Duchess Joanna of Brabant,
b. Brussels 1322, d. Brussels 1406
Remco Sleiderink
(KU Leuven)



Brussels, situated at the junction of the river Senne and the trade route Cologne-Bruges  trade route, traces its literary tradition back to the thirteenth century. At that it became the favourite residence of the Dukes of Brabant, who considered Charlemagne and the kings of Troy to be their direct ancestors. Brussels, like London, imagined itself as the new Troy.

Multilingual court culture

Under Duke John III of Brabant (†1355) the most important language at court is Dutch (together with Latin). Duke John receives rhymed treatises from Jan van Boendale, city clerk of Antwerp, such as his Boec van der wraken (the 1351version, reflecting the impact of the Black Death). French reappears under Duke Wenceslas of Luxembourg (half brother of Emperor Charles IV) and his wife Joanna (former countess of Holland). They favour an international, courtly lifestyle and show interest in literature in several languages (and dialects). Poets (and musicians) from all over Europe are welcomed at court (Augustijnken, Peter Suchenwirt). Special relations develop between Duke Wenceslas and Jean Froissart: the allegorical Prison amoureuse (closely connected with the Duke’s personal history) is dedicated to the Duke, along with the Arthurian romance Méliador, which includes Wenceslas’s own songs (in French). Brussels is a fascinating junction and meeting place of European languages and cultures: Isabel de Bavière, for example,stayed in Brussels before her wedding to King Charles VI of France in 1385.

In 1406 Duchess Joanna (who remained childless) is succeeded by Anthony of Burgundy, second son of Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy. Until his sudden death at Agincourt, Anthony and his wife Elisabeth of Gorlitz maintain the established multilingual tradition (which includes works of Christine de Pisan; Hennen van Merchtenen’s chronicle; contacts with the German empire). His son and successor, John IV, pursues interests in Dutch literature; in 1417 he becomes a member of the ‘Confraternity of the Book’ (Den Boeck), considered to be the first Chamber of Rhetoric of the Netherlands.

Dutch speaking literature among patricians

The Van Hulthem manuscript (c. 1410) offers an image of the versatility of literary life in patrician and administrative circles in Brussels. This miscellany is believed to represent the text collection of Willem van den Heetvelde († 1417), alderman of Brussels and lord of Koekelberg (just west of Brussels). The manuscript (paper, 241 pp.) contains more than two hundred texts, all in Dutch (most in verse). Among these are the Van Sente Brandane (Rhineland, 12th cent.), the Borchgravinne van Vergy (translation of Châtelaine de Vergi), the Abele spelen (secular drama with courtly themes) with  their comic counterparts (sotternieën); excerpts from works by Maerlant, Velthem, and Boendale; short narratives, prayers, proverbs etc. Some of the texts are closely connected to Brussels (e.g. miracles performed in the parish church of Molenbeek), others illustrate the mobility (and variability) of medieval literature.

Vernacular literature on the edge of heresy

Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381) wrote his first mystical treatises in Brussels before retreating in 1343 to the Sonian Forest (Groenendaal; just east of Brussels); he enjoyed connections with Tauler (and the Gottesfreunde) and Geert Grote (cf. devotio moderna). Starting in the late 1350s the Carthusian Petrus Naghel (of Herne, Hainaut) translates large parts of the Bible (and works by the Church Fathers) at the demand of his ‘friends’, the Brussels patricians Jan Taye and Lodewijc Thonijs. In the same period, the mystic oeuvre of Hadewijch (cf. Bloemardinne of Brussels, † 1335) finds a following in Brussels (to judge from the production of manuscripts.). However, religious literature in the vernacular arouses the suspicion of church authorities. In 1411 Pierre d’Ailly, bishop of Cambrai, tries to tackle the Brussels ‘Heresy of the Free Spirit’; this seems to have drawn a lot of supporters from the city élite.