3 Nijmegen around 1400


The fourteenth century was also a turbulent period in the history of the old town Nijmegen. Despite the great plague epidemic around 1350, the number of inhabitants of town and surroundings steadily increased. The woods in the immediate vicinity were cut down; the Valkhof was enclosed within the city walls, the capacity of the St. Steven's church continually needed to be increased. After a brief period of cruel persecution, a first group of Jewish inhabitants gained citizenship as well. Nijmegen shipmasters broadened their horizons and sailed to England and the Baltic sea. The town joined in with the Hanseatic League, and regained a clear place on the map of Europe. 

Not merely economically things improved for Nijmegen; culturally it grew more interesting as well. There was money, new ideas sprung up, there were contacts with far and near. Because of the continuous construction of churches, convents and monasteries, numerous artistic craftsmen were active: workers in precious metals, wood engravers, sculptors, painters. The rich artistic traditions of Rhine country, Burgundy Brabant and Hanseatic IJsel area mingled in Nijmegen.

Also on religious matters, these parts were far from backward. In the towns along the river IJsel around 1380, Modern Devotion sprang up under guidance of Geert Groote, a movement of renewal which aimed at spiritual deepening. Modern Devotion rapidly spread to all big cities in the Low Countries and Germany. Geert Groote and other Devotees, such as Thomas Kempis, were heard and read throughout Europe. Without realising it, they were breaking grounds for Reformation. Also in Nijmegen, a lay community was quickly established, housed in the Bottelstraat. Modern Devotion aimed at personal piety and perfection, and tried to reach this through labour, private prayer and consecration of daily life. The labour for which the lay brothers were known was copying and illustrating manuscripts. Excellent calligraphists and miniature painters were also actively working in Nijmegen and the surrounding area. Famous was the - still existing - Convent of St. Agatha, 10 kilometres to the south of the town.

Nijmegen, the main town of the province of Gelre, and the most important town between Utrecht and Cologne, reigned over the river country between Tiel and Wesel. The neighbouring lower nobility, mainly coarse robber barons, were pacified the hard way by the citizens of Nijmegen. Their castles were literally razed to the ground. The dukes of Gelre, who regularly stayed at the Valkhof castle, and the Nijmegen citizens almost always chose each other's side in a conflict.

The Dukes of Gelre had strong ties with England and in the Hundred Years' war they turned against Burgundy, and thus against France. In 1388, an army of knights of Gelre and citizens of Nijmegen wiped out a much larger invading army from Brabant along the river Maas near Wychen. Among the perfidious Brabanters - who were supported by the French - hundreds were killed, among the Nijmegen citizens there were hardly any victims (two hundred years later, the bank of the Maas near Niftrik would be compared to the beach at Marathon). The victorious Nijmegen citizens were commanded by the principal inhabitant of the Valkhof, the romantically knightly Willem van Gulick, Duke of Gelre, the proverbial knight without fear or blame. Presumably, Jan Maelwael took part in the battle as a member of his guild (he had the duty and equipment), and the young Van Limburg brothers watched how, after the triumphal procession of victors, seventeen captured banners were hung in the choir of St. Stevens' church. 

The citizens of Nijmegen around 1400 were remarkably enterprising, self-assured and fond of travelling. They had many international contacts. Duke Willem himself was a good example. He visited Rome, went on a crusade to Poland and Lithuania five times, travelled to England (and was there admitted to the highest exclusive Order of the Garter as the first non-English Knight) and even set foot on African soil in the course of a punitive expedition against Moorish pirates. Nijmegen shipmasters were involved in large-scale overseas trade. The merchant houses along Grotestraat had good relations with Flanders, the North of France and Paris. Mates and students from Nijmegen often went far into Europe to learn. It was not unusual for a young man from Nijmegen to study in Cologne, Heidelberg or Rome and meet fellow townsmen there. The University of Paris, the Sorbonne, even had a rector from Nijmegen at that time. The decision of four painters from Nijmegen to leave their town for a long time had many precedents.


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