When you’re strolling through the narrow century-old streets of Bruges or standing on a bridge gazing out at the canal, you can’t help but wonder what your life would have been like in its heyday. Would you be a merchant, a cobbler, a nun?
What rung of the complicated social ladder would fate have landed you on? Because chances are, you’d be on the same rung from birth till death. Not much reinvention, late bloomer, gap year, self-discovery/improvement, lifestyle overhaul in 1600s Flanders.
Two museums provided some excellent answers to my historical existential crisis: the Gruuthuse Museum and the Folklore Museum.
A visit to the Gruuthuse Museum gives you an idea of what life was like for one of the wealthiest families in medieval Bruges. The name Gruuthuse explains how the family made its money—in beer. The old Flemish word “gruut” refers to the peeled barley or wheat that was the main ingredient for brewing beer in the Middle Ages. Because they held a monopoly on this most important of Belgian commodities, they soon became known as the Lords of the Gruuthuse.
The main hall was clearly built to impress, with its tapestries, immense fireplace and richly decorated rafters. The museum is full of objects that shed light on the lifestyle of medieval Bruges’ rich and famous, including lace, weapons, games, hair ornaments, fine china, and a 16th century model ship.
Set in a row of 17th century almshouses, the Folklore Museum (Museum voor Volkskunde)provides a glimpse of what everyday life was like for Bruges’ poorest families in bygone days. Almshouses were built by wealthy families to aid poor widows and widowers or by guilds to help their members in need. These tiny dwellings belonged to the Bruges cobbler’s corporation. This visit is an excellent contrast to the wealth and grandeur portrayed in the Gruuthuse and will give kids a more well-rounded picture of the life of yore in Bruges.
Each room in the museum is a careful reconstruction of a period room, including a classroom, a hat-making workshop, a pharmacy, a candy maker, and a kitchen. The diminutive cobbler’s workshop made me think of one of my favorite fairy tales involving shoemakers: The Shoemaker and the Elves.
I’m pretty sure I would have preferred a higher rung on that medieval ladder. Because 1) real life in the almshouse was probably no fairy tale and 2) I’m 5’10” and the doors were really really low. Crisis over.