Working in the Archives – The Rijksarchief te Gent

RA Gent, K56, Klooster de Filledieusen

This post contributes to our ongoing special series, “Working in the Archives.” Previously, our bloggers have explained the archival procedures in Morocco and in France. Today, I will discuss some strategies and tips to make a trip to the The Rijksarchief te Gent in Belgium a productive one.  

The State Archives in Gent is one of the major depositories of medieval manuscripts in Belgium. I resided and researched in Gent for nine months and hope this blog will help scholars who are traveling to Gent, to the Rijksarchief, to complete research in a short amount of time and with limited knowledge of the city.

Below, I will discuss the practical knowledge needed to make an archive visit productive: how to get to the Rijksarchief from the train station (Station Gent-Sint-Pieters), what is needed to access the archive, how to search for material, how to request that material, and how long the material takes to arrive. Additionally, I will mention some quality of life information- a good place for lunch, for coffee, and for dinner and a drink after a long day in the archive.

How to Get There- Bagattenstraat 43, 9000 Gent

The train to Gent from Brussels Airport (BRU) takes either an hour or an hour and a half, depending on the available trains at the airport when you land. One can take any train going to Brussels Central and switch trains there to arrive faster. Train travel in Brussels is quite easy, with train times and destinations presented in Flemish, French, and English (most of the time, but not always). Upon arriving in Gent-Sint-Pieter’s, there are three easy ways to get to the Rijksarchief- tram, taxi, or by foot.  Taking a taxi in Gent is a bit pricey, so if one is on a budget, taking the tram or walking is the better option.

There is a tram that runs regularly from the front of Sint-Pieter’s Station. It is on the Red Line (1) that goes straight into the city center. The stop on the Red Line next to the Rijksarchief is called Verlorenkost. The stop is one street before Bagattenstraat, the street on which the archive is located.

To walk from the train station, one will want to follow the same path as the tram: first, take Konigen Elisabethlaan away from the station; after about a quarter of a mile, bear to the left onto Kortrijkseestenweg; remain on this street through a major intersection. The street changes in name to Kortrijksepoortstraat; continue on this street until you reach Bagattenstraat on the right, and the archive is the third building on the left. It is a large white building.

What You Need to Access the Archive

To access the material in the archive, one needs a research card (Lezerskaart). One can spend 5 euros for a weeklong visitor’s research card, or one can spend 20 euros for a yearlong card. You must show your personal reader’s card at every visit. It can be purchased on-site: the annual card gives access to all the reading rooms of the State Archives of Belgium. If one has a student card from the University of Gent, the card is half price.

How to Search For Material

RA Gent K54, Grauwe Zusters bij Sint-Jans
RA Gent K52, Klooster van Arme Klaren

One can search the Rijksarchief online at However, many of the inventories of the collections held in the archive are not online, and can only be consulted in-person. The inventories are shelved on the second floor in the reading room.

To fully understand what the inventories and search tools say, one needs to have some grasp of Dutch. Most of the finding tools are only in Dutch, although one can ask the staff for clarifications and assistance. At minimum, bring a Dutch dictionary, as there is no Wi-Fi at the archive to look up words and phrases online.

How to Request Material and its Arrival Time

To request a manuscript, one can email the archive a day before to have the material ready in the morning. Otherwise, you must request them in person. The manuscripts are brought to the reading room on the top of every hour, so plan your time accordingly.

Quality of Life

In terms of walkability, Gent is a very manageable city. While it only takes about 15 minutes to walk to the city center from the Rijksarchief, there are nearby cafes and restaurants that are of excellent quality and affordable. My favorite spot near the archive is Vooruit- a restaurant at the other end of Bagattenstraat. It has good food at a good price, with a daily special every day. Vooruit also has excellent coffee. For an afterwork drink or game of pool, turn right out of the archive and go two buildings down to Kaptein Kravate.

Sean Sapp
University of Notre Dame

What Lies Beneath: The Reliability of Watermarks as a Method for Telling Time

Rijksarchief te Gent K91 1r.

As a child of the 1990s, I remember well when US currency turned into a magic trick to show your other classmates in school: hold a bill up to the light and a president’s face would stare back at you. This “trick” was simply a watermark. In the late 1990s, American bills began to be printed with watermarks, those presidents’ faces, to deter counterfeiters. The watermark is not a modern innovation, nor was it created to prevent counterfeiting. It was a medieval creation, one used primarily to show the maker of the paper, but also the place in which the paper was made, and (less often) when the paper was made.

For this blog, I would like to discuss the risks of this third purpose of medieval watermarking- using watermarking as a means to date paper. I will rely upon two manuscript collections of the Rijksarchief te Gent, numbers K91 and K98, to demonstrate the uncertainty of watermark dating. Holding K98 is a “verzameling watermerken”- a collection of medieval watermarks beginning in 1386 and ending around 1500. The watermarks come from the Abbey of Saint Bavo’s in Gent, a prominent and powerful abbey within the medieval city.

The watermark collection is indeed just that- a bundle of loose leaves of paper, that for the most part, are not medieval at all. In examining the bundle of paper, one sees watermarks with an assigned date of the mark in the top left corner of the page, ranging from the late fourteenth to the late fifteenth century. However, most of the paper upon which these watermarks are imprinted or drawn are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with some drawings added later on carbon paper in the twentieth century.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1386.

As one can see below, the watermarks have been impressed on the paper, with the top sheet having an outline of the watermark done in pencil, and later sheets having only the watermark itself.

Rijksarchief te Gent 1389.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1389-1.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1390.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1390-1.


The archival inventory reads as if this collection of watermarks has been consistently compiled from the late fourteenth century by St. Bavo’s monks as a means to keep up with the numerous watermarks employed by the abbey.  Instead, the collection is a later, early modern creation used a means of dating the watermarks used in earlier centuries. But how effective and accurate are these watermark dates? Thankfully for our purpose here, the manuscript K91 helps to answer this issue. K91 contains the yearly accounts of St. Bavo’s from the late 1300s to the late 1400s, allowing us to see how well these watermarks, dated by year, correspond to yearly entries in other documents from St. Bavo’s in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Rijksarchief te Gent 1480.

Above, I have included the watermark for the year from 1480. It is the letter “P,” with a cross attached to the top of the letter and a bifurcated descender. According to the watermarking dating system of St. Bavo’s, this letter should only appear after 1480. However, in consulting the K91 account book (1384-1417), I found something quite different. The “P” first arises in the year 1402 of the accounts, a whole 78 years before it appears in the watermark compilation.

Rijksarchief te Gent K91 32r.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 35r.

The clearest example is the “P” on the opening page of the account for the year 1403, the image K91 35r. just above. Perhaps this “P” is an exception? A dating oversight by the monks? In fact, it is the rule. Throughout the years for which account books survive, (1384-1417 & 1461-1498), very rarely do the accounts line up with the prescribed watermarks for that year. One watermark nearly hits the collection date, the watermark of 1395, the bow. The bow does not occur in 1395, but it does show up three years later in 1398, a much more reasonable margin of error.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1395.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 23r.

The explanation for the inconsistency of the bow watermark is quite simple and known to many medievalists already. The monks of St. Bavo’s bought paper from a particular paper maker and they used that paper for many years. This is evident in the appearance of multiple watermarks in the same year of accounts (see the year 1403 in K91). The problematic example of the letter “P” presents a larger issue because the watermark appears far earlier than it should. It is not the only example of this phenomenon either- the watermark of 1410, a crown with a cross, first appears in the account books in 1407.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1410.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 60r.

Based on the examples above, the efforts of the monks of St. Bavo’s were misguided in their attempt to coherently construct a means of dating their earlier documents. We know the monks were not papermakers themselves, so they did not have access to the wire frames with watermark outlines. These monks used their own watermarked documents to create their dating system, but they certainly did not rely upon the account books. If they had done so, they could not have drawn the conclusions they did. Perhaps they used a no-longer extant corpus of charters, but even in that case, the medieval monks of St. Bavo’s did not use watermarked paper in such a systematic and chronologically coherent way. They used the paper when they needed it- sometimes this was paper from decades earlier, sometimes this was new paper.

Further Reading-

Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1994.

Briquest Online-