Saturday, April 30, 2016

Belgium Part 4 - Castles and Beer in Ghent

One of the strangest developments that has come to American society in recent years is the mainstreaming of fantasy. Whether it's shows like Game of Thrones or zombie sagas or the sudden overexposure of Star Wars or even the popular acceptance of renaissance fairs, fantasy is everywhere.

I think it has come at the expense of reality.

We visited four castles on our trip, three that are tourist sites. Each of them were relics of medieval Europe, when nobility was given responsibility for lands belonging to kings and queens in exchange for military service. Members of the nobility controlled land that included towns, churches, and farms, and they tended to serve as cavalry. Vassals were granted possession of land by the lords and acted as their assistants. The peasants, the class of most people (and most of our European ancestors), were serfs, forced to swear allegiance to the lord and the vassals by taking an oath on the Bible, work the land, and pay taxes and rent in exchange for "military protection." Serfdom was one step above slavery, as they were free to leave the land, but they had no options when they did except to bind themselves to another lord. There were different levels of serfdom, but many did not even own the clothes on their backs - everything was owned by the lord, and those who did have some land couldn't tend to it until they had finished with the lord's land. As all the land belonged to the king, there was nowhere to live except on a lord's land. Punishment for not providing enough produce, tax, or other product to the lord was harsh. Criminals and mentally ill were more often than not put to death. Many serfs were the descendants of Roman slaves. It took centuries to make the transition from slavery to serfdom, perhaps beginning with slave owners allowing their slaves to live in family housing and giving more freedoms not for a commitment to human rights, but for fear of slave revolts.

Life in medieval Europe was not some fantasy. It was hard. We should be mocking it and rejoicing in our progress, not glorifying it.

By the time Ghent came to economic prominence, serfdom was in decline in Western Europe. Gravensteen, the castle we visited in Ghent, dates back to the last days of serfdom. Built in 1180, it was modeled after Crusader castles and was used by the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century, when it was used as a prison and courthouse. Eventually it decayed and was left to rot until the City of Ghent renovated it in the late nineteenth century. I'm glad they did. It's the perfect monument to how bad life was for the common folk in medieval times.


It's fun to see a castle stuck in the middle of modern life.

Plaza across from Gravensteen


The only good thing about the wind that day was it allowed for flag photos!

Stairway up. Chris nearly turned around and left. Ha!

No cell service inside the castle walls!

Knight stuff. The guns seemed out of place but I guess the nobles had them. They were quite beautiful, actually, works of art. All the weapons and armor were masterfully engraved.

Top of the castle

You can see the Graslei bank from yesterday's post

Ghent through an arrowslit

A guillotine

While we glorify knights and castles in popular culture, the reality is awful. The worst kinds of torture devices were used in Gravensteen - racks that would stretch a person until his limbs began to rip apart, neck collars that would stab you if you moved your head, devices to cut off your thumbs, waterboarding, brands that burned your "crime" into your forehead - but after awhile it became easier to just chop off heads. It was rather routine at one point. While you recoil in horror at Islamic jihadis chopping off heads, you can't forget that Christians did the same thing for centuries. You live at this time. Your ancestors lived back then. We don't live outside history. We are history. One day the jihadis will be a part of history just as Christian torturers are a part of history. You can't separate the two or say one is worse than the other just because you're living now. They are both the same evil.

In one room, there was a pit where they threw people. Many people died of illness down there, as there was no heat and the air is always damp in Flanders. The "cruel and unusual punishment" clause in our Constitution corrected centuries old practices such as this.

For whatever reason, I didn't take any photos of the torture instruments, perhaps because I was too horrified. Also, there was something irreverent about it. These devices killed people in abominable ways. They say Gravensteen is haunted. I think I felt the spirits of those who suffered because they were born at the wrong time in history.

Courtroom where judge sat

Wall walkway

Some of the same buildings that the lords of the castle and the prison guards saw.


I don't want to live in a time when lords ruled castles and the common folk work their butts off just to survive and when they're tortured for minor infractions or debts or affairs or for having a mental illness. I don't want to see that time glorified, either. Let's put the castles and the knights and the dragons behind us. We've changed for the better.

But maybe we haven't changed all that much. Maybe we are living in a time when the rich and privileged control the land and take our homes when we don't pay their rents (mortgages) and pay us peanuts for doing the work to make them wealthier, when we kill unarmed people for selling individual cigarettes and carrying Skittles, when we execute mentally retarded people and children for some warped view of "justice," when we torture in the name of security. Sure, I can take 1000 photos and show them to you by pressing some buttons and we don't die of plagues and small pox anymore, but have we changed very much as humans? Look at what is happening in our presidential campaigns. The attitudes are certainly medieval.

You can assign a different word to the system, call it "capitalism" instead of "feudalism," but people in medieval times didn't call it feudalism - that was Adam Smith in the eighteenth century who put the term into popular use. Words are just words and we can call anything what we like but it doesn't change the essence of it, and while our hands don't bleed and we aren't starving anymore, are we not still providing the labor to the haves who use it to have more?

Too many of us live under the illusion of prosperity when it can all go away with one stroke of bad luck. I'm taking advantage of my present good fortune and going on trips where I can't help but think about these things. Which leads to beer.

We walked a bit more until we weren't sure what else we could do, given that all the tourist sites were closed. This is what we saw:

St. Michael's Church

After walking around a bit, we went for a bite. I went for Belgian beer. We went to a tavern that is as old as the rest of the city, where we met some great people and made some friends and had great conversations and learned a lot about Ghent and Flanders and Europe and had to deal with the usual embarrassing questions about Trump. (It occurs to me right now that Europeans don't meet Trump supporters because that type of xenophobic scum doesn't travel.) It was a good time.

We had to return to Antwerp, which is a short train ride, but I would have liked to spend more time in this gem of a city.


  1. Again your pictures are amazing and your history that goea with the picture! Hard to believe the inside of the Castles. Where were the Knights of the round table? Can't wait to hear more & see more pictures in a few weeks.💜

  2. Again your pictures are amazing and your history that goea with the picture! Hard to believe the inside of the Castles. Where were the Knights of the round table? Can't wait to hear more & see more pictures in a few weeks.💜