Public Space, Urban Identity and Conflict in Medieval Flanders
By Michael Randolph Sokolowski
Mount Royal Undergraduate Humanities Review, Vol.2 (2014)
Introduction: Ideas of public space can say a lot about the societies that create them. A clear example of this was its use in Flanders during the medieval period. People within Flanders found themselves in a unique situation having one of the highest amounts of urban densities in Europe. This allowed for a distinct urban identity emerge. Within the urban centres of Flanders a distinct political culture had been fostered which caused many examples of conflict within cities themselves and against the nobility of Flanders, France and Burgundy. By looking at examples of these conflicts a distinct urban identity appears. This urban identity allowed public space to be used as a tool by the people of Flanders in order to protect their political rights and liberties. To see the use of public spaces as a tool Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the construction of public space must be understood. Once Lefebvre’s theories are understood specific spaces may be looked at in order to see what role they played in the urban identity of the Flemish cities and how these identities wrapped up in public spaces were used as tools during times of conflict, revolt and rebellion. The spaces that provided the best examples of this were the distinct borders of towns defined by walls and defences, belfries and marketplaces.
The most influential scholar with regards to theories of public space was Henri Lefebvre. His book The Production of Space discussed the relationship of space to the capitalist process. His main argument in The Production of Space was that “between the sixteenth and the twentieth century, the fundamental acts of reproduction (of bio-logical life, of labor power, and of the social relations of production) necessary to capitalism occurred in a space that was at once physical and ideological. In fact, these acts depended on the existence of this space for their realization”. Henri Lefebvre argued ideology and power relations were present in space and were often represented by structures such as buildings, monuments, and public art. Lefebvre developed three main concepts that governed ideas of public space; spatial practice, representation of space, and representational space. The first concept, spatial practice, centred on ideas “which embrac[ed] production and reproduction, and the particular locations and spatial sets characteristic of each social formation. Spatial practice ensur[ed] continuity and some degree of cohesion”. This meant that people within a given location recognized that certain functions were performed in a specific place with a specific purpose. Lefebvre highlighted that there was a link “between daily reality (daily routine) and urban reality (the routes and networks which link up the places set aside for work, private life leisure)”.
The second concept that Lefebvre argued was “representations of space”. By “representations of space” Lefebvre meant the characteristics that physically defined space. These were the organizational factors such as boundaries and borders that were created and defined by people such as scientists, urban planners, social engineers, urbanists and technocratic subdividers. Representations of space were important because for a particular space to have meaning it needed defined boundaries of where it started and ended. This was because it needed to have a distinct location where people could gather and take part in the actions performed in the space. The final concept highlighted by Lefebvre was “representational space” which was how space embodied symbols (in plain sight or hidden) that represented an “underground social life”. Representational space highlighted how the ideas of certain spaces, which were “lived through”, were associated to certain images or spaces. This was how certain public spaces were encoded with ideologies and given specific meanings within given communities.