The punctuation and spelling from the original text have been faithfully preserved. Only obvious typographical errors have been corrected.
Vanished Towers and Chimes of Flanders
The unhappy Flemish people, who are at present much in the lime-light, because of the invasion and destruction of their once smiling and happy little country, were of a character but little known or understood by the great outside world. The very names of their cities and towns sounded strangely in foreign ears.
Towns named Ypres, Courtrai, Alost, Furnes, Tournai, were in the beginning of the invasion unpronounceable by most people, but little by little they have become familiar through newspaper reports of the barbarities said to have been practised upon the people by the invaders. Books giving the characteristics of these heroic people are eagerly sought. Unhappily these are few, and it would seem that these very inadequate and random notes of mine upon some phases of the lives of these people, particularly those related to architecture, and the music of their renowned chimes of bells, might be useful.
That the Fleming was not of an artistic nature I found during my residence in these towns of Flanders. The great towers and wondrous architectural marvels throughout this smiling green flat landscape appealed to him not at all. He was not interested in either art, music, or literature. He was of an intense practical nature. I am of course speaking of the ordinary or "Bourgeois" class now. Then, too, the class of great landed proprietors was numerically very small indeed, the land generally being parcelled or hired out in small squares or holdings by the peasants themselves. Occasionally the commune owned the land, and sublet portions to the farmers at prices controlled to some extent by the demand. Rarely was a "taking" (so-called) more than five acres or so in extent. Many of the old "Noblesse" are without landed estates, and this, I am informed, was because their lands were forfeited when the French Republic annexed Belgium, and were never restored to them. Thus the whole region of the Flemish littoral was given over to small holdings which were worked on shares by the peasants under general conditions which would be considered intolerable by the Anglo-Saxon. A common and rather depressing sight on the Belgian roads at dawn of day, were the long lines of trudging peasants, men, women and boys hurrying to the fields for the long weary hours of toil lasting often into the dark of night. But we were told they were working for their own profit, were their own masters, and did not grumble. This grinding toil in the fields, as practised here where nothing was wasted, could not of course be a happy or healthful work, nor calculated to elevate the peasant in intelligence, so as a matter of fact the great body of the country people, who were the laborers, were steeped in an extraordinary state of ignorance.
If their education was neglected, they are still sound Catholics, and it may be that it was not thought to be in the interest of the authorities that they should be instructed in more worldly affairs. I am not prepared to argue this question. I only know that while stolid, and unemotional ordinarily, they are intensely patriotic. They became highly excited during the struggle some years ago to have their Flemish tongue preserved and taught in the schools, and I remember the crowds of people thronging the streets of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges, with bands of music playing, and huge banners flying, bearing in large letters legends such as "Flanders for the Flemings." "Hail to the Flemish Lion" and "Flanders to the Death." All this was when the struggle between the two parties was going on.
The Flemings won, be it recorded.
Let alone, the Fleming would have worked out his own salvation in his own way. The country was prosperous. The King and Queen were popular, indeed beloved; all seemed to be going well with the people. Although Belgium was not a military power such as its great neighbors to the north, the east, and the south, its army played an important part in the lives of the people, and the strategical position which the country held filled in the map the ever present question of "balance"; the never absent possibility of the occasion arising when the army would be called upon to defend the neutrality of the little country. But they never dreamed that it would come so soon.... One might close with the words of the great Flemish song of the poet Ledeganck:
"Thou art no more, The towns of yore: The proud-necked, world-famed towns, The doughty lion's lair;"
(Written in 1846.)
[THE AUTHOR] Greenwich, Conn. April, 1916.
MALINES, AND SOME OF THE VANISHED TOWERS 17
SOME CARILLONS OF FLANDERS 41
TERMONDE (DENDERMONDE) 133
THE ARTISTS OF MALINES 181
A WORD ABOUT THE BELGIANS 199
List of Illustrations
The Great Cloth Hall: Ypres Frontispiece
Title page decoration
The Tower of St. Rombauld: Malines 18
Malines: A Quaint Back Street 22
Porte de Bruxelles: Malines 26
The Beguinage: Dixmude 34
Detail of the Chimes in the Belfry of St. Nicholas: Dixmude 42
The Belfry: Bergues 46
The Old Porte Marechale: Bruges 50
The Ancient Place: Dixmude 56
The Great Jube, or Altar Screen: Dixmude 58
The Fish Market: Dixmude 60
No. 4, Rue de Dixmude: Ypres 72
Arcade of the Cloth Hall: Ypres 76
Gateway, Wall, and Old Moat: Ypres 80
The Belfry: Commines 88
The Towers of St. Winoc: Bergues 94
The Tower of the Templars: Nieuport 100
The Town Hall—Hall of the Knights Templar: Nieuport 103
Tower in the Grand' Place: Nieuport 104
The Town Hall: Alost 112
The Belfry: Courtrai 120
The Broel Towers: Courtrai 124
The Museum: Termonde 138
The Cathedral: Louvain 148
The Town Hall: Louvain 150
The Town Hall: Douai 158
The Town Hall: Oudenaarde 164
Old Square and Church: Oudenaarde 166
The Fish Market: Ypres 172
The Church of Our Lady of Hanswyk 190
The immense, flat-topped, gray Gothic spire which dominated the picturesque line of low, red-tiled roofs showing here and there above the clustering, dark-green masses of trees in level meadows, was that of St. Rombauld, designated by Vauban as "the Eighth Wonder of the World," constructed by Keldermans, of the celebrated family of architects. He it was who designed the Bishop's Palace, and the great town halls of Louvain, Oudenaarde, and Brussels, although some authorities allege that Gauthier Coolman designed the Cathedral. But without denying the power and artistry of this latter master, we may still believe in the well-established claim of Keldermans, who showed in this great tower the height of art culminating in exalted workmanship. Keldermans was selected by Marguerite and Philip of Savoie to build the "Greatest Church in Europe," and the plans, drawn with the pen on large sheets of parchment pasted together, which were preserved in the Brussels Museum up to the outbreak of the war, show what a wonder it was to have been. These plans show the spire complete, but the project was never realized.
Charles the Fifth, filled with admiration for this masterpiece, showered Keldermans with honors; made him director of construction of the towns of Antwerp, Brussels, and Malines, putting thus the seal of artistic perfection upon his dynasty.
Historical documents in the Brussels Library contained the following:
"The precise origin of the commencements of the Cathedral of Malines is unknown, as the ancient records were destroyed, together with the archives, during the troubles in the sixteenth century. The 'Nefs' and the transepts are the most ancient, their construction dating from the thirteenth century. It is conjectured that the first three erections of altars in the choir and the consecration of the monument took place in March, 1312. The great conflagration of May, 1342, which destroyed nearly all of the town, spared the church itself, but consumed the entire roof of heavy beams of Norway pine. The ruins remained thus for a long period because of lack of funds for restoration, and in the meantime services were celebrated in the church of St. Catherine. It was not until 1366 that the cathedral was sufficiently repaired to be used by the canons. Once begun, however, the repairs continued, although slowly. But the tower remained uncompleted as it was at the outbreak of the Great War, standing above the square at the great height of 97.70 metres." On each face of the tower was a large open-work clock face, or "cadran," of gilded copper. Each face was forty-seven feet in diameter. These clock faces were the work of Jacques Willmore, an Englishman by birth, but a habitant of Malines, and cost the town the sum of ten thousand francs ($2000). The citizens so appreciated his work that the council awarded him a pension of two hundred florins, "which he enjoyed for fourteen years."
St. Rombauld was famous for its chime of forty-five bells of remarkable silvery quality: masterpieces of Flemish bell founding. Malines was for many hundreds of years the headquarters of bell founding. Of the master bell founders, the most celebrated, according to the archives, was Jean Zeelstman, who practised his art for thirty years. He made, in 1446, for the ancient church of Saint Michel at Louvain (destroyed by the Vandals in 1914) a large bell, bearing the inscription: "Michael prepositus paradisi quem nonoripicant angelorum civis fusa per Johann Zeelstman anno dmi, m. ccc. xlvi."
The family of Waghemans furnished a great number of bell founders of renown, who made many of the bells in the carillon of the cathedral of St. Rombauld; and there was lastly the Van den Gheyns (or Ghein), of which William of Bois-le-Duc became "Bourgeoisie" (Burgess) of Malines in 1506. His son Pierre succeeded to his business in 1533, and in turn left a son Pierre II, who carried on the great repute of his father. The tower of the Hospice of Notre Dame contained in 1914 a remarkable old bell of clear mellow tone—bearing the inscription: "Peeter Van den Ghein heeft mi Ghegotten in't jaer M.D. LXXX VIII." On the lower rim were the words: "Campana Sancti spiritus Divi Rumlodi." Pierre Van den Ghein II had but one son, Pierre III, who died without issue in 1618. William, however, left a second son, from whom descended the line of later bell founders, who made many of the bells of Malines. Of these Pierre IV, who associated himself with Pierre de Clerck (a cousin german), made the great "bourdon" called Salvator.
During the later years of the seventeenth century, the Van den Gheyns seem to have quitted the town, seeking their fortunes elsewhere, for the foundry passed into other and less competent hands.
In Malines dwelt the Primate of Belgium, the now celebrated Cardinal Mercier, whose courageous attitude in the face of the invaders has aroused the admiration of the whole civilized world. Malines, although near Brussels, had, up to the outbreak of the war and its subsequent ruin, perhaps better preserved its characteristics than more remote towns of Flanders. The market place was surrounded by purely Flemish gabled houses of grayish stucco and stone, and these were most charmingly here and there reflected in the sluggish water of the rather evil-smelling river Dyle.
Catholicism was a most powerful factor here, and the struggle between Luther and Loyola, separating the ancient from the modern in Flemish architecture, was nowhere better exemplified than in Malines. It has been said that the modern Jesuitism succeeded to the ancient mysticism without displacing it, and the installation of the first in the very sanctuary of the latter has manifested itself in the ornamentation of the ecclesiastical edifices throughout Flanders, and indeed this fact is very evident to the travelers in this region. The people of Malines jealously retained the integrity of their ancient tongue, and many books in the language were published here. Associations abounded in the town banded together for the preservation of Flemish as a language. On fete days these companies, headed by bands of music, paraded the streets, bearing large silken banners on which, with the Lion of Flanders, were inscriptions such as "Flanders for the Flemish," and "Hail to our Flemish Lion." On these occasions, too, the chimes in St. Rombauld were played by a celebrated bell-ringer, while the square below the tower was black with people listening breathlessly to the songs of their forefathers, often joining in the chorus, the sounds of the voices carrying a long distance. On the opposite side of the square, in the center of which was a fine statue of Margaret of Austria, adjoining the recently restored "Halles," a fine building in the purest Renaissance was being constructed, certainly a credit to the town, and an honor to its architect, attesting as it did the artistic sense and prosperity of the people. This, too, lies now in ashes—alas!
Flanders fairly bloomed, if I may use the expression, with exquisite architecture, and this garden spot, this cradle of art, as it has well been called, is levelled now in heaps of shapeless ruin.
Certainly in this damp, low-lying country the Gothic style flourished amazingly, and brought into existence talent which produced many cathedrals, town halls, and gateways, the like of which were not to be found elsewhere in Europe. These buildings, ornamented with lace-like traceries and crowded with statuary, their interiors embellished with choir screens of marvelous detail wrought in stone, preserved to the world the art of a half-forgotten past, and these works of incomparable art were being cared for and restored by the State for the benefit of the whole world. Here, too, in Malines was a most quaint "Beguinage," or asylum, in an old quarter of the town, hidden away amid a network of narrow streets: a community of gentle-mannered, placid-faced women, who dwelt in a semi-religious retirement after the ancient rules laid down by Sainte Begga, in little, low, red-roofed houses ranged all about a grass-grown square. Here, after depositing a considerable sum of money, they were permitted to live in groups of three and four in each house, each coming and going as she pleased, without taking any formal vow. Their days were given up to church, hospital, parish duties and work among the sick and needy: an order, by the way, not found outside of Flanders.
Each day brought for them a monotonous existence, the same duties at the same hours, waking in a gentle quietude, rhythmed by the silvery notes of the convent bell recalling them to the duties of their pious lives, all oblivious of the great outside world. Each Beguinage door bore the name of some saint, and often in a moss-covered niche in the old walls was seen a small statue of some saint, or holy personage, draped in vines.
The heavy, barred door was nail studded, and furnished usually with an iron-grilled wicket, where at the sound of the bell of the visitor a panel slid back and a white-coiffed face appeared. This secluded quarter was not exclusively inhabited by these gentle women, for there were other dwellings for those that loved the quiet solitude of this end of the town.
The Malines Beguinage was suppressed by the authorities in 1798, and it was not until 1804 that the order was permitted to resume operations under their former rights, nor were they allowed to resume their quaint costume until the year 1814.
In the small church on my last visit I saw the portrait of the Beguine Catherine Van Halter, the work of the painter I. Cossiers, and another picture by him representing the dead Christ on the knees of the Virgin surrounded by disciples. Cossiers seemed to revel in the ghastliness of the scene, but the workmanship was certainly of a very high order. The Beguine showed me with much pride their great treasure, a tiny, six-inch figure of the Crucifixion, carved from one piece of ivory by Jerome due Quesnoy. It was of very admirable workmanship, the face being remarkable in expression. Despatches (March, 1916) report this Beguinage entirely destroyed by the siege guns. One wonders what was the fate of the saintly women.
On the Place de la Boucherie in Malines was the old "Palais," which was used as a museum and contained many ill-assorted objects of the greatest interest and value, such as medals, embroideries, weapons, and a fine collection of ancient miniatures on ivory. There was also a great iron "Armoire Aux Chartes," quite filled with priceless parchments, great vellum tomes, bound in brass; large waxen seals of dead and gone rulers and nobles; heavy volumes bound in leather, containing the archives. And also a most curious strong box bound in iron bands, nail studded, and with immense locks and keys, upon which reclined a strange, wooden figure with a grinning face, clad in the moth-eaten ancient dress of Malines, representing "Op Signorken" (the card states), but the attendant told me it was the "Vuyle Bridegroom," and related a story of it which cannot be set down here, Flemish ideas and speech being rather freer than ours. But the people, or rather the peasants, are devoted to him, and there were occasions when he was borne in triumph in processions when the town was "en fete."
The ancient palace of Margaret of York, wife of Charles the Bold, who after the tragic death of her consort retired to Malines, was in the Rue de l'Empereur. It was used latterly as the hospital, and was utterly destroyed in the bombardment of 1914.
The only remnant of the ancient fortifications, I found on my last visit in 1910, was the fine gate, the "Porte de Bruxelles," with a small section of the walls, all reflected in an old moat now overgrown with moss and sedge grass. There were, too, quaint vistas of the old tower of Our Lady of Hanswyk and a number of arched bridges along the banks of the yellow Dyle, which flows sluggishly through the old town.
On the "Quai-au-sel," I saw in 1910, a number of ancient facades, most picturesque and quaintly pinnacled. There also a small botanical garden floriated most luxuriantly, and here again the Dyle reflected the mossy walls of ancient stone palaces, and there were rows of tall, wooden, carved posts standing in the stream, to which boats were moored as in Venice.
Throughout the town, up to the time of the bombardment, were many quaint market-places, all grass grown, wherein on market days were tall-wheeled, peasant carts, and lines of huge, hollow-backed, thick-legged, hairy horses, which were being offered for sale. And there were innumerable fountains and tall iron pumps of knights in armor; forgotten heroes of bygone ages, all of great artistic merit and value; and over all was the dominating tower of St. Rombauld, vast, gray, and mysterious, limned against the pearly, luminous sky, the more impressive perhaps because of its unfinished state. And so, however interesting the other architectural attractions of Malines might be, and they were many, it was always to the great cathedral that one turned, for the townspeople were so proud of the great gray tower, venerated throughout the whole region, that they were insistent that we should explore it to the last detail. "The bells," they would exclaim, "the great bells of Saint Rombauld! You have not yet seen them?"
St. Rombauld simply compelled one's attention, and ended by laying so firm a hold upon the imagination that at no moment of the day or night was one wholly unconscious of its unique presence. By day and night its chimes floated through the air "like the music of fairy bells," weird and soft, noting the passing hours in this ancient Flemish town. For four hundred years it had watched over the varying fortunes of this region, gaining that precious quality which appealed to Ruskin, who said, "Its glory is in its age and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity."
From below the eye was carried upward by range upon range of exquisite Gothic detail to the four great open-work, gilded, clock discs, through which one could dimly see the beautiful, open-pointed lancets behind which on great beams hung the carillon bells, row upon row.
No words of mine can give any idea of the rich grayish brown of this old tower against the pale luminous sky, or the pathetic charm of its wild bell music, shattering down through the silent watches of the night, over the sleeping town, as I have heard it, standing by some silent, dark, palace-bordered canal, watching the tall tower melting into the immensity of the dusk, or by day in varying light and shade, in storm and sunshine, with wind-driven clouds chasing each other across the sky.
The ascent of the tower was a formidable task, and really it seemed as if it must have been far more than three hundred and fifty feet to the topmost gallery, when I essayed it on that stormy August day. It was not an easy task to gain admittance to the tower; on two former occasions, when I made the attempt, the custode was not to be found. "He had gone to market and taken the key to the tower door with him," said the withered old dame who at length understood my wish. On this day, however, she produced the key, a huge iron one, weighing, I should say, half a pound, from a nail behind the green door of the entry. She unlocked a heavy, white-washed door into a dusty, dim vestibule, and then proceeded to lock me in, pointing to another door at the farther end, saying, as she returned to her savory stew pot on the iron stove, "Montez, Montez, vous trouverez l'escalier." The heavy door swung to by a weight on a cord, and I was at the bottom step of the winding stairway of the tower. For a few steps upward the way was in darkness, up the narrow stone steps, clinging to a waxy, slippery rope attached to the wall, which was grimy with dust, the steps sloping worn and uneven. Quaint, gloomy openings in the wall revealed themselves from time to time as I toiled upwards, openings into deep gulfs of mysterious gloom, spanned at times by huge oaken beams. Here and there at dim landings, lighted by narrow Gothic slits in the walls, were blackened, low doorways heavily bolted and studded with iron nails. The narrow slits of windows served only to let in dim, dusty beams of violet light. Through one dark slit in the wall I caught sight of the huge bulk of a bronze bell, green with the precious patina of age, and I fancied I heard footsteps on the stairway that wound its way above.
It was the watchman, a great hairy, oily Fleming, clad in a red sort of jersey, and blue patched trousers. On the back of his shock of pale, rope-colored hair sat jauntily a diminutive cap with a glazed peak. In the lobes of his huge ears were small gold rings.
I was glad to see him and to have his company in that place of cobwebs and dangling hand rope. I gave him a thick black cigar which I had bought in the market-place that morning, and struck a match from which we both had a light. He expressed wonder at my matches, those paper cartons common in America, but which he had never before seen. I gave them to him, to his delight. He brought me upwards into a room crammed with strange machinery, all cranks and levers and wires and pulleys, and before us two great cylinders like unto a "Brobdingnagian" music box. He drew out a stool for me and courteously bade me be seated, speaking in French with a strong Flemish accent. He was, he said, a mechanic, whose duty it was to care for the bells and the machinery. He had an assistant who went on duty at six o'clock. He served watches of eight hours. There came a "whir" from a fan above, and a tinkle from a small bell somewhere near at hand. He said that the half hour would strike in three minutes. Had I ever been in a bell tower when the chimes played? Yes? Then M'sieur knew what to expect.
I took out my watch, and from the tail of my eye I fancied that I saw a gleam in his as he appraised the watch I held in my hand. He drew his bench nearer to me and held out his great hairy, oily paw, saying, "Let me see the pretty watch." "Not necessary," I replied, putting it back in my pocket and calmly eying him, although my heart began to beat fast. I was alone in the tower with this hairy Cerberus, who, for all I knew, might be contemplating doing me mischief.
If I was in danger, as I might be, then I resolved to defend myself as well as I was able. I had an ammonia gun in my pocket which I carried to fend off ugly dogs by the roadside, which infest the country. And this I carried in my hip pocket. It resembled somewhat a forty-four caliber revolver. I put my hand behind me, drew it forth, eying him the while, and ostentatiously toyed with it before placing it in my blouse side pocket. It had, I thought, an instantaneous effect, for he drew back, opening his great mouth to say something, I know not what nor shall I ever know, for at that instant came a clang from the machinery, a warning whir of wheels, the rattle of chains, and one of the great barrels began to revolve slowly; up and down rattled the chains and levers, then, faint, sweet and far off, I heard a melodious jangle followed by the first notes of the "Mirleton" I had so often heard below in the town, but now subdued, etherealized, and softened like unto the dream music one fancies in the night. The watchman now grinned reassuringly at me, and, rising, beckoned me with his huge grimy hand to follow him. Grasping my good ammonia gun I followed him up a wooden stairway to a green baize covered door. This he opened to an inferno of crash and din. The air was alive with tumult and the booming of heavy metal. We were among the great bells of the bottom tier. Before us was the "bourdon," so called, weighing 2,200 pounds, the bronze monster upon which the bass note was sounded, and which sounded the hour over the level fields of Flanders. Dimly above I could see other bells of various size, hanging tier upon tier from great, red-painted, wooden beams clamped with iron bands.
I contrived to keep the watchman ever before me, not trusting him, although his frank smile somewhat disarmed my suspicion. It may be I did him an injustice, but I liked not the avaricious gleam in his little slits of eyes.
The bells clanged and clashed as they would break from their fastenings and drop upon us, and my brain reeled with the discord. On they beat and boomed, as if they would never stop. No melody was now apparent, though down below it had seemed as if their sweetness was all too brief. Up here in the tower they were not at all melodious; they were rough, discordant, and uneven, some sounding as though out of tune and cracked. All of the mystery and glamour of sweet tenderness, all their pathos and weirdness, had quite vanished, and here amid the smell of lubricating oil and the heavy, noisy grinding of the cog wheels, and the rattle of iron chains, all the poetry and elusiveness of the bells was certainly wanting.
All at once just before me a great hammer raised its head, and then fell with a sounding clang upon the rim of a big bell; the half hour had struck. All about us the air resounded and vibrated with the mighty waves of sound. From the bells above finally came the hum of faint harmonics, and then followed silence like the stillness that ensues after a heavy clap of thunder.
Cerberus now beckoned me to accompany him amongst the bells, and showed me the machinery that sets this great marvel of sound in motion. He showed me the huge "tambour-carillon," with barrels all bestudded with little brass pegs which pull the wires connected with the great hammers, which in their turn strike the forty-six bells, that unrivaled chime known throughout Flanders as the master work of the Van den Gheyns of Louvain, who were, as already told, the greatest bell founders of the age.
The great hour bell weighing, as already noted, nearly a ton, required the united strength of eight men to ring him. Cerberus pointed out to me the narrow plank runway between the huge dusty beams, whereon these eight men stood to their task. The carillon tunes, he told me, were altered every year or so, and to do this required the entire changing of the small brass pegs in the cylinders, a most formidable task, I thought. He explained that the cutting of each hole costs sixty centimes (twelve cents) and that there were about 30,000 holes, so that the change must be quite expensive, but I did not figure it out for myself.
The musical range of this carillon chime of Malines may be judged by the fact that it was possible to play, following on the hour, a selection from "Don Pasquale," and on the half and quarter hours a few bars from the "Pre aux Clercs." Every seven and a half minutes sounded a few jangling sweet notes, and thus the air over the old town of Malines and the small hamlets surrounding it both day and night was musical with the bells of the carillon.
On fete days a certain famous bell ringer was engaged by the authorities to play the bells from the clavecin. This is a sort of keyboard with pedals played by hand and foot, fashioned like a rude piano. The work is very hard, one would think, but I have heard some remarkable results from it. In former times the office of "carilloneur" was a most important position, and, as in the case of the Van den Gheyn family of Louvain, it was hereditary. The music played by these men, those "morceaux fugues," once the pride and pleasure of the Netherlands, is now the wonder and despair of the modern bell ringer, however skillful he may be.
Cerberus informed me that sometimes months pass without a visit from a stranger to his tower room, and that he had to wind up the mechanism of the immense clock twice each day, and that of the carillon separately three times each twenty-four hours, and that it was required of him that he should sound two strokes upon the "do" bell after each quarter, to show that he was "on the job," so to speak.
I told him I thought his task a hard and lonely one, and I offered him another of the black cigars, which he accepted with civility, but I kept my hand ostentatiously in my blouse pocket, where lay the ammonia gun, and he saw plainly that I did so. I am inclined now to think that my fears, as far as he was concerned, were groundless, but nevertheless they were very real that day in the old tower of Saint Rombauld.
He began his task of winding up the mechanism, while I mounted the steep steps leading upwards to the top gallery. Here on the open gallery I gazed north, east, south, and west over the placid, flat, green-embossed meadows threaded with silver, ribbon-like waterways, upon which floated red-sailed barges. Below, as in the bottom of a bowl, lay Malines, its small red-roofed houses stretching away in all directions to the remains of the ancient walls, topped here and there with a red-sailed windmill, in the midst of verdant fresh fields wooded here and there with clumps of willows, where the armies of the counts of Flanders, and the Van Arteveldes, fought in the olden days.
I could see the square below where, in the Grand' Place, those doughty Knights of the Golden Fleece had gathered before the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Now a few dwarfed, black figures of peasants crawled like insects across the wide emptiness of it. Here among the startled jackdaws I lounged smoking and ruminating upon the bells, oily Cerberus, and his lonely task, and inhaling the misty air from the winding canals in the fertile green fields below—appraising the values of the pale diaphanous sky of misty blue, harmonizing so exquisitely with the tender greens of the landscape which had charmed Cuyp and Memling, until the blue was suffused with molten gold, and over all the landscape spread a tender and lovely radiance, which in turn became changed to ruddy flames in the west, and then the radiance began to fade.
Then I bethought me that it was time I sought out the terrible Cerberus, the guardian of the tower, and induce him peaceably to permit me to go forth unharmed. I confess that I was coward enough to give him two francs as a fee instead of the single one which was his due, and then I stumbled down the long winding stairway, grasping the slippery hand rope timorously until I gained the street level, glad to be among fellow beings once more, but not sorry I had spent the afternoon among the bells of the Carillon of Saint Rombauld—those bells which now lie broken among the ashes of the tower in the Grand' Place of the ruined town of Malines.
Some Carillons of Flanders
Some Carillons of Flanders
It is worth noting that nearly all of the noble Flemish towers with their wealth of bells are almost within sight (and I had nearly written, sound) of each other. From the summit of the tower in Antwerp one could see dimly the cathedrals of Malines and Brussels, perhaps even those of Bruges and Ghent in clear weather. Haweis ("Music and Morals") says that "one hundred and twenty-six towers can be seen from the Antwerp Cathedral on a fair morning," and he was a most careful observer. "So these mighty spires, gray and changeless in the high air, seem to hold converse together over the heads of puny mortals, and their language is rolled from tower to tower by the music of the bells."
"Non sunt loquellae neque sermones, audiantur voces eorum," (there is neither speech nor language, but their voices are heard among men).
This is an inscription copied by Haweis in the tower at Antwerp, from a great bell signed, "F. Hemony Amstelo-damia, 1658."
Speaking of the rich decorations which the Van den Gheyns and Hemony lavished on their bells, he says, "The decorations worked in bas relief around some of the old bells are extremely beautiful, while the inscriptions are often highly suggestive, and even touching." These decorations are usually confined to the top and bottom rims of the bell, and are in low relief, so as to impede the vibration as little as possible. At Malines on a bell bearing date "1697, Antwerp" (now destroyed) there is an amazingly vigorous hunt through a forest with dogs and all kinds of animals. I did not see this bell when I was in the tower of St. Rombauld, as the light in the bell chamber was very dim. The inscription was carried right around the bell, and had all the grace and freedom of a spirited sketch.
On one of Hemony's bells dated 1674 and bearing the inscription, "Laudate Domini omnes Gentes," we noticed a long procession of cherub boys dancing and ringing flat hand bells such as are even now rung before the Host in street processions.
Some of the inscriptions are barely legible because of the peculiarity of the Gothic letters. Haweis mentions seeing the initials J.R. ("John Ruskin") in the deep sill of the staircase window; underneath a slight design of a rose window apparently sketched with the point of a compass. Ruskin loved the Malines Cathedral well, and made many sketches of detail while there. I looked carefully for these initials, but I could not find them, I am sorry to say.
Bells have been strangely neglected by antiquaries and historians, and but few facts concerning them are to be found in the libraries. Haweis speaks of the difficulty he encountered in finding data about the chimes of the Low Countries, alleging that the published accounts and rumors about their size, weight, and age are seldom accurate or reliable. Even in the great libraries and archives of the Netherlands at Louvain, Bruges, or Brussels the librarians were unable to furnish him with accurate information.
He says: "The great folios of Louvain, Antwerp, and Mechlin (Malines) containing what is generally supposed to be an exhaustive transcript of all the monumental and funereal inscriptions in Belgium, will often bestow but a couple of dates and one inscription upon a richly decorated and inscribed carillon of thirty or forty bells. The reason of this is not far to seek. The fact is, it is no easy matter to get at the bells when once they are hung, and many an antiquarian who will haunt tombs and pore over illegible brasses with commendable patience will decline to risk his neck in the most interesting of belfries. The pursuit, too, is often a disappointing one. Perhaps it is possible to get half way around a bell and then be prevented by a thick beam, or the bell's own wheel from seeing the outer half, which, by perverse chance, generally contains the date and the name of the founder.
"Perhaps the oldest bell is quite inaccessible, or, after a half hour's climbing amid the utmost dust and difficulty, we reach a perfectly blank or commonplace bell."
He gives the date of 1620, as that when the family of Van den Gheyns were bringing the art of bell founding to perfection in Louvain, and notes that the tower and bells of each fortified town were half civic property. Thus the curfew, the carolus, and the St. Mary bells in Antwerp Cathedral belong to the town.
"Let us," he says, "enter the town of Mechlin (Malines) in the year 1638. The old wooden bridge (over the river Dyle) has since been replaced by a stone one. To this day the elaborately carved facades of the old houses close on the water are of incomparable richness of design. The peculiar ascent of steps leading up to the angle of the roof, in a style borrowed from the Spaniards, is a style everywhere to be met with. The noblest of square florid Gothic towers, the tower of St. Rombauld (variously spelled St. Rombaud, St. Rombaut, or St. Rombod) finished up to three hundred and forty-eight feet, guides us to what is now called the Grand' Place, where in an obscure building are the workshops and furnaces adjoining the abode of Peter Van den Gheyn, the most renowned bell founder of the seventeenth century, born in 1605. In company with his associate, Deklerk, arrangements are being made for the founding of a big bell.
"Before the cast was made there was no doubt great controversy between the mighty smiths, Deklerk and Van den Gheyn: plans had to be drawn out on parchment, measurements and calculations made, little proportions weighed by fine instinct, and the defects and merits of ever so many bells canvassed. The ordinary measurements, which now hold good for a large bell, are, roughly, one-fifteenth of the diameter in thickness, and twelve times the thickness in height. Describing the foundry buildings: The first is for the furnaces, containing the vast caldron for the fusing of the metal; in the second is a kind of shallow well, where the bell would have to be modeled in clay.
"The object to be first attained is a hollow mold of the exact size and shape of the intended bell, into which the liquid metal is poured through a tube from the furnace, and this mold is constructed in the following simple but ingenious manner:
"Suppose the bell to be six feet high, a brick column of about that height is built something in the shape of the outside of a bell. Upon the smooth surface of this solid bell-shaped mass can now be laid figures, decorations, and inscriptions in wax; a large quantity of the most delicately prepared clay is then produced, the model is slightly washed with some kind of oil to prevent the fine clay from sticking to it, and three or four coats of the fine clay in an almost liquid state are daubed carefully all over the model. Next, a coating of common clay is added to strengthen the mold to the thickness of some inches. And thus the model stands with its great bell-shaped cover closely fitting over it.
"A fire is now lighted underneath, the brick work in the interior is heated, through the clay, through the wax ornaments and oils, which steam out in vapor through two holes at the top, leaving their impressions on the inside of the cover (of clay).
"When everything is baked thoroughly hard, the cover is raised bodily into the air by a rope, and held suspended some feet exactly above the model. In the interior of the cover thus raised will, of course, be found the exact impression in hollow of the outside of the bell. The model of clay and masonry is then broken up, and its place is taken by another perfectly smooth model, only smaller—exactly the size of the inside of the bell, in fact. On this the great cover now descends, and is stopped in time to leave a hollow space between the new model and itself. This is effected simply by the bottom rim of the new model forming a base, at the proper distance upon which the rim of the clay cover may rest in its descent.
"The hollow space between the clay cover and second clay mold is now the exact shape of the required bell, and only waits to be filled with metal.
"So far all has been comparatively easy; but the critical moment has now arrived. The furnaces have long been smoking; the brick work containing the caldron is almost glowing with red heat; a vast draft passage underneath the floor keeps the fire rapid; from time to time it leaps up with a hundred angry tongues, or in one sheet of flame, over the furnace-imbedded caldron. Then the cunning artificer brings forth his heaps of choice metal, large cakes of red coruscated copper from Drontheim, called 'Rosette,' owing to a certain rare pink bloom that seems to lie all over it like the purple on a plum; then a quantity of tin, so highly refined that it shines and glistens like pure silver; these are thrown into the caldron and melted down together. Kings and nobles have stood beside those famous caldrons, and looked with reverence upon the making of these old bells. Nay, they have brought gold and silver and, pronouncing the name of some holy saint or apostle which the bell was thereafter to bear, they have flung in precious metals, rings, bracelets, and even bullion.
"But for a moment or two before the pipe which is to convey the metal to the mold is opened, the smith stands and stirs the molten mass to see if all is melted. Then he casts in certain proportions of zinc and other metals which belong to the secrets of the trade; he knows how much depends upon these little refinements, which he has acquired by experience, and which perhaps he could not impart even if he would, so true is it that in every art that which constitutes success is a matter of instinct, and not of rule, or even science.
"He knows, too, that almost everything depends upon the moment chosen for flooding the mold. Standing in the intense heat, and calling loudly for a still more raging fire, he stirs the metal once more. At a given signal the pipe is opened, and with a long smothered rush the molten metal fills the mold to the brim. Nothing now remains but to let the metal cool, and then to break up the clay and brick work and extract the bell, which is then finished for better or for worse."
We learn much of the difficulties encountered even by these great masters in successfully casting the bells, and that even they were not exempt from failure. "The Great Salvator" bell at Malines, made by Peter Van den Gheyn, cracked eight years after it was hung in the tower (1696). It was recast by De Haze of Antwerp, and existed up to a few years ago—surely a good long life for any active bell.
In the belfry of St. Peter's at Louvain, which is now in ruins and level with the street, was a great bell of splendid tone, bearing the following inscription: "Claes Noorden Johan Albert de Grave me fecerunt Amstel—odamia, MDCCXIV."
Haweis mentions also the names of Bartholomews Goethale, 1680, who made a bell now in St. Stephen's belfry at Ghent; and another, Andrew Steilert, 1563, at Malines (Mechlin). The great carillon in the belfry at Bruges, thus far spared by the iconoclasts of 1914, consisting of forty bells and one large Bourdon, or triumphal bell, is from the foundry of the great Dumery, who also made the carillon at Antwerp.
Haweis credits Petrus Hemony, 1658, with being the most prolific of all the bell founders. He was a good musician and took to bell founding only late in life. "His small bells are exceedingly fine, but his larger ones are seldom true."
To the ear of so eminent an authority this may be true, but, to my own, the bells seem quite perfect, and I have repeatedly and most attentively listened to them from below in the Grand' Place, trying to discover the inharmonious note that troubled him. I ventured to ask one of the priests if he had noticed any flatness in the notes, and he scorned the idea, saying that the bells, "all of them," were perfect.
Nevertheless, I must accept the statement of Haweis, who for years made a study of these bells and their individualities and than whom perhaps never has lived a more eminent authority.
From my room in the small hotel de Buda, just beneath the old gray tower of St. Rombauld in this ancient town of Malines, I have listened by day and night to the music of these bells, which sounded so exquisite to me that I can still recall them. The poet has beautifully expressed the idea of the bell music of Flanders thus, "The Wind that sweeps over her campagnas and fertile levels is full of broken melodious whispers" (Haweis).
Certainly these chimes of bells playing thus by day and night, day in, day out, year after year, must exercise a most potent influence upon the imagination and life of the people.
The Flemish peasant is born, grows up, lives his life out, and finally is laid away to the music of these ancient bells.
When I came away from Malines and reached Antwerp, I lodged in the Place Verte, as near to the chimes as I could get. My student days being over, I found that I had a strange sense of loss, as if I had lost a dear and valued friend, for the sound of the bells had become really a part of my daily existence.
Victor Hugo, who traveled through Flanders in 1837, stopped for a time in Malines, and was so impressed with the carillon that he is said to have written there the following lines by moonlight with a diamond upon the window-pane in his room:
"J'aime le carillon dans tes cites Antiques, O vieux pays, gardien de tes moeurs domestiques, Noble Flandre, ou le Nord se rechauffe engourdi Au soleil de Castille et s'accouple au Midi. Le carillon, c'est l'heure inattendue et folle Que l'oeil croit voir, vetue en danseuse espagnole Apparaitre soudain par le trou vif et clair Que ferait, en s'ouvrant, une porte de l'air."
It was not until the seventeenth century that Flanders began to place these wondrous collections of bells in her great towers, which seem to have been built for them. Thus came the carillons of Malines, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Louvain, and Tournai. Of these, Antwerp possessed the greatest in number, sixty-five bells. Malines came next with forty-four, then Bruges with forty, and a great bourdon or bass bell; then Tournai and Louvain with forty, and finally Ghent with thirty-nine.
In ancient times these carillons were played by hand on a keyboard, called a clavecin. In the belfry at Bruges, in a dusty old chamber with a leaden floor, I found a very old clavecin. It was simply a rude keyboard much like that of a primitive kind of organ, presenting a number of jutting handles, something like rolling pins, each of which was attached to a wire operating the hammer, in the bell chamber overhead, which strikes the rim of the bells. There was an old red, leather-covered bench before this machine on which the performer sat, and it must have been a task requiring considerable strength and agility so to smite each of these pins with his gloved fist, his knees and each of his feet (on the foot board) that the hammers above would fall on the rims of the different bells.
From my room in the old "Panier d'or" in the market-place on many nights have I watched the tower against the dim sky, and seen the light of the "veilleur," shining in the topmost window, where he keeps watch over the sleeping town, and sounds two strokes upon a small bell after each quarter is struck, to show that he is on watch. And so passed the time in this peaceful land until that fatal day in August, 1914.
There is no longer a Grand' Place at Dixmude. Of the town, the great squat church of St. Martin, and the quaint town hall adjoining it, now not one stone remains upon another. The old mossy walls and bastion are level with the soil, and even the course of the small sluggishly flowing river Yser is changed by the ruin that chokes it.
I found it to be a melancholy, faded-out kind of place in 1910, when I last saw it. I came down from Antwerp especially to see old St. Martin's, which enshrined a most wondrous Jube, or altar screen, and a chime of bells from the workshop of the Van den Gheyns. There was likewise on the Grand' Place, a fine old prison of the fourteenth century, its windows all closed with rusty iron bars, most of which were loose in the stones. I tried them, to the manifest indignation of the solitary gendarme, who saw me from a distance across the Grand' Place and hurried over to place me under arrest. I had to show him not only my passport but my letter of credit and my sketch book before he would believe that I was what I claimed to be, a curious American, and something of an antiquary. But it was the sketch book that won him, for he told me that he had a son studying painting in Antwerp at the academy. So we smoked together on a bench over the bridge of the "Pape Gaei" and he related the story of his life, while I made a sketch of the silent, grass-grown Grand' Place and the squat tower of old St. Martin's, and the Town Hall beside it.
While we sat there on the bench only two people crossed the square, that same square that witnessed the entry of Charles the Fifth amid the silk-and velvet-clad nobles and burghers, and the members of the great and powerful guilds, which he regarded and treated with such respect. In those days the town had a population of thirty thousand or more. On this day my friend the gendarme told me that there were about eleven hundred in the town. Of this eleven hundred I saw twelve market people, the custode of the church of St. Martin; ditto that of the Town Hall; the gendarme; one baby in the arms of a crippled girl, and two gaunt cats.
The great docks to which merchantmen from all parts of the earth came in ships in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had now vanished, and long green grass waved in the meadows where the channel had been.
The ancient corporations and brotherhood, formerly of such power and renown, had likewise long since vanished, and nought remained but here and there on the silent, grass-grown streets gray, ancient palaces with barred and shuttered windows. The very names of those who once dwelt there could be found only in the musty archives in Bruges or Brussels. A small estaminet across the bridge bore the sign "In den Pape Gaei," and to this I fared and wrote my notes, while the crippled girl carrying the baby seated herself where she could watch me, and then lapsed into a sort of trance, with wide open eyes which evidently saw not.
In company with a large, black, savage-looking dog which traveled side-ways regarding me threateningly, I thought, and gloweringly refused my offers of friendship, I crossed the Grand' Place to the Hotel de Ville, or Town Hall, the door of which stood open. Inside, no living soul responded to my knock. The rooms were rather bare of furniture, many of them of noble proportions, and a few desks and chairs showed that they were used by the town officers, wherever they were.
St. Martin's was closed, and I skirted its walls, hoping to find somewhere a door unfastened that I might enter and see the great Jube or altar screen. In a small, evil-smelling alley-way, where there was a patch of green grass, I saw low down in the wall a grated window, which I fancied must be at the back of the altar. I got down on my knees and, parting the grass which grew there rankly, I put my face in against the iron bars that closed it. For a moment I could see nothing, then when my eyes became accustomed to the light I saw a tall candle burning on an iron ring on the wall; then a heavy black cross beside it, and finally a figure in some sort of heavy dark robe kneeling prostrate before it, only the tightly clasped white hands gleaming in the dim candle light; almost holding my breath I withdrew my head, feeling that I was almost committing sacrilege. Unfortunately for me, I dislodged some loose mortar, and I heard this rattle noisily into the chamber below. Then I fled as rapidly as I could down the dim alley-way to the silent sunlit Grand' Place. Here I found the verger, and he admitted me to the great old church, in return for a one-franc piece, and brought me a rush-bottom chair to a choice spot before the wondrous Jube, where I made my drawing.
In the silence of the great gray old church I labored over the exquisite Gothic detail, all unmindful of the passing time, when all at once I became conscious that a small green door beside the right hand low retable was moving outward. I ceased working and watched it; then the solitary candle before the statue of the Virgin guttered and flared up; then the small door opened wide and forth came an old man in a priest's cassock, with a staff in his hand. The small, green, baize-covered door closed noiselessly; the old man slowly opened the gate before the altar and came down the step toward me. Without a word he walked behind my chair and peered over my shoulder at the drawing I was making of the great Jube.
He tapped the floor with his staff, placed it under his arm, sought his pocket somewhere beneath his cassock, from which he produced a snuff box. From this he took a generous pinch, and a moment later was blowing vigorously that note of satisfaction that only a devotee of the powder can render an effective adjunct of emotion.
"Bien faite, M'sieur," he exclaimed at length, wiping his eyes on a rather suspicious looking handkerchief. "T-r-r-r-r-es bien faite! J'vous fais mes compliments." "Admirable! You have certainly rendered the spirit of our great and wondrous altar screen."
A little later we passed out of the old church through a side door leading into a small green enclosure, now gloomy in the shade of the old stone walls. At one end was a tangle of briar, and here were some old graves, each with a tinsel wreath or two on the iron cross. And presiding over these was the limp figure of a one-legged man on two crutches, who saluted us. We passed along to the end of the inclosure, where lay a chance beam of sunshine like a bar of dusty gold against the rich green grass.
"Oui, M'sieur," said the priest, as if continuing a sentence he was running over in his mind. "Casse! Pauvre Pierre, un peu casse, le pauvre bonhomme, but then, he's good for several years yet; cracked he is, but only cracked like a good old basin, and (in the idiom) he'll still hold well his bowl of soup."
He laughed at his wit, became grave, then shook out another laugh.
"See," he added, pointing to the ground all about us strewn with morsels of tile; "the roof cracks, but it still holds," he added, pointing upwards at the old tower of St. Martin's. "And now, M'sieur, I shall take you to my house; tenez, figure to yourself," and he laid a fine, richly veined, strong old hand upon my arm with a charming gesture. "I have been here twenty-five years; I bought all the antique furniture of my predecessor. I said to myself, 'Yes, I shall buy the furniture for five hundred francs, and then, later I shall sell to a wealthy amateur for one thousand francs, perhaps in a year or two.' Twenty-five years ago, and I have it yet. And now it creaks and creaks and snaps in the night. We all creak and creak thus as we grow old; ah, you should hear my wardrobes. 'Elles cassent les dos,' and I lie in my warm bed in the winter nights and listen to my antiques groan and complain. Poor old things, they belonged to the 'Empire' Period; no wonder they groan.
"And when my friend the notaire comes to play chess with me, you should see him eye my antiques, ah, so covetously; I see him, but I never let on. Such a collection of antiques as we all are, M'sieur." Then he became serious, and lifting his cane he pointed to a gravestone at one side, "My old servant lies there, M'sieur; we are all old here now, but still we do not die. Alas! we never die. There is plenty of room here for us, but we die hard. See, myotis, heliotrope, hare bells, and mignonette, a bed of perfume, and there lies my old servant. A restless old soul she was, and she took such a long time to die. She was eighty-five when she finally made up her mind."
I had a cup of wine with the old man in his small salle a manger. His house was indeed a mine of wealth for the antiquary and collector, more like a shop than a house. I lingered with him for nearly an hour, telling him of the great world lying beyond Dixmude, of London and Paris, and of New York and some of its wonders, of which I fancied he was rather sceptical. And then I came away, after shaking hands with him at his doorstep in the dim alley-way, with the bar of golden sunlight shining at the entrance to the Grand' Place and the noise of the rooks cawing on the roof.
"Au revoir, M'sieur le Peintre, et bon voyage, and remember, 'Ask, and it shall be given, seek and you shall find,'" and with these cryptic words, he stood with uplifted hands, a smile irradiating his fine ascetic face glowing like that of a saint. Behind the faded black of his old soutane I could see his treasures of blue china and ancient cabinets, and a chance light illumined a mirror behind his head, and aureoled him like unto one of the saints behind the great "Jube," and thus I left him.
And now Dixmude is in formless heaps of ashes and burnt timbers. Hardly one stone now remains upon another. There is no longer a Grand' Place—and the very course of the river Yser is changed.
Ypres as a town grew out of a rude sort of stronghold built, says M. Vereeke in his "Histoire Militaire d'Ypres," in the year 900, on a small island in the river Yperlee. It was in the shape of a triangle with a tower on each corner, and was known to the inhabitants as the "Castle of the three Turrets."
Its establishment was followed by a collection of small huts on the banks of the stream, built by those who craved the protection of the fortress. They built a rampart of earth and a wide ditch to defend it, and to this they added from time to time until the works became so extensive that a town sprang into being, which from its strategic position on the borders of France soon became of great importance in the wars that constantly occurred. Probably no other Flemish town has seen its defenses so altered and enlarged as Ypres has between the primitive days when the crusading Thierry d'Alsace planted hedges of live thorns to strengthen the towers, and the formation of the great works of Vauban. We have been so accustomed to regarding the Fleming as a sluggish boor, that it comes in the nature of a surprise when we read of the part these burghers, these weavers and spinners, took in the great events that distinguished Flemish history. "In July, 1302, a contingent of twelve hundred chosen men, five hundred of them clothed in scarlet and the rest in black, were set to watch the town and castle of Courtrai, and the old Roman Broel bridge, during the battle of the 'Golden Spurs,' and the following year saw the celebration of the establishment of the confraternity of the Archers of St. Sebastian, which still existed in Ypres when I was there in 1910. This was the last survivor of the famed, armed societies of archers which flourished in the Middle Ages. Seven hundred of these men of Ypres embarked in the Flemish ships which so harassed the French fleet in the great naval engagement of June, 1340."
Forty years later five thousand men of Ypres fought upon the battlefield with the French, on that momentous day which witnessed the death of Philip Van Artevelde and the triumph of Leliarts. Later, when the Allies laid siege to the town, defended by Leliarts and Louis of Maele, it was maintained by a force of ten thousand men, and on June 8, 1383, these were joined by seventeen thousand English and twenty thousand Flemings, these latter from Bruges and Ghent.
At this time the gateways were the only part of the fortifications built of stone. The ramparts were of earth, planted with thorn bushes and interlaced with beams. Outside were additional works of wooden posts and stockades, behind the dyke, which was also palisaded. The English, believing that the town would not strongly resist their numbers, tried to carry it by assault. They were easily repulsed, to their great astonishment, with great losses.
At last they built three great wooden towers on wheels filled with soldiers, which they pushed up to the walls, but the valiant garrison swarmed upon these towers, set fire to them, and either killed or captured those who manned them.
All the proposals of Spencer demanding the surrender of Ypres were met with scorn, and the English were repeatedly repulsed with great losses of men whenever they attempted assaults.
The English turned upon the Flemish of Ghent with fury, saying that they had deceived them as to the strength of the garrison of Ypres, and Spencer, realizing that it was impossible to take the town before the French army arrived, retired from the field with his soldiers. This left Flanders at the mercy of the French. But now ensued the death of Count Louis of Maele (1384) and this brought Flanders under the rule of the House of Burgundy, which resulted in prosperity and well nigh complete independence for the Flemings.
The Great Kermesse of Our Lady of the Garden (Notre Dame de Thuine) was then inaugurated because the townspeople believe that Ypres had been saved by the intercession of the Virgin Mary—the word Thuin meaning in Flemish "an enclosed space, such as a garden plot," an allusion to the barrier of thorns which had so well kept the enemy away from the walls—a sort of predecessor of the barbed-wire entanglements used in the present great world war.
The Kermesse was held by the people of Ypres on the first Sunday in August every year, called most affectionately "Thuindag," and while there in 1910 I saw the celebration in the great square before the Cloth Hall, and listened to the ringing of the chimes; the day being ushered in at sunrise by a fanfare of trumpets on the parapet of the tower by the members of a local association, who played ancient patriotic airs with great skill and enthusiasm.
In the Place de Musee, a quiet, gray corner of this old town, was an ancient Gothic house containing a really priceless collection of medals and instruments of torture used during the terrible days of the Spanish Inquisition. I spent long hours in these old musty rooms alone, and I might have stolen away whatever took my fancy had I been so minded, for the custode left me quite alone to wander at will, and the cases containing the seals, parchments, and small objects were all unfastened.
I saw the other day another wonderful panorama photograph taken from an aeroplane showing Ypres as it now is, a vast heap of ruins, the Cloth Hall gutted; the Cathedral leveled, and the site of the little old museum a vast blackened hole in the earth where a shell had landed. The photograph, taken by an Englishman, was dated September, 1915.
The great Hanseatic League, that extensive system of monopolies, was the cause of great dissatisfaction and many wars because of jealousy and bad feeling. Ypres, Ghent, and Bruges, while defending their rights and privileges against all other towns, fought among themselves. The monopoly enjoyed by the merchant weavers of Ypres forbade all weaving for "three leagues around the walls of Ypres, under penalty of confiscation of the looms and all of the linen thus woven."
Constant friction was thus engendered between the towns of Ypres and Poperinghe, resulting in bloody battles and the burning and destruction of much property. Even within the walls of the town this bickering went on from year to year. When they were not quarreling with their neighbors over slights or attacks, either actual or fancied, they fought among themselves over the eternal question of capital versus labor. A sharp line was drawn between the workingman and the members of the guilds who sold his output. The artisans, whose industry contributed so greatly to the prosperity of these towns, resented any infringement of their legal rights. The merchant magistrates were annually elected, and on one occasion, in 1361, to be exact, because this was omitted, the people arose in their might against the governors, who were assembled in the Nieuwerck of the Hotel de Ville. The Baillie, one Jean Deprysenaere, haughty in his supposed power, and trusting in his office, as local representative of the Court of Flanders, appeared before the insurgent weavers and endeavored to appease them. "They fell upon him and slew him" (Vereeke). Then, rushing into the council chamber, they seized the other magistrates and confined them in the belfry of the Cloth Hall.
"Then the leaders in council resolved to kill the magistrates, and beheaded the Burgomaster and two sheriffs in the place before the Cloth Hall in the presence of their colleagues" (Vereeke).
Following the custom of the Netherlands, each town acted for itself alone. The popular form of government was that of gatherings in the market-place where laws were discussed and made by and for the people. The spirit of commercial jealousy, however, kept them apart and nullified their power. Consumed by the thirst for commercial, material prosperity, they had no faith in each other, no bond of union, each being ready and willing to foster its own interest at its rival's expense. Thus neither against foreign nor internal difficulties were they really united. The motto of modern Belgium, "L'Union fait la Force," was not yet invented, and there was no great and powerful authority in which they believed and about which they could gather.
This history presents the picture of Ghent assisting an army of English soldiers to lay siege to Ypres. So the distrustful people dwelt amid perpetual quarreling, trade pitted against trade, town against town, fostering weakness of government and shameful submission in defeat. No town suffered as did Ypres during this distracted state of affairs in Flanders of the sixteenth century, which saw it reduced from a place of first importance to a dead town with the population of a village. And so it remained up to the outbreak of the world war in 1914.
This medieval and most picturesque of all the towns of Flanders had not felt the effect of the wave of restoration, which took place in Belgium during the decade preceding the outbreak of the world war, owing to the fact that its monuments of the past were perhaps finer and in a better state of preservation than those of any of the other ancient towns. Ypres in the early days had treated the neighboring town of Poperinghe with great severity through jealousy, but she in turn suffered heavily at the hands of Ghent in 1383-84 when the vast body of weavers fled, taking refuge in England, and taking with them all hope of the town's future prosperity.
Its decline thenceforward was rapid, and it never recovered its former place in the councils of Flanders. Its two great memorials of the olden times were the great Cloth Hall, in the Grand' Place, and the Cathedral of Saint Martin, both dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The Cloth Hall, begun by Count Baldwin IX of Flanders, was perhaps the best preserved and oldest specimen of its kind in the Netherlands, and was practically complete up to the middle of August, 1915, when the great guns of the iconoclastic invader shot away the top of the immense clock tower, and unroofed the entire structure. Its facade was nearly five hundred feet long, of most severe and simple lines, and presented a double row of ogival windows, surmounted by niches containing thirty-one finely executed statues of counts and countesses of Flanders. There were small, graceful turrets at each end, and a lofty belfry some two hundred and thirty feet in height in the center, containing a fine set of bells connected with the mechanism of a carillon.
The interior of the hall was of noble proportions, running the full length, its walls decorated by a series of paintings by two modern Flemish painters, which were not of the highest merit, yet good withal. At the market-place end was a highly ornate structure called the New Work (Nieuwerke), erected by the burghers as a guild-hall in the fifteenth century. This was the first part of the edifice to be ruined by a German shell.
The destruction of this exquisite work of art seems entirely wanton and unnecessary. It produced no result whatever of advantage. There were neither English, French, nor Belgian soldiers in Ypres at the time. The populace consisted of about ten thousand peaceful peasants and shopkeepers, who, trusting in the fact that the town was unarmed and unfortified, remained in their homes. The town was battered and destroyed, leveled in ashes. The bombardment destroyed also the great Cathedral of Saint Martin adjoining the Cloth Hall, which dated from the thirteenth century [although the tower was not added until the fifteenth century]. It formed a very fine specimen of late Gothic, the interior containing some fine oak carving and a richly carved and decorated organ loft. Bishop Jansenius, the founder of the sect of Jansenists, is buried in a Gothic cloister which formed a part of the older church that occupied the site.
Another interesting monument of past greatness was the Hotel de Ville, erected in the sixteenth century, and containing a large collection of modern paintings by French and Belgian artists. Of this structure not a trace remains save a vast blackened pile of crumbled stones and mortar. In the market-place now roam bands of half-starved dogs in search of food; not a roof remains intact. A couple of sentries pace before the hospital at the end of the Grand' Place. A recent photograph in the Illustrated London News taken from an aeroplane shows the ruined town like a vast honeycomb uncovered, the streets and squares filled with debris, the fragments of upstanding walls showing where a few months ago dwelt in peace and prosperity an innocent, happy people, now scattered to the four winds—paupers, subsisting upon charity. Their valiant and noble king and queen are living with the remnant of the Belgian army in the small fishing village of La Panne on the sand dunes of the North Sea.
The unique character of the half-forgotten town was exemplified by the number of ancient, wooden-faced houses to be found in the side streets. The most curious of these, perhaps, was that situated near the Porte de Lille, which I have mentioned in another page, and which noted architects of Brussels and Antwerp vainly petitioned the State to protect, or to remove bodily the facade and erect it in one of the vast "Salles" of the Cloth Hall. Both MM. Pauwels and Delbeke, the mural painters, then engaged in the decorations of the Cloth Hall, joined in protests to the authorities against their neglect of this remarkable example of medieval construction, but all these petitions were pigeonholed, and nothing resulted but vain empty promises, so the matter rested, and now this beautiful house has vanished forever.
The great mural decorations of the "Halles" were nearly completed by MM. Delbeke and Pauwels, when they both died within a few months of each other, in 1891. In these decorations the artists traced the history of Ypres from 1187 to 1383, the date of the great siege, showing taste and elegance in the compositions, notably in that called the "Wedding feast of Mahaut, daughter of Robert of Bethune, with Mathias of Lorraine (1314)."
One of the panels by M. Pauwels showed most vividly the progress of the "Pest," under the title of the "Mort d'Ypres" (de Dood van Yperen, Flemish). It represented the "Fossoyeur" calling upon the citizens upon the tolling of the great bell of St. Martin's, to bring out their dead for burial.
M. Delbeke's talent was engaged upon scenes illustrating the civil life of the town, the gatherings in celebration of the philanthropic and intellectual events in its remarkable history, a task in which he was successful in spite of the carping of envious contemporaries.
A committee of artists was appointed to examine his work, and although this body decided in his favor, it may be that the criticism to which he was subjected hastened his death. At any rate the panels remained unfinished, no other painter having the courage to carry out the projected work.
The original sketches for these great compositions were preserved in the museum of the town, but the detailed drawings, some in color, were, up to the outbreak of the war in 1914, in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Brussels, together with the cartoons of another artist, Charles de Groux (1870), to whom the decoration of the Halles had been awarded by the State in competition. A most sumptuous Gothic apartment was that styled the "Salle Echevinale," restored with great skill in recent years by a concurrence of Flemish artists, members of the Academy. Upon either side of a magnificent stone mantel, bearing statues in niches of kings, counts and countesses, bishops and high dignitaries, were large well executed frescoes by MM. Swerts and Guffens, showing figures of the evangelists St. Mark and St. John, surrounded by myriads of counts and countesses of Flanders, from the time of Louis de Nevers and Margaret of Artois to Charles the Bold, and Margaret of York, whose tombs are in the Cathedral at Bruges. The attribution of these frescoes to Melchior Broederlam does not, it would seem, accord with the style or the date of their production, M. Alph. van den Peereboom thinks, and he gives credit for the work to two painters who worked in Ypres in 1468—MM. Pennant and Floris Untenhoven.
In my search for the curious and picturesque, I came, one showery day, upon a passageway beneath the old belfry which led to the tower of St. Martin's. Here one might believe himself back in the Middle Ages. On both sides of the narrow street were ancient wooden-fronted houses not a whit less interesting or well preserved than that front erected in the chamber of the "Halles." This small dark street led to a vast and solitary square. On one side were lofty edifices called the Colonnade of the "Nieuwerck," at the end of which was a quaint vista of the Grand' Place. On the other side was a range of most wondrous ancient constructions; the conciergerie and its attendant offices, bearing finials and gables of astonishing richness of character, and ornamented with chefs-d'oeuvres of iron-work, marking the dates of erection, all of them prior to 1616. In this square not a soul appeared, nor was there a sound to be heard save the cooing of some doves upon a rooftree, although I sat there upon a stone coping for the better part of a half hour. Then all at once, out of a green doorway next the conciergerie, poured a throng of children, whose shrill cries and laughter brought me back to the present. One wonders where now are these merry light-hearted little ones, who thronged that gray grass-grown square behind the old Cloth Hall in 1912....
In this old square I studied the truly magnificent south portal and transept of St. Martin's, the triple portal with its splendid polygonal rose window, and its two graceful slender side towers, connecting a long gallery between the two smaller side portals. One's impression of this great edifice is that of a sense of noble proportions, rather than ornateness, and this is to be considered remarkable when one remembers the different epochs of its construction. That the choir was commenced in 1221 is established by the epitaph of Hugues, prevot of St. Martin's, whose ashes reposed in the church which he built: that the first stone of the nave transepts was laid with ceremony by Marguerite of Constantinople in 1254; that the south portal was of the fifteenth century and that a century later the chapel called the doyen toward the south wall at the foot of the tower, was erected. The tower itself, visible from all parts of the town, was the conception of Martin Untenhoven of Malines, and replaced a more primitive one in 1433. Of very severe character, its great bare bulk rose to an unfinished height of some hundred and seventy feet, and terminated in a squatty sort of pent-house roof of typical Flemish character. It was flanked by four smaller, unfinished towers, one at each corner. This tower, one may recall, figures in many of the pictures of Jean van Eyck. It is not without reason that Schayes, in his "Histoire de l'Architecture en Belgique," speaks of the choir of St. Martin's as "one of the most remarkable of the religious constructions of the epoch in Belgium." Of most noble lines and proportion if it were not for the intruding altar screen in the Jesuit style, which mars the effect, the ensemble were well-nigh perfect.
Its decoration, too, was remarkable. A fresco at the left of the choir, with a portrait of Robert de Bethune, Count of Flanders, who died at Ypres in 1322 and was buried in the church, was uncovered early in the eighties during a restoration; this had been most villainously repainted by a local "artist"(?); and I mortally offended the young priest who showed it to me, by the vehemence of my comments.
The stalls of the choir, in two banks or ranges, twenty-seven above, twenty-four below, bore the date of 1598, and the signature of d'Urbain Taillebert, a native sculptor of great merit, who also carved the great Jube of Dixmude (see drawing). Other works of Taillebert are no less remarkable, notably the superb arcade with the Christ triumphant suspended between the columns at the principal entrance. He was also the sculptor of the mausoleum of Bishop Antoine de Hennin, erected in 1622 in the choir.
In the pavement before the altar a plain stone marked the resting place of the famous Corneille Jansen (Cornelius Jansenius), seventh Bishop of Ypres, who died of the pest the 6th of May, 1638. One recalls that the doctrine of Jansen gave birth to the sect of that name which still flourishes in Holland.
Following the Rue de Lille one came upon the old tower of St. Pierre, massed among tall straight lines of picturesque poplars, its bulk recalling vaguely the belfry of the Cloth Hall. In this church was shown a curious little picture, representing the devil setting fire to the tower, which was destroyed in 1638, but was later rebuilt after the original plans. The interior had no dignity of style whatever. There were, however, some figures of the saints Peter and Paul attributed to Carel Van Yper, which merited the examination of connoisseurs. They are believed by experts to have been the "volets" of a triptych of which the center panel was missing.
The Place St. Pierre was picturesque and smiling. Following this route we found on the right at the end of a small street the hospital St. Jean, with an octagonal tower, which enshrined some pictures attributed to the prolific Carel Van Yper, comment upon which would be perhaps out of place here. On the corner of this street was a most charming old facade in process of demolishment, which we deplored.
Now we reached the Porte de Lille again and the remains of the old walls of the town. Again and again we followed this same route, each time finding some new beauty or hidden antiquity which well repaid us for such persistence. Few of the towns of Flanders presented such treasures as were to be found in Ypres. Following the walk on the ramparts, past the caserne or infantry barracks, one came upon the place of the ancient chateau of the counts, a vast construction under the name of "de Zaalhof." Here was an antique building called the "Lombard," dated 1616, covered with old iron "ancres" and crosses between the high small-paned windows.
By the Rue de Beurre one regained the Grand' Place, passing through the silent old Place Van den Peereboom in the center of which was the statue of the old Burgomaster of that name.
The aspect of this silent grass-grown square behind the Cloth Hall was most impressive. Here thronged the burghers of old, notably on the occasion of the entry of Charles the Bold and his daughter Marguerite, all clad in fur, lace, and velvet to astonish the inhabitants, who instead of being impressed, so outshone the visitors, by their own and their wives' magnificence of apparel, that Marguerite was reported to have left the banquet hall in pique. The belfry quite dominated the square at the eastern angle, where were the houses forming the conciergerie.
Turning to the right by way of the Chemin de St. Martin, one found the ancient Beguinage latterly used by the gendarmerie as a station, the lovely old chapel turned into a stable! In this old town were hundreds of remarkable ancient houses, each of which merits description in this book. But perhaps in this brief and very fragmentary description the reader may find reason for the author's enthusiasm, and agree with him that Ypres was perhaps the most unique and interesting of all the destroyed towns in Flanders.
It was not hard to realize that here we were in the country of Bras-de-Fer, of Memling, of Cuyp, and Thierry d'Alsace, for, on descending from the halting, bumping train at the small brick station, we were face to face with a bizarre, bulbous-topped tower rising above the houses surrounding a small square, and now quite crowded with large, hollow-backed, thick-legged Flemish horses, which might have been those of the followers of Thierry gathered in preparation for an onslaught upon one of the neighboring towns.
It seemed as though any turning might bring us face to face with a grim cohort of mounted armed men in steel corselet and morion, bearing the banner of Spanish Philip, so sinister were the narrow, ill-paved streets, darkened by the projecting second stories of the somber, gray-stone houses. Rarely was there an open door or window. As we passed, our footsteps on the uneven stones awakened the echoes. A fine drizzle of rain which began to fall upon us from the leaden sky did not tend to enliven us, and we hastened toward the small Grand' Place, where I noted on a sign over a doorway the words, "In de Leeuw Van Vlanderen" (To the Flemish Lion), which promised at least shelter from the rainfall. Here we remained until the sun shone forth.
Commines (Flemish, Komen) was formerly a fortified town of some importance in the period of the Great Wars of Flanders. It was the birthplace of Philip de Commines (1445-1509). It was, so to say, one of the iron hinges upon which the great military defense system of the burghers swung and creaked in those dark days. To-day, in these rich fields about the small town, one can find no traces of the old-time bastions which so well guarded the town from Van Artevelde's assaults. Inside the town were scarcely any trees, an unusual feature for Flanders, and on the narrow waterways floated but few craft.
The only remarkable thing by virtue of its Renaissance style of architecture was the belfry and clock tower, although some of the old Flemish dwelling houses in the market square, projecting over an ogival Colonnade extending round one end of the square, and covering a sort of footway, were of interest, uplifting their step-like gables as a silent but eloquent protest against a posterity devoid of style, all of them to the right and left falling into line like two wings of stone in order to allow the carved front of the belfry to make a better show, and its pinnacled tower to rise the prouder against the sky.
One was struck with the ascendency of the religious element over all forms of art, and this was a characteristic of the Flemings. One was everywhere confronted with a curious union of religion and war, representations peopled exclusively by seraphic beings surrounded or accompanied by armed warriors. Everything is adoration, resignation, incense fumes, psalmody, and crusaders. The greatest buildings we saw were ecclesiastical, the richest dresses were church vestments, even "the princes and burghers accompanied by armed knights remind one of ecclesiastics celebrating the Mass. All the women are holy virgins, seemingly. The chasm between the ideal and the reality itself, however idealized, but by meditation manifested pictorially." ("The Land of Rubens," C.B. Huet).
We sat for an hour in the small, sooty, tobacco-smelling estaminet (from the Spanish estamento—an inn), and then the skies clearing somewhat we fared forth to explore the belfry, which in spite of its sadly neglected state was still applied to civic use. Some dark, heavy, oaken beams in the ceiling of the principal room showed delicately carved, fancy heads, some of them evidently portraits. At the rear of the tower on the ground floor, I came upon a vaulted apartment supported on columns, and being used as a storehouse. Its construction was so handsome, it was so beautifully lighted from without, as to make one grieve for its desecration; it may have served in the olden time as a refectory, and if so was doubtless the scene of great festivity in the time of Philip de Commines, who was noted for the magnificence of his entertainments.
The Flemish burghers of the Middle Ages first built themselves a church; when that was finished, a great hall. That of Ypres took more than two hundred years to complete. How long this great tower of Commines took, I can only conjecture. Its semi-oriental pear-shaped (or onion-shaped, as you will) tower was certainly of great antiquity; even the unkempt little priest whom I questioned in the Grand' Place could give me little or no information concerning it. Indeed, he seemed to be on the point of resenting my questions, as though he thought that I was in some way poking fun at him. I presume that it was the scene of great splendor in their early days. For here a count of Flanders or a duke of Brabant exercised sovereign rights, and at such a ceremony as the laying of a corner-stone assumed the place of honor, although the real authority was with the burghers, and founded upon commerce. While granting this privilege, the Flemings ever hated autocracy. They loved pomp, but any attempt to exercise power over them infuriated them.
"The architecture of the Fleming was the expression of aspiration," says C.B. Huet ("The Land of Rubens").
"The Flemish hall has often the form of a church; art history, aiming at classification, ranges it among the Gothic by reason of its pointed windows. The Hall usually is a defenceless feudal castle without moats, without porticullis, without loopholes. It occupies the center of a market-place. It is a temple of peace, its windows are as numerous as those in the choirs of that consecrated to the worship of God.
"From the center of the building uprises an enormous mass, three, four, five stories high, as high as the cathedral, perhaps higher. It is the belfry, the transparent habitation of the alarm bell (as well as the chimes). The belfry cannot defend itself, a military character is foreign to it. But as warden of civic liberty it can, at the approach of domination from without, or autocracy uplifting its head within, awaken the threatened ones, and call them to arms in its own defence. The belfry is thus a symbol of a society expecting happiness from neither a dynasty nor from a military despotism, but solely from common institutions, from commerce and industry, from a citizen's life, budding in the shadow of the peaceful church, and borrowing its peaceful architecture from it. To the town halls of Flanders belonged the place of honor among the monuments of Belgian architecture. No other country of Europe offered so rich a variety in that respect.
"Courtrai replaces Arras; Oudenaarde and Ypres follow suit. Then come Tournai, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Louvain. Primary Gothic, secondary Gothic, tertiary Gothic, satisfying every wish. Flanders and Brabant called the communal style into life. If ever Europe becomes a commune, the communards have but to go to Ypres to find motifs from their architects."
Since this was written, in 1914, many, if not most, of these great buildings thus enumerated above, are now in ruins, utterly destroyed for all time!
A tiny sleepy town among the fringe of great willow trees which marked the site of the ancient walls. Belted by its crumbling ramparts, and like a quaint gem set in the green enamel of the smiling landscape, it offered a resting place far from the cares and noise of the world.
Quite ignored by the guide books, it had, I found, one of the most remarkable belfries to be found in the Netherlands, and a chime of sweet bells, whose melodious sounds haunted our memories for days after our last visit in 1910.
There were winding, silent streets bordered by mysteriously closed and shuttered houses, but mainly these were small and of the peasant order. On the Grand' Place, for of course there was one, the tower sprang from a collection of rather shabby buildings, of little or no character, but this did not seem to detract from the magnificence of the great tower. I use the word "great" too often, I fear, but can find no other word in the language to qualify these "Campanili" of Flanders.
This one was embellished with what are known as "ogival arcatures," arranged in zones or ranks, and there were four immense turrets, one at each corner, these being in turn covered with arcatures of the same character. These flanked the large open-work, gilded, clock face. Surmounting this upon a platform was a construction in the purely Flemish style, containing the chime of bells, and the machinery of the carillon, and topping all was a sort of inverted bulb or gourd-shaped turret, covered with blue slate, with a gilded weathervane about which the rooks flew in clouds.