Here, to mark the new paperback, Dr Crombie looks at her book’s reception thus far.
Around 1500 Kerstine Gowaers a ‘zuster in het St-Jorisgasthuis’ in Ghent left her bed to the Hospital of Saint George, administered by the Greater Crossbow Guild of Saint George. Such bequests are far from uncommon, but this donation, to an institution run by a crossbow guild struck me as unusual. Why would a woman choose to leave her most personal object to a guild whose public persona was both masculine and militaristic?
In studying archery and crossbow guilds I did not want to write a military history. There are, of course, mentions of war and violence in the book, indeed chapter one is devoted to military service and to the early years of guild history and their links to civic defence, even civic autonomy, in Flemish cities around the year 1300. Guild-brothers continued to serve in war into the late fifteenth century, but they were never just soldiers or civic defenders. From their first appearance in civic sources, the guilds were communities, they cared for their members, they built bonds in feasting and in conviviality, they maintained chapels, and they put on great spectacles that dominated civic space as few other events ever did. The drama of competitions, the pomp of entrances, the civic pride bound up in sporting events, and the sheer excesses of their annual feasts were what attracted me to the guilds. Such varied activities, and such varied membership (with one feast allowing a plumber to sit down to dinner with Anthony the Great Bastard of Burgundy, eldest natural son of Philip the Good duke of Burgundy), have, I hope, helped this rather niche sounding subject to engage a variety of different readers.
The first review of the book I saw appeared in History and was written by David Nicholas, one of the most influential historians to have written on medieval Ghent. I remember nervously waiting for the downloaded PDF to open, knowing that this was a reader who knew far more than I did about the Low Countries, and who would spot any errors or generalisations in a way not even my viva examiners would have. I was relieved that the review was extremely kind, calling the book an ‘excellent study…on a topic that most earlier literature has dealt with only superficially or in local studies.’ The most recent review I have seen was by another North American historian who knows far more than I do about Flanders, and whose book was one of the first to stimulate my interest in the guilds, Peter Arnade. Writing in American History Review he commented that a study of guilds is ‘long overdue’ and called the book ‘carefully researched’ confirming that ‘shooting guilds are best understood as civic associational groups and not merely martial.’ In between there have been other very kind reviews, though several Belgian writers have also noted spelling or transcription errors, with Jelle Haemers in Renaissance Quarterly pointing out that I ‘should have taken more care for quotations of Middle Dutch sources,’ but he also calls the book an ‘important work for scholars of guild activities and urban Flanders in particular, and late medieval community life in general.’ Writing in Continuity and Change Peter Stabel also pointed out spelling mistakes, but was kinder toward the research and purpose of the book. They are, of course, correct to point out errors and my students will know I always point out such carelessness in their work, and I can only hope there are no typos in this post!
The majority of reviews have been positive, recognising the significance of the guilds as vibrant multifaceted communities (another criticism was my overuse of ‘community’…a habit I apparently cannot break!). The only negative review I have seen was that of Hans Mol in BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review he felt ‘Het belangrijkste is dat de militair functionele en machtspolitieke aspecten slecht uit de verf komen,’ and criticised me for not describing the weapons, their price, their development and use in battle. The book, he says, is only half successful because it focuses on the guilds’ ‘sociaal-culturele functie.’ This social-cultural function of the guilds was what I set out to look at, and despite the criticisms, I hope that others will enjoying finding out about guild-sisters, about an elaborate entrance ceremony featuring a (wooden) elephant, about seals and visual culture, about where members sat and what they ate at feasts in medieval Bruges, and about the different ways of becoming part of a medieval urban community.