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The town as a stage? Urban space and tournaments in late medieval Brussels

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 February 2015

Universiteit van Amsterdam, Capaciteitsgroep Geschiedenis, Spuistraat 134|1012 VB Amsterdam, The Netherlands


This article discusses the material and spatial features of the tournaments on the Grote Markt, the central market square in Brussels, in the fifteenth and first half of the sixteenth century. It investigates how the tournament acquired meaning in the urban space where it was organized, and how the chivalric event in its turn altered that urban space. These Brussels tournaments, for which both archival, iconographical and narrative sources are available, show us the dynamics of an inherently courtly festival within an urban setting. Recent historiography has stressed that these tournaments, just like other urban festivals, for example joyous entries, demonstrate the submission of the town to the ruler. Indeed, the prince and his household used the public space of the Grote Markt and the facilities of the town hall to organize tournaments and festivities. However, they could not do this on their own. They needed the town government for the organization and logistics of the tournament and for its hospitality. Moreover, the town managed to put its own stamp on the architecture, both permanent and ephemeral, emphasizing the responsibilities that the duke had towards his town, as well as the long tradition of subservience and loyalty of the town to the duke.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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16 See the valuable remarks of Brown, ‘Ritual’, 7–9, repeated and extended in Brown, Civic Ceremony, 26–8, and Brown and Small, Court, 21–3, 28–33. See also the comments of Nicholas, D., ‘In the pit of the Burgundian theatre state. Urban traditions and princely ambitions in Ghent, 1360–1420’, in Hanawalt, B.A. and Reyerson, K.L. (eds.), City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe (Minneapolis, 1994), 271–95Google Scholar (at 271–3).

17 ‘fiestas, justas é torneos é toda cosa de aver placer’. Tafur, P., Andancças e viajes de un hidalgo español: Pero Tafur (1436–1439), ed. Vives Gatell, J., de la Espada, M. Jiménez and López Estrada, F. (Barcelona, 1982), 248Google Scholar.

18 Vale, The Princely Court, 197–8.

19 See the overview in Van Den Neste, Tournois, 213–332.

20 M. Damen, ‘Chivalry in and around Brussels in the fifteenth century’, in preparation.

21 De Jonge, K., ‘Het hof in de stad’, in Van de Kerckhof, V. and Bussers, H. (eds.), Met Passer en Penseel. Brussel en het Oude Hertogdom Brabant in Beeld (Brussels, 2000), 163–72Google Scholar (at 168); Stein, R., Politiek en Historiografie. Het Ontstaansmilieu van Brabantse Kronieken in de Eerste Helft van de Vijftiende Eeuw (Leuven, 1994), 229–33Google Scholar; Chevalier-de Gottal, Les fétes, 89–104. See also the new book on the Coudenberg Palace: Heymans, V., Cnockaert, L. and Honoré, F. (eds.), Het Coudenbergpaleis te Brussel. Van middeleeuws kasteel tot archeologische site (Brussels, 2014)Google Scholar.

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25 Squilbeck, J., ‘Le travail du métal à Bruxelles’, in Bonenfant, and Martens, (eds.), Bruxelles au XVme siècle, 245–72Google Scholar (at 248–52). It concerns ‘helmslagers, zweertvagers, pansiermakers, brigandinemakers, polysters, malgienmakers’.

26 Sosson, J.-P., ‘L’artisanat Bruxellois du métal. Hierarchie sociale, salaires et puissance écomique (1360–1500)’, Cahiers Bruxellois, 7 (1962), 225–58Google Scholar (at 241–6). See also Stein, R., ‘Van publieke devotie naar besloten orde: de stichting van het klooster Scheut’, Millennium, 23 (2009), 1237Google Scholar (at 24–6), and Blockmans, W., ‘Court and city, a tense relation in the Burgundian Netherlands’, in Hirschbiegel, J., Paravicini, W. and Wettlaufer, J. (eds.), Städtisches Bürgertum und Hofgesellschaft. Kulturen integrativer und konkurrierender Beziehungen in Residenz- und Hauptstädten vom 14. bis ins 19. Jahrhundert (Ostfildern, 2012), 71–9Google Scholar, who stresses that the metal workers in particular benefited from the regular presence of the court in Brussels.

27 Gaier, C., L’industrie et le commerce des armes dans les anciennes principautés belges du XIIIme à la fin de XVme siécle (Paris, 1973), 303Google Scholar.

28 Terjanian, P., ‘La armería de Felipe el Hermoso’, in Zalama, M.A. and Vandenbroeck, P. (eds.), Felipe I el Hermoso. La Belleza y la Locura (Madrid, 2006), 143–64Google Scholar (at 148–9, 157–60). Note the inventory numbers 113 (ung charriot pour larmoierie couvert de cuyre) and 114 (sept trainneaulx) – a cart and seven carriages – available for the transport of weapons and armour. Four carriages were at the time of the making of the inventory in Ghent, three in Binche. This means that the Brussels arsenal functioned as a central depot.

29 De Jonge, ‘Het hof’, 68–9; De Jonge, K., ‘Adellijke residenties in en buiten de stad’, in De Jonge, K., Geleyns, P. and Hörsch, M. (eds.), Gotiek in het Hertogdom Brabant (Leuven, 2009), 63100Google Scholar (at 73–82); Stein, Politiek, 235–40.

30 Master Jan Vrancx, master carpenter, earned 4 stuivers a day, that is 4s in pounds consisting of 40 groats. To earn 1 pound he had to work five days. Brussels, Archives Générales du Royaume, Chambre des Comptes de Brabant (CCB) 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven gedaen ten steecspele dat onse genadigee heere gehouden heeft opte merct des sondaechs 17 decembri’. For the costs of the organization of the joust of the Épinette in Lille, see Van den Neste, Tournois, 332–60.

31 Lille, Archives départementales du Nord, Série B, 1966, fols. 199v, 311r–v. The real return for Brussels of the 1439 tournament is extensively treated in Damen, ‘The town’, 90–1. For a general discussion of the economic advantages of tournaments for a town, see Nadot, Rompez, 135–6; Ruiz, King, 232.

32 ‘Es la plaça grande y espaciosa y casi quadrada.’ Calvete de Estrella, J.C., El felicíssimo viaje del muy alto y muy poderoso príncipe don Phelippe, ed. Paloma Cuenca Muñoz (Madrid, 2001) 135Google Scholar.

33 Measured on the cartographic site I am grateful to Cecilia Paredes for this reference.

34 B. Vannieuwenhuyze, ‘Brussel, de Ontwikkeling van een Middeleeuwse Stedelijke Ruimte’, unpublished Ph.D. Ghent thesis, 2008, 152–5; Deligne, C., ‘Powers over space, spaces over powers. The constitution of town squares in the cities of the Low Countries (twelfth to fourteenth century)’, in Boone, and Howell, (eds.), The Power of Space, 21–8Google Scholar (at 27); Stabel, P., ‘The market-place and civic identity in late medieval Flanders’, in Boone, M. and Stabel, P. (eds.), L’apparition d’une identité urbaine dans l’Europe du bas moyen âge (Apeldoorn, 2000), 4364Google Scholar (at 54–6).

35 Van Den Neste, Tournois, 73–4; Crouch, Tournament, 80.

36 ‘opt hof in de groote sale aldaer onse genedige heere stack’. CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’. There is more evidence on the aula magna of the Coudenberg as a jousting area. See, for example, Schmeller, J.A. (ed.), Des böhmischen herrn Leo's von Rožmital ritter-, hofund pilgerreise durch die abendlande 1465–1467 (Stuttgart, 1844), 25–7Google Scholar, 101.

37 He travelled as a chamberlain with Philip the Fair to Spain between 1501 and 1503. In 1503, he was still not dubbed a knight and in the accounts he is referred to as joncheer (squire). CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’; Cools, H., Mannen met macht. Edellieden en de moderne staat in de Bourgondisch-Habsburgse landen (1475–1530) (Zutphen, 2001), 244Google Scholar; Gachard, L.P., Collection des voyages des souverains des Pays-Bas, vol. I (Brussels, 1876), 339–40Google Scholar. All the amounts of money are converted into pounds Flemish of 40 groats to facilitate comparisons. In the town accounts of Brussels, the pound Brabant of 160 groats is the normal money of account.

38 The costs were c. 40 pounds. CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’. According to Vandewalle in the district of Brussels, 1 foot measured 0.27575 cm. P. Vandewalle, Oude maten, gewichten en muntstelsels in Vlaanderen, Brabant en Limburg (Ghent, 1984).

39 E. Bennett, King's René Tournament Book: A Modern English Translation (online resource:, accessed on 6 Jan. 2014) (Princeton, 1997); Lefèvre, S., Antoine de La Sale: la fabrique de l’œuvre et de l’écrivain, suivi de l’édition critique du traité des anciens et des nouveaux tournois (Geneva, 2006), 336Google Scholar.

40 Van Den Neste, Tournois, 72.

41 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 135–6. The space between the posts was 16 feet. This means that the minimum measurements of the tournament field were 18 × 16 = 288 feet by 6 × 16 = 96 feet. However, each side had a gate measuring 14 feet, which makes a tournament field of 302 × 110 feet = 84.3 × 30.3 metres.

42 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 136; Frieder, B.K., Chivalry and the Perfect Prince: Tournaments, Art, and Armor at the Spanish Habsburg Court (Kirksville, 2008), 129Google Scholar.

43 Charles the Bold (r. 1467–77), Maximilian of Habsburg (as regent r. 1482–94 and 1506–15), Philip the Fair (r. 1494–1506) and Charles V (r. 1515–55). Compare Frieder, Chivalry, 129, who identifies Phelippe Rey de España (Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 136) wrongly with Philip II.

44 Mary of Burgundy (r. 1477–82), Mary of Hungary (governor of the Low Countries 1531–55), Isabella of Portugal (†1539, deceased wife of Charles V) and Beatrice of Portugal (†1538, sister of Isabella, mother of Emmanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy and member of Prince Philip´s team in the tournament (see Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 140).

45 Henne, A. and Wauters, A., Histoire de la ville de Bruxelles, vol. III (Brussels, 1845), 41Google Scholar. Strictly speaking, the tower was not a belfry. See Van Uytven, R., ‘Flämische Belfriede und sudniederländische Bauwerke im Mittelalter: Symbol und Mythos’, in Haverkamp, A. and Müller-Luckner, E., Information, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung in Mittelalterlichen Gemeinden (Munich, 1998), 125–60Google Scholar (at 126–7).

46 The small statues of the dukes of Brabant in the alcoves of the façade of the town hall were only placed there in the nineteenth century. De Jonge, K., ‘Bouwen in de stad’, in De Jonge, Geleyns and Hörsch, (eds.), Gotiek, 101–36Google Scholar (at 121).

47 CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’, and Gachard, Collection, 339: ‘et touttes les dammes prénommées estoient à la maison de la ville; l’eschaffault où messieurs les juges estoient, estoit devant elles’.

48 Maesschalck, A. and Viaene, J., Het Stadhuis van Brussel (Kessel-Lo, 1960), 99Google Scholar. For a similar orb placed on the ephemeral architecture on the market square of Bruges during the pas of the Golden Tree in July 1468, see Brown and Small, Court, 70.

49 CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’.

50 Fallows, N., Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia (Woodbridge, 2010), 192Google Scholar.

51 ‘de lijsten daer men over stack’. CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’.

52 Barber and Barker, Tournaments, 194–6; Fallows, Jousting, 91–4.

53 Bennett, Tournament Book; Lefèvre, Antoine, 308, 333.

54 Brussels, Archives de la ville, Archives historiques (BAV, AH) 3357, fol. 168r, where it is stated that one of the tourneyers had his coat of arms fenestrated (‘doen veijnsteren’).

55 Borgnet, A., Chronique de Jean de Stavelot (Brussels, 1861), 433Google Scholar.

56 CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’.

57 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 136; Frieder, Chivalry, 129.

58 CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’. See on the role of the heralds during tournaments Lefèvre, Antoine, 335, 339–40, and Hiltmann, ‘Un état’, 273–6, with numerous references.

59 Brown and Small, Court, 26. Compare Stabel, ‘The market-place’, 60–1.

60 Bormans, J.H. (ed.), Les gestes des ducs de Brabant, vol. III (Brussels, 1869), 93Google Scholar.

61 Compare for example the similar wordings of Olivier de la Marche describing the market place of Bruges in July 1468 during the pas of the Golden Tree: Brown and Small, Court, 69.

62 Gachard, Collection, 339: ‘on ne véoit que dammes as fenestres par tout le Marchiet, lequel estoit tout couvert de peuple’.

63 Van den Neste, Tournois, 148–9; Brown and Small, Court, 227.

64 Lecuppre-Desjardin, La ville, 202.

65 In July 1468, the town administration of Bruges received more than 250 pounds for renting out the stages on the Grote Markt during the jousts on the occasion of the wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York. Brown and Small, Court, 55 n. 74.

66 They were paid 8 pounds. CCB 30949, chapter ‘Andere uutgeven’.

67 Ruiz, King, 232–3.

68 For the terms ‘urban nobility’ and ‘patriciate’, see Buylaert, F., Eeuwen van Ambitie. De Adel in Laatmiddeleeuws Vlaanderen (Brussels, 2010), 259–66Google Scholar.

69 On the participation of the Brussels patricians, see Damen, ‘Tournament culture’, 259–61, and Damen, ‘The town’, 89–90. This is not the place to examine the social profiles of the tourneyers and the active participation of patricians. I discuss this subject at greater length in ‘Patricians, knights or nobles? Historiography and social status in late medieval Antwerp’, The Medieval Low Countries. An Annual Review, 1 (2014).

70 De Jonge, ‘Bouwen’, 114–19; Stabel, ‘The market-place’, 55.

71 Chevalier-de Gottal, Les fétes, 116–19; Bormans (ed.), Les gestes, 93–4.

72 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 137. Again, Calvete de Estrella seems to make a small mistake, claiming that the four windows of the tower were ‘in the middle of the façade’. The façade was asymmetrical since the right wing – which was constructed between 1444 and 1449 – was shorter than the left wing, constructed between 1401 and 1405: Maesschalck and Viaene, Het stadhuis, 168–9. See also Henne and Wauters, Histoire, 42, who call this room the chambre princière.

73 Arnade, Realms, 128–9; Blockmans and Donckers, ‘Self-representation’, 85; Soly, H., ‘Plechtige intochten in de steden van de zuidelijke Nederlanden tijdens de overgang van middeleeuwen naar nieuwe tijd: communicatie, propaganda, spektakel’, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, 97 (1984), 341–61Google Scholar (at 342–5). For the relatively short description of the oath ceremony in 1549 in Brussels, see Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 172.

74 Maesschalck and Viaene, Het Stadhuis, 119–21.

75 Stein, Politiek, 38, 149, 153–8; Sleiderink, R., ‘Grootse Ambities. Culturele initiatieven van de stad Brussel ten tijde van Filips de Goede’, in Janssens, J. (ed.), De Macht van het Schone Woord. Literatuur in Brussel van de 14de tot de 18de Eeuw (Leuven, 2003), 107–23Google Scholar (112–22).

76 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 137. Frieder misinterpreted this passage suggesting that these ‘remaining galleries’ were as well built ‘around the stockade for the more important spectators’, Frieder, Chivalry, 129.

77 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 138.

78 Damen, ‘The town’, 85–6.

79 See on the four days of the 1439 tournament, ibid., 87.

80 Ruiz, King, 233.

81 Köhl, S., ‘Princely architecture. Town halls in the Burgundian Netherlands’, in Blockmans, van Oosterwijk, et al. (eds.) Staging the Court of Burgundy, 191200Google Scholar (at 197).

82 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 138. See on this grande sale, Henne and Wauters, Histoire, 41–2.

83 Calvete de Estrella, Viaje, 138. Calvete describes the justice paintings of Rogier van der Weyden in detail further on in his account (172–6). The council hall was called the Heeren raedtkamer. Henne and Wauters, Histoire, 42. See on the paintings, Sleiderink, ‘Grootse Ambities’, 110–12.

84 Douët-D’Arcq, L., La chronique d’Enguerran de Monstrelet en 2 livres avec piéces justificatives, 1400–1444, vol. IV (Paris, 1860), 307Google Scholar.

85 Janse, A., ‘Tourneyers and spectators: the Shrovetide tournament at The Hague, 1391’, in Janse, A. and Gunn, S. (eds.), The Court as a Stage. England and the Low Countries in the Later Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2006), 3952Google Scholar (at 41); Brown and Small, Court, 23–5; Zotz, T., ‘Adel, Bürgertum und Turniere in Deutschen Städten’, in Fleckenstein, J. (ed.), Das Ritterliche Turnier im Mittelalter: Beiträge zu einer vergleichenden Formen- und Verhaltensgeschichte des Rittertums (Göttingen, 1985), 450–99Google Scholar (at 483–4, 499).

86 Vale, The Princely Court, 198.

87 Damen, M., ‘Heren met banieren. De baanrotsen van Brabant in de vijftiende eeuw’, in Damen, M. and Sicking, L. (eds.), Bourgondië voorbij. De Nederlanden 1250–1650. Liber alumnorum Wim Blockmans (Hilversum, 2010), 139–58Google Scholar (at 153–6).

88 Only a coloured drawing of the glass in an armorial has survived: Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique (BRB), MS 6563, fol. 91r. On this armorial and its contents, see Van Den Bergen-Pantens, C., ‘L’armorial dit de Gorrevod: deux compilations, deux méthodes’, Revue du Nord, 88 (2006), 805–24Google Scholar (at 811). Copy in Leuven: Van Even, G.E., Louvain dans le passé et dans le présent: formation de la ville, événements mémorables, territoire, topographie, institutions, monuments, oeuvres d’art (Leuven, 1895), 266Google Scholar.

89 Damen, ‘Tournament culture’, 254–8.

90 ‘en mémoire d’ung combat et tournoij solemnel tenu en ladicte ville’. BAV, AH 3357, fol. 99v.