William Morris. Commonweal 1888

The Revolt of Ghent (Part 7)

Title:The Revolt of Ghent”, Part 7
Author: William Morris
Source: Commonweal, Volume 4, Number 136, pp. 258-259 18 August 1888 (The last of seven parts.)
Transcribed by: Ted Crawford
Proofing and HTML:Graham Seaman

Froissart goes on:—

“In the mean time that the Earl was at his lodging, and sent forth the clerks of every ward from street to street, to have every man to draw to the market place, to recover the town. The Ghentois pursued so fiercely their enemies, that they entered into the town with them of Bruges ; and as soon as they were within the town, the first thing they did, they went straight to the market place, and there set themselves in array. The Earl then had sent a knight of his, called Sir Robert Marshall, to the gate, to see what the Ghentois did ; and when he came to the gate, he found the gate beaten down, and the Ghentois masters thereof : and some of them of Bruges met with him and said, ‘Sir Robert, return and save yourself if ye can, for the town is won by them of Ghent.’ Then the knight returned to the Earl as fast as he might, who was coming out of his lodging a horseback, with a great number of cressets and lights with him, and was going to the market place ; then the knight showed the Earl all that he knew ; howbeit, the Earl, willing to recover the town, drew to the market place ; and as he was entering, such as were before him, seeing the place all ranged with the Ghentois said to the Earl, ‘Sir, return again ; if we go any farther ye are but dead, or taken with your enemies, for they are ranged on the market place and do abide for you.’ They showed him truth. And when the Ghentois saw the clearness of the lights coming down the street, they said, ‘Yonder cometh the Earl, he shall come into our hands.’ And Philip van Artevelde had commanded, from street to street as he went, that if the Earl came among them, that no man should do to him any bodily harm, but take him alive, and then to have him to Ghent, and so to make their peace as they list. The Earl, who trusted to have recovered all, came right near to the place whereas the Ghentois were. Then divers of his men said, ‘Sir, go no farther, for the Ghentois are lords of the market place and of the town ; if ye enter into the market place, ye are in danger to be slain or taken : a great number of the Ghentois are going from street to street, seeking for their enemies : they have certain of them of the town with them, to bring them from house to house, where as they would be : and sir, out at any of the gates ye cannot issue, for the Ghentois are lords thereof ; nor to your own lodging ye cannot return, for a great number of the Ghentois are going thither.’

”And when the Earl heard those tidings, which were right hard to him, as it was reason, he was greatly then abashed, and imagined what peril he was in : then he believed the counsel, and would go no farther, but to save himself if he might, and so took his own counsel : he commanded to put out all the lights, and said to them that were about him, I see well there is no recovery ; let every man depart, and save himself as he may. And as he commanded it was done : the lights were quenched and cast into the streets, and so every man departed. The Earl then went into a back lane, and made a varlet of his to unarm him, and did cast away his armour, and put on an old cloak of his varlet”s, and then said to him, ‘Go thy way from me, and save thyself if thou canst, and have a good tongue, an thou fall in the hands of thine enemies ; and if they ask thee anything of me, be it not known that I am in the town.’ He answered and said; ‘Sir, to die therefore, I will speak no word of you.’

“Thus abode there the Earl of Flanders all alone ; he might then well say that he was in great danger and hard adventure, for at that time, if he had fallen in the hands of his enemies, he had been in danger of death : for the Ghentois went from house to house, searching for the Earl's friends ; and ever as they found any they brought them into the market place, and there without remedy, before Philip van Artevelde and the captains, they were put to death;1 so God was friend to the Earl, to save him out of that peril ; he was never in such danger before in his life, nor never after, as ye shall hear after in this history.

“Thus about the hour of midnight the Earl went from street to street, and by back lanes, so that at last he was fain to take a house, or else he had been found by them of Ghent ; and so as he went about the town he entered into a poor woman’s house, the which was not meet for such a lord ; there was neither hall, palace, nor chamber ; it was but a poor smoky house ; there was nothing but a poor hall, black with smoke, and above a small plancher, and a ladder of eight steps to mount upon ; and on the plancher there was a poor couch, where as the poor woman’s children lay. Then the Earl sore abashed and trembling at his entering. said, ‘O good woman save me ; I am thy lord the Earl of Flanders ; but now I must hide me, for mine enemies chase me, and if ye do me good now, I shall reward you hereafter therefor.’

‘The poor woman knew him well, for she had been often times at his gate to fetch alms, and had often seen him as he went in and out a sporting ; and so incontinent as hap was she answered ; for if she had made any delay, he had been taken talking with her by the fire. Then she said, ‘Sir, mount up this ladder, and lay yourself under the bed that ye find thereas my children sleep.’ And so in the mean time the woman sat down by the fire with another child that she had in her arms : so the Earl mounted up the plancher as well as he might, and crept in between the couch and the straw, and lay as flat as he could ; and even therewith, some of the ritters of Ghent entered into the same house, for some of them said, how they had seen a man enter into the house before them ; and so they found the woman sitting by the fire with her child ; then they said, ‘Good woman, Where is the man that we saw enter before us into the house, and did shut the door after him?’ ‘Sirs’ quoth she, ‘I saw no man enter into this house this night ; I went out right now and cast out a little water, and did close my door again ; if any were here, I could not tell how to hide him ; ye see all the easement that I have in this house ; here ye may see my bed, and here above this plancher lieth my poor children.’ Then one of them took a candle and mounted up the ladder, and put up his head above the plancher, and saw there none other thing but the poor couch, where her children lay and slept ; and so he looked all about, and then said to his company, ‘Go we hence, we lose the more for the less : the poor woman saith truth, here is no creature but she and her children’ ; and then they departed out of the house : after that there was none entered to do any hurt. All these words the Earl heard right well where he lay under the poor couch : ye may well imagine then that he was in great fear of his life : he might well say, I am as now one of poorest princes of the world, and might well say, that the fortunes of the world are nothing stable ; yet it was a good hap that he scaped with his life ; howbeit this hard and perilous adventure might well be to him a spectacle all his life after, and an ensample to all other.”

If you are anxious about the fate of the Earl, I may tell you that he escaped. For my part, I have always felt more anxious for the fate of the poor woman and her children, and can only hope that they came to some good by the wild changes that were going on round about them, though, alas! I doubt it ; and I ask you to look upon them as a kind of symbol of the lowest order of the people ; of the proletariat of which in the Middle Ages we know so little, and of which in modern times there are many people who would be pleased to know nothing, but whom we have got look on now as the friends who are to turn war into peace and grudging into goodwill.

The Ghentmen bore their victory well ; there was no pillage of Bruges, and they took pains to distinguish friend from foe, sending, indeed, five hundred of the notablest burgesses as hostages to Ghent, and levelling the walls, but doing no more harm there to persons and things.

Almost all Flanders fell to the victors at once ; and if the Flemish victory had happened twenty years before, it is probable that Philip van Artevelde might have ruled Flanders longer than his father did. But while the craft-gilds and the emancipated serfs were growing in wealth and prosperity, and the former at least into corruption, the spirit of monarchical bureaucracy was growing also, and had to hold out a hand to the corruption within the crafts in order to make an end of the communistic spirit which had sustained itself throughout the earlier period of their struggle while the workmen were all real workmen. Once again it is clear to me that the presence in our history of the great burgesses who led this revolt, their power and riches are signs that the corruption of the gilds had begun : and in no case could a true social revolution have been won in the Flemish mediæval cities. The valour and conduct of the gildsmen of Ghent was indeed a link in the revolution of the middle class whose final triumph is so recent, and they could no more have sustained a set of quasi-republican municipal republics lying between Germany and France, than the Jacobins of the French Revolution could have sustained their republic of property for some, happiness, peace, and virtue for all, as result of the ultimate corruption and fall of feudal privilege.

Yet the extinction of the revolt of Ghent is a sad story, and I will hurry through it in a few words.

I have said that in better times Ghent might have held her own for long : Van Artevelde was undoubtedly a man of conduct or something more : an alliance with the English king and some yielding to the French one, might have staved off war and ruin. But England was tired of the French war, a fool sat on her throne, surrounded by factious nobles ; and above all, her gentlemen had just been terrified themselves by the peasant revolt, to which this one of Ghent was clearly akin : no effective English alliance was to be had. As to France, apart from the jealousy of neighbours, Paris also had been alight while Ghent was burning, and the Host of the Mallets had driven away king and court to Meaux in Brie. It was time, thought the French King, that gentlemen should help gentlemen ; so a huge French army took the field, and the fatal day of Rosebeque, where twenty-five thousand Flemings and their leader Van Artevelde were slain, extinguished the sovereignty of Ghent for ever. This took place in November 1382.

Peter du Bois had his usual luck though, and escaped the slaughter of Rosebeque. Entering into Ghent he found the gates open and the people too much dismayed to make any defence ; but a few words from the stout partisan, and probably the sight of his corps unbroken, put heart into them again. The gates were shut and they prepared for defence ; and the war went on with varying fortunes, until after the death of the then Earl, peace was made on terms that on the face seemed not unfavourable to the town of Ghent. This was done in December 1385. Peter du Bois at the conclusion of the peace would not trust himself within the reach of the arms of the men, whose rebel he had been, and left his own country for England, where he lived some years and died peaceably.

From that time onward Ghent played her part in the development of the gildsmen and yeomen into the modern middle class ; but the high-tide of the progress of the handicraftsmen was over ; commercialism and bureaucracy were doomed to come between the partial development of those ideas of brotherhood and fair dealing which had place in the medieval gild, and the more inclusive ideas of the destruction of class distinctions and the new birth of society, which are stirring us to-day. But the times have brought about the times, and Ghent still lives, not only in the past, but in the present also, and while I speak is taking her full share in the struggle towards communal life which is the real fact of modern history. Who knows but we may live to see a new Revolt of Ghent on these new terms and in the assured hope of well deserved victory.



1. Later on Froissart gives us quite another account of the behaviour of the Ghentois, and tells that they acted with great moderation.