Revolt and the Manipulation of Sacral and Private Space in 12th-Century Laon and Bruges

Revolt and the Manipulation of Sacral and Private Space in 12th-Century Laon and Bruges

By Jeroen Deploige

Power and culture : new perspectives on spatiality in european history, edited by Pieter François, Taina Syrjämaa, and Henri Terho (Pisa University Press, 2008)

Abstract: Thanks to the highly original testimony of the Benedictine abbot Guibert of Nogent and the cleric Galbert of Bruges we are well informed about the communal revolt in Laon in 1112, where bishop Gaudry was killed, and on the brutal events in Flanders after the murder of count Charles the Good in the church of St Donatian in Bruges in 1127. In this chapter I analyse some aspects of the way in which the urban space was ‘manipulated’ and ‘consumed’ in the course of these bloody 12th-century uprisings. I will focus on two recurrent patterns in the dynamics of urban spatiality in Laon and Bruges: firstly, the phenomenon of assassinations in or close to sacral buildings, which, from the sources, appears almost as a ritual transgression, pregnant with symbolic meaning, and then, the practice of destroying and burning private houses, which seems to be, at first sight, an example of rather blind and unreasonable action in a spiral of violence. Yet both these interpretations need serious qualification.

Introduction: The rise of towns constitutes one of the most important spatial and empowering developments of the Western Middle Ages. Drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s neo-marxist insights, the American medievalist Martha Howell rightly states that the medieval city was “not just a creation in space but a creation of space” and that this space should be considered therefore “a social production”. Indeed, the medieval city not only gradually distinguished itself architecturally as a fortified island, surrounded by city walls, in the feudal countryside. It was also becoming the locus for the rise of merchant capitalism, of renewed definitions of personal freedom and of the earliest articulations of sovereignty of the people in the West. Urban development went hand in hand with the development of completely new daily practices and group identities. While from the 10th century onwards, the first examples surfaced in north-west Europe of rebellions by sworn associations of ministeriales of town lords, especially in old episcopal towns like Liege or Cambrai, we can notice how, in the late 11th century, several examples are known, between the Loire and the Rhine, of confederacies of merchants and craftsmen, who gradually managed to extort real town privileges – often called Peaces – from their feudal lords. According to several borough charters, this new kind of freedom was often granted to every individual who had stayed within the town for one year and a day: new citizens were then finally liberated from all of the economic and legal constraints that pertained to the status of serfs on the feudal demesne. In north-west Europe, this principle emerged from several charters from the middle of the 12th century onwards. Hence, and especially according to a rather romanticised view, cities seemed to become not only the cradles of the revival of commerce and entrepreneurship, but also islands of relative peace in a society dominated by legal uncertainty and feudal violence.

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