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

Last modified: 2021-01-11 by ivan sache
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Flag of Béthune - Image by Pascal Vagnat, 11 September 2004

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Presentation of Béthune

The municipality of Béthune (25,655 inhabitants in 2010; 1,297 ha; municipal website) was one of the main towns 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 and Deule by the canal of Aire.

The earliest remains of human settlement in Béthune, found near river Lawe, date back to the 6th century. A Merovingian cemetary (6th-7th centuries) was found east of the town. 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 10th century, Robert le Faisseux, avoué of Arras and Lord of Béthune, founded the St. Bartolomew collegiate church, which was the center of the religious and spiritual life in the town for the next eight centuries.
The origin of the name of the town is obscure. In ancient Germanic languages, bei thun might have meant "a place protected by a fence" or "a fortified camp".
In the 12th century, the Flemings attempted to seize Béthune, to no avail. The town, then stretching over 25 ha, was protected by a wall with five fortified gates. A series of earthquakes (1013, 1080, 1086, 1093, 1094) caused floods and starvation. The wooden houses built along narrow streets were burned in big blazes in 1137 and 1151, and, mostly, in 1156 and 1176, when the town was nearly destroyed and all the archives 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. The famous Charitables' Brotherhood (see below) was founded during the big epidemic of black plague that broke out in 1188.

Béthune was granted a municipal charter in 1210. Like in several other towns in the north of France and Flanders, the municipal rights were subsequently confirmed and asserted in 1346 through the building of a wooden belfry, with right of bell and jail (droit de cloche et de prison). The belfry was totally rebuilt in sandstone in 1388, afin que chose soit perpétuelle (so that it lasts forever). 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 town. 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 Municipal Council 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 Paccardfactory 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 was selected as the main symbol of Region Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Its silhouette is shown on the logotype and flag of the Region.

The castle of Béthune was rebuilt in 1222 and surrounded with external walls on three sides. In 1297, the Count of Flanders Guido of Dampierre challenged the power of King of France Philip the Handsome, who conquered most of the fortified towns of Flanders. The burghers of Béthune revolted against the Count and submitted to the King of France.
In the 14th century, cloth industry developed in Béthune, mostly for local use. Related crafts, such as tanning and dyeing, contributed to the economical boost of the town. An important grain market was set up. During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), the Flemish armies could not seize Béthune.
In 1553, Béthune, under Charles V of Spain's rule, was involved in the war between Charles and King of France Francis I for the control of Artois and Flanders. Charles V increased the town walls, moved away the St. Vaast church and built the canal of Lawe.
In the 17th century, Béthune was once again caught in the struggle between France and Spain. The town was seized by the Spaniards in 1645. The treaty of the Pyrenees, signed on 7 November 1659, 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 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 harshly disputed. Several town and villages, including Béthune, were mostly destroyed and had to be totally rebuilt after the war.

The Confrérie des Charitables de Saint-Éloi 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 humans and animals killed. Fearing contamination, nobody wanted to bury the dead. On 21 September 1188, St. Matthew's day, two blacksmiths, Germon from Beuvry and Gautier from Béthune, met near the source of Quinty, on the border between the two municipalities. St. Eligius (Éloi), the patron saint of blacksmiths, had appeared in a dream to the two of them and hadasked 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. Eligius. In the 13th century, the chapel of St. Eligius-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. Destroyed in 1940 by a storm, its bell-tower was never rebuilt.
The Brotherhood has existed since 1188 without interruption and has followed nearly the same rules since its foundation. The founding charter, dated 26 October 1317, was written by Prior Pierre de Nogent, Rogon's fifth successor. Several documents confirm the existence of the Brotherhood over the ages. On the 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 the 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 the 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. Eligius 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, "a turnip". The early Charitables ate turnips 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.

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 town of Arras, the capital 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 usually managed to win.

Béthune is the birth town of the philosoph 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, either to eat or to drink. The poor donkey is celebrated in Béthune every year in the beginning of June on the Belfry Square.
In his comments of Aristoteles' writings, Buridan highlighted the rotation of the Earth and erosion as acceptable theories.
[Municipal website]

Ivan Sache, 11 September 2004

Flag of Béthune

The Flag of Béthune, hoisted on the Town Hall, is white with the greater municipal coat of arms in the middle.

The arms of the early Lords of Béthune, from Robert I to Robert VII, were "Azure bendy or". The number of bends varied between three and five, according to the whim of the bearer of the arms.
In the 13th century (before 1214), William II of Béthune married Mahaut of Dendermonde and adopted the arms of the lords of Dendermonde, "Argent a fess gules". These arms were granted to the municipality of Béthune in 1703 by the General Commissioners of the Council of Artois. The arms were confirmed by the Municipal Council on 26 September 1813, and by Letters Patented 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 of Béthune, Marquis of Rosny, Duke of Sully, have the same municipal arms.
Maximilien of Béthune (1559-1641) is mostly known as Sully. As a Protestant, he supported 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 rearing 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, Économies royales, published in 1638.

The supporters of the shield of Béthune are two rascals armed with a club. They refer to the band of rascals who hid in the neighbouring forest of Olhain and attacked the travelers in the 16th century. Their chief, called Grand Guillaume, was pursued, caught in Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, brought back to Béthune and hung (Paysages et légendes du Pas de Calais website).

Ivan Sache, 11 September 2004