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Rue du Bois sauvage

Museums normally focus on the objects on display, which is perfectly logical. But in the National Bank of Belgium’s Museum people sometimes wonder where the name “rue du Bois Sauvage” (“Wildewoudstraat” in Dutch, or literally “Wild Wood Street”) comes from. So the street where the NBB used to have its entrance, and where the museum is now located, has an unusual name. Is it a reference to the neighbouring Sonian Forest? Or is there another explanation for this place name? Enough reason to investigate the question in this edition of  “Spotlight”.

A forest full of wild animals?

When the National Bank of Belgiumbegan work on its new building in Wildewoudstraat, the street had already borne that name for almost half a century. However, this had not always been the case. Until the 18th century the street was generally known simply as “Behind Saint Gudula” (in French “Derrière-Sainte-Gudule”, in Dutch “Achter-Sint-Goedele”), a very clear reference to the cathedral. After that, it was known as “rue Walter-le-Sauvage, “rue du Soufflet” and “rue de l’Eventail”. The name Walter le Sauvage is particularly interesting here, because that is ultimately the person behind the present name. However, the current name is the result of a mistranslation dating from the early 19th century.

Street nameplate, 2013. [1]

Street nameplate, 2013.

Walter le Sauvage is the alias of a man named Wouter van der Noot, who lived inBrusselsin the Middle Ages. According to tradition, this man was nicknamed “the wild” because of his rather unconventional style of sword fighting. However, when the name Wouter de Wilde had to be translated into French for the official registration of street names, the first name Wouter was erroneously interpreted as ‘wood’.  So in 1811 that led to the name “rue du Bois Sauvage” on maps ofBrussels. Translation of this French place name therefore resulted in “rue du Bois Sauvage”. We can now ask the question: why is a street in the centre ofBrusselsnamed after a man who made his name as a mediaeval fighter?

Detail of a hand-drawn map of Brussels, 1770. [2]

Detail of a hand-drawn map of Brussels, 1770.

An ill-fated love affair…

At the beginning of the turbulent 14th century when the Flemings were still fighting the French at Pevelenberg, a dramatic love story was being played out in Brussels. Two members of the same family were competing for the hand of the same lady, the noble and beautiful Goedele van der Zennen, daughter of the knight Ridder Willem. An account of the events can be found in the Histoire de la ville de Bruxelles by the historians Henne and Wauters. One suitor was Joris van der Noot, son of Hendrik, and the other was Wouter, son of Willem. Several times these cousins, Wouter and Joris, attacked one another with daggers and other “sharp weapons”, and actually  fought to the death. When Joris was killed, it was necessary to arrange reconciliation, a kind of mediaeval debt mediation following a misdeed. It was arranged by Pieter van Huffle, canon of Saint Gudula and secretary of the city ofBrussels. Following demonstrations of public mourning, this misdeed was to leave a permanent stain on the Wouter coat of arms. As a sign of remorse, the scallops on the shield were painted red and the helmet was coloured black. However, the reconciliation did not remedy the situation, which subsequently escalated further: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!  Soon afterwards, Wouter van der Noot met his death on the cathedral steps, presumably at the hands of some of his blood relations.

Copper token with coat of arms of the van der Noot family, 1681. [3]

Copper token with coat of arms of the van der Noot family, 1681.

That appears to establish the link between the murdered Wouter “de Wilde” van der Noot and Wildewoudstraat. However, no-one knows what became of the beautiful Goedele van der Zennen, and it remains a mystery…

An (un)fortunate name

Most books date this love story with its fatal outcome to 17 March 1373 or 1374. Yet that is based on a false assumption. For their research, Wauters and Henne generally used incomplete and undated archive documents, except that they also consulted a mediaeval chronicle from the Belgian National Archive. According to this chronicle, a Wouter van der Noot was murdered in 1373-1375, so the presumption would be that this was the same person. However, they overlooked the work of the 17th centuryBrussels herald at arms, J.-B. Houwaert, who looked at the complete reconciliation document. Houwaert saw that the ill-fated love affair  took place in 1304, with Wouter van der Noot being murdered in 1305. The murder of another Wouter, more specifically Wouter IV van der Noot, took place on Saint Gertrude’s Day, 17 March 1374, in a completely different context.

Commemorative medal depicting Hendrik van der Noot, ca. 1790. [4]

Commemorative medal depicting Hendrik van der Noot, ca. 1790.

To conclude this edition of “Spotlight”, perhaps we can nevertheless end on a positive note. Apart from the murder of Wouter van der Noot in 1305 and the death of Wouter IV in 1374, there were various more fortunate people with that same surname in Brussels.  The National Bank of BelgiumMuseumhas a number of interesting items in its collection concerning those people. For example, there are various tokens bearing the name of the van der Noots as stewards of the Brusselscanal, quite an important job in the 17th century. And best of all: various commemorative medals depicting the 19th century hero of theBrabant uprising, Hendrik van der Noot.

Museum guide