The Flemish Movement: How language shaped Belgium

Monday, 23 July 2018 11:40
Students in Leuven are protesting furiously: Leuven Vlaams! and Walen buiten! (Walloons, get out!). French-speaking students are fearful. Should they leave Leuven, where they have always been studying and living?
These events of January 1968 shocked Belgium. In Leuven, French-speaking students and professors, together with their entire faculties, were told to leave the University, which was located in the officially Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. What drastic changes were taking place in the unitary Kingdom of Belgium of 1830, which for years was ruled by a solely French-speaking government?

People from abroad often call Belgium a complex nation with two different cultures, confusing institutions and too many governments. The north of the country is often called Flanders and the south Wallonia. Due to a process of state reforms implemented since 1970, Belgium today consists of three official regions: the Flemish Region in the north, the Brussels Capital Region in the country’s geographical heart and the Walloon Region in the south of the country.

In addition, Belgium has a Flemish Community, a French Community and a German-speaking Community (in the Walloon Region) that deals with culture and education, all with their own governments. To reduce the number of governments, the Flemish Region and Community merged in 1980. Add the Belgian Federal Government and there are a total of six governments to administer a country of 11 million people.

Belgium has three official languages, Dutch, French and German, but the country itself is neither bilingual nor trilingual. Nor can you officially be addressed in English. The official language of the Flemish Region is Dutch, while the institutions in the Walloon Region (minus the German-speaking Community) speak French.

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Map showing the language borders in Belgium today, declared in 1962. Green denotes the Flemish region and the Dutch-speaking area. In its heart, in grey, lies bilingual Brussels. The French-speaking area is in blue and the German-speaking area in yellow, together forming the Wallonian region. Belgium currently has 11.3 million inhabitants, with 6.5 million in the Flemish region, 3.6 million in the Wallonian region and 1.2 million in Brussels.

The Brussels Capital Region (with its 19 municipalities, including the City of Brussels) has two official languages, Dutch and French, since it is part of both the Flemish Community and the French Community. To make a political statement, the French Community renamed itself the Walloon-Brussels Federation in 2011. What has happened to the unitary Belgian state, as we described it in the previous issue of the magazine?

The unitary state of Belgium in 1830

When the southern provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands seceded to form Belgium in 1830, it already consisted of Dutch and French speaking people. The new kingdom was literally located at the crossroads of Latin and Germanic cultures. The Dutch King William I’s project of strong national unity with one official language, Dutch, was fiercely opposed by the French-speaking elites. In fact, their opposition paved the way for Belgian independence. The freedom of language in Belgium was used by the government as the right to use French.

However, the federal government of the Kingdom of Belgium actually ignored the cultural pattern of its Dutch-speaking inhabitants, who lived mainly in the northern part of the country and formed a majority in the country. The many differences in pronunciation and the lack of uniform spelling, due to provincial dialects, worked to their disadvantage. In fact, the Provisional Government in 1830 saw the lack of uniformity in its “langues flamande et allemande” as problematic and quickly used it as a pretext to publish laws in French only.

It is said that prominent politician and revolutionary Charles Rogier (Prime Minister in 1847) put it more bluntly in a letter to the Minister of Justice Jean-Joseph Raikem in 1832. If the only official administrative language in the administration was French, the Flemish would feel obliged to learn this language and “so we will gradually be able to destroy the Germanic part of Belgium”. Since that letter was never found or perhaps never existed, it is thought to be a Flemish myth according to French-speaking historians.

French had long been the main cultural language in the country and was already the dominant language in the cities and among elite groups in the whole country. Therefore, it was also strongly represented in the upper echelon of the army, the courts and the civil service. French was considered the language of the Enlightenment. Resulting from anti-Dutch sentiments in the new nation, there was also a strong turn towards French. Brussels became even more francophone, a process that had already started a century earlier, and its Dutch-speaking inhabitants became a minority.

Start of a Flemish Movement


When the hostilities by the Kingdom of the Netherlands towards Belgium finally ceased in 1839 and the new nation was formally recognised, Belgian politics could start to focus more on its own internal challenges. Unionism had united traditional antagonistic liberals and Catholic clerics against King William I. It made the Belgian revolution possible. But it was now abandoned and gave way to diverging political paths.

Although there was a personal freedom of language, French was the only official language in the new nation. However, already in the 1830s the first Belgian magazines in Dutch were published, closely followed by a renewed scholarly interest in the language and influenced by the romantic movement.

Hendrik Conscience wrote his famous book De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (The Lion of Flanders) in 1838, popularizing the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, where the Flemish successfully stood up against the French. The battle had largely been forgotten by the public up until that moment. The book was enormously popular and fed a further cultural awakening among the Dutch-speaking people in Belgium in the years to come. It was even said that Conscience “taught his people to read”.

A petition in 1840, signed by about 13,000 people, asked for an equal share of the Dutch and French languages to be used in the north of the country in schools, administration and courts. The first language census of 1846 counted 4,337,000 Belgians; almost 57% of those questioned declared that they only spoke Dutch. This meant the country was being ruled de facto by a minority of French speaking francophones. In 1848, the first voices where heard demanding a bilingual statute for the north of the country.

In fact, festivities in 1855 celebrating a quarter century of the birth of Belgium did not arouse much enthusiasm among many Dutch-speaking intellectuals in Flanders. They complained that their people’s language was not respected at all. The government instigated a Grievance Commission in 1856, the first time the delicate matter was recognized. Some demands were paternalistically met, but any political power was still out of the question. This caused the Flemish Movement to become radicalized.

Ongoing efforts since 1841 resulted in 1863 in a special commission in Belgium. It standardized the spelling of the Dutch language to unite the Vlaemsch and Hollandsch (as the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands was called). The results were published in 1864 and accepted in Belgium, to be followed by its adoption by the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1883.

 Battle of the Golden Spurs

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The Battle of Courtrai (better known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs, later on) pictured in a late 14th century manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. In front, we see French nobles being slain by the Flemish weapon, the godendac (goedendag). It could be used both as a pike and a club.

The remnants of the medieval County of Flanders lay in today’s Belgium and are today known as West Flanders and East Flanders. A part of it in the north was annexed by the Netherlands and lives on as Zeelandic Flanders. The most southern part fell into the hands of France, as French Flanders (in the Département du Nord). The historical County of Flanders only consists of two of the five provinces that form modern day Flanders.

From 862 and onwards, the County of Flanders was a feudal fiefdom of the Kingdom of West Francia. This county became very prosperous with powerful city-states, such as Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, Lille and Douai, which tried to maintain their independence from the count of Flanders. 

An effort under the French Crown, following revolts, to fully annex the County of Flanders led to the legendary French defeat in the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. This name of the battle alluded to the fact that about 500 pairs of golden spurs were said to be found on the fallen Frenchmen in the battlefield in today’s Kortrijk.

The French were shocked to discover that in the early morning of 19 May 1302, the people of Bruges murdered every Frenchman found in the city. Following a further general rebellion, the French intended to punish the Flemish. On 11 July, their cavalry led by overly courageous noblemen were wiped out by the Flemish infantry, which used long pikes in the muddy battlefield.

The Flemish Movement found a welcome inspiration in this famous battle, also due to the renewed interest in the Middle Ages in 19th and 20th century Belgium. As with the birth of Belgium, Flemish nationalist historians and authors were quick to write their own history, linking up the County of Flanders to Flanders (northern part of Belgium) today. However, the parallels with their own cultural struggle were too easily transposed to the feudal conflict between the County of Flanders and medieval France. To commemorate its importance in Flemish history, the Flemish Community has recognised the date of the battle, 11 July, as its official holiday since 1973.

Radicalization and counter-reaction

The first wave of the Flemish Movement, apolitical and mostly concerned with the language issue and thus elitist in nature, was followed by a second wave. It gained strong Catholic support by prominent figures such as priest and poet Guido Gezelle in 1870-1878. Support by students was spearheaded by Albrecht Rodenbach. They wanted Dutch (Vlaams, but not Hollands) to be recognized as an official language in Belgium. Now the Movement went beyond culture and language. It started to concern itself with socio-economic inequality, which gave it a much broader character and support in the nation.

In 1860, the conviction of two Dutch-speaking men, Coucke and Goethals, by a Wallonian court, without the accused being able to understand the judge and without them being properly understood by their lawyer, caused a shock, especially when they were executed and later said to be innocent. From 1873 on, a slew of legislation concerning language followed. Dutch became the primary language in courts in Flanders. Since 1883, primary schooling would be entirely in Dutch and secondary schools were required to provide five complete courses in Dutch.

These developments were opposed by the French-speaking elites, also by those in the north of Belgium. They felt threatened by the recent bursts of Flemish cultural awakening and saw their political and cultural hegemony threatened. A strong Wallonian counter reaction, formalized in 1880 as the Mouvement de Défense Wallonne et Francophone, demanded the use of French as the sole language in all of Belgium.

It became clear that the government gave further official status to the Dutch language when coins (1886), bank notes (1888) and postage stamps (1891) were issued in both languages. In 1887, even King Leopold II made an oration in Dutch, followed by the first speeches in Dutch in the Belgian Parliament. The Equality Law of 1898 made Dutch (still called Vlaamsche taal) an official language in Belgium, leading to laws being published in both languages. These laws were fiercely opposed by the Walloon Movement, as they thought that it spelled the end of unitary Belgium.

The Front Movement during World War I (1914-1918) turned out to be instrumental in the Flemish Movement. The majority of the soldiers spoke Dutch, yet their officers gave their orders them in French. During the war, the Flemish Movement turned anti-Belgium.

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The official flag of the Flemish Region, the Lion of Flanders with the heraldic leopard standardized as a lion. The nationalist branches of the Flemish Movement use a more stylized flag, leaving out one colour since it reminds them too much of the black, yellow and red colours of the Belgian flag.

The activists collaborated with the Germans, hoping for an independent state of Flanders after the war. Their actions would lead to strong criticism afterwards, since they were perceived to have betrayed the Belgian nation. The passivists (also called minimalists) hoped for language law reforms after the war as the Front Party. After the end of the war, the German-speaking East Cantons were added to the realm of Belgium in 1920 by the Treaty of Versailles.

In 1921, the territorial principle was implemented. The majority of inhabitants of a community determined the linguistic area (Dutch or French) with a recount every 10 years. Gent University became bilingual in 1923 and by 1930 uniformly Dutch speaking. Also in 1930, education in Dutch was added to the Catholic University of Leuven. From 1932, government services also followed the principle and the regional language became the main language.

In the following years the language issue was overshadowed by other problems but World War II deepened the rift between the two linguistic communities.

A language barrier splitting the country

In 1962, the language areas were formalised, creating a linguistic barrier through the middle of the country. And in 1967, there finally was an official Dutch version of the Belgian Constitution.

The division of the province of Brabant into Dutch-speaking and French-speaking parts led to the infamous January 1968 revolts in Leuven. The Catholic University of Leuven, with both Dutch and French faculties, was granted an exception in the law. It was now a bilingual island in the officially Dutch-part of the country, and could legally establish new faculties outside of Leuven. But the influence of French was still feared, in those tense times of the Flemish cultural struggle. An entirely new city, Louvain-la-Neuve, was built to host a French-language university.

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Protesting Leuven students calling for “Leuven Vlaams” (A Flemish Leuven) being clubbed by the Belgian gendarmerie, the paramilitary federal force, on 18 January 1968 at the height of the turmoils. Legal actions by the government led to the displacement of the French-speaking branches of the Catholic Leuven University to the completely new town Louvain-la-Neuve, which was in fact already secretly underway because of tensions in the previous year.

The first state reform of 1970 put the precursors of the French Community and Flemish Community into effect. The traditional national political parties split into Dutch- and French-speaking branches, focusing on their own communities and the federal government. The southern part of the country wanted more socio-economic autonomy leading to the birth of the Regions, which would be worked out in 1980. In 1993, the Constitution was changed to reflect that Belgium had become a federal state. A total of six state reforms further balanced and refined the structures and were finalized (for the time being) in 2010-2011.

The cultural and political awakening of the Flemish changed the unitary state Belgium. It became a federal state where competencies and powers were decentralized to regional and language community levels with their own needs. Local self-government increased and the way how democracy functions changed.

Belgium as a whole became more difficult to govern. And radical parties, which present themselves as the sole heirs of the Flemish movement, are looking for even more autonomy or ultimately, independence. The process of finding the right balance between the federal and other levels is very much still a work in progress. 

Flemish or Dutch language in Belgium

After the Franks from the 3rd century had conquered what we call today the north of France, the Gallo-Romans called the land Francia and their own Romance language franceis. Because of this, the Franks named their own Germanic language theudisk, meaning “of the people”, giving rise to the terms Diets and Duits. The latter term became Dutch in English. It is often confused with Deutsch of the Germans today, since they were once seen as the same language. 

The Dutch language, today mainly spoken in the Netherlands and the northern half of Belgium, has also been called NederduitsNederlands and Vlaams. Its dialects were referred to as HollandsBrabants and Limburgs but they all actually denote the same language.

Flanders (Vlaanderen) and Flemish (Vlaams) were originally only territorial terms. They referred to the old County of Flanders, later to the provinces of East Flanders and West FlandersFlanders had been split in two départements by the French after the annexation in 1795. The name dates back to the 8th century designation, Flandris, meaning “in flooded land” and referred to the coast. 

Since 1860, the name started to be used by intellectuals to geographically denote the Dutch speaking northern part of the country, showing their cultural awakening and emancipation. Today, Flanders as such is nowhere to be found in any law or official text in Belgium.

Flemish as a name for the language was first used by the French (Flameng) around 1500, when the Flemish people called their language Diets. In Italian and Spanish, Flemish was referred to as Flamenco, which also referred to the Dutch language in the Netherlands.

Around 1850 in West Flanders and East FlandersFlemish was used to denote their language itself. In the other provinces it was still called Diets, with a small part of the population calling their dialects Duits (allemande according to the Provisional Government). 

When people in Belgium today say they speak Flemish, they are in fact using a gallicism, a term of French origin. It is clear that the people in the north of Belgium needed some linguistic unification, which paradoxically did happen when Belgium’s unitary French government was imposed on them. The term that is used today, Nederlands, started to set firmer foot in the north of Belgium in 1864 with the newly adopted spelling. 

By Tom Vanderstappen
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