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Designated in the eighth century a small territory around Bruges; it became later the name of the country bounded by the North Sea, the Scheldt, and the Canche; in the fifteenth century it was even used by the Italians and the Spaniards as the synonym for the Low Countries; today Flanders belongs for the most part to Belgium, comprising the provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders. A part of it, known as French Flanders, has gone to France, and another small portion to Holland.

Flanders is an unpicturesque lowland, whose level is scarcely above that of the sea, which accounts for the fact that a great part of it was for a long time flooded at high water. The country took its present aspect only after a line of downs had been raised by the sea along its shore. The soil of Flanders, which for the most part was unproductive, owes its present fertility to intelligent cultivation; its products are various, but the most important are flax and hemp; dairying, market-gardening, and the manufacture of linens are the main Flemish industries. At the time of its conquest by the Romans, Flanders was inhabited by the Morini, the Menapii, and the Nervii. Most probably these tribes were of partly Teutonic and partly Celtic descent, but, owing to the almost total absence of Roman colonies and the constant influx of barbarians, the Germanic element soon became predominant. The Flemings of today may be considered as a German people whose language, a Low-German dialect, has been very slightly, if at all, influenced by Latin.

It is likely that Christianity was first introduced into Flanders by Roman soldiers and merchants, but its progress must have been very slow, for Saint Eloi (Eligius, c. 590-660) tells us that in his days almost the whole population was still heathen, and the conversion of the Flemings was not completed until the beginning of the eighth century. Towards the middle of the ninth century, the country around Bruges was governed by a marquess or "forester" named Baldwin, whose bravery in fighting the Northmen had won him the surname of Iron Arm. Baldwin married Judith, daughter of the Emperor Charles the Bald, and received from his father-in-law, with the title of count, the country bounded by the North Sea, the Scheldt, and the Canche. Thus was founded, in 864, the County of Flanders. Baldwin I was a warm protector of the clergy, and made large grants of land to churches and abbeys. He died in 878. His successors were Baldwin II, the Bald (878-919), Arnold I (919-964), Baldwin III (958-961), and Arnold II (964-989), who could not prevent Hugh Capet from annexing the County of Boulogne to the royal domain of France. The son of Arnold II, Baldwin IV, the Bearded (989-1036), was a brave and pious prince. He received from the Emperor Henry II the imperial castle of Ghent and its territory. From that time there were two Flanders: Flanders under the Crown, a French fief; and imperial Flanders, under the suzerainty of Germany. Baldwin V, of Lille (1036-67), added to his domains the County of Eenhan or Alost. He was regent of France during the minority of Philip I. Baldwin VI, of Mons (1067-70), was also Count of Hainault in consequence of his marriage to Richilde, heiress of that county. He reigned only three years, and was succeeded in Flanders by his brother Robert the Friesman (1070-1093). Robert II, of Jerusalem (1093-1111), took a leading part in the First Crusade. He annexed Tournai to Flanders and died fighting for his suzerain. His son Baldwin VII, Hapkin (1111-1119), enforced strict justice among the nobility. Like his father, he died while supporting the cause of his suzerain. His successor was Charles, son of Saint Canute of Denmark (1119-27). The new count was a saintly prince and a great lover of peace. His stern justice, however, angered a few greedy nobles, who murdered him while he was praying in the church of Saint-Donat in Bruges. Louis VI, King of France, then gave the County of Flanders to William of Normandy, a grandson of the Conqueror, but William's high-handed way of governing the country soon made him unpopular and the Flemings turned to Thierry of Alsace, a descendant of Robert I. William died in the war which ensued, and Thierry's candidacy received the royal sanction. Thierry (1128-68) granted privileges to the Flemish communes, whose origin dates from this period, and took part in the Second Crusade. His son Philip (1168-91) granted new privileges to the communes, did much to foster commerce and industry, and was a generous protector of poets. He made a political blunder when he gave up Artois to France as the dowry of his niece, as this dismemberment of the county led to many wars with the latter country. Philip died in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. His successor was his brother-in-law, Baldwin VIII, the Bold, of Hainault (1191-95). Baldwin IX (1195-1205) is famous in history as the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople. He died in 1205 in a war against the Bulgarians, and the Counties of Flanders and Hainault passed to his daughter Jeanne, who had married Ferdinand of Portugal. This prince was involved in the war of King John of England against Philip II of France, and was made a prisoner at the battle of Bouvines (1214). He was released in 1228, only to die shortly afterwards. Jeanne (1205-1244) administered the counties wisely during her husband's captivity, and after his death she increased the liberties of the communes to counteract the influence of the nobility--a policy which was followed by her sister Margaret, who succeeded her in 1244. Upon Margaret's death, in 1279, her children by her first husband (Bouchard d'Avesnes) inherited Hainault, while Flanders went to the Dampierres, her children by her second husband.

The battle of Bouvines was the beginning of a new era in the history of Flanders. Up to that time the counts had occupied the foreground; their place was henceforth taken by the communes, whose power reaches its acme in the course of the thirteenth century. Bruges, the Venice of the North, had then a population of more than 200,000 inhabitants; its fairs were the meeting place of the merchants of all Europe; Ghent and Ypres had each more than 50,000 men engaged in the cloth industry. This commercial and industrial activity, in which the rural classes had their share, brought to Flanders a wealth which manifested itself everywhere--in the buildings, in the fare of the inhabitants, in their dress. "I thought I was the only queen here," said the wife of Philip the Fair on a visit to Bruges, "but I see hundreds of queens around me." The intellectual and artistic activity of the time was no less remarkable. Then flourished Henry of Ghent, the Solemn Doctor; Van Maerlant, the great Flemish poet, and his continuator, Louis van Velthem; Philip Mussche, the chronicler, who became Bishop of Tournai; and the mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck. Then, too, were built the beautiful guild-halls, city-halls, and churches, which bear witness at once to the popular love for the fine arts and Flemish religious zeal-the guild-halls of Bruges and Ypres, the churches of the Holy Saviour and of Our Lady at Bruges, those of Saint-Bavon, Saint-Jacques and Saint-Nicolas at Ghent, and of Saint-Martin at Ypres. Still more worthy of admiration was the internal organization of the communes, which, owing to the beneficent influence of the Church, had become so powerful a factor in the moral welfare of the masses. Guy of Dampierre (1279-1305) succeeded his mother Margaret, and inaugurated a new policy in the administration of the county. His predecessors had on the whole been friendly to the wealthy classes in the Flemish cities, in whose hands were the most important offices of the communes. Guy, who aimed at absolute rule, sought the support of the guilds in his conflict with the rich. The latter appealed from his decisions to the King of France, the wily Philip the Fair, who readily seized upon this opportunity of weakening the power of his most important vassal. Philip constantly ruled against the count, who finally appealed to arms, but was defeated. Flanders then received a French governor, but the tyranny of the French soon brought about an insurrection, in the course of which some 3000 French were slaughtered in Bruges, and at the call of the two patriots, de Coninck and Breydel, the whole country rose in arms. Philip sent into Flanders a powerful army, which met with a crushing defeat at Courtrai (1302); after another battle, which remained undecided, the King of France resorted to diplomacy, but in vain, and peace was restored only in 1320, after Pope John XXII had induced the Flemings to accept it. Guy of Dampierre, who died in prison in 1305, was succeeded by his son Robert of Béthune, who had an uneventful reign of seventeen years. The successor of the latter was his grandson, Louis of Nevers (1322-1346), who was unfit for the government of Flanders on account of the French education he had received. Shortly after his accession, the whole country was involved in a civil war, which ended only after the Flemings had been defeated at Cassel by the King of France (1328).

At the breaking out of the Hundred Years War, the Flemish communes, whose prosperity depended on English wool, followed the advice of Ghent's great citizen, Jacques van Artevelde, and remained neutral; the count and nobility took the part of the French king. When the policy of neutrality could no longer be adhered to, the Flemings sided with the English and helped them to win the battle of Sluis (1340). By that time Van Artevelde had become practically master of the country, which was very prosperous under his rule. He was murdered in 1345, and Louis of Nevers was killed the next year at the battle of Crécy. His son Louis of Male (1346-1384) was a spendthrift. The communes paid his debts several times, but they finally refused to give him any more money. He managed, however, to get some from Bruges by granting to that city a licence to build a canal, which Ghent considered a menace to her commerce. A new civil war broke out between the two cities, and peace was not restored until Charles VI of France had defeated the insurgents at Roosebeke (1382). Louis of Male's successor was his son-in-law, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1384-1404). This prince and his son, John the Fearless (1404-1419), being mostly interested in the affairs of France, paid little attention to those of Flanders.

The situation changed after Philip the Good, third Duke of Burgundy (1419-1467), had united under his rule the whole of the Low Countries. Philip wanted to weaken the power of the communes for the benefit of the central government, and soon picked a quarrel with Bruges, which was compelled to surrender some of its privileges. Ghent's turn came next. A contention had arisen between that city and the duke over a question of taxes. War broke out, and the army of Ghent was utterly defeated at Gavre (1452), which city had to pay a heavy fine and to surrender her privileges. In 1446, Philip created the Great Council of Flanders, which, under Charles the Bold, became the Great Council of Mechlin. Appeals from the judgments of local courts were henceforth to be made to this council, not to the Parliament of Paris as before. Thus were severed the bonds of vassalage which for six centuries had connected Flanders to France. Philip was succeeded by Charles the Bold (1467-1477), the marriage of whose daughter to Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, brought Flanders with the rest of the Low Countries under the rule of the House of Hapsburg in 1477. In 1488, the communes tried to recover their independence. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the war was disastrous for Bruges, because it hastened her approaching decline. The main causes of this decline were: the silting up of her harbour, which became inaccessible to large vessels; the discovery of America, which opened new fields for European enterprise; the dissolution of the Flemish Hanse, whose seat was in Bruges; the unintelligent policy of the dukes towards England; and the civil wars of the preceding fifty years. The prosperity of Bruges passed to Antwerp. The reign of the House of Burgundy, in many respects so harmful to Flanders, was a period of artistic splendour. To that time belong Memling and the Van Eycks, the first representatives of the Flemish school of painters. Flemish literature on the whole declined, but a Fleming, Philippe de Comines, was the leading French writer of the fifteenth century. Another Fleming of that time, Thierry Maertens of Alost, was the Gutenberg of the Low Countries. Flanders can also claim two of the greatest scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Simon Stevin, mathematician and engineer, and the Jesuit Father Grégoire de Saint-Vincent, whom Leibniz considered the equal of Descartes.

Although the material condition of Flanders is today very satisfactory, the country has not recovered its former prosperity. And it is not likely that it ever will, not because of any decrease in the energy of the Flemish race, but because economic conditions have changed. Intellectually the Flemings of the twentieth century are still the true sons of the glorious generations which produced Van Maerlant, Van Artevelde, Rubens, and Van Dyck. perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that they have taken the lead in promoting the prosperity of Belgium. The Flemish tongue, which during the eighteenth century had fallen so low that in 1830 it was little more than a patois, has risen again to the rank of a literary language and can claim the larger portion of the literary production of Belgium in the last seventy-five years; nay, the Flemings have even made important contributions to French literature. In the fine arts, in the sciences, in politics, their activity is no less remarkable. They have given the Belgian Parliament some of its best orators and its ablest statesmen: Malou, Jacobs, Woeste, Beernaert, Schollaert. Above all they have retained, as the most precious inheritance of the past ages, the simple, fervent, vigorous faith of the crusaders and their filial attitude towards the Church. No country sends out a larger proportion of secular and regular missionaries, some of whom (like Father P.J. De Smet, the apostle of the American Indians) have attained a world-wide celebrity. Flanders may, indeed, be considered the bulwark of Catholicism in Belgium. The Socialists are well aware of this fact, but the Catholics realize it just as clearly, and their defence is equal to the enemy's attack. Every Flemish community has its parochial schools; the Catholic press is equal to its task; and the "Volk" of Ghent has been organized to counteract the evil influence of the Socialist "Voruit".


KERVYN DE LETTENHOVE, Hist. de Flandre (Brussels, 1848-50); M0KE AND HUBERT, Hist. de Belgique (Brussels, 1895); KURTH, Origines de la Civilisation Moderne (Brussels, 1886); HYMANS, Histoire parlementaire de la Belgique (Brussels, 1877-1906).

About this page

APA citation. Marique, P. (1909). Flanders. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Marique, Pierre. "Flanders." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Kerry Smith.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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