In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, conflicting interests led to heavy clashes between the count of Flanders and the city of Bruges, but with the accession to the throne of count Louis of Male (1346-1384) relations much improved: a general tendency that continued under Louis’ first successors from the house of Valois, Philip the Bold (1384-1404) and John the Fearless (1404-1419). This mutual understanding had much to do with the fact that the oligarchy of patricians, brokers and administrators of the richest guilds, that de facto governed the city, expected the count to secure its (their) commercial interests. It is mainly the pro-comital elites that left their mark on the literary production in Bruges in the decades around 1400.
Consequently, one is not surprised to find elements in the polyphonic repertoire of the comital church of Saint-Donatian that, especially in periods of crisis, give expression to this special bond between Bruges and the count. The Latin motet Comes Flandrie by Petrus Vinderhout, for example, explicitly calls Bruges ‘urbs Ludovici’, and in his ballade Ach Vlaendre vrie, the Bruges composer Thomas Fabri unmistakably promotes Louis of Male’s policy during the Ghent War (1379-1385). The fact that not only the latter song, but also several other compositions of Bruges origin, turn up in manuscripts that were copied far away from the Low Countries proves the reputation of Bruges polyphony.
The influence of the polyphonic repertoire is also felt in the Gruuthuse manuscript (ca. 1400), without doubt the most important literary source of the period. The Middle Dutch songs in this manuscript, more than 150 of them, are clearly in line with the chansons, rondeaux and ballads that form the lion’s share of the French secular polyphonic repertoire. The main theme is courtly love, but we also find a kind of pastourelle, satiric and drinking songs, some religious songs, two famous déplorations of Egidius, a dead friend, and a very aggressive war song against the “kerels”, uncivilized rebels, among whom the poet doubtless counted the Bruges weavers and their allies: riffraff who sympathised with the seditious city of Ghent and evicted twice, for some months, the ruling elites. As for the music: recent research clearly shows that these monophonic songs, the melodies of which are registered in a stroke notation that does not lend itself to easy interpretation, lean more toward the French ars nova than was assumed before. But the texts of these songs are characterised by highly acrobatic formal experiments, unlike anything else in the West-European literature of that time. Apart from songs, the Gruuthuse MS also includes seven, sometimes very skilfully rhymed, prayers, early examples of a successful genre found more than once in precious illustrated prayer books made in Bruges, and sixteen poems, some of which show familiarity with the Roman de la Rose and the allegorical poetry of authors like Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart.
How many poets were at work in the Gruuthuse MS, remains unclear. On the basis of some acrostics, it is usually assumed that there were two: Jan Moritoen and Jan van Hulst. The former was a successful furrier, who would eventually rise to be an alderman (1415) and a member of the city council (1414 and 1416). The latter is mentioned several times in the city accounts as an organizer of public festivities; an old legend connects him with the foundation of the oldest Chamber of Rhetoric in Bruges, in 1428.
The language of the love songs in the Gruuthuse MS is superficially tainted with High German, a phenomenon that can also be found in other Middle Dutch courtly love poetry and that should probably be explained by the popularity of the Rhenish love song repertoire at the end of the fourteenth century. But the texts in the manuscript are also deeply rooted in a local, (West-)Flemish literary tradition: the influence of the great poet Jacob van Maerlant (2nd half 13th c.) or of fourteenth century (possibly Bruges), moralizing texts like the anonymous Spiegel der Sonden (‘Mirror of Sins’) or the Speghel der Wijsheit by Jan Praet can easily be demonstrated.
The strong presence of the French language in this international city, not only as a carrier of courtly culture, but also as a lingua franca that enabled inhabitants and transients to communicate with one another, is illustrated by the fact that the oldest Dutch-French conversation book was composed in Bruges about 1370. This Livre des Mestiers, which must have been written by a talented schoolmaster, seems intended to impart a practical command of the Picardian variant of French, mainly to children training to be artisans.