History of Ghent

City on the river mouth

Between 1100 and 1500 Ghent played a prominent role among the major cities of north-west Europe. The number of inhabitants from the 13th to the 15th century is estimated at around 65,000, which is just slightly less than Paris, but considerably more than London or Hamburg for instance. Ghent owed its metropolitan character in the Middle Ages to its production of luxury woollen cloth and its excellent geographic location at the confluence of the two main rivers in Flanders, the Leie and the Scheldt, which provided good opportunities for trade.

This is where the cradle of Ghent once stood: at the confluence of these two rivers. Indeed the city's name means 'river mouth' or 'confluence'. This favourable geographic location has attracted and brought people together since pre-historic times. Archaeologists and toponymists have revealed much evidence of human presence there going back as far as the Stone Age and the Iron Age. In the first centuries of our Era, during Roman rule, a fairly major village stood on the high sand ridge that stretched from Eenbeekeinde in Destelbergen to the confluence of the Leie and the Scheldt. People lived in safety, protected from the water. Further along the Scheldt, on Blandijnberg, stood a Roman villa.

The substantial building called Blandinium or Blandijn (after one 'Blandius', one of the owners) was most probably the centre of a large agricultural holding. The large Germanic invasions of 406/407 put an end to Roman occupation. Germanic peoples, counted as Salian Franks, then settled in the Leie and Scheldt valleys permanently.

The arrival and presence in Ghent of the missionary Amandus from 629 to 639 was an important turning point. Amandus was a former nobleman from the French region of Aquitaine. He brought with him letters from the Frankish king Dagobert I, which authorized him to baptize the local population by force if necessary. As so many of his contemporaries, the enterprising Frenchman will have travelled along the Leie or Scheldt by ship.

In the presence of King Dagobert I, Pope Martinus I granted privileges to the two monks of Sint-Pietersabdij in 639.

When, however, he wanted to go ashore near Ganda, the place where the ruins of Sint-Baafsabdij (the abbey of St Bavon) can now be seen, the hostile population threw him back into the water. He then moved up river and retired to a small monastery along the Scheldt for some time - probably on Blandijnberg, where Sint-Pietersabdij would later be built. Then came the day when a criminal was condemned to death and hung in Ganda. Amandus had the man secretly taken down from the gallows and brought to his monastery. Through prayer, Amandus was able to bring him back to life. This miracle was evidently so convincing that the local population asked to be baptized and went about destroying their pagan places of worship. And so it was that the population of Ghent was converted to Christianity.

Amandus subsequently founded two abbeys, Sint-Baafsabdij and Sint-Pietersabdij together with his friend and disciple Bavon, he too a former nobleman, originally from Haspengouw. If only the holy man had kept a diary; when great rivalry later arose between the two abbeys, they sought desperately to prove their 'elder birth-right'. Theft of reliquaries and falsification of ancient records were the order of the day for centuries, and even today the question of which abbey is the oldest is still hotly disputed among historians.

A hundred years ago the ruins of Sint-Baafsabdij became the setting for a museum for stonecutting and sculpture.

Both abbeys founded the first churches for the inhabitants of the rural estates: Sint-Martinus in Ekkergem and Heilig-Kerst near Sint-Baafsabdij. The two abbeys flourished during the reign of emperor Charlemagne. None other than his famous confidant and biographer Einhard was lay-abbot of both abbeys from 815. Under his auspices the abbeys acquired the status of a royal institution. In the manner of a modern-day manager, he lay the foundations for them to develop into two of the most important abbeys in Flanders.

The ecclesiastical and secular authorities created order and a sense of security with their new institutions and a number of population centres grew up in the Ghent region. Such a settlement already existed after 650 by the Reep, on the more elevated ground on and around Zandberg near the present-day cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal). Pedlars and traders must no doubt have brought in their foreign goods here along the Scheldt, at least whilst sufficient security reigned in the country.

Dark times came with the invasion of the Vikings, Scandinavian warriors who sailed their ships up the Scheldt. Sint-Baafsabdij was fortified and a nearby shipyard even began to build war ships, but all to no avail. During their murderous raids between 879 and 883, the fearsome Norsemen pillaged the two abbeys and razed them to the ground. The newly-burgeoning settlement of Ghent was wiped off the map.

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Last update: 18/10/2001 - © 2001 CITY OF GHENT.