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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: July 2010

4 - Anonymity and prosperity


Bruges' belfry and hallen, or cloth hall, stand as monuments to an urban civilization that flourished between Flanders and the Alps under the conditions of political atomization that characterized post-Ottonian western Europe. The belfry's dimensions and its centrality, in contrast to the more modest dimensions and curious eccentricity of the city's four churches, attest to the importance of commerce and capital in the life of the city (see plate 4.1). Bruges' Michelangelo, its Flemish primitives – Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden – remind us of Flanders' vigorous participation in the gestation of Renaissance art and learning. Erasmus, the fifteenth century's most influential thinker, wandered the Greater Rhineland peripatetically from Rotterdam and Cambridge in the north to Basle and Freiburg in the south. The Mainz/Strasburg goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg assembled the contraption – Europe's first movable-type printing press – that would come to define modernity.

The next two chapters examine the interplay between regional economy and the political anonymity that was the enduring effect of coups de force that begat Greater Rhineland ontopology. The medieval Rhineland, in prosperity and power, was at least equal to the monarchical states – France, England, Denmark, and the Habsburg domain – that were beginning to take shape around it. But the region itself, though a “civilization” by its economic life, political organization, and even physical, architectural veneer, failed to coalesce as state. No discursive frame made the region present, as “place,” as ontopology, to the political imagination.

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