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Medieval Belgium

This division was soon to have great consequences for the development of Belgium's nascent cities. In the northwestern part of Belgium, which nominally belonged to the young kingdom of France, there arose the powerful Counts of Flanders. The first of these was Baldwin Iron Arm, who amply demonstrated his independence from the French by carrying off and marrying one of the daughters of Charles the Bold. Baldwin also began the process of creating fortified towns in Flanders in order to curtail the depredations of the Norsemen. The first of these was Ghent (c.867), and the process was continued by Baldwin's heir (Baldwin II) with the fortification of Bruges and Ypres.

The southeastern part of today's Belgium eventually became part of the Duchy of Lower Lotharingia or Lorraine, under the German kings. In 977, Charles, Duke of Lorraine, built the fortress on the Senne River that was the foundation of Brussels. For the most part, however, the southeastern portion of today's Belgium became split into a number of minor spheres of power, one of which was the prince-bishoprie of Liege.

At the outset of the new millennium, Belgium consisted of the cities of Flanders, unified under their strong Counts, and the less unified cities to the south and east of the Scheldt. As the Norse raids fell off and Europe's major kingdoms gradually stabilized, trade began to grow by leaps and bounds. For Flanders in particular, this was the beginning of a golden age. By importing wool from England and weaving it into fine cloth for sale on the continent, the Flemish cities became exceedingly wealthy, populous, and powerful. By 1300, Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres, in particular, had gained virtual autonomy from aristocratic rule, developing the proud civic culture that still distinguishes them today.

Needless to say, this situation did not please the aristocracy, who itched to regain control over such attractive sources of wealth and power. The Counts of Flanders wanted to regain their local authority, and France very much wanted to reassert its claims to Flanders. In 1302, the cities successfully rejected such claims, utterly defeating the French nobility at the Battle of the Golden Spurs. But the aristocracy persisted, and its unity eventually proved stronger than that of the cities, where local rivalries complicated unified resistance. By 1329, the independence of the cities had been broken, and Flanders once again came under the control of France.

England, as the supplier of raw wool to the cloth trade, was more than a little displeased by this outcome. It stopped sending wool, and began a long attempt to break French power, both in Flanders and in France itself. For almost a century, the French and English clashed repeatedly in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), and in Flanders the struggle coincided with repeated attempts by the cities to regain their autonomy. The struggles finally ended when Philip the Bold of Burgundy, who had benefited from Burgundy's long alliance with the English against the French, became the ruler of Flanders in 1384.

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