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Bruges: Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390

Author(s):Murray, James M.
Reviewer(s):Jordan, Erin

Published by EH.NET (April 2006)

James M. Murray, Bruges: Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xii + 409 pp. $110 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-81921-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Erin Jordan, Department of History, University of Northern Colorado.

In Bruges: Cradle of Capitalism, James M. Murray explores the various threads (political, demographic, social and cultural) that, weaved together over the course of over a century, combined to produce one of the most economically vibrant cities in late medieval Europe. In tracing the factors that contributed to such change, Murray casts his net widely. He examines in impressive detail the complex politics of the region, the importance of topography and internal reclamation, the configuration of urban space and the importance of waterways, the evolution of more complex systems of banking and commerce, and the individuals who served as the primary engine of change. Murray argues that the people of Bruges were instrumental in harnessing the various forces necessary for capitalism, making a case study of the city and its inhabitants an ideal way to explore the characteristics and criteria necessary for this type of economy to develop. In many ways, it is these individuals who dominate his study, adding an element of the personal to a much wider narrative of economic change. From merchants to hostellers, bankers to beggars, Murray punctuates his narrative with sketches of individuals drawn from the rich archival sources. Building upon his previous work and benefiting from his familiarity with both primary and secondary material, Murray aims to show that “by 1350, Bruges had become a city unlike any other in northern Europe and was blazing a path that in future both Antwerp and Amsterdam in turn would follow” (p. 21).

In chapter 1, Murray provides a brief outline of the political background of Bruges. He positions the city firmly at the center of a complex set of competing political interests, ranging from local officials to the count to the king of France. In particular, he assesses the impact of such forces on the city’s leaders, its economy, and its emerging identity as a commercial hub of northern Europe. Chapter 2 focuses on the development of the city and its infrastructure, emphasizing in particular the unique relationship of Bruges to water. While canals facilitated internal transport of goods, topographic change provided access to a sizeable body of water and made external transport possible. The remainder of this chapter is devoted to an innovative examination of urban space and its relationship to the burgeoning economy of the city, including the criss-cross of roads and streets and the positioning of squares and markets. It is Murray’s argument that “the layout of streets, bridges, and buildings reflects, albeit indirectly, the planning and priorities of both public and private enterprise’ (p. 84).

In chapter 3, Murray turns his attention to the human component of the city, exploring questions about demography, population and economic identity. In particular, he explores the role of mendicants and merchants, both native and foreign, in advancing the economy of Bruges. Extrapolating from extremely terse documents, Murray breathes life into the records, fleshing out personal experience and tracing individual actions where possible. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the role of money as a medium of exchange, and the evolution of sophisticated economic institutions like the Bourse that provided the infrastructure and means necessary for such “cradle capitalism” to emerge. This discussion is continued in chapter 6, “Bruges as Node and Network.” focusing on the evolution of the merchant community that would dominate the city’s trade and the banking network that emerged in tandem. Chapter 7, “Wool, Cloth and Gold,” examines the diverse economic sectors of the Bruges economy, tracing connections, patterns of consumption and ultimately change.

In chapter 8, “Women in the Market and the Market in Women,” Murray addresses the position of women in the economy of Bruges, as producers, consumers and as products themselves in the form of prostitutes. Murray’s own conclusion that “women were visible and involved in almost every sector of the Bruges economy” (p. 326), does make one wonder why their actions and activities were not integrated throughout the narrative, but rather reserved for a separate chapter towards the end of the book. While the decision to include women is to be applauded, and the discussion of their activities is both interesting and informative, the presentation leaves something to be desired. However, this is one minor complaint of an otherwise extremely impressive work. Chapter 9 presents the conclusion of his investigation, as Bruges came firmly under Burgundian control, signaling the shift from a medieval to an early modern economy. Murray identifies the tensions, both internal and external, that resulted from such change, and the impact of these new competing political interests on the city’s economy.

While the reader is immediately struck by Murray’s deft prose and ability to animate dense and potentially dry material, what is most impressive about his study is his mastery of the sources, both primary and secondary. In spite of its importance in the high and late medieval period, the county of Flanders and the many urban centers that dominated it remain somewhat underappreciated by modern scholars, who tend to focus their energies on its larger, and arguably more powerful, neighbors. Such marginalization is undoubtedly due in no small part to the language difference. The work of many Flemish scholars in particular remains unfamiliar to many western scholars. To his credit, Murray incorporates much of this work into his own study, bringing it to the attention of his English-speaking audience. One can only hope that one result of his work will be a more open dialogue between Flemish and American scholars, facilitating intellectual exchange and a sharing of expertise.

In addition to his exhaustive use of secondary sources in English, French, Flemish and German, Murray also mines an incredibly rich set of primary sources. Evidence from the city and state archives of Bruges in particular appears frequently throughout the work. While the massive number of extant documents makes Bruges particularly attractive to historians, the linguistic challenges (as the documents are written in Latin, French, and with increasing frequency over the period, in Flemish) and the sheer number of available documents might prove daunting to a less accomplished scholar. However, Murray’s familiarity with these archives and the documents they contain is apparent in his ability to trace personal connections across seemingly unrelated records, bringing into clear relief the network of individuals most instrumental in the transformation of Bruges’ economy.

In exploring the evolution of Bruges into a thriving commercial center, Murray simultaneously provides a glimpse into the cultural life of the city. Through careful examination of the various factions within the city and their struggle with count and king, Murray reveals the myriad of social and economic currents that animated the region, often erupting in military hostilities. However, in spite of the occasional violence, the story is ultimately one of steady progress and growth, as disparate groups worked towards the transformation of Bruges, demographically, socially, politically, and economically. Murray identifies the changes that, while perhaps appearing earlier in the dense urban centers of Flanders, would ultimately affect all of Europe. In tracing the shift from an agricultural-based, predominately rural society to one centered more firmly on commerce, trade and sophisticated mechanisms of exchange, Murray traces the shift from a medieval to an early-modern economy.

Erin Jordan’s publications include “Shared Rule, Separate Practice: Assessing Benedictine Economic Activities in Northern Europe during the Thirteenth Century,” Revue Benedictine 115 (2005): 187-204 and Women, Power and Religious Patronage in the Middle Ages, New York: Palgrave, 2006.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval