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Béthune (Municipality, Pas-de-Calais, France)

Last modified: 2005-03-05 by
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[Flag of Bethune]by Pascal Vagnat

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Presentation of Béthune

The city of Béthune (27,800 inhabitants, 13 sq. km) is a sous-préfecture of the department of Pas-de-Calais. It was one of the main cities of the province of Artois, famous in the Middle Ages for cloth productions, and of the Black Country (Pays Noir), the former coal mining district. Béthune was also an important river port, linked to the rivers Lys (Leie) and Deule by the canal of Aire.
Béthune is mostly known for its Brotherhood (Charitables), its belfry, and its headsman. The Brotherhood and the belfry are very strong historical and social emblems of the city, whereas the headman was invented by Alexandre Dumas.

History of Béthune

The earliest remains of human settlements in Béthune, found near the river Lawe, date back to the VIth century. A Merovingian cemetary (VI-VIIth century) was found east of the city. Around 500, St. Vaast, Bishop of Arras, built a first church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The domain of Béthune was mentioned in 940, the castle in 970. At the end of the Xth century, Robert le Faisseux, avoué of Arras and Lord of Béthune, founded the St. Bartolomew's collegiate church, which was the center of the religious and spiritual life in the city for the next eight centuries.
The origin of the name of the city is obscure. In ancient Germanic languages, bei thun might have meant an place protected by a fence or a fortified camp.

In the XIIth century, the Flemish attempted to seize Béthune, to no avail. The city stretched then over 25 ha and was protected by a city wall with five fortified gates. In case of need, the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages could take shelter in the city. A series of earthquakes (1013, 1080, 1086, 1093, 1094) caused floods and starvation. Wooden houses were built along narrow streets. There were big fires in 1137 and 1151, and mostly in 1156 and 1176, when the city was nearly destroyed and all its archives were burned down to ashes. There was no public health and the situation was not better in the countryside: the villages were surrounded by marshes, in which flies, mosquitos, fleas, rats and vermin of that ilk proliferated and spread infectious diseases to the inhabitants. There was a big epidemic of black plague in 1188, during which the famous Charitables' Brotherhood was founded.

In 1210, the city of Béthune was granted a charte échevinale. Like in several other cities in the north of France and Flanders, the municipal rights were later confirmed and asserted in 1346 through the building of a wooden belfry, with right of bell and jail (droit de cloche et de prison). In 1388, the belfry was totally rebuilt in sandstone, afin que chose soit perpétuelle (so that it lasts forever).
The castle was rebuilt in 1222 and surrounded with external walls on three sides. In 1297, Count of Flanders Gui de Dampierre challenged King of France Philippe le Bel, who conquered most of the fortified cities of Flanders. The bourgeois of Béthune revolted against the Count and submitted to the King of France.

In the XIVth century, cloth production developed in Béthune, mostly for local use. Related crafts, such as tanning and dyeing, contributed to the economical increase of the city. An important grain market was set up. During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), the Flemish armies could not seize Béthune.

In 1553, Béthune was under Charles V of Spain's rule, and involved in the war between Charles and King of France François I for the control of Artois and Flanders. Charles V increased the city walls, moved away the St. Vaast's church and built the canal of Lawe.

In the XVIIth century, Béthune was once again involved in the struggle between France and Spain. In 1645, the city was besieged by the Spaniards and capitulated. On 7 November 1659, the treaty of Pyrénées ended the war and the Spaniards had to withdraw northwards. Louis XIV decided to fortify the new borders of the Kingdom and appointed Vauban to revamp the city walls of Béthune. War resumed and the Allies' army, under Dutch command, occupied Béthune from 1710 to 1712.

During the First World War, Artois was the place of terrible fight. Several cities and villages, including Béthune, were mostly destroyed and totally rebuilt after the war.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 11 September 2004

The St. Eloi's Charitables' Brotherhood

The Confrérie des Charitables de Saint-Eloi de Béthune is one of the oldest brotherhoods in France and Europe still in activity. It is said to have been founded in 1188 during an epidemic of black plague.
In 1187, black plague broke out in Artois and killed a lot of people. The epidemic seemed to extinct during fall and winter, but resumed even more violently in spring 1188. Bethune and the neighbouring municipality of Beuvry were severely hit by the epidemic, with several human beings and animal killed. Nobody wanted to bury the dead, to avoid contamination. On 21 September 1188, St. Matthew's day, the two blacksmiths Germon from Beuvry and Gautier from Béthune met near the source of Quinty, which is on the border between the two municipalities. They realized that St. Eloi, the patron saint of blacksmiths, had appeared in a dream to both of them and asked them to found a karité, that is a charity brotherhood. Robert V, Lord of Béthune, and Rogon, a Clunisian monk, Prior in the St. Prix' monastery in Béthune, advized them to make a candel with genuine wax and to share it. Moreover, they founded a karité, whose aims were to give bread to the poor, care to the sick, assistance to the dying and a burial to the dead. Germon and Gautier convinced the inhabitants of Beuvry and Béthune to help them to get rid of the black plague.

In 1189-1190, Robert V ceded to the Karitaules (Charitables) a part of his domain, where they built a chapel dedicated to St. Eloi. In the XIIIth century, the chapel of St. Eloi-in-the-Fields was built near the source of Quinty. The chapel was destroyed during the Revolution, rebuilt in 1827, increased in 1880, and refurbished in 1921. Its bell-tower was destroyed in 1940 by storm and never rebuilt.
The Brotherhood has existed since 1188 without interruption and has followed nearly the same rules since its foundation. The founding chart, dated 26 October 1317, was written by Prior Pierre de Nogent, Rogon's fifth successor. Several acts confirm the existence of the Brotherhood over the ages. On 15 Fructidor of the Year V (1797), the Brotherhood was dissolved but its members carried on their activity in a more discrete way. The Brotherhood was reestablished on 20 Floréal of the Year X (1802).
On 21 September 1853, His Grace Parisis, bishop of Arras, asked all the local Brotherhoods to recognize the rule of the church or to dissolve. The Brotherhood of Béthune prefered to have a non-religious status, whereas the Brotherhood of Beuvry recognized the rule of the church. During the First World War, the Charitables were extremely helpful to the population. They were mentioned in dispatches of the army on 9 February 1917 and in dispatches of the nation on 24 October 1918, congratulated by the Minister of Interior on 8 April 1921 and awarded the Medal of French Gratitude on 4 January 1938.

Today, there are about 40 Charitables' Brotherhoods in Artois, all of them having the same rules and aims. Their members are appointed without any social and religious distinction, and they help everybody in need, without any social and religious distinction. They are officially recognized as morticians but their service is absolutely free of charge. The brotherhoods are funded by their members themselves and private grants.
During the official ceremonies and processions, the brotherhoods have the privilege to march before the civil and religious authorities. They march behind them only when they bury one of them. Therefore, they use to say "as far as you can see us, you know you are still alive and that everything is OK for you".
It is said that St. Eloi told the two blacksmiths: "The scourge shall never reach you nor your house", and it seems that no Charitable was ever infected by a contagious disease.

The Charitables have a very important social role in Artois, a region which was severely hit by economical crisis following the end of coal mining and textile industry, and are everything but a folkloric tradition.
Every year in September, on the first Sunday after St. Matthew's day, the procession à naviaux, involving all the Charitables' Brotherhoods of Artois, recalls Gauthier and Germon's meeting near the source of Quinty. Naviau is the ancient name of navet, turnip. The early Charitables ate turnips in order to protect themselves from disease. During the procession, each Charitable shall hold a white stick decorated with box, thyme and other flowers, whose strong flavour was expected to repell disease. In June, the Charitables walk all over the streets of Béthune for the quête des petits plombs, which is a free sharing out of small breads.

Source: NordMag website

Ivan Sache, 11 September 2004

The belfry of Béthune

Like in Flemish cities, the belfry is the symbol of the municipal rights granted by the lords in the Middle Ages. As said above, the first belfry was made of wood (1346), and later rebuilt in sandstone when the municipal rights were no longer challenged (1388). An other storey was even added to the belfry in 1437, so that its height is 33 m, with a 133-step stair. In the past, the belfry was also the entrance of the Cloth Hall, and therefore the center of trade in the city. The Cloth Hall burned down in 1664, so that the belfry remained isolated over shops built around it, all of those shops being progressively suppressed.

The belfry was also used as a watch tower. The early belfry had only one bell, used for alarm. In 1546, the échevins bought six bells, to which new bells were added by Charles V in 1553. Philippe le Corsin made in 1773 a peal of 36 bells. The main bell Joyeuse was hit by bombs in 1918 and replaced by the Vigilante. In 1951, the Paccard factory built a new peal of 35 bells, refurbished in 1998.
In 1668, the dragon that had been placed over the belfry in 1503 was replaced by a more useful weather vane.
The belfry of Béthune is so famous that it was selected as the main symbol of the region Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Its silhouette is shown on the logotype and flag of the Region.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 11 September 2004

Celebrities of Béthune

The most famous celebrity of Béthune never existed! In his novels Les Trois Mousquetaires and Vingt ans après, Alexandre Dumas portrayed the bourreau de Béthune, the headsman who executed evil Milady. Historically, the local headsman did not live in Béthune but in the bigger city of Arras, the capital city of Artois.
In the 1950s, a famous French wrestler took the nickname of Bourreau de Béthune. He was of course a villain, dressed in black and bearing a mask and chains. He was always challenged by the good guy, l'Ange Blanc, dressed in white. In spite of the Headsman's tricks and cheatings, the White Angel always managed to win.

Béthune is the birth city of Jean Buridan (1298-1366), appointed Rector of the University of Paris in 1327. Buridan claimed that, in certain situations, making a choice is not possible, and illustrated his theory with a metaphor known as Buridan's donkey. A poor donkey, thursty and hungry, placed at equal distance of a bushel of oats and a bucket of water, would, according to Buridan, die of both hunger and thurst because it won't be able to decide what to do first, to eat or to drink. The poor donkey is celebrated in Béthune every year in the beginning of June on the Belfry Square. Buridan was probably a great philosoph but knew nothing in animal physiology. However, in his comments of Aristoteles' writings, Buridan highlighted the rotation of earth and erosion as acceptable theories.

The noble Conon de Béthune (? - 1220) is considered as the first French trouvere. He celebrated courtly love in his songs and took part to the Fourth Crusade, being for a while appointed King of Andrinople and Regent of the Eastern Latin Empire.

The musician Pierre de Manchicourt (1510-1564) was listed among the veri maestri della musica of his time. Manchicourt was appointed Flemish choirmaster in Madrid by King of Spain Philip II in 1559. He composed about 20 masses, more than 70 motets and about 50 songs.

The sculptor Simon Le Hurtrel (1648-1724) studied in Rome and did several statues for churches (the Invalides in Paris) and gardens (Marly and Versailles). He was elected at the French Academy in 1690.

Aristide Delannoy (1874-1911) was a libertarian cartoonist. He was a main collaborator of the revolutionary newspaper L'Assiette au Beurre and worked for other antimilitarist and extreme-leftist newspapers. He died from tuberculosis, which had contaminated him in jail.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 11 September 2004

Municipal flag of Béthune

The municipal flag of Béthune can be seen on the city hall. The flag is white with the greater municipal coat of arms.

The early arms of the Lords of Béthune, from Robert I to Robert VII, are:

D'azur aux bandes d'or sans nombre.

In fact the number of bends varied between three and five, according to the whim of the bearer of the arms.

In the XIIIth century (before 1214), Guillaume II de Béthune married Mahaut de Termonde / Dendermonde, and adopted the arms of the lords of Dendermonde:

D'argent à la fasce de gueules. (Argent a fess gules).

Those arms were granted to the municipality of Béthune in 1703 by the General Commissioners of the Council of Artois. They were confirmed by the Municipal Council on 26 September 1813, and by lettres patentes of King Louis XVIII in 1816. The arms as they are today are shown in Diderot's Encyclopédie.

Sully-sur-Loire and Rosny-sur-Seine, which were also owned by Maximilien de Béthune, marquis de Rosny, duc de Sully, have the same municipal arms.
Maximilien de Béthune (1559-1641) is mostly known as Sully. As a Protestant, he helped King Henri IV in the years 1576-1590 and was appointed Surintendant général des finances by the King in 1598. Sully improved the finances of the kingdom and promoted agriculture, for instance by introducing silkworm breeding in France, and trade, by developing a network of roads and canals. After Henri IV's assassination in 1610, Sully retired and wrote his memoirs, Economies royales, published in 1638.

The supporters of the shield of Béthune are two rascals armed with a club. They refer to a band of rascals who hid in the neighbouring forest of Olhain and attacked the travelers in the XVIth century. Their chief, called Grand Guillaume, was pursued, caught in Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, and brought back to Béthune where he was hung.


Ivan Sache, 11 September 2004