Visiting the striking Town Hall at Damme, Belgium: remembering Medieval poet Jacob van Maerlant

Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Damme, Flanders, Belgium
Damme, Flanders, Belgium | Source
Statue of Jacob van Maerlant, Damme, West Flanders province
Statue of Jacob van Maerlant, Damme, West Flanders province | Source
Map location of Damme
Map location of Damme | Source

Flemish town with powerful historical 'leitmotive'

In Medieval times, Damme was a prosperous place. Then it declined somewhat.

It was all the fault of the Zwin.

The Zwin? Yes, correct: the Zwin was a river (1). To the regret of the burghers and merchants of Damme, whose town served as the port of Bruges, situated about 6 kilometres away, the Zwin silted up inexorably, so that trading ships could no longer reach it.

While the Zwin River was still cooperating, however, Damme did manage to witness a substantial battle, when raiding English ships destroyed 300 French ships moored at Damme, and, for good measure, damaged 100 more (2). This Battle of Damme, by the way, was on May 30 and 31, 1213.

Right.

Anyway, back to the Zwin. Since it fell out of commission because of the silt problem, efforts were later made to keep the waterways open for a measure of shipping. The border with The Netherlands is not far away; indeed, what is known as the Damse Vaart (Canal of Damme) linking Damme with the Dutch town of Sluis, was dug in the 19th century — incidentally, at the behest of Napoleon I.

But evidence of the Medieval, former prosperity of Damme can still be seen in the town, situated in West Flanders province (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen) in Belgium's Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams Gewest). The enormous Church of Our Lady (Dutch: O.L.V-kerk ) in early Gothic style dates from the 13th century, and is noted for its very tall tower.

Other such evidence is particularly at the 15th century Town Hall (Stadhuis) in Brabantine Gothic style.

Features of this splendid Town Hall include gabled ends; ornate steps lead up to the building's main entrance. The rooftop belfry has a carillon of 39 bells.

At the Town Hall, I was interested to watch an historical film which demonstrated many of the highlights of the town's fascinating past. One aspect of this which particularly struck me was the local pronunciation in some of the film's narrative, which differed markedly from the standard Dutch to which I was accustomed.

Some famous people associated with Damme

In front of this striking Town Hall at Damme, a notable local person is commemorated with a statue. This imposing statue of Jacob van Maerlant is by the sculptor Hendrik Pickery, dating from 1860. The Dutch-language poet Jacob van Maerlant's dates are uncertain. His birth year is estimated as having been between 1230 and 1240, and his death was probably between 1288 and 1300.

Van Maerlant is greatly honoured as being one of the seminal influences on the Dutch language as it emerged (spoken in both Flanders and The Netherlands), referred to as Middle Dutch for his period. He produced translations and reworkings of Classical texts, and specialized in the rhyming chronicle.

Van Maerlant is known to have clashed with the ecclesiastical powers of the day on account of having tried to use his considerable skills to writing metrical paraphrases of the Bible into the language of the people: something which was then frowned upon. (Maybe a case of Medieval, vested interests fearing exposure?)

The writer is also commemorated by a local cycle path named for him (Dutch: Maerlantroute ) which extends into the neighbouring Netherlands to towns and cities with which the poet was associated.

Another noted local person from Damme was Karel Verleye (1920-2002), who with his friend Hendrik Brugmans and others co-founded the College of Europe at nearby Bruges, designed 'to train an elite of young executives for Europe'. So: the Flemish traders and political class have traditionally been builders of a significant Continental trading system, while the English have sometimes given the appearance of a tendency to be rival wreckers and raiders? Diplomats from the excellent Belgian Foreign Ministry would doubtless find numerous, polite ways of denying and refuting such a notion about their British neighbours.

Some legends

Does clinical reality tell us everything about Damme? The town is also significant for its associations in legend. The character Tijl Uilenspiegel in the novel by Charles de Coster — sometimes known as the Spirit of Flanders — was supposedly born in Damme, and in different guises has for centuries formed part of Dutch and German folklore. The Uilenspiegel Museum may be visited in the town. Damme's literary associations are also extended by regular book festivals held in the town.

The arms and flag of the town bear the likeness of a legendary dog: indeed, the name of the town was once Hondsdamme (literally: dog's dam). According to the legend, a dog, identified with the devil, was striking fear into the hearts of the local people until one day a terrible storm arose which threatened to flood and destroy the town. But local people took the malevolent dog and used it to build up a local dam, which had been breached, and so the town was saved.

But over the North Sea to East Anglia, where legends of a malevolent dog, identified with the devil, have persisted in Norfolk and Suffolk, under the name of Old Shuck, or Black Shuck (3). One account regarding this creature has survived of a terrible storm in 1577 at Blythburgh and Bungay, during which a fierce dog suddenly appeared and killed a number of people in the parish churches. Blythburgh's fine parish church stands adjacent to the Blyth Estuary over which heroic, military aviator Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., was lost in an air accident in 1944. This occurred during an attempted aerial equivalent of the Zeebrugge Raid (see Note 2, below), when the aviator's aircraft packed with high explosives — designed to ram a German-held coastal target after the pilot had parachuted from it — suddenly disintegrated in mid-air. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., former American Ambassador in London, had thus tried and failed to prevent the US from being sucked into perennial, European conflict. Bad luck? I am not superstitious, but it is less easy to deny that, in some localities, patterns of toposemantic lore achieve footfalls in historical and linguistic memory.

Back to Damme: it's a fascinating place, heavily overlain with the weight of historical allusion. But I couldn't help come away from it sensing that something was waiting to happen.

Notes

(1) The term Zwin, or Het Zwin, now tends to refer to a nearby coastal nature reserve, close to the Dutch border.

(2) Military buffs may care to note that just a few kilometres away from Damme there was another significant British harbour raid in 1918. This is known as the Zeebrugge Raid, when vessels packed with high explosives were sunk in an attempt to block the German-held port. The circumstances of World War One were rather different, but the underlying geopolitics was not completely dissimilar from those of the Battle of Damme, 1213. The Kent coast of England lies only 40 kilometres from Calais, France, and control of the North Sea (Dutch: Noordzee ) port approaches was, and continued to be, strategically important. At Damme, Zeebrugge, St. Nazaire in World War Two: the British navy reckoned it had mastered the art of the successful harbour raid on ports of the near Continent. Then came a raid planned on German-occupied Dieppe in 1942, which proved to be a disaster, as 3367 killed, wounded or captured Canadians found to their cost.

(3) Exposure in Norfolk to this legend led Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to base on it a theme of The Hound of the Baskervilles .

Also worth seeing

Bruges (Dutch: Brugge ), Belgium (distance: 6.7 kilometres) offers numerous cultural treasures and instances of Medieval architecture, both ecclesiastical and secular. Since the Middle Ages, its 83 metre Belfry has been a major landmark. Canal tours are popular with visitors.

Lissewege , Belgium (distance: 10 kilometres); its monumental church dates from 1215 to 1275. Its tower is a landmark for many kilometres in the area.

Sint Anna ter Muiden , The Netherlands (distance: 11 kilometres); this photogenic, little village is the westernmost locality of the continental Netherlands.

Sluis , The Netherlands (distance: 12 kilometres) has picturesque canals and a Medieval belfry.

...

How to get there: Brussels National Airport (Brussel -Nationaal -Luchthaven) , Belgium, where car hire is available, is the nearest large international airport to Damme (distance: 116 kilometres). Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels National. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. Travellers are advised that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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