Translation from the book "Local historical pages from Ghent"
by Prosper Claeys - 1885
The guild of Saint George
The town of Ghent possesses within living memory four main guilds, the guild for crossbow shooters Saint George, the guild of Saint Sebastian for those who use the hand bow, the guild of the swordsmen Saint Michael and the guild for gunman Saint Anthony. These guilds, being once so rich and powerful, are these days simple societies with pastime activities.
The main guild of Saint George “de groote ende souvereyne Hooft-Gilde van den edelen Ridder Sinte Joris” (the great and sovereign main guild of the noble knight Saint George) was the oldest and most important of the four. For this reason, we found it interesting to make it subject to a special passage, in order to demonstrate the historical importance of this guild as an organized military corps and as union for our town.
It is impossible to find out with precision the date of the guild of Saint George’s foundation as a military corps. What we can tell, in advantage of her old age, is that according the archives and annals, the confreres of the guild took part in the crusades during the XIth century under the command of the counts of Flanders and that their banner waved on the walls of Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem.
The crossbow, used by the marksmen at that time, was so heavy and voluminous, that they only could handle it with the help of a “cnape” (assistant) who was accompanying the marksmen. This assistant was in many cases also carrying a shield or “targe”, that he kept before the marksman to protect him during the shooting. From there the name “Targedragers” (carriers of the shields), a name that can be found back in the “Stadsrekeningen” (accounts of the town). The crossbow was called “voetboog” (foot bow), because the foot was used to span the string. Later on the crossbow was spanned with the help of a cog and finally, as is practised today, with a lever consisting of two arms.
The confreres from the guild of Saint George, as was also usual in other towns of the country, formed an elite corps, and marched in front of the army in times of war. Especially in the XIVth and XVth century, when the Flemish people revolted to defend its rights and privileges against the despotic power of its sovereigns or to defend its homeland against the French aggressor, its eternal enemy, armies organized and equipped by the towns gave examples of their unequalled daring on the battlefield.
The guild of Saint George played such an important role in Ghent and delivered such important public services, that starting from the XIVth century, the magistrate granted her the eminent and desired privilege, to walk on head during parades, campaigns and public ceremonies with their banners and carriages. We first read in the “Wittenboek” that is kept in the archives of the town, “dat niement so wie hy zy edele of onhedele en trecke noch en puere noch en logier voor Sent Joris banniere, de banier van Vlaenderen, ende van der stede van Ghend” (that nobody is allowed, noble or not, to carry or walk before the banner of Saint George, the banner of Flanders and the town of Ghent).
In times of war the guild was completely military organized. In connection to a campaign from the guild to re-establish order and to put down rebellion in Kortrijk and Ieper we see its members divided in different companies consisting each of fifty man and commended by the dean Jan Utenhove. Each company was on its turn divided in sections of ten confreres with on its head a constable or tenman. Three porters of the banner accompanied them.
In a building, situated at the “Brugse Poort” and probably having served as a chapel or mental home for one or other society and actually converted into a brewery, a wall painting was found in 1846 by our fellow townsman Mr Félix Devigne, dating from the XIIIth century and illustrating the guild of Saint George. She is represented in marching order as if taking part in a campaign or public ceremony. All the confreres are wearing a helmet and sword by their side; they are dressed in a coat of mail, covered with an arms dress in cloth or red leather. Some amongst them, especially those who are marching in front, are armed with a pike, known as “Goedendag”; all others are carrying a crossbow. The horn blowers and the porters of the banners, in silver and red, are marching in the middle of the platoons.
The chapel, now in the possession of the brewer Mr Vander Haeghen, was called at that time “de Leugemeete” because of the watch hanging on the wall never giving the right time.
When going through the accounts of the town “Stadsrekeningen” deposed in the town’s archives, man finds several items regarding the guild of Saint George. In some cases it concerns donations, in other cases it concerns expenses paid for the purchase of clothes intended for their outfit or for the construction and maintenance of their weapons. Sometimes it concerns expenses paid by the community for warfare or for the shooting matches the guild attended to.
Find here, as an example, how the “Stadsrekeningen” mention the expenditures of the town of Ghent to the confreres of Saint George, who took part in a campaign to Assenede, Biervliet and Bruges in order to force the count of Flanders, Lodewijk van Nevers, and his vassals, to accept the politics of Jacob van Artevelde. The chapters starts as follows:
«Dit es dat dontfangers hebben ute ghegheven binnen desen jare vanden coste die ghedaen es omme duutvaren dat men ute gheweest heeft omme dlant van Vlaendren tenen acorde te settene, ende gheel eens te makene, ende te wette ende te neringhen te settene, ende de quade te corrigerne ter eren ende ten profite van minen heere van Vlaendren enden vanden ghemenen lande. »
The chapter contains about a hundred expenditures, of which we choose some concerning the guild of Saint George.
«Teersten cochten dontfangers jeghen den here Jacoppe van Coudenhove 32 strijpte lakene, daer de 200 selscutters, die doe ghecoren waren bi scepenen ende hooftmans omme ghereet te sine te treckene daers te doene worde, wardecose af adden, coste elc stic 8 guldine, waren te curt 6 ½ ellen, dat quam de curtinghe afgesleghen 25 lb. g. s. 4 d. gr., maken in payemente 1018 lb. 12 s. 4 p. d. »
It concerns the purchase of striped cloth to dress the crossbow marksmen. In the next article it concerns the manufacture of two new banners:
« Item Gillise den Wapenmakere, van 2 banieren van Sente Joris wapine te makene ghenait, costen met allen coste 17 lb. 13 s. 4 d. »
In a note added to this article, the supplies for the manufacture of these two banners are described in detail, « daer men afmaecte 2 van Sente Joris standart ».
In the next articles, not only the expenditures are mentioned but also the pay of the crossbow marksmen, the dean, the porters of the banners, the surgeons, the notables and the “targedragers”:
«Item ….. so ghaven dontfangers Janne uten Hove, deken vanden scutters, 12 gr. sdages, Janne van Everghem, Lievine den Vliecsnidere ende Janne den Langhen, standaertdragers, elc 9 gr. sdages, ende meester Arnout uten Biesen ende meester Segre, hare surgien, ende 10 conincstavele elken 6 gr. sdages, ende elc andre scuttre van 90, 3 gr. sdages ; dat comt van hare soudeyen van 18 daghen dat si ute waren mids eenen dobbelen daghe dat sij streden te Biervliet, ende mits 9 gr. die Jan van Calkine adde elcs daghes dat hi der stede standart drouch 15 dage doe Jan van Everghem ghequetst lach, 29 lb. 2 s. 3 d. gr. maken in payemente 1164 lb. 10 s. »
« Item haren 47 targedragers, elken 1 gr. sdages, van 17 daghen, dat comt 133 lb. 16 s. 8 d. ».
« Item van 16 wagheneren coste 17 dage, elc 1 gr. sdages, dat comt 46 lb ».
We can read that the crossbow marksmen got a double pay for the days they were fighting. In the articles there is also talk of the ‘targedragers’ of which we already quoted. There was one ‘targedrager’ for two crossbow marksmen.
The next article handles about the big crossbow, a kind of catapult, probably managed by the crossbow marksmen of Saint George with the aid of assistants:
« Item den 8 scutters, die gheset waren ten groten boghen, 12 daghe, 16 lb».
« Item haren 8 cnechten 15 lb. 16 s. 8 d. ».
The cost of banquets, a laudable custom offered by the guild to its members, was sometimes completely or partly beard by the community as we can find back in the town’s accounts from the years 1376-1377:
« Item den scutters thulpen der maeltyd van haren Ghulden ».
The invention of the gunpowder and the advent of the muskets and the canons in the armies being the consequence, diminished in considerable measure the importance of the crossbow guilds as a military corps. They however continue take part at military operations till the end of the XVth century. The guild then ends in a society having as only activity, practising target shooting, “aen den edelen, consteghen en eerbaren spele”, as we already can read in documents from the XIVth century.
According the sheriff’s regulations from 1413 being, on exception of a few details, copies from earlier drafted regulations, the administration of the guild « den Eed » was constituted as follows: at the head there was a head-dean also called “Heuverdeken”, the vice dean, and the governors chosen out of the richer middle class “de Poorters” the main craft being the craft of the weavers and from the less important crafts. They had also a registrar, a dean for the marksmen, a bailiff, a captain, an ensign etc.
During the yearly shooting contest, the confrere who shot the bird was appointed king and acquired in this position different privileges; the most distinguished exempted the king from the amount of money due for the many obligatory banquets held by the guild. The marksman who had the skill to shoot the bird during three consecutive years became emperor; one of the privileges here was that he was exempted for life to pay the yearly contribution imposed to the members. At its honour a parade was organized, where also the three other main guilds attended. The king was picked up at his house and accompanied to the guild quarter. In 1560 there was a parade with more than 200 horsemen escorting the king Joos Van de Bossche through the streets of the town.
Besides, it must be mentioned that the confreres of Saint George did not always excel in strict paying their contributions and often the court of law had to be called in to oblige these members to comply with their obligations.
The guild of Saint George had, quite rightly, such a prestige that over the centuries all important persons, kings, civil authorities, the ecclesiastical dignitary, important military officers etc took a pride in being a member and participated at its excursions, feasts and contests. Just mentioning one example, during the “Groot Spel” (shooting contest) of 1440, on which we come back later, the guild of Kortrijk arrived with at its head the duke of Burgundy Philips Le Bon. Other important events are the shooting of the bird by the count Egmont in 1562 and in 1752 when the prince Charles of Lorraines had the ability to shoot himself king, a contest that took place at the “Wapenplein”. From this contest a painting is preserved and is nowadays displayed in the reading room of the university library.
At the origin of the guild of Saint George man does not know the exact place where the members met each other. What we know is that in 1342 the guild possessed a quarter and a shooting yard close to the “Vijfwindgatpoort”, about-facing the actual small beguinage. There it is where also the chapel and the hospital (nowadays the factory Heyman) were situated. In 1831 the guild settled close to the sheriff’s house in the “Hoogpoortstraat”; they let out their old local but kept the chapel and the hospital. The new local extended from the “Hoogpoortstraat” till the “Sint-Jansstraat”. From 1450 on new acquisitions and constructions will enlarge and modify the “Schuttershof” of the Guild. These operations are definitively achieved at the beginning of the XVIth century. The building, nowadays known as “Sint-Jorishof” is still one of the few in its original state. On the first floor, today occupied by the “jaarmarkt van Leipzig” was the meeting-room or “Gulde-Camer”. On the ground floor was the chapel. The façades at the “Hoogpoortstraat” and “Botermarkt” were decorated with many arms of which man can still see the tracks. A Gothic platform with a double staircase rail conducted to the staircase and facing the “Gulde-Camer”. The shooting lanes, having a length of 450 feet, reached till the belfry; over the whole length was build a gallery in blue stone.
Modifications, less important for the rest, have disposed her mainly of her artistic cachet. The library of the university however preserves a magnificent aquarelle made by the Ghent artist Lièvin Vander Schelden at the occasion of the entry by the prince of Parma. It is in the large hall on the first floor that the “Staten-Generaal” of the Netherlands kept their meetings in 1477 and where they concluded the famous articles of the “Groot Privilege” of Mary of Burgundy. This charter, the first applicable to all provinces, established a council of ministers, made the national representation completely independent from the sovereign, made declarations of war and pacts of peace dependent of the total approval of the complete Netherlands and stipulated that the use of language for Flemish people, Walloons and German speaking people in the entire Burgundy state was guaranteed. Some less expensive restorations would give back the “Sint-Jorishof” also today its old glory. Hopefully, one day, a rich and reasonable man will settle down in the “Sint-Jorishof”, so wonderfully situated facing the town hall and with so many beautiful memories of our national history, instead of building at high cost a banal hotel.
At times of war, of which our country was continually the scene of battle during the XVIIth century, the local of the guild of Saint George, as was also the case for the other three main guilds, was every time occupied by the foreign troops who rearranged it into barracks or hospital. Even so there was the decline of our old “Eed” in 1703 when she was exempted by and ordinance of the high government. But a quarter of a century later, the old and sovereign guild was re-installed on November 12, 1727 by a decree of Charles VI and the sheriffs of Ghent granted her on April 19, 1730 the new regulations “Reghel ende ordonnantie”.
In 1737, the gallery along the shooting lanes was rebuild into a cloth makers’ hall. The guild received as compensation a “gros” for each piece of cloth that was sold. Later on, the big hall was let off during the annual fair at the booth keepers for one “florijn” per square feet.
During this period and also before that time, the guild participated at shooting contests organized by other cities and organized itself contests for lane shooting and mast shooting. One of the most famous of that time is the contest of mast shooting held on September 10, 1752 on the “Wapenplaats” at the honour of Charles of Lorraines, “ter oorsake van syne koninglye Inkomste om te schieten den stalen boge, met de confraters near eenen vogel van Eere”, as we can read in the heading of the message, published by the printer P. de Goesin. The students of the college St-Augustijn were trusted the organization of the parade that would accompany the prince at its entry in the town through the “Brusselse poort”. The here above mentioned publication describes the carriages, the acting allegoric groups and the texts with inscriptions and mottos. All guilds, crafts and authorities took part. The confreres of Saint George, dressed in their beautiful red costume and the butchers completely dressed in green were most distinct.
The shooting contest took place the next day at the “Wapenplaats”, where in the middle of the place a triumphal arch was placed. It was the prince Charles of Lorraines, who with his first shot brought down the bird and was crowned king. This gave rise to numerous feasts, banquets representations in theatres and balls, etc. lasting several days and aggrieved the guild with debts.
The guild continued this way till 1787. The agitation caused by the opposition as well by the clergy against the liberal reformations by Joseph II, obliged the communal authorities to ask the four main guilds to organize themselves in companies and re-establish order. The “Reglement van dienst voor de waekende mannen van de vier Hoofd-Gilden der stad Gent “ stipulates the directions to be followed by the members of the four guilds for the garrison service, during the patrols and the guard-duty.
In this heated period of our national history, we see the guild interfere actively in all events that preceded and accompanied the “Brabantse Omwenteling”. After this, France annexed our country. The war taxes and the overall arming exhausted our provinces; all ancient institutes and societies were abolished and their possessions confiscated. We also see that the guild of Saint George get abolished in 1796 and its possessions confiscated and sold as national property. The guild house at the “Hoogpoort” became property of sieur Vander Linden, of which his offspring are still proprietary of the premises, being nowadays modified into a hotel with the name “Sint-Jorishof” and into a ironmongery “de jaarmarkt van Leipzig”.
In 1804, the imperial authorities under Napoleon I allow the guild to start again. The guild first settles in a building with garden near to the “Antwerpsepoort”, where still today exists a property with the name “Sint-Jorishof”. Then the guild moves to a local in the nearness of the “Bijloke”. Under the Netherlands’ government, in 1814, the guild moves definitively in to a large and very well furnished premise with winter garden, possessed by the family de Kerckhove. Today this local houses the estaminet “la Fleur de Blé” in the “Akkerghemstreet”.
Amongst the feasts organized by the confreres of Saint George, we have to mention in particular the great shooting contest of 1820, organized on occasion of the national exhibition that took place in our town hall. This contest, by its important number of crossbow marksmen that participated and the splendour exposed for the occasion, does us muse the contests of the XVth century, all the more all members of the guilds at that period entered the town richly dressed and preceded by horseman and music bands.
When the revolution broke out in 1830, the guild as well as the majority of the inhabitants of Ghent remained attached to the preceding government. For that reason the guild refused in 1834 with unanimity of its members an invitation to participate at a shooting contest in Brussels for the occasion of the September feasts over there. Also for that reason during the community elections of 1836, when no liberal party yet existed, 514 liberal minded voters also called “orangists”, gathered at the local of Saint George and chanted the names of their candidates among which the one of the mayor Van Crombrugghe, Metdepenningen, Rosseel, Manilius, Constant de Kerckhove, father of our old mayor, Van Pottelsberghe, Claes-de Cock etc.
During the Holland period and after 1830 the guild of Saint George offered to its members, besides shooting contests, balls and dance parties in open air involving the contest of the renowned harmony of Saint Cecilia.
The guild moved in 1841 to the “Nieuwewandeling” where a big and gracious accommodation surrounded by a beautiful park was build on the basis of the design drafted by architect Leclerc-Restiaux. One of the parties to mention that took place over there was the magnificent dance evening offered by the guild in 1847 to the Belgian and foreign societies of which about eighty of them participated at the “Vlaamsch-Duits zangverbond”, a big song contest where our Flemish choruses acted with honour at the side of the choruses from the “Rhinelands”.
The sale of their park to the society for flax industry obliged our crossbow marksmen to move the banner of Saint George to a pavilion with garden situated at the “Nieuwewandeling” close to the market garden “Baumann”. Its small surface did not allow practising the mast shooting or to install a shooting lane. The local is a simple meeting-room, where the confreres keep from time to time a reunion by a brotherly banquet, but where the noble play of the crossbow “edele consteghe ende eerbaere spele van den voetboghen” only remains in their remembrance.
In the course of this century the guild will celebrate the jubilee of seven of its confreres: Antoine De Rouck in 1807; F. Huyttens in 1812; R. Strobbe in 1813; Ignace van Toers in 1835; Ant. Van Damme en André Vandenabeel in 1836 en A. B. Steven in 1854. If there wasn’t lack of space we should recite the special songs devoted to its members. All these songs honour, in a charming originality of verses, the ability deployed by these retired marksmen under different circumstances when standing the test.
As we speak about verses and poetry, we need also to say some words about the New Year’s wishes addressed by the “Cnaepe” to the members. Find here an example how the “Cnaepe” Henricus Monnier begins its “nieuwjaarwensch” from January 1, 1756:
Komt negen Musen koor, kompt helpt mijn penne drijven.
Mijn pligten maenen mij om hier nu te gaan schrijven
Met d’ingang van het jaar een aangenaam gedigt
Het gone al de confreers verlicht, verheugt en stigt.
Pallas geeft mij verstand, enz., enz.
It continues in the same tone for about a one hundred verses.
We possess several of these “Nieuwjaarwenschen”, they were printed till 1830 on large “in-quarto” pages, on which is figuring Saint George with the dragon. These New Year letters, presented over more than thirty years by the “knaepen” to the members, were almost all the creation of Norbert Cornelissen and were distinguished by the enthusiasm and originality of his ideas, as everything that came out of the pen of this inexhaustible and universal publisher, died in 1849 in Ghent.
We will end with a short description of the famous shooting tournament of 1440, where the guilds competing with each other, displayed a splendour, of which today it is difficult to form a picture of. The Ghent guild of Saint George sent special messengers to all the towns of the country and abroad with an invitation to the crossbow companies to take part at the contest. Fifty-six guilds, each represented by ten marksmen as prescribed, responded to the appeal. All prizes were made of silver pieces decorated with the arms of the town and guild. Five targets or shooting lanes were lined up; one in the “Sint-Jorishof”, one in the “Cauter”, two in the castle “ten Walle” (Prinsenhof) and one at the palace of the count of Flanders near the bridge “de la poterne”. This castle was situated where we find today the church and garden of the Jesuits from the “rue d’Assaut”. We know that the “Aanvalsstraat” is not the correct translation of the old Flemish name “Posternestraat”, today corrupted into “Bestormstraat”.
The sheriffs and deans of the crafts were united in order to take the enforcement measures and in particular to provide in the finances necessary for the enormous expenditures these feasts involved. Besides the prizes for the shooting contest, there were also prizes for the most beautiful entry in the town, prizes for the furthest coming participants and prizes for the splendour and biggest expenses.
According a manuscript from that time, the pageant lasted several hours. The ten wonderfully dressed marksmen from Brussels came by horse and were accompanied by a carriage and forty confreres on foot; they were followed by a group of 350 men on foot, dressed half blue and half red and on their turn followed by 380 other man in rich civil dress. Bruges had 224 confreres on horseback, three carriages covered with carpets and 170 horsemen. Oudenaarde had two carriages, one music band, 330 crossbow marksmen on horseback, preceded by trumpets and 365 crossbow marksmen on foot. The marksmen from Mechelen arrived in six richly decorated ships. The guild of Kortrijk entered with at its head the duke of Burgundy, Philips Le Bon, known as one of the most dexterous marksman from that time.
To have an idea how the parade looked like, it is sufficient to say that eight thousand men participated, there where our magnificent parade “Pacificatiestoet” from 1876 only counted twelve hundred.
The prizes were received by the guilds in following order: Bergen op Zoom, Veurne, Bruges, Kortrijk, Aat, Lier, Bergen; Luik and Amiens got the prizes for those coming the furthest; Oudenaarde and Brussels for the most beautiful entry. The prizes for the biggest expenses were awarded to the guilds of Antwerp and Doornik.
Another tournament that took place, with almost the same glamour and importance as the one of 1440, is known as “het groot landjuweel van 1498”, of which we find back the description in “die excellente chronieke van Vlaenderen”. Thirty-one guilds participated; the contest deployed an unforgettable splendour and lasted about three months. All the crossbow marksmen and the ones who accompanied them were dressed in velvet and silk. The horses, present in the parade with hundreds, were also richly dressed. The marksmen were accompanied by an unbelievable number of carriages, covered with cloth in different colours and magnificent carpets. Many guilds arrived in ships covered with red and gold coloured cloth.
At the same moment of the shooting a contest for rhetoricians took place in Ghent “constenaers in de Rethorycke”, where different chambers of rhetoricians from the Netherlands participated. We know that it was a contest for acting where every society presented unedited play, based on the subjects proposed by the permanent poet “Factor” every society possessed. Most of the time these plays contained courageous allusions on the politics of those days and on religious subjects. Also these rhetoricians troubled the dukes of Burgundy and emperor Charles V till the duke of Alva, in name of Philips II, abolished them. At the end of the XVIIth century they were rehabilitated but were placed under the high supervision of the clergy. The contest of 1498 was for that reason one of the most brilliant episodes of those days organized by the guild of Saint George.
We could continue and tell even more about the history of this ancient and mighty guild, but let us stop.
If we should ask ourselves today what societies under the “Ancien Régime” have the function closest to the one those old military guilds fulfilled, man can say that the special corpses of the civil guard represent some common points. Also they are composed by the elite of the young middle class, also they are the strong support of the community authorities in times of agitation and show to be a real corps and having a devotion for every test. The yearly reunions of our fighter-scouts in the different cities of the country, with an official entry, a reception with the authorities, a common exercise and a solemn banquet does us look back on, to a certain point, the “landjuwelen” organized by the crossbow marksmen from the noble and sovereign main guild of Saint George, “van den Souvereynen Gulde van de edelen Rudder St-Jooris, onderhouden metten voet-Bogh ».
Flandre libérale, February 6, 1883.