for a long time or moved permanently to Bruges. They integrated in the local elite and also enjoyed showing off their identity and origin. For example, in portraits, in this case by the prominent Bruges artist Pieter Pourbus. Or by having prestigious tapestries produced in Bruges, featuring their family's coat of arms. One such tapestry hangs here. The well-to-do immigrants also purchase and commission many luxury Bruges' products, which served as status symbols.
Documentary evidence was also left behind, as you can see here. The so-called 'nations' were extremely important. They were a kind of state in the city. The idea was that traders and merchants from the same region or country united in a nation. Each of these nations had its own nation house. Their presence still echoes in Bruges' place names: Spaanse Loskaai or Spanish Wharf, Engelse straat or English Street, Biskajersplein or Biscay Square … A nation obtained privileges from the city. The documents you see here attest to this. Bruges liked to maintain good relations with the powerful nations... After all, they generated economic activity and considerable wealth.
“1394, 15 AugustDino Rapondi, counsellor to the Duke of Burgundy, confirms receipt from Jehan Bouds Lamsvel and Pierre Boudinjans, treasurers of the City of Bruges, of the sum of 500 gold francs, to be deducted from the grant allocated by the City to the Duke for the construction of a tower next to the castle in Sluis.”
These wafer irons are among the oldest known in the Low Countries and are decorated with the coats of arms of the Burgundian dukes John the Fearless (1371-1419) and Philip the Good (1396-1467).
The latest copy combines the coat of arms of Philip the Good with foliage (holly) and an image of the Mystic Lamb. Baking wafers was a typical Easter custom back then. Both the holly and the Mystic Lamb symbolise the Passion of Christ. As an evergreen tree, holly was associated with eternal life, while the prickly leaves referred to the crown of thorns and the red berries to the blood of Jesus.
The oldest copy boasts the coat of arms of John the Fearless on one side and a six-pointed star, or Star of David - a symbol used by both Jews and Christians - on the other. The border decoration here features geometric motifs.
The wafer irons have shallow indentations. This resulted in thin, crispy wafers, called oublies in French (from the Latin oblatum, meaning the gift of sacrifice).
Does the waffle manage to survive?
Pudgy Father Lent, adorned in carnival delicacies and seated on a full barrel, battles skinny Mother Lent, perfumed with the scent of fish and turnips. He is helped in efforts by a plump lady menacingly wielding a large waffle iron. A 'waffle lady' who has girded her waffles. In the hope that this will dispel Lent, the 40 days before Easter when it is forbidden to eat meat, eggs and dairy, when baking waffles then becomes difficult. Or, like her contemporaries, will she get creative with plant-based ingredients and discover the precursor to the vegan waffle?