6 - Civic charity  pp. 195-221

Civic charity

By Andrew Brown

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Next to St Basil's chapel containing the Holy Blood relic, and near the scepenhuis in the burg, lay the Dark Room. The building had once been part of the Steen, the count's castle, but by the early thirteenth century it was functioning as a prison. It had acquired its lugubrious name by 1303. Its history as a prison is appropriately obscure; sources concerning its role as a place of punishment do not survive much before the fifteenth century. Some of its functions are clearer at an earlier date. Like other buildings in the burg, it had long been under municipal authority, governed by two steenwarders who were directly appointed by the town council. At one level, it was thus an expression of communal autonomy from comital authority over certain aspects of justice. At another, it gave material form to the ability claimed by civic government to maintain social order in the town. It was also an institution that enshrined other aspects of civic authority, including those of a more sacred kind. The Dark Room dispensed charity as well as punishment. Comforting prisoners was traditionally one of the seven corporal works of mercy, and from the mid fourteenth century, as we shall see, the charitable provision that the Dark Room offered its inmates increased in a number of ways.

P. Allossery , ‘Medeelingen en oorkonden: De oudste giften en fondatiën ten bate der arme gevangenen te Brugge (ca. 1300–1475)’, ASEB 79 (1936), 67–130; ASEB 80 (1937), 155–73