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Urban Jousts in the Later Middle Ages: The White Bear of Bruges

Urban Jousts in the Later Middle Ages: The White Bear of Bruges

By Andrew Brown

Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, Volume 78:2 (2000)

joust from late 15th century

Introduction: By 1484 the patriciate of Lille had apparently become uneasy with their jousting feast, the Épinette, traditionally sponsored during Lent. They sought the advice of certain friars and doctors learned in theology, who, although generously considering arguments in the jousts’ defence, could find little in the end to recommend them. The jousts simply encouraged the vices of vanity, luxury and lechery, as well as the ugly spectacle of socially-climbing bourgeois toadying up to nobles who attended the event. In addition the taxes levied to support the feast impoverished the poor. By implication, the jousts in Bruges were similarly condemned, for the friars noted that the feast of the Epinette was closely intertwined with Bruges’s own reciprocal feast of the White Bear. Indeed, so concerned were the magistrates of Bruges by the criticisms of “notable preachers”, that they inquired of Duke Maximilian whether he intended to abolish the jousting events.

Maximilian’s penchant for chivalric sports made abolition unlikely. But during the late 1480s the jousts at Lille and Bruges were to disappear, and a brief glance at the table for the city’s expenditure on jousts in Bruges seems to bear out the force of criticisms against them. Expenditure over the fifteenth century spirals ever higher until it virtually collapses altogether after 1487. Moreover, these are figures which might even lend substance to Huizinga’s famous view on the decadence of chivalric games at the end of the Middle Ages. Some late fifteenth-century townsmen may have felt that jousts had become luxuries which they could ill afford financially and spiritually. It is a question to which I shall return, but not before considering arguments which Huizinga, as is well known, did not. The place occupied by jousts in urban society and politics was an aspect which Huizinga ignored, bent as he was on seeing late medieval chivalry as the emanation of a declining spirit. In particular, the jousting events held in Bruges were never mere flights of fancy from reality: they provided an important arena in which the relationship of the town with noble and courtly society, and with the prince himself, could be played out. It is this relationship which will be the focus of attention here: the history of this relationship, and the fate of the White Bear, reveals a “carrefour” in more senses than one.

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