Twenty-three belfries in the north of France and the belfry of Gembloux in Belgium were inscribed as a group, an extension to the 32 Belgian belfries inscribed in 1999 as Belfries of Flanders and Wallonia. Built between the 11th and 17th centuries, they showcase the Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles of architecture. They are highly significant tokens of the winning of civil liberties. While Italian, German and English towns mainly opted to build town halls, in part of north-western Europe, greater emphasis was placed on building belfries. Compared with the keep (symbol of the seigneurs) and the bell-tower (symbol of the Church), the belfry, the third tower in the urban landscape, symbolizes the power of the aldermen. Over the centuries, they came to represent the influence and wealth of the towns.
Belfries are outstanding representatives of civic and public architecture in Europe. Through the variety of their 'functional' forms and the changes they have undergone they have been a vital aspect of civic architecture in Europe since the 13th century. They are unique constructions reflecting the development of civil authority that marked the history of Flanders (in its historical sense) from the Middle Ages onwards.
Referring originally to mobile wooden towers used in siege warfare, the term was later applied to the wooden watchtowers mounted on the palisades surrounding the portus or pre-urban centres. It was to be applied in particular to those housing bells or standing next to the bell tower. Palisades, bells and the right to possess bells are all closely associated with the development of urban life. The 31 belfries in Flanders and Wallonia and the 23 in north-eastern France, invariably found in an urban setting, are imposing bell towers of medieval origin, generally attached to the town hall and occasionally to a church. In addition to their outstanding artistic value, the belfries are potent symbols of the transition from feudalism to the mercantile urban society that played a vital role in the development of late medieval Europe. The belfries are both civic buildings and symbols, and highly significant tokens of the achievement of civil liberties acquired through the dissolution the abbeys that had remained sovereign since the high Middle Ages.
The early belfries of the 13th and early 14th centuries are strongly reminiscent of the seignieurial keep, from which they take their massive square form, elevations showing sparing use of openings, and rising storeys built on or designed for vaulting. The main shaft is topped by a wall walk and parapet running between bartizans: the central spire features a slate campanile roof and variations on a number of forms. The finials of the corner and central turrets are decorated with animals or symbolic characters protecting the commune. The 13th-century belfry of Ieper (Ypres) is a fine example of this type, although it forms part of the market hall complex later to include the town hall, construction of which continued down to the 17th century.
Most of the examples concerned cover the periods of the 14th-15th and 16th-17th centuries, thereby offering an illustration of the transition in style from Norman Gothic to later Gothic, which then mingles with Renaissance and Baroque forms. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the belfries abandoned the model of the keep in favour of finer, taller towers, such as those of Dendermonde, Lier and Aalst. The subsequent addition to the top of the shaft of a narrower, different shape to serve as the base for the campanile would give the desired monumental effect, and the roof itself would take on more bulbous, sometimes extended lines, as in the case of Veurne (17th century).
When the market halls and belfries grew too small to function as a meeting-place for the aldermen, a new type of building was required, the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), clearly designed in accordance with the administrative organization and, from the 15th and 16th centuries onwards, assuming an obvious representative role achieved by incorporating the symbolic belfry, as in the examples of Brussels and Oudenaarde.
Their construction often took place in several stages, but they have always been maintained in good overall order. Some, damaged by war, have been rebuilt, generally in identical form. All are listed as historic monuments, either in isolation or as part of an edifice, a square, or an urban site.
The definition of the term "belfry" was somewhat vague at the outset. Referring originally to the mobile wooden towers used in siege warfare, the term is later applied by Viollet-le-Duc in the Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française to the wooden watchtowers mounted on the palisades surrounding the portus or preurban centres. It was to be applied occasionally to towers of all sorts, but particularly to those housing bells or standing next to the bell-tower.
Palisades, bells, and the right to possess bells are all closely associated with the development of urban life which took place in these regions following the Viking raids of the 9th century. A favourable geographic situation at the heart of Europe, the re-establishment of major trade routes such as Bruges/Brugge-Cologne, and the improvement of navigable waterways at regional and national level made this region the ideal site for contact, trade, and the meeting of cultures. Travelling merchants re-appeared and perhaps began to organize and establish permanent warehouses near the castra of the feudal lords. These pre-urban groupings, which often grew up along river valleys, are the origin of towns like Tournai and Gent, along the Escaut. Locations where roads met navigable waterways were particularly propitious for the organization of markets, first temporary but later becoming permanent fairs, encouraging merchants to settle in one spot. In addition, the cloth-weaving industry seems to have developed from the 11th century onwards, in small centres such as Lille, Ypres (Ieper), Bruges (Brugge), Ghent (Gent), etc. Trade and cloth-weaving became key factors for the development of the pre-urban centre, which began to make its presence felt as an organized body through the influence of the professional bodies (guilds, corporations) and to mark out its physical bounds by building ramparts or palisades with belfries to provide safety against marauders. From the 12th century onwards, such ramparts were often rebuilt in stone and subsequently extended.
Such centres expanded under the protection provided - for a fee - by the castra, whose importance and role gradually diminished to such an extent that in some cases, such as Ghent and Antwerp (Antwerpen), the abandoned castles were taken over by the local burghers. This development illustrates the insoluble conflicts between châtelain and burghers keen to organize as a "commune" with their own administration. Again from the 12th century onwards, successive Counts of Flanders favoured the burghers which led to the flowering, from Arras to Bruges, of thriving towns demanding written proof of their rights and privileges in the form of charters. These charters, issued from the 12th century onwards, are extremely diverse and fragmentary, and extremely practical in nature, often in the form of a step by step approach setting a legal seal on gradually acquired rights.
The commune was in fact made up of all the burghers living in the city who had given their oath of allegiance. At their head were the elected magistrates, the aldermen or scabini responsible for carrying out administrative functions, and the mayeur, who had no specific powers. The chief alderman held an important position, since he presided over the court and council meetings, kept the seals of the town and the keys to its gates, and commanded the town militia which owed the ban (feudal service) to the overlord. As feudal lord, the commune had other obligations to the seigneur, such as the payment of aid in the four following cases: departure on crusade; knighting of the eldest son; dowry of the eldest daughter; ransom of the overlord if taken prisoner. In return, the seigneur swore to protect the commune and respect its rights.
Many of the belfries now in existence are successors to wooden constructions, often destroyed by fire and known only through archives, which give no descriptions. The multi-purpose belfry soon came to be built of stone to prevent the risk of future fires. Its imposing volume formed either an isolated feature or a central or lateral element of the market halls, themselves often rebuilt in stone at an early date.