Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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The novel : Flemish and Belgian

  • Literature (fictional prose/drama)BelgianFlemish
  • Cultural Field:
    Texts and stories
  • Author:
    Couttenier, Piet
  • Text:

    The Flemish historical novel

    The Belgian cultural nationalism which emerged after independence in 1830 was primarily historical in nature. By publishing academic studies and source texts, historians and philologists reconstructed the young state’s past. The role played by narrative fiction in this historicism was very minor, although the bilingual author Henri-Guillaume Moke (1803–1862) enjoyed a certain standing in the literary life of the newly-independent country, with novels like Philippine van Vlaanderen, of de gevangenen der Louvre (“Philippine, Countess of Flanders, or the prisoners of the Louvre”, 1833). This situation was changed by the towering figure of Hendrik Conscience. Inspired by Moke and by international examples, most importantly Walter Scott, he made his debut with a novel set in two key episodes of Flemish history: the 16th-century Revolt against Spain (In ’t Wonderjaer, 1566, “In the miraculous year 1566”, 1837) and the Middle Ages (De Leeuw van Vlaenderen of de slag der Gulden Sporen, 1838; published in English as The Lion of Flanders).

    Conscience’s debut work comprises a series of historical evocations of the Revolt, mixing the fight for freedom with melodrama and Romantic horror. De Leeuw van Vlaenderen relates the conflict in which the Flemish municipalities vanquished the king of France’s army at Courtrai on 11 July 1302 in what is known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs. Fictional though it is, the work is well researched and faithful to the facts. However, Conscience portrays the Flemish cause as a heroic struggle of symbolic significance, thus turning the novel into a timeless story of sacred resistance against foreign domination. It thus configures the 1302 battle as a template for the Belgian Revolt and secession of 1830. What is more, the principal protagonists are not noblemen but the guild leaders of the Flemish cities, turning the book into a national epic for the Flemish people. During the following century, the Flemish Movement would adopt numerous symbols from De Leeuw in its struggle for emancipation and autonomy: slogans and battle cries (“Wat wals is, vals is”; “Schild en vriend!”), flying the lion flag and brandishing goedendags (battle maces) at mass meetings. The novel galvanized a new Flemish national consciousness and lodged the Battle of the Golden Spurs in the Flemish collective memory: 11 July is now the official holiday of the Flemish community; the lion rampant still adorns the flag of Flanders, and is evoked in the Flemish national anthem.

    Following Conscience, the patriotic historical novel remained an exceptionally popular genre in Flanders throughout the century. Its subject matter was extended to include the nation’s tribal ancestors, De oude Belgen (“The ancient Belgians”, 1854, by Lodewijk Gerrits). Patriotic themes were also blended with Romantic motifs like violence, eroticism and parody, as in Jan de Laet’s rebel novel Het Huis van Wesenbeke (“The house of Wesenbeke”, 1842). Pieter Ecrevisse’s De Bokkenryders in het Land van Valkenburg (“The Buckriders in the Land of Valkenburg”, 1845) is a mix of historical novel and heroic outlaw tale, using the struggle against banditry to idealize the peasantry’s innate goodness. In Bernhart, de laet (“Bernhart the serf”, 1847), Eugeen Zetternam projected the social struggle of the 19th century onto a medieval setting. And in Kapitein Blommaert of de Boschgeuzen te Audenaerde (“Captain Blommaert, or the forest brigands of Oudenarde”, 1841), Joseph Ronsse brings to life a local hero of the Revolt, but in the end also reveals the dark side of the uprising. Ultimately, however, the historical novel’s break with Catholic tradition took its toll. It was Conscience himself who went the furthest in seeking to close the breach: to the indignation of his literary colleagues, in 1843 he bowed to the pressure of religious opinion and rewrote his first novel, turning the national struggle for freedom into a battle for the restoration of Catholic supremacy.

    Conscience’s historical novels contain a political and social message intended for an audience much greater than his relatively small Flemish readership. In De Boerenkryg (“The Peasants’ War”, 1853) he examines the brief revolt of 1798 against a series of stringent anti-clerical measures imposed by the French Republic following its annexation of the Southern Netherlands. The foreword breathes Belgian patriotism, and the novel itself interprets the uprising as a Belgian revolt against foreign occupation while calling for a return to the values and religion of the ancien régime. Jacob van Artevelde (1849), celebrating the 14th-century captain-general of Gent, is a patriotic, anti-French plea for public responsibility and political consensus in the wake of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848. Other Flemish writers followed Conscience’s example. In De wolfjager, de Kempen in den Spaenschen tyd (“The wolf-hunter, the Campine under Spanish rule”, 1860), August Snieders describes the political tensions of the Reformation and the anti-Spanish revolt to advance his own 19th-century ideal of solidarity between the Low Countries.

    The historical novel remained popular in Flanders well into the second half of the century. A variety of social and ideological opinions were aired in stories of different kinds. In 1871, Conscience published yet another voluminous and influential example of the genre, De Kerels van Vlaanderen (“The Carles of Flanders”). The subject matter was drawn from historical studies and source texts – the published version of a medieval anti-peasant song in the newly edited Gruuthuuse Manuscript and Joseph Kervyn de Lettenhove’s Histoire de Flandre – to evoke a 12th-century faction/clan, the Kerels (also known as the “Bluefeet” from the colour of their footwear), from the Flemish coastlands then called Kerlingaland. Conscience follows antiquarian speculation of the period to posit these Kerels as a tribe of freely-descended settlers resisting feudal control, and so by extension as the precursors of the popular sovereignty dear to Romantic Nationalists. The novel sparked a wave of Kerel rhetoric, with Flemish student activists adopting the “Bluefoot” as their symbol – at first in the form of a predatory seabird with greyish-blue feet (the “sea eagle”), later as a seagull. Albrecht Rodenbach used the slogan Vliegt de Blauwvoet, storm op zee (“The bluefoot flies, storm on the sea”) as the refrain of his Lied der Vlaamse zonen (“Song of the Flemings’ sons”), a battle song for the youth and student movement.

    Rustic-sentimental Realism

    It was Conscience, too, who between 1845 and 1850 introduced the genre originally known as the “rural novella” or “village novel”, and later as “regional literature”, to Flanders, taking his cue from Swiss, German and French examples: Heinrich Zschokke, Berthold Auerbach, George Sand. These idealized, picturesque evocations of country life carry nationalist, moral, social and sometimes overtly political overtones. Conscience chose as his setting the unspoilt, pre-modern Campine, a region of heathland and spruce forests with a sparse population of hard-working, hospitable farmers and labourers, known for their traditional customs and rituals. As life here had changed little in centuries, it provided an unrivalled source of knowledge about the “uncorrupted” ways and practices of a pre-modern Flemish community, and hence represented a treasury of national ethnic characteristics. Conscience invests its rural inhabitants with a moral purity that stands in stark contrast with the dubious trappings of civilized or modern society. Typical of his regional oeuvre are the novellas Rikke-tikke-tak and Blinde Rosa (“Blind Rosa”), as well the short novel De loteling (“The conscript”, 1850), the story of a simple Campine peasant who returns to his home village after a disastrous period of army service. The countryside is by no means free of evil and violence, but innate rustic integrity ensures a happy ending. Following in Conscience’s footsteps, August Snieders published De arme schoolmeester (“The poor schoolmaster”, 1851) and Het bloemengraf (“The flowered grave”, 1854).

    These didactic evocations of the Flemish nation’s rustic backbone also played into the genre of the historical novel or play. Jan Renier Snieders’s De hut van Wartje Nulph, een episode uit de krygstochten van Maurits van Nassau (“Wartje Nulph’s cabin: An episode from the campaigns of Maurice of Nassau”, 1853) is set in the late 16th century; Ecrevisse’s novels likewise combine rural local colour with a historical setting, e.g. the aforementioned De Bokkenryders in het land van Valkenburg; also Het meilief van Geleen (“The May Queen of Geleen”, 1858). In all of these works, authenticity, loyalty, generosity, valour, faith, sense of community and other virtues relevant to the patriotic discourse shape the exemplary behaviour of historical individuals or groups localized in an idyllic, unspoilt rural arcadia – a setting which reinforces the novel’s impact. And the author’s engagement is only heightened if he is writing about his own native ground.

    The Francophone/Walloon tradition

    The high point of this rustic-popular inflection of Romantic historicism came with a highly successful novel that, set in Flanders, was written in French: Charles de Coster’s La légende et les aventures héroïques, joyeuses et glorieuses dUlenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak au pays de Flandres et ailleurs (1867). A Rabelaisian celebration of earthy Flemish folk life (featuring, as protagonist, the legendary picaresque trickster Tijl Uilenspiegel), it is set in the period of the anti-Spanish Revolt, of which it grimly evokes the cruelties and hostilities, and which it celebrates as an expression of the nation’s indomitable will to freedom. De Coster (1827–1879), unlike the Flemish authors an anticlerical Liberal, draws on a Pan-Belgian nationalism, written in French, which had earlier been expressed by Moke and which has subsequently been drawn into a more specifically Flemish register by Conscience and his followers. In the meantime, the French-language historical novel in Belgium had gravitated to Liège themes (like Charles the Bold’s wars against Liège, and the unsuccessful relief attempt by the 600 Franchimont soldiers in 1468) pursued by writers from the Liège-based Association pour l’encouragement et le développement de la littérature en Belgique (1835), e.g. Charles Grandgagnage and Victor Joly.

    Word Count: 1597

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  • Bemong, Nele; Vormen en functies van de Belgische historische roman (1827-1850): Een poëticale en chronotopisch-narratologische genrestudie (doctoral thesis; Leuven: KU Leuven, 2007).

    Berg, Willem van den; Couttenier, Piet; Alles is taal geworden (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2009).

    Beyen, Marnix; Held voor alle werk: De vele gedaanten van Tijl Uilenspiegel (Antwerpen: Houtekiet, 1998).

    Couttenier, Piet; “Nationale beelden in de Vlaamse literatuur van de 19e eeuw”, in Deprez, Kas; Vos, Louis (eds.); Nationalisme in België: Identiteiten in beweging, 1780-2000 (Antwerp: Houtekiet, 1999), 60-69.

    Deprez, Kas; Vos, Louis (eds.); Nationalism in Belgium: Shifting identities, 1780-1995 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

    Klinkenberg, Jean-Marie; Style et archaïsme dans «La Légende d’Ulenspiegel» de Charles De Coster (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1973).

    Leerssen, Joep; “Retro-fitting the Past: Literary Historicism between the Golden Spurs and Waterloo”, in Dunthorne, Hugh; Wintle, Michael (eds.); The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Britain and the Netherlands countries (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 113-131.

    Rottiers, S.; “L’honneur des 600 Franchimontois”, in Morelli, Anne (ed.); Les grands mythes de l’histoire de Belgique, de Flandre et de Wallonie (Brussels: Vie ouvrière, 1995), 67-82.

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Couttenier, Piet, 2022. "The novel : Flemish and Belgian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 27-03-2023.