Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Southern Netherlands and the Dutch Republic grew apart culturally. In the Southern Netherlands, French was the primary medium of the cultural and intellectual elite. Not until the end of the 18th century did that change. The absolutism of the Austrian monarchy gave rise to political resistance and thence to a sense of a separate “Belgian” identity. It was in this context that the first publications appeared in defence of the region’s “neglected” Netherlandic vernacular, notably the Verhandeling op d’onacht der moederlyke tael in de Nederlanden (“Treatise on the disregard for the mother tongue in the Low Countries”, 1787-88), by the Brussels lawyer Jan Baptist Verlooy. National consciousness and promotion of Netherlandic also went hand in hand in the linguistic and literary journal Tyd-verdryf (1805-06), published by Frans D. van Daele (Vaelande) in Ieper/Ypres, West Flanders.
Under the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-30), King William I pursued a cultural policy actively intended to unite the northern and southern parts of the country as a single national entity. The priest Leo de Foere opposed this with his articles in Le spectateur belge, which associated language and nationality with traditional Catholicism. The chief proponent of North-South unity was the private scholar Jan Frans Willems, who backed up his calls for the adoption of Netherlandic as the language of the entire nation with the publication of a patriotic literary history, Verhandeling over de Nederduytsche taal- en letterkunde, opzigtelyk de zuydelyke provintien der Nederlanden (“Treatise on the Netherlandic language and literature, most particularly concerning the Southern provinces of the Netherlands”, 1819-24).
With the independence of the new Belgian nation state in 1830 came a complete change of direction. Intellectuals, authors and journalists were now asked to help build a Pan-Belgian national culture, distinct from that of the country’s neighbours and embracing its French-speaking and Flemish-speaking parts. Although they played no active political role, Flemish philologists engaged with Belgian cultural nationalism in their writings: Constant P. Serrure’s Verwaerlozing der Nederduitsche tael (“The neglect of the Netherlandic language”, 1832), Jan Frans Willems’s influential Redevoering over den geest, waardoor de Vlaamsche letterkunde zich moet doen onderscheiden (“Address concerning the spirit needed for a distinctive Flemish literature”, 1844), studies on the protection and regulation of the language (including fierce debate on whether or not to adopt a common system of spelling with the Netherlands) and literary histories (Ferdinand Snellaert, Verhandeling over de Nederlandsche dichtkunst in België; “Treatise on Netherlandic literature in Belgium”, 1838).
With the rapid development of a revitalized Belgian literature in Netherlandic (which later would also become specifically Flemish in cultural orientation) philologists soon moved from linguistic advice to full-fledged literary criticism. Above all, they saw it as their task to ensure that Flemish authors maintained the right balance between observing the new literary code of European (i.e. French) Romanticism and pursuing their own national agenda. Leading critics in the region’s two centres, Gent and Louvain, were Ferdinand Snellaert and Jan Baptist David, who drew on post-classicist as well as Romantic aesthetics. Given a position of cultural authority as professor of Netherlandic language and literature at the Catholic University of Louvain, David acted as the principal advocate of Belgium’s national letters. His attitude towards the boisterous group of young Romantics in Antwerp (Jan De Laet, Theodoor van Ryswyck and Hendrik Conscience) was one of stern paternalism; his criticism in the journal De middelaer played an important role in shaping the national role of Flemish literature. Initially, in his view, this was expected to defend Belgian independence. Flemish-Netherlandic, native and vernacular as it was, was better suited to express a Belgian identity than French-language literature. From 1840 onwards, however, the emphasis shifted towards the specifically Flemish identity within Belgian culture, and it was argued that writers should express and thematize the characteristics of the Flemish people so as to aid their cultural development, refinement and emancipation.
Catholic critics also focused on the religious aspect, with the Catholic Church keeping a strict watch on the morality of literary production – in 1843 even issuing a pastoral letter denouncing “immoral” literature. From about 1840 onwards, a marked ideological divide began to open up between Catholic and liberal opinion, only partially transcended by a common set of national values. These translated into literary practice as moderate or “healthy” realism, simplicity, closeness to nature and a rejection of the excesses and immorality generally associated with French literature. Belgian writing was expected to be original, but not purely artistic. It also had to be idealizing and pragmatic, with a view to improving the material and moral condition of its intended readership.
During the 1870s, critics associated with the Flemish Art Movement – the likes of Julius Sabbe, Juliaan de Vriendt and Peter Benoit – reconciled this Romantic cultural nationalism with innovative aesthetics and positivistic determinism. They saw artistic creation as an original expression by the individual inspired by his/her natural affiliation with the ethnic characteristics of the Flemish race. There is a similar rapprochement between artistry, truth (in this case, in its Christian version) and nationality in Hugo Verriest: authentic artistic expression is part of the general revival of the Flemish people enshrined in his rallying cry “Dat volk moet herleven!” (“This nation must reawaken!”). These ideas also informed the positions adopted by the writers and intellectuals of the turn of the century associated with the journal Van nu en straks, that – with August Vermeylen as their principal spokesman – would situate their commitment to Flemish national culture and literature in a supranational, European orientation.