Looking for a good medieval battle site amidst 21st century suburbs is no easy matter I discovered – well, looking for anything medieval in this context. A general rule of thumb, in Europe at least, is to start by identifying the oldest church in the neighborhood, especially if the name of that church corresponds to the oldest known name of the village or district. Even if the church itself is relatively new, chances are, it sits on a medieval foundation and at one point in time was the center of life in a medieval village.
My site also had to be within half a day’s riding distance (at most) from the center of 12th century Ghent – no point in showing up for battle, mock or otherwise, with man and beast both exhausted – but far enough out of town not to annoy, disrupt or otherwise inconvenience the local citizenry, not to mention any neighboring monastery. So I decided the melee had to take place no further than 10 kilometers (about 7 miles) out of town.
Fortunately for my 12th century protagonists, the land around Ghent is more or less flat so travel on horseback was relatively easy. Also the river Leie provides a wonderful thread south that, logically, a cavalcade would follow. Given that there are still towpaths running along the Leie for most of the way a truly dedicated researcher would have rented a bicycle or walked the route. Actually it’s not quite that easy as the route passes through urban and industrial areas not accessible to either bikers or walkers and there was no way I was going to hazard myself on a bike through the city – though thousands do each day to the great peril of pedestrians and vehicles alike. Also by now a couple of friends had joined me on my quest and obviously I would not have wished to expose them to such rigors!
My first choice for the mock battle was a suburb, formerly the village of Sint Denijs-Westrem where I found the requisite Church – a rather unattractive early 20th century building with a lavishly appointed interior suggesting a fairly prosperous community. But it was hard to get the lay of the land amidst fairly tightly packed homes. However, as we moved slightly east and connected again with the river, the landscape began to open up beautifully in spite of a succession of even more prosperous looking villages now clearly threatening to become suburbs – Sint Martens-Latem, Sint-Martens-Leerne, Sint-Marie-Bachte. A perfect place for a melee!
Most interesting of all was the magnificent chateau of Ooidonk, one of the largest and possibly most beautiful privately held castle in Belgium, situated on a slight elevation in the land and within half a kilometer of a bend in the river Leie, at the village of Bachte-Marie-Leerne. Although the present castle is built in the French Loire style of the 16th century, it dates back to the 14th century and was known to be the site of earlier fortified dwellings and farms since at least the 10th century. In Holy the Sword, I have requisitioned this site for the home of one of Rohan’s most colorful crusading companions, the aging veteran of the first Crusade, Sir Thibaut of Sint-Martens who he first encounters as he takes his place in the front lines of the Count of Flanders men about to go into battle. Of course a rookie like Rohan and an old man like Thibaut should never have been placed in such a vulnerable position – there must have been a reason!
For now it’s on to Bruges.