Aside from food, the other thing we spent a lot of time learning about in Bruges was its financial and political history. Bruges is the site of the very first stock exchange, which was located at the ‘Ter Beurse’ inn. Bruges was a thriving centre of trade in the 14th and 15th centuries and visiting merchants would come to the inn to make trades, sign contracts and do deals. Eventually the process at the inn became more formalised, with trading happening during set hours. By around 1400, the inn had started putting up exchange rates for the major commercial centres of Europe, like London, Paris, Barcelona and Venice. This was the start of the stock market as we know it, which is kind of a big deal.
Around this time, Bruges was one of the most famous cities in Europe. Its system of canals meant that it was perfect for trade and to maximise this role, the water hall (die Waterhalle) was built, allowing merchants to bring their boats directly into the market and unload their cargo on the market floor. Bruges sat at the junction between the Italian merchants of the Mediterranean and the German Hanseatic merchants working across the Baltic, making it an ideal centre for European trade. Bruges was known particularly for its textile opportunities, resting heavily on the wool trade coming from England and other cloth and dyes.
Right next to one of the main ports in the city (the bigger ports were located slightly outside of Bruges – it’s always been small – but it was possible for smaller boats to get right into the centre) there was the Tollhouse, where tax had to be paid on all goods brought into Bruges to sell. There’s a tiny statue of a cat sitting on top of this building, which was built to commemorate the cats that were released as soon as foreign boats docked. They were there to eat all the rats, which was crucial for preventing the spread of uncommon diseases.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, it is abundantly clear that there was money swilling around when Bruges was originally built. I have visited cities all over Europe and it is easy to see when a city has attempted to patch over crumbling old buildings or had to rebuild after wars or other conflict. Much of Bruges’ original architecture remains and was clearly carefully designed and built the first time, using high-quality materials. Most cities didn’t have options like that in the fourteenth century.
As Brexit continues to plod along and frustrate us all, visiting Bruges seemed like a lesson in how a thriving city falls. Despite being the centre of the world at one point, in the fifteenth century the river Zwin silted up, blocking Bruges’ main waterway to the sea and closing its economic lifeline. In response, bigger ports opened up in Antwerp and Bruges’ role in trading decreased significantly. Eventually, the Hanseatic league moved their headquarters from Bruges to Antwerp. Other, larger cities opened up their own stock exchanges and the ‘Ter Beurse’ inn’s special role as a trading house became defunct. It went from European powerhouse to an afterthought in European history in only a few hundred years. Nowhere is protected from the forces of modernisation and nature.
Of course, the fall of Bruges is not similar to Brexit in the details. Bruges’ eventual irrelevance was ultimately the result of a natural phenomenon, though was likely inevitable given its small size; Brexit is different in that we did this to ourselves. However, part of it was also natural expansion – Bruges had always been small and bigger cities eventually caught on. This little city, no matter how wealthy, couldn’t compete on scale and convenience. Bruges didn’t plan to wall itself off from the rest of Europe, it was just outgrown by the growing trade industry. We chose to cut ourselves off from the rest of our continent so we have to shoulder a lot more of the blame than Bruges did and are perhaps being hit by the double whammy of shutting ourselves off from parts of the economy and falling prey to enormous, more powerful nations like China and America. It was disconcerting to wander around a place that had once been seen as the financial centre of the world, not unlike London, which had now faded into the backdrop of finance and politics.
In a world in which larger nations are surging ahead in terms of technological development and the sheer scale of production – especially China and the US – the little UK looks a lot more like Bruges on the global stage. We are a very small fish in a rapidly expanding pond. The only way to survive as a comparatively small island is to form strong links and networks with other countries that make us all more powerful. The whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.
As I mentioned, this isn’t a perfect analogy. The fall of Bruges and the potential fall of the UK obviously wouldn’t follow the same pattern. Plus Bruges remains a wealthy, pleasant place to live, so while it may have lost global influence it hasn’t truly suffered. But its story does emphasise the transience of power and relevance. I’m sure that at the height of Bruges’ trading power, they felt invincible. As they revolutionised the financial sector and created innovative spaces for trade in die Waterhalle, I’m sure it felt like Bruges would continue going from strength to strength. It’s hard to see the future when you’re totally enamoured by the present.
Given that Brexit has been driven by a desire to protect Britain’s autonomy, it is laughable that, of course, as the world globalises even further, our isolation is likely to be the final nail in the coffin for the little Empire that no longer is. It’s no secret that I think that the British ‘identity’ is an outdated way of understanding yourself and rationalising your place in the world. Staying relevant generation after generation is no easy feat and it’s hard to see how going it alone in a world that is increasingly reliant on collaboration and globalisation is the smart choice. Nothing is forever. Let’s hope we realise that before we slide into relative obscurity, like the forgotten financial and political powerhouses before us.