It was the custom in olden days to build walls around the large cities to keep out enemies and protect the people in time of war. These cities had immense gates that were opened by day for the people to go out and come in, but were closed tightly by night and kept guarded all the time. The towns of Ghent and Bruges in Flanders are walled cities.
There was a Dutchman who lived in the town of Ghent by the name of Philip van Artevelde. At the time he lived, which was the latter part of the fourteenth century, these walled cities were constantly at war with one another and feuds and quarrels were of everyday occurrence.
The father of Philip was named Jacob and once had been Governor of Ghent. He had become quite famous in his time by leading his people in a revolt against the Count of Flanders. He had driven the count out of the country and taught him a severe lesson about oppressing the sturdy people of the town of Ghent.
But that was many years before this story begins, for when Philip had become a grown man, Ghent was still subject to the Count of Flanders. For many years Philip attended quietly to his own business and took no particular interest in public affairs.
The Count of Flanders began to oppress the people in every way he could, so that the burghers, as the people were called, began to complain about the way in which they were treated.
A merchant would say, "The count taxes us so heavily we cannot transact our business. What little money we make he takes away from us."
Another would say, "We have no time to work, because the count calls us to war every chance he gets and our best sons are often slain in battle."
Still another would say, "He shows all of his favors to Bruges and oppresses the people of Ghent to pay for his extravagances, and we are tired of it."
Bruges and Ghent were rival cities. The Count of Flanders, whose name was Louis, favored Bruges in every way he could, which pleased the people of that city mightily, and oppressed the people of Ghent all he could, which angered those people just as much. It is easy to see, therefore, that there was no good feeling between the two towns.
"What shall we do?" cried the burghers of Ghent. "Count Louis oppresses us so, and is trying to build up Bruges, and is willing to destroy us and our town and even put our people to death. We must call a meeting and consider these things." Accordingly, a public meeting was held and the burghers were very loud in their complaints against Louis and the people of Bruges.
Remembering how old Jacob had once led them against the father of Count Louis and had made him retract some of his harsh measures, they said with one voice, "Philip, the son of old Jacob, is the man we want for our captain. He will manage this quarrel for us. We choose him to be our leader."
Thereupon the people refused to pay their taxes and sent some very impertinent messages to Louis, telling him that he must treat them better or they would get another count.
Philip took this message to Count Louis at Bruges, and told him in quiet terms, "The people of Ghent desire peace and do not wish for war, but we are not willing to pay taxes and bear the burdens that you have imposed upon us."
Louis was very angry at this, and stormed and raged at a great rate at Philip and the people of Ghent. "You must do as I say or I shall consider you rebels. You must submit without any conditions at all. You can go back to your people and tell them I shall not listen to their complaints."
When Philip returned to Ghent and told the burghers what Louis had said, they were quite indignant and prepared to defend themselves in case Louis marched with an army against the town.
Now Louis would not fight a fair battle with the people of Ghent. He chose, rather, to starve them out and, accordingly, he set soldiers on all roads leading to Ghent and surrounded the city with his men so that no provisions could be taken to the people.
It was not long before all the food had been eaten and the people were reduced to a starving condition. Something had to be done immediately and Philip decided to make one more trip to Bruges and appeal to Count Louis. With him were twelve deputies, leading citizens of Ghent.
Philip said to the count, "Our people are starving for lack of food and I have come to submit to almost any terms that you may name, provided that you do not put any of the people to death. Take me as a victim, if you please, and banish me from the country, but you must spare the town and the people. Henceforth we will pay all the taxes and perform all the service you demand, if you but give us food."
The haughty count laughed in the face of Philip, and replied, "I promise you nothing, for you and your people are rebels and have sent a defiant message to me. Now, I demand that all the people of Ghent, except the children, march half way to Bruges, bare-headed, and each one must wear a rope around his neck. I will then decide how many of them I shall put to death and how many of them I shall spare."
The count had made up his mind that the people of Ghent could not do otherwise than submit to this, and after they had come halfway to Bruges with ropes around their necks he would put all of them to death, or at least, the ringleaders of the revolt, including Philip himself. He sent word to his soldiers to assemble and be ready to destroy those rebellious burghers.
Philip van Artevelde went back to Ghent and called the people together. He told them what the count had said, and added, "We must starve here as we are or we must submit, with ropes around our necks, to be hanged or butchered, or we must fight. What say you all?"
An old soldier leaped upon a bench, and cried out, "We shall neither starve nor surrender. I, for one, am for fighting the count and for making Ghent the most famous town in Flanders or the most desolate town in the world."
All the men he could get together numbered not more than five thousand. They marched out of the gates of the city toward Bruges, determined to win the battle or die in the effort. The priests stood at the gates of the city and blessed the soldiers as they marched out. The women and children waved their hands to them as they went, saying, "Remember, you are to fight for us and our homes and for Ghent."
There was not much food left in the city and all of it was placed in a few little carts for the soldiers. The people themselves kept nothing. In one day's march, they had reached the neighborhood of Bruges and sent word to the count that the people of Ghent were there asking for justice or willing to fight.
"Do they come with ropes around their necks?" asked the count.
"By no means. They seem to have disregarded the orders sent to them," was the reply.
"Then we shall find rope enough in Bruges for the purpose," said the count with a harsh laugh.
When the people of Ghent heard what the count had said they prepared to teach him a lesson. Philip ordered food to be distributed to the soldiers, and said to them, "Lie upon the ground and sleep the best you may, for to-morrow we shall be all dead or Ghent will be a proud city."
At daybreak the little army was aroused from its sleep and preparations were made to meet the army of Count Louis. The priests went among the soldiers exhorting them to fight to the death. "You will die anyhow, either by starvation or at the hands of Louis. It is better to die fighting and facing the foe than to be slain in retreat. Let no man turn his face to Ghent save in triumph." All the soldiers knelt at these words and gave a great shout of defiance.
The soldiers had now eaten their last ounce of food. There was not a bit left in Ghent. This day was to decide the question between the soldiers and the count. The count himself had called his men to Bruges and gotten them ready for battle, but they were a disorderly lot and the count was by no means beloved. Therefore the people of Bruges, not waiting for orders, rushed out of that city in confusion to attack the burghers of Ghent. They went singing and shouting, as if sure of victory.
Suddenly, as they marched along the road, the people of Ghent sprang up before them on both sides, crying out, "Ghent! Ghent! Down with Count Louis!" The attack was so sudden and the people of Bruges were so ill-prepared that they did not know what to do. The front rank turned back on the second rank and that on the third, so that the people of Bruges were thrown into a panic and fled back towards town, hotly pursued by Philip and the burghers of Ghent.
Across the plains went the people of Ghent. It was mob pursuing mob, for none of them were soldiers and many of them were armed with sticks and staves, and many of them were hurling stones. Arriving at Bruges the fugitives rushed in among the regular soldiers, who could do nothing because they were overwhelmed by their own people.
The burghers of Ghent came on furiously with clubs and such arms as they had, and fell upon the soldiers.
Back through the gates of the town ran the people, pell-mell. Count Louis saw the disorder from the towers of the city and cried out, "Close the gates and save the town. What devils are these that come from Ghent? They seem more like madmen than soldiers."
It was too late to close the gates. The burghers of Ghent were already entering the town, pushing the panic-stricken people of Bruges before them. With sharpened staves they prodded them from behind and with hurling stones crushed many of them to the ground. They stormed into Bruges and furiously attacked the soldiers, who gave way before them.
The count's army, not knowing how many of the burghers were upon them or what was behind them, fled from the city. The people of Bruges fell upon their knees and cried, "Spare us, for Heaven's sake!"
The men of Ghent went up and down the streets everywhere, searching for the count, and he was doing all he could to escape his pursuers. He entered the house of a poor woman and said to her, "Good woman, save me! I am thy lord, the Count of Flanders, and at this time in great distress. My enemies are in pursuit of me and if I do not hide myself I shall be killed."
The woman knew the count, for she had frequently received alms at his door and had seen him pass as he went hunting. She admitted him willingly, and pointing to the garret of her little house, which was approached by a ladder, she said to him, "My lord, mount this ladder and enter the garret and get under the bed where my children are asleep."
The count did as the woman directed, while she herself attended to her duties by the fireside. Scarcely had the count concealed himself when the mob entered the house, for one of them had seen a man go in.
"Woman," they said, "where is the man whom we saw enter your house just now?"
"I know of no one," said she, "who has entered this house. You may search it, if you like, for there is no place here to conceal a man. My children are in the attic, asleep in their bed, and I am here alone in this room."
Upon this one of the men took a candle and mounted the ladder. Thrusting his head into the place and seeing nothing but the wretched bed upon which the children were asleep, and thinking that the count was not there, he said to his companions, "The old woman has said true. There is no one up there except children, who are asleep in a dirty bed. We are losing time. Let us be off."
The mob left the house and the count was safe. Shortly afterwards he left his hiding-place and, clad in the dress of a simple laborer, managed to escape into the fields. After traveling all night, he finally procured a horse, on which he rode to one of his distant castles.
Now the starving people of Ghent had plenty to eat. They dined that day on the best food that Bruges could supply. They ransacked the stores and the houses and ate to their hearts' content, and made the people of Bruges hand out to them all the food they had. Great wagon trains of provisions were loaded and hurried across the country to the hungry people of Ghent.
Soon after, peace was made between the two towns, and they agreed to live happily ever afterwards.