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LOCATION: Belgium (northern region, called Flanders)
POPULATION: 6.2 million
RELIGION: Roman Catholic; Protestant; small numbers of Jews and Muslims


The Flemings (or Flemish) are Belgium's ethnic majority. They inhabit the northern part of Belgium, which is called Flanders, and speak the Flemish language, which is closely related to Dutch. Present-day Belgium was originally inhabited by Celtic tribes and overrun by the Romans under Julius Caesar in 57 bc. Although Roman rule continued for 500 years, Roman culture was more strongly absorbed by the people in the southern part of the region, who would one day be known as Walloons and speak a dialect of French, a Latin-derived language. In the 5th century ad the Franks, a Germanic people, invaded the region and established control, although they maintained a stronger presence in its northern portion, where early forms of the Dutch language subsequently developed. Frankish settlements in the south were less extensive, allowing the Roman culture and Latin-based dialects already in existence to flourish.

Between the 9th and 12th centuries, both the northern and southern parts of the Belgian region fell under the control of feudal lords, and numerous duchies, principalities, and towns sprang up without any unifying center of power or culture, allowing the Germanic and Latin cultures of the two regions to continue developing along separate lines. Eventually the power of the nobles was challenged by the burghers of the cities, especially in Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent. As Flemish cities began to play a vital role in European trade, the area entered a cultural golden age in both music and art. However, beginning in the 16th century, both the Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons to their south came under the rule of a succession of foreign powers: Spain, the Austrian Habsburgs, the French under Napoleon, and, finally, the Netherlands. In spite of the Flemings' cultural and linguistic ties to Holland, they joined with the Walloons in revolting against Dutch rule, and the new Kingdom of Belgium was established in 1830.

Throughout the 19th century, the Walloons were the dominant group in Belgium both politically and economically. Their French language and culture were regarded as superior to those of the Flemings, and they led the nation in industrialization, while Flanders remained a primarily agricultural area. Belgium suffered enormous losses in both world wars. After World War II, structural and social problems had a debilitating effect on Wallonia's industries. By the 1930s Flanders had gained sufficient political and economic clout to make Flemish its official language for education, legal proceedings, and government. In the 1960s, the Flemings and Walloons were given political, social, and cultural autonomy over their respective regions. The intervening years have been a period of decline for Wallonia's traditional heavy industries, especially steel and coal, while Flanders has risen in importance as a center for international trade, high-tech manufacturing, and tourism. In 1993, Belgium's constitution was amended, making Flanders and Wallonia autonomous regions within the federal state of the Belgian kingdom, together with the nation's bilingual capital, Brussels, and another autonomous community composed of Belgium's German-speaking population. Belgium was locked in a political stalemate beginning in June 2007 when elections failed to produce a new government. The question arose as to whether or not Belgium should cease to exist as a country, and that the territory would be split into two—Flanders and Wallonia. The crisis was temporarily resolved in March 2008 when a new government was formed, and major reforms of state were planned.


The Flemings live in the northern part of Belgium, above an east-west line dividing the country's Flemish- and French-speaking regions. The Flemish-speaking provinces are East and West Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg, and part of Brabant. One of Belgium's two main rivers, the Scheldt, flows through Antwerp and into the North Sea. The land is mostly low, some of it below sea level, with about 64 km (40 mi) of scenic beaches along the West Flanders coast. Silt deposits have created a rich soil excellent for farming, formerly the economic mainstay of the region and still an important source of income. The Flemings, who account for 58% of Belgium's 10.4 million people, are descended from Celts, who originally inhabited their region, and from the Romans and Frankish invaders who followed. "Vlaanderen," the name for Flanders, is taken from "Pagus Flandrensus," the name of an 8th-century district in the region during the Carolingian era.


Flemish ( Vlaams) is a variant of Dutch that has been spoken for about 1,000 years north of a linguistic dividing line that runs from Aachen in the east to a point north of Lille in the west, skirting the Brussels area. Recognized in Belgium as an official state language, it is distinct from the Dutch spoken in the neighboring Netherlands. Even within Belgium, dialects vary from one region to another, distinguished by differences in pronunciation, individual words, and idiomatic expressions. Flemish does not have its own written language and uses standard Dutch modified by certain specifically Belgian features. The difference between Flemish and Dutch has been compared to that between English as spoken by people in Great Britain and in the United States. However, the difference between Flemish and Dutch may be even greater, as subtitles are sometimes used on Dutch television when Flemish movies are aired. Language differences between the Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons in the south have been Belgium's most divisive political issue.



The name of Antwerp-the major city in the Flemish part of Belgium-is derived from the name of a Roman hero who is said to have slain a malevolent giant and cut off his hand (the city's symbol is a red hand). Some of the Flemings' colorful pageants and festivals are based on local folklore, such as the Cat Festival of Ypres. This celebration is based on a legend, which exists in different versions, centering on the use of cats to control rodents in this historic city during the Middle Ages and the necessity of disposing of the cats when they became too numerous or were no longer needed. The festivals, held in their original form until 1817, used to involve throwing live cats out of windows. Since their revival in a more humane form in 1938, cloth cats have been used instead. In Belgium's famed marionette theaters, characters from folklore are associated with major cities. The Flemish ones include Schele (Antwerp) and Pierke (Ghent).


The vast majority of Flemish are Catholics. While virtually all are baptized and receive a Catholic education, many do not actively practice their religion, and some are even nonbelievers who remain nominally Catholic in order to avoid being cut off from the many social services administered through the Church. Flanders also has a Protestant minority that includes Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and other denominations. There are also Jewish and Muslim communities among the Flemish.


The Flemish observe Belgium's 10 public holidays: New Year's Day, Easter Monday, Labor Day (May 1), Independence Day (July 21), All Saints' Day (November 1), and Christmas. However, they also celebrate other dates on the Christian calendar (especially those that mark events in the life of Christ), as well as many folk holidays with origins in history and legend. Folk festivals and processions often involve the use of elaborate masks and papier-mâché "giants." The Flemings are especially well-known for their exuberant celebration of the pre-Lenten carnival season, which begins with the bommelfeesten in the East Flanders town of Ronse and continues for weeks. The famous Cat Festival takes place in Ypres on the second Sunday in May.


Rites of passage include major Catholic ceremonies such as baptisms, first Communions, marriages and funerals. Although most Flemish do not really practice Catholicism, the important events in a person's life tend to be occasions of major family reunions and stress their religious heritage. Special gifts and wishes will be given for baptisms, first Communions, and marriages.


Flemish manners are generally formal and polite, and conversations are marked by frequent exchanges of compliments and repeated handshaking.


Most Flemish homes, like those in neighboring Wallonia, are built of red brick. The conservatively furnished interiors are generally crowded with oversized armchairs and other large pieces of furniture, including wall units, or breakfronts, containing dishes, glasses, and other household items. It is also common to see religious artifacts and mementos displayed. Often the house will have a combined living room and dining area; large kitchens are also common. A distinctive feature of Belgian housing, and one especially characteristic of the Flemish, is the location of a shop or other small business at the same site as the family residence (an arrangement referred to as a winkelshuis or handelshuis).

Like all Belgians, the Flemish have access to modern medical care through private doctors and at state-run hospitals and clinics. The vast majority have most of their medical expenses covered by national health insurance. However, they tend to be negligent about dental care and often lose teeth due to decay. Many believe in alternative medical treatments, especially Oriental ones such as acupuncture. The Flemish port of Antwerp, the second largest in Europe (after Amsterdam), is the center of Belgium's water transport system, and the nation's railway network has its hub in Brussels.


The Flemish generally have larger families than their Walloon neighbors to the south. Nuclear rather than extended families are the norm, and married couples often run small businesses together. Traditionally it was frowned upon for an adult to remain single past his or her mid-thirties, and single adults usually lived with their parents until they married, contributing their earnings to the household income. Today, many young people living at home keep their earnings, which they spend on clothes, cars, and recreation. Also, since the 1970s it has become increasingly common for unmarried couples to live together. The divorce rate among the Flemish, as elsewhere in Belgium and throughout the West, has also risen, not only among young couples married for a year or two, but also among middle-aged couples married for 20 years or longer. The growing gap between generations, as well as the high incidence of dual-career families, has made it increasingly difficult for married couples to care for aging parents at home. The elderly commonly live in retirement communities or homes for the aged, and such facilities often have long waiting lists.


The Flemish, like all Belgians, wear modern Western-style clothing. However, in some rural areas, the traditional dark-colored farmer's garb can still be seen.


While Flemish cooking does reflect Dutch cultural influences to a certain extent, it has generally developed along its own lines. For example, the Flemish meat-and-vegetable stew (hochepot) consists of vegetables and meat in a clear broth, while in the Dutch version (hutspot), the vegetables are pureed, and the chunks of meat larger. Fish and shellfish are central to Flemish cuisine, with staples including mussels and herring. Lobster, shrimp, and oysters are also popular. Rabbit cooked in brown beer with stewed prunes is a regional specialty, as is waterzooi, a chowder made from vegetables and either chicken or fish. Dinner, the main meal of the day, is eaten at midday. A typical dinner consists of homemade soup, a meat entrée with vegetables, and fruit and pastry. The Flemings are great beer drinkers and brew some of the best beers in the world.


Many Flemish children go to Catholic private schools. Education for all Belgians is compulsory from age 6 through 15, and the national literacy rate is 99%. At the secondary level, students choose between trade-oriented, business, and college preparatory training. Some vocational schools maintain work-study apprenticeship programs, although students enrolled in them still live with their parents.


In the fine arts, the Flemish are particularly renowned for their painting. The works of Jan van Eyck and the other Flemish masters of the 15th century marked an important turning point in Western art by straying from the predominantly religious themes of the Middle Ages to reflect the lifestyles and concerns of the Flemish burghers who were their patrons. Other well-known Flemish painters of the Renaissance included Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, Peter Paul Rubens, and Anthony van Dyck.

Flemish literature began in the Middle Ages with works by authors including Heinrich von Veldeke, Jacob van Maerlant, and a Brabant nun named Hadewijch who wrote mystical dramas. During the hundreds of years of foreign rule that began with the Spanish in the 16th century, Flemish letters fell into decline but were revived after independence was attained in 1830. Established 10 years later, the Flemish Movement advocated the advancement of the Flemish culture and language and was also involved in struggles for political autonomy. Prominent 19th-century Flemish writers include Hendrik Conscience, author of The Lion of Flanders (De Leeaw van Vlaenderen) and lyric poet Guido Gezelle.

Well-known modern Flemish authors include novelists Louis Paul Boon and Hugo Claus. In the 16th century, the works of Orlando di Lasso combined the musical traditions of the Netherlands and Italy.


The Flemish are hard workers, often spending long hours running family-owned businesses, sometimes in addition to another source of income. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, Wallonia led Belgium in industrialization, while Flanders remained primarily involved in agriculture and trade. However, the lesser-developed Flemish region was able to obtain generous international aid in the years following World War II, and its large labor force and relatively low wages drew increasing foreign investment in the 1950s and 1960s. Its maritime advantages—the busy port city of Antwerp as well as the proximity of the North Sea—rounded out a picture of economic success. Major industries today include textiles, automobiles, and chemicals. Manufacturing in areas such as electronics and computer technology has grown, while the traditional heavy industries, including steelmaking and shipbuilding, have been on the decline.

The fertile, flat land in the Flemish region—of which three-fifths is suitable for farming—remains a source of agricultural income, supporting fruit, vegetables, animal feed, and grains. Today three out of four Belgians work in the service sector, and the Flemish regions have benefited from the growth of tourism to such cities as Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels.


The Flemish are enthusiastic players and fans of soccer, Belgium's national sport, and cycling is another favorite sport.


The Flemish people enjoy typical leisure time activities such as watching television and reading. Like many Belgians, they are avid gardeners, and nearly every home has a carefully tended garden. Other typical hobbies include stamp collecting and model trains. Popular cultural pastimes include concerts and the theater, and, in Brussels and other major cities, opera and ballet as well. The Flemish also share the general Belgian love of festivals, and their calendar is filled with celebrations of all kinds, both religious and secular.


The Flemish are known for their lacemaking, and other crafts include glassblowing, tapestries, and pottery. In recent years there has been a movement to revive folk arts including street singing, folk opera, and the puppet and marionette theaters that once flourished throughout the region, particularly in Antwerp. In the 1970s, Antwerp also became known as a center of women's fashion.


While the incidence of violent crime in public is relatively low among the Flemish, domestic violence—in which the Belgian police seldom intervene—remains a problem. Spousal and child abuse occur among all social classes, as well as abuse of elderly relatives in a household. Although the fertilizers and crop sprays used by Belgium's farmers result in agricultural yields that are among the world's highest, the country is paying a price in terms of increased levels of river pollution.

Traditionally, ethnic differences between the Flemings and Walloons have been sources of social conflict, and even threatened to divide the country in 2007 and 2008.


Flanders has an old tradition that could be called feminist. Beginning in the 12th century, certain Catholic women in the Low Countries chose to live neither under the care of a man

nor the vows of the church. They were called beguines—derived from the Flemish word beghen (to pray). Beguinages were home to generations of religious women who sought to live a more independent life than that of women who married against their will. They made their homes, catered to the sick and poor, and sought to serve God without separating from the rest of the world. They lived simply and wore loose robes and head-wear similar to nuns' habits. But they took no religious vows. They could leave and marry, own their own property, and took no alms. Women of all classes were welcomed. They carried on professions, often in the textile industry. They elected women to be leaders—Grand Dames—and each Grand Dame often was assisted by an elected council. Each beguine was expected to support herself and make a tangible contribution to the beguinage, either through labor or rent income. Eventually many beguinages were elevated to parish status and were assigned their own priest. In the 19th century some of the beguines retained possession of their homes, while others were taken over by religious orders or transformed into hospices and orphanages. However, many of Belgium's beguinages are intact today, as gated or walled communes. In 1998, 13 Flemish beguinages were listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Women won the right to vote in Belgium in 1919, and restrictions on the suffrage were dropped in 1948. Abortion was only legalized in Belgium in 1990. As of 2000, women made up 24% of the lower house of parliament, and 28.8% of the upper house. Approximately 55.7% of Belgian women hold a secondary degree, 53.1% hold a bachelor's degree, and 7.6% are in senior management. The government made a concerted effort in the 1990s in involve women in politics.

Belgium decriminalized homosexuality in 1843 and legalized same-sex marriages in 2003—it was only the second country to do so worldwide. Gay and lesbian couples have the same rights as heterosexual ones, including inheritance and adoption. In 2006 the country's first gay church was inaugurated in Ghent.


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—revised by J. Hobby