Out of Clay, laid in Bond. Building with the Brick in the County of Flanders, 1200-1400
This doctoral thesis examines the introduction and spread of brick architecture in the county of Flanders in the 13th and 14th centuries. By use of building archaeology of existing buildings, supplemented with archaeological and iconographical information about no longer extant monuments, the thesis lifts medieval brick architecture from the determinist view of brick as a cheap substitute for stone, the common explanation for the rise of medieval brick architecture.
Through the analysis of building techniques, building typologies and architectural forms, we conclude that brick served as a material medium through which Gothic architecture was introduced in Flanders. Brick was not used because clay was readily available but because of all local materials, which in Flanders also includes stone, it was most suited for the realization of Gothic architecture. As such, the introduction of brick signals the arrival in Flanders of Gothic thought, this being a modular approach to architecture and rationalization of the building site.
In Flanders, the first brick buildings were erected around 1225 by abbeys (the Cistercian abbeys of The Dunes and Boudelo), collegiate chapters (St. Walburga in Veurne) and, proper to the highly urbanized Flemish society of the time, urban patrons (St. John’s hospital and Our Saviours’ parish church in Bruges). By the end of the 13th century, brick architecture was present in the entire area between the North Sea coast and the river Scheldt, in cities and also on the countryside, where parish churches of newly formed villages were built at the initiative of local noblemen. The 14th century saw the consolidation of brick as a common building material. The creation of fixed brick sizes by city councils bears witness to the large scale and commercial character of brick production in Flanders in the 14th century.
Building ceramics were known in Flanders as early as the 10th century, however this tradition cannot be considered as the direct precursor of the first monumental brick buildings in the early 13th century. We suspect that brick production was introduced in Flanders out of Northern-Germany, where grand brick architecture was being built as early as the years 1170. The very first experiments in brick production and brick in Flanders may have happened in the seaport town of Bruges, through its contacts with trading cities in Northern-Germany, especially Lübeck.
While Flanders was not the first region in medieval Europe where brick architecture was built, the county did pioneer Gothic brick architecture. This reflects the geography of Flanders, at the crossroads of the brick tradition of Northern-Europe and Gothic architecture from Northern-France.