Bruges did not shrink after its Golden Age

Bruges did not shrink after its Golden Age

Innovative study of Bruges shows how a real estate crisis changed the city

The Middle Ages in Bruges are excellently documented, but how Bruges changed after its medieval heyday is less well known. Dr Heidi Deneweth of the VUB research group Historical Research into Urban Transformation Processes (HOST) analysed this period in an innovative way. In her book “Goede muren maken goede buren” (Good Walls Make Good Neighbours), she gives an unique view of the economic changes, their impact on the real estate market and the effects on housing prices, renovations and neighbourhood life.

Deneweth: “After Bruges lost its place as a trade metropolis, three things prevented the city from shrinking: the city council forbade demolition in the city centre and along important streets and squares; the elites of Bruges were able to considerably expand their own residences due to a sharp drop in property prices; and speculators invested in properties that were in great demand again from the 1600s. As a result of these actions, the heritage was preserved but neighbourhood life changed considerably.”

Around 1500, Antwerp took over Bruges’ leading role in international trade and finance. Bruges remained one of the largest cities in the Southern Netherlands and the economy continued to do relatively well. Traders and entrepreneurs made profits in textile production, luxury industries and regional trade. Ordinary citizens of Bruges, however, did not fare so well. Deneweth: “The purchasing power the social lower groups fell by 75% between 1500 and 1580. Craftsmen from the middle class left Bruges as early as around 1545 to find better paid work elsewhere, while cheap labourers from southern Flanders and northern France were recruited as temporary textile workers.

The social composition of the population changed and about one third of the Bruges population emigrated in the 1580s for political, religious or economic reasons. It took more than 20 years for the population to recover. The great wave of emigration of the 1580s caused real estate prices to plummet so that – just as with the real estate crisis of 2008 – houses were over-mortgaged, sold voluntarily or seized by creditors and auctioned. Nevertheless, unlike smaller port cities in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen or other European cities that went through a major recession, Bruges did not experience a “shrinkage” in the sense that entire neighbourhoods were demolished.

Three neighbourhoods, 250 years

Deneweth investigated why this was the case and what impact the crisis had on neighbourhood life on the basis of the micro histories of some 150 houses in three typical neighbourhoods. She investigated a rich neighbourhood in the centre (Riddersstraat), a middle-class neighbourhood on an important access road to the centre (Eekhoutstraat), and a poorer neighbourhood with a more peripheral location (Sint-Clarastraat). By following the same dwellings and their owners over a period of 250 years, she was able to demonstrate in detail how changes on the property market led to renovations with a major impact on neighbouring houses.

The study shows that the elites succeeded in expanding their city residences by merging with vacant neighbouring houses and converting adjoining rear houses into stables and coach houses. They guarded their privacy by building high garden walls and abolishing all rights of way. The middle class who had their workshops and shops along important access roads rarely combined neighbouring houses, though they sometimes converted the houses behind them into storehouses or workshops. As early as the Middle Ages, these groups worked well together, for example in the construction of communal cesspits and wells. Though from the 17th century they, too, aspired to greater privacy and built garden walls where previously there were open gardens, they continued to share the use of these wells.

In the late Middle Ages, the lower social groups also worked together to construct utilities and opened up their gardens to their neighbours, but the real estate crisis of the 16th century profoundly affected neighbourhood life. Many were forced to sell their homes and speculators jumped on that market to turn it into lucrative real estate. The few residents who still had a home of their own here were not so enthusiastic about these ever-changing neighbours. They privatised their utilities by simply buying up those parts of gardens where the toilets and wells were located.

Deneweth: “Although the built-up area in Bruges did not show any signs of ‘shrinkage’, the contrasts between a rich centre and a poorer periphery did increase during the study period. The middle classes in particular maintained greater neighbourhood solidarity in terms of renovation and utilities, certainly in neighbourhoods where many owners lived.”


Heidi Deneweth

[email protected]

+32 494.50.87.77

Heidi Deneweth, Goede muren maken goede buren. Verbouwingen en buurtleven in Brugge, 1500-1800 (Good walls make good neighbours. Renovations and neighbourhood life in Bruges, 1500-1800 – Dutch version only) is published by Marc Van de Wiele, Het Genootschap voor Geschiedenis and vzw Levend Archief, 2020. The book is available in bookstores or the City Archives of Bruges, or can be ordered online from the Society for History.

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