Flanders is known by most as the northern part of Belgium. But before the foundation of Belgium (1830), Flanders had its own cultural and scientific history, for more than 1000 years. Some important but too often forgotten facts are gathered on these pages.
Misinformation about Flanders is probably largely due to some factors, including: (1) for nearly one and a half century, information about Flanders was filtered by a French speaking ruling minority, (2) short stay visitors, who limit their visit to Brussels - since the 19the century a largely French speaking enclave in Flanders-, have the false impression to be in a French speaking country, (3) Flemish people generally undervalue their own history; most of the information presented here on renown Flemish people had to be gathered from international websites, a fact significant in itself.
Now that Brussels, situated in Flanders, is becoming Europe's capital, a more objective information about this culturally fertile and economically rich region might be highly desirable.
This site only aims at relating some major facts from the impressive cultural history of Flanders. However, a cursory look at the succession of rulers and wars tries to outline some political frames.
The Belgian region was inhabited by Celts or Gauls, since many centuries BC. Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, called the Belgians "the bravest of all Gauls" --probably to explain why he stopped his European expansion at this level. After this war, many Roman colonists moved into these regions. The most important city was Tongeren "Atuatica Tungrorum", in the north east of nowadays' Flanders, where Ambiorix, king of the Celtic Tungri and strongly opposed to Caesar, lived.
Between 300 and 600 A.D., Germanic tribes (the "Franks" or "free people") slowly moved into this fertile region. The limit between the part where the Gallo-Romans outnumbered, and where the Franks were the most numerous is still the language border between the Germanic and the Romance language groups. Actually, Flemish people are the descendants of these Franks ("Issalic" or "Salic" Franks, "near to the Issal Sea or Ijsselmeer", to discern them form the "Ripuarian" Franks which stayed in Germany).
The name "Flanders" was first mentioned in the 8th century (in the Vita Eligii, the life of Eligius, Bishop of Tournai around 640, as "Pagus Flandrensis") and pointed to the region around Bruges. The name "Flanders" probably is from Celtic origin, and means "swampy region". The Latin name "Belgica" or "Belgium" probably comes from the same word. Gradually, the name "Flanders" covered the western part (dominated by Ghent and Bruges), and eventually the whole Dutch speaking northern half of contemporary Belgium. Until the 18th century, the words "Nether-Lands" and "Belgium" were synonymous.
Two parts of Flanders now lie outside of Belgium: "French Flanders" in the south around Lille, taken by the French from Spain in the 17th century, and žSea FlandersÓ (žZeeuws VlaanderenÓ) in the south of Holland, transfered from Belgium to Holland in 1830, to prevent Belgium from freely using the Scheldt river to become too strong an economic force. A few years later, the Dutch government even blocked the river by long chains for several decades, reducing the international port of Antwerp into a ghost city.
The Frankish Kings first had their capital in the city of Tongeren, in the north of nowadays' Flanders. Progressively they extended their realm to the south, relocating their capital first to Tournai (Torniacum, Doornik) by Kings Childerik and his son Clovis (481-511), and eventually to Paris. In fact, the first French Kings were the descendants of the Flemish ("Frankish") Kings, and during several generations the royal oath of the Kings of France was pronounced in the Flemish/Frankish language, before switching to Gallo-Roman. This relocation of the capital had as effect that Flanders, first the central part of the realm, eventually became a peripheral part of the Frankish kingdom, the "County of Flanders". Even the Flemish names for the country (Francia = Realm of the Franks) and the language (French = the language of the Franks) were borrowed from Flanders, and no longer covered their original meaning. French history typically starts with the Flemish Kings Childerik and his son Clovis, skillfully hiding the Flemish origin of the French Kingdom.
Nevertheless this peripheral position didn't prevent the economic and cultural superiority of Flanders during many centuries.
County of Flanders
From the first count (Baldwin I, "with the Iron Arm", d. 879) to Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) born in Ghent but moved to Spain, there is an impressive line of Counts, Kings and Emperors born and living on Flemish soil. The county was progressively extended, and its borders came near to Paris in the 12th century. The Flemish Count was even appointed as a guardian to the minor French king. Later, the French King tried to regain his power from Flanders, but was beaten with his knights at Kortrijk (Courtrai) in 1302. After this "Battle of the Golden Spurs" (11 July 1302), now exactly 7 centutries ago, King Philip the Fair of France eventually yielded to the demands of the Flemish and granted Flanders its independence. Although historians don't always agree about the socio-political context and historical meaning of this battle, it became the symbolic "Independence Day" for the Flemish community.
The Flemish rulers played an important role in the Crusades. In fact, the first "King of Jerusalem", Baldwin I, was the count of Bonen (Boulogne), in the County of Flanders, and the younger brother of Geoffrey of Bouillon, in the south of the Netherlands, who organized the first Crusade. There is an enduring legend that the national flag bearing the Flemish Lion was introduced to Flanders after being brought home from a crusade. The flag is said to have been modeled after the coat of arms of a defeated Saracene - the Sultan Baybars - who had kicked the last Crusaders out of Jerusalem. However, historical research yields other evidence.
By royal family links, Burgundy was linked with Flanders in 1384, and the rulers of Burgundy immediately relocated their capital to the much richer Flanders. One of their first decisions was to relocate the Counsel of Flanders from Rijsel ("Lille") to Ghent. Progressively, the influential cities lost their power to a central monarch, and the "XVII Provinces" became a recognisable entity, also called the Lower Countries or Nether-Lands or Belgica, including Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg. This region was often depicted as "Leo Belgicus" ("The Belgian Lion"). Flanders, the central part of it, was also referred to as "The Southern Netherlands".
The southern part of the Netherlands were very active from an economic and cultural point of view. Bruges, "the Venice of the North", displayed a commercial activity that, in fact, largely surpassed the economic importance of Venice. Labeling Bruges as "the New York of the middle Ages" probably should be more appropriate --as demonstrated during the exhibition "The Hanze in Bruges", Bruges 2002. And till in the 18th century, the city of Ghent, a centre of textile industry, was greater and richer than Paris or London.
When Philip II by the abdication of his father, Charles V, became sovereign of the Low Countries and took up the government of the Seventeen Provinces, he found them at the zenith of their prosperity, as is evident from the description given in 1567 by Luigi Guicciardini in his "Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi" (Totius Belgii Descriptio, Amsterdam, 1613).
Few countries were so well governed; none was richer. Antwerp had taken the place of the silted up Bruges as commercial metropolis; every day saw a fleet of 500 sea-going craft enter or leave its port. Of Ghent (Gand), his native town, Charles V used to say jocosely: Je mettrais Paris dans mon Gand [I could put Paris (bet) in my glove (gant)]. Humanism gradually undermined traditional faith. Protestantism had already effected an entrance. In addition the more powerful of the nobility now hoped to play a more influential part in the government than they had done under Charles V, and were already planning for the realization of this ambition. The situation presented many difficulties, and unfortunately Philip II was not the man to cope with them. He had little in common with his Low-Country subjects. Their language was not his; and he was a stranger to their customs. From the day he quitted the Netherlands in 1559, he never set foot in them again, but governed from far-off Spain. He was despotic, severe, crafty, and desirous of keeping in his own hands all the reins of government. He was on the whole a most unsuitable ruler in spite of his sincere desire to fulfil the duties of his royal office.
The decline of Flanders' cultural superiority
started with the suppression of Reformation. Due to their humanistic way
of thinking, most of Flemish intellectuals and merchants became reformed
during the 16th century. Several towns became "protestant dictatures",
some for even a longer time than the famous Calvinistic Republic of Geneva
(1536-1541, Ghent 1577-1584). This didn't please to the Spanish ruler,
Philip II, who feared losing his richest province, and a strong army was
sent into those Provinces, cruelly restoring Catholicism, although in 1576
of Ghent was proclaimed, the first charter of religious tolerance in
history. The Spanish army halted at the north of Antwerp, considering the
agricultural Northern provinces without much economic value. This is the
historical origin of the border between Holland and Belgium. Most of Flemish
intelligentsia and the richest people fled to the Northern provinces, including
the parents of Vondel, the most famous Dutch author, some (as the parents
of Rubens) to Germany, others to Britain. This massive immigration (e.g.
the city of Delft counted at that moment more Flemish immigrants than original
Dutch people, Amsterdam 33% Flemish, Leiden 66 %!) was the start of the
Dutch Republic and Kingdom (1579) and the Golden Century for Holland. The
Bible was translated into Dutch mostly by immigrated Flemish translaters,
making the ensuing official modern Dutch language much closer to southern
than to northern dialects. The military advisers of the Northern Prince,
and the composer of the Dutch National Hymn all were Flemish. And even
William, the first Prince of the North, had passed his youth in the southern
Netherlands, and his dream had been to keep the whole of his XVII provinces,
not just the northern half of it...
During the next century France took advantage of Spain's weakness to try to annex parts of Flanders, using every imaginable pretext (compensation for an unpaid dowry by a Spanish princess, the "reunion" of parts earlier belonging to regions, now already under French domination, etc.) to start wars. (more)
Austrian and French Occupation
Although arts remained for another century at an impressive level with Rubens (1577-1640, returned to Antwerp at age 6), the decline of Flanders, deprived from its intellectual and economic power, and heavily taxed and extortioned by Spain, Austria (1713-1792) and France (1792-1814), was inevitable. Anything that was not too hot or too heavy was transported to Spain, Austria and France, and is now the pride of their national musea and private collections. In fact, Austria was condemned several times, by international congresses, to restitute the most important Flemish art works (including many paintings of Rubens, art works from churches and abbeys closed by the Austrian monarch, the treasure of the Order of the Golden Fleece) but up to now omitted to do so. More details on the French occupation.
In 1814, the final treaty of the Independence of the United States of America was signed in Ghent (see Treaty of Ghent).
After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 at Waterloo near Brussels, the Southern Netherlands -Belgium- were re-united to Holland by the Congress of Vienna (1815). The protestant King of Holland was not very skillful in organizing that bigger and rebellious catholic Belgium, and eventually a street revolution in Brussels, conducted by French speaking and catholic crowds, claiming 1 (one) casualty, provoked a splitting up of both countries (1830). King Willem was only too happy to leave. Belgium was confirmed as a buffer state by the Vienna Congress, but deprived from its military strongholds, including Maastricht and Givet --explaining those surprising indentations in the Belgian border--, and its bordering to the Scheldt river, transfered to Holland, that closed this river for half a century.
Although the majority of Belgium was and still is Dutch speaking, the process of frenchization of public life, started during the French occupation, was intensified. Ruled by a French speaking minority, all schools and universities in Flanders had to switch to French, leading to insulting paradoxes as Dutch speaking teachers speaking French to Dutch speaking pupils. Moreover, pupils were punished when they spoke their native language. The administrative capital Brussels, lying entirely within Flanders, progressively got a French speaking majority. But inevitably a cultural and political movement of a revival of thousand years of Flemish culture and identity emerged during the 19th century, leading first to the possibility (not yet the obligation) to use Dutch in public life in Flanders at the end of the 19th century, the reintroduction of Dutch in schools and universities in the 1930s, the relocation of the biggest French speaking university (the French speaking section of Louvain University) from Flanders into Wallonia in 1968, and the installation of a federal state structure with a Flemish government during the last quarter of the 20th century. It took nearly 2 centuries for the Flemish to be considered as full-fledged citizens in their own country, and one can easily imagine that this struggle didn't occur without a heavy social and political toll.
Foreigners may find some facts highly difficult to understand:
1. to discern the emancipatory cultural and political struggle of Flemish people against a French speaking ruling minority, from a so called war between Flanders and Wallonia. Never during 15 centuries of history there was any conflict between the North and the South, a remarkable fact in history. In fact, there are 4 kinds of Belgians: (1) The Dutch speaking majority in the North ("Flanders"), (2) the French speaking in the South ("Wallonia"), (3) French speaking people, mostly from Flemish origin, in Brussels -entirely situated in Flanders and only frenchized during the 19th century- and some around Brussels and some important Flemish cities. These people never do consider themselves as Walloon! They bear Flemish names, and most often their grandparents didn't even understand French. And, (4) a German speaking minority near the German border, added to Belgium after the World Wars. "Language struggles in Belgium" always refer to cultural and social emancipatory struggles of Flemish people within Flanders against a French speaking minority in Flanders (including Brussels). Those struggles only sought to allow Flemish people to use, within Flanders, their own Dutch language in education, justice, social life and politics. Wallonia never was involved in this social and cultural emancipative struggle.
2. to discern between 'Dutch' and 'Flemish'. Although by a certain love of ease some people in Belgium speak about "Flemish" (like Dutch people sometimes call their language "Hollandish", American speak about "American", etc.), there is only one language for Flanders (the Southern Netherlands) and Holland (the Northern Netherlands). Also historically and politically, the "Netherlands" (plural!) referred to the 17 Provinces of contemporary Benelux, including the Lille Region in the North of France. There exist, as everywhere, some dialectic differences, but educated people are not supposed to show such. Moreover, the official Dutch Language is closer to the southern than to the northern dialects, due to the fact that the Bible -the origin of official language- was translated mainly by southern immigrants to the North. Dutch in Belgium was banned from official life during the 19th century and parts of the 20th. As a consequence it was not often heard in public life (although poets and authors published their highly qualified work in Dutch). Moreover, the ruling French speaking minority was pleased to call that language of uneducated people "Flemish". Even in the 1920s, the archbishop of Belgium, enraged by the legal obligation to switch to Dutch in Flemish schools and universities, called 'Flemish' "unfit as a vehicle for scientific, religious, cultural and artistic values". We deplore the fact that even in outstanding modern Encyclopaedias of neighbouring cultures (French, English) the language of the Flemish people is too often called "Flemish, a language akin to Dutch".
The internationally best known poem about Flanders is undoubtedly In Flanders fields, by John McCrae (1872-1918), a Canadian physician who fought on the Front in 1914, and died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918. His volume of poetry, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, was published in 1919.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Flanders Today: probably the most prosperous region in the world
In July 2002 the development program of the United Nations calculated that Belgium is the fourth most prosperous country in the world.This was measured by determining the degree of prosperity of about 173 countries. To determine the degree of prosperity they determined health, longevity, education - economic level and quality of life. The Flemish Administration Service of Planning and Statistics applied the same parameters to determine the prosperity level of Flanders, i.e. the northern part of Belgium. According to these findings Flanders might share with Norway the title of the most prosperous region in the world.
For such a small region, Flanders was surprisingly fertile in cultural and scientific contributions to Western culture. It would be interesting, from a sociocultural point of view, to study this phenomenon that, of course, occurred in other places and moments in history as well.
It could perhaps be explained by several psychological, social and economic factors, including: a cross-fertilization between Latin and Germanic ways of thinking, a fertile region, an early rupture with suffocating feudal situations, attraction of many European businessmen and patrons, a self-confident but non-aggressive view of life (the only wars started by the Flemish people were a war for social independence from France in... 1302, and a general upheaval in 1798 against high French taxes and the compulsory conscription of young men into the French army).
The recession of the leading Flemish cultural and scientific creativity starting during the 16th century and lasting until the Flemish emancipation during the 20th century is explained by the bloody Spanish suppression of Reformation in the Southern Netherlands, provoking a massive emigration and brain drain to the North, and the successive extortionate occupations by Spanish, Austrian, French and .... (Frenchizing) Belgian dominators (with a short interval during a 15 year re-union with the North, vehemently disapproved of by the Catholic Church).
Some major contributions to western culture are discussed in the next sections. (As a rule, we avoid renown Flemish people who are still living).
A guide to some Flemish locality names: