views updated May 14 2018


ETHNONYMS: Flamencos (Spanish), Flandres (French), Flemings, French-Flemish, Northern Belgians, Southern Dutch, Vlaamingen (Dutch), Vlamisch (German)



The Flemish are an admixture of the original Celtic inhabitants of the region, Roman invaders and settlers in this remote outpost of the empire, and Salian Franks, who invaded the Roman empire in the fifth century. The name "Vlaanderen," Flanders, derives from a Carolingian District, Pagus Flandrensis, of the eighth century. Today, the Flemish are the ethnic majority in the kingdom of Belgium and an ethnic minority in France.

Location. For the most part, the Flemish people are Culturally integrated into the nation of Belgium, playing an equal role in national politics and social life. Belgium, located at 51° N and 4° E, southwest of the Netherlands, northeast of France, and northwest of Germany and Luxembourg, is comprised of Flanders and Wallonia, the French-speaking area of the country, separated by a linguistic border that runs eastwest. Flanders is the northern region, composed of low-lying and coastal areas bordering the North Sea and reaching inland to the hills of Brabant. Some Flemish live in the northeast regions of France, in an area known as French-Flanders. Others have migrated to Africa and the New World. Political and religious divisions have through the centuries divided a people previously united by a common language and cultural traditions into distinct national ethnicities: the Dutch, the French-Flemish, and the Belgian Flemish.

Demography. The population of Belgium in 1990 was roughly 9,868,000 divided into 58 percent Flemish, 32 percent Walloon, with the remaining 10 percent a mixture of German speakers, Jews, Muslims, and others. The number of Flemish in France and elsewhere is unknown.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Flemish speak numerous dialects of Flemish Dutch, called Vlaams, which is distinct from the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands (Nederlands). Regional dialect differences are characterized by vowel and consonant changes, distinct word differences, and unique expressions that refer metaphorically to regional history. An identification of language use with culture is not possible; however, French-speaking Flemish in both France and Belgium retain traits specific to Flemish culture. In France, where the use of regional dialects has been actively discouraged and proscribed in the schools, the Flemish have developed an ethnic political movement that emphasizes the use of the Flemish language at home, practice of Flemish art forms, and training in traditional industrial skills and work patterns.

History and Cultural Relations

The original Celtic tribes of the North Sea coastal regions became part of the Roman Empire when they were conquered in 57 b.c. by the armies of Julius Caesar. (The name "Belgium" derives from the original inhabitants of the region, labeled the Gallia Belgica by the Romans.) During this time, the inhabitants of southern Belgium were heavily influenced by Latin culture, giving rise to Latinate cultural traditions and the use of a Latin language. In the north, the cultural influence of Rome was weaker. The invasion of Salian Franks in the fifth century abruptly interrupted the period of Latin Influence and established a Germanic Frankish kingdom, which included the use of a Germanic language. The linguistic border that crosses Belgium is believed to mark the extent of Frankish influence. In the ninth century, Charlemagne united independent Frankish regions into a vast kingdom, of which Flanders was a central part. In the division of Charlemagne's kingdom upon his death, Flanders came under the control of his son, Lothair, comprising Lotharingia. Weak governments under Lothair and his successors resulted in a process of fragmentation that gave rise to the feudal period, extending from the ninth to the twelfth centuries (a.d. 862-1128), during which distinct principalities, counties, and duchies were established. The county of Flanders, the duchy of Brabant, and the bishopric of Liege were three of the most politically dominant. In spite of political, organizational, and language divisions, similar cultural traditions and a prosperous textile industry led to a degree of political cooperation Between districts. From 1128 to 1278, the authority of nobles was challenged by the growing political power of city-dwelling burghers who gained political and military control of Transportation and trade. During the Burgundian period, 13841482, a series of noble marriages and alliances unified the smaller principalities while preserving and extending citizen authority and the relative economic autonomy of cities. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, under a balance of power between nobles and free citizens, Flemish cities established a trade association in London and became central to trans-European trade, as members of the German Hanse. This period, considered the golden age of Flemish culture, produced great works of art and music. However, the process of consolidation into yet larger political bodies was not favorable for the Flemish. When Flanders became part of the Kingdom governed by the Spanish Habsburgs (1506-1700), the people became subject to authoritarian structures foreign to developing cultural traditions. The rule of the Spanish proved disastrous for the Flemish people; during the years of the Spanish Inquisition, many were tortured or killed for religious and political dissent. In an attempt to end Spanish rule, the region went to war against Spain, resulting in the separation of the northern from the southern Flemish, the creation of the independent nation of Holland comprised of liberated northern provinces, and the continued subjugation of the "Spanish Netherlands." The Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons continued to live under the Spanish until the War of Spanish Succession, 1700-1713, when the Territories passed to the Austrian Habsburgs. During this period, French became the dominant language for social and Political life; the Flemish became marginalized as a national identity grew. In 1794, Napoleon conquered and annexed the Flemish and Walloon territories for France. After his defeat in 1815, the Treaty of Vienna assigned these areas to the new kingdom of the Netherlands, under the rule of King William I. However, the years of economic and political separation between the Dutch and the Flemish, the years of a Common fate with Wallonia, and the quite different economic and political positions of the Dutch and the Belgians in a world economy proved to be stronger political factors than a common heritage in a more distant past. Belgiansboth Walloons and Flemishrevolted against the Dutch in 1830, proclaiming Belgium as an independent nation. In 1831, they elected Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as king, defined their government as a constitutional monarchy, and Instituted a bicameral parliament with democratic representation. Although Flemish leaders were an integral part of Belgian independence efforts, the Flemish played a minority role in national politics until the early 1900s, because of the predominance of French language and culture during the period of French and Austrian control. In 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. Many of the battles of World War I were fought in Flanders, which sustained enormous damage in both urban and rural areas and suffered great loss of life. Again, in 1940, Germany invaded. In an attempt to avoid the devastation it had suffered in World War I, the king quickly surrendered to the Germans. The strategy was ineffective and deadly. Belgian Jews and Gypsies were exported and killed by the Nazis. Many Flemish and Walloons were conscripted and sent to work in German factories and labor camps. The nation was occupied and became one of the most embattled fronts of the war, in both Wallonia and Flanders. In 1944, Belgium was liberated by Canadian, Australian, and American forces. The postwar period was a time of rebuilding, but it was also internally divisive and disruptive for the Belgian People. German collaborators were punished, and the king was forced to give up his rule to his son. Partly because of the favoritism shown by the Germans for the Flemish during the war, ethnic tensions between Flemish and Walloon increased. Also, Belgian colonial holdings in Africa were lost either through civil unrest or the granting of independence to restive former colonies. During the 1960s and 1970s, ethnic divisiveness in Belgium was largely resolved with the creation of independent Flemish and Walloon assemblies, which each have authority over cultural, social, political, and regional administrative affairs of their respective groups. At this time Flemish was recognized as an official state language. The Flemish regions also gained in relative economic importance, while Wallonia experienced a decline in the heavy industriesnotably in steel and coal. Flanders's importance rose as well in international trade, high-tech manufacturing, industrial agriculture, tourism, and fishing. Today, the Flemish enjoy full political and social equality with the Walloons.


Early settlement sites were located along natural waterways and on protected coastal bays. Larger settlements grew up at trading points, located on natural overland and water Transportation routes. The human hand has greatly altered the Flemish landscape, by building canals, by dredging and straightening natural rivers, and by creating dikes and stabilizing sand dunes to create dry land out of marsh and to reclaim coastal floodplains. Walled cities are the hallmark of Flemish settlements, but villages, manorial estates, religious complexes, and farms are also significant. Dwellings and public buildings are made of local brick and cut limestone. Few buildings are constructed of wood, because of its scarcity, but early structures include half-wood upper stories, halftimbered buildings with brick infilling, and wooden roofs. Flemish "art cities," including Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, are noted for their skillfully carved stone and brick buildings. Stone and brick masonry, slatework, lead-pipe forming, and other building trades were highly developed industrial arts from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, as is evident today in the finely constructed bridges, churches, city and guild halls, stockmarkets, and municipal markets. Residences dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were often built in a distinctly Flemish "stepped-gable" style, the echoes of which are reflected in more recent architecture. To this day, residences are "human-scale," building up rather than out. Residents often make space available on the ground floor for business activities: hence, the ubiquitous winkelshuis, "shop house," or handelshuis, "business residence."


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Today, Flanders has primarily an industrial and postindustrial economy, Depending on the service and tourist industries. In recent years, economic activity in Flanders has expanded in final-step manufacturing, electronics, computer technology, and Industrial agriculture. The economy has contracted in heavy industry, such as steel manufacture and boat building. The North Sea cities are commercial fishing centers, supporting largescale fish processing. Several coastal cities are important ports for industrial production, raw materials, and agricultural produce. The fertile, flat land remains an agro-industrial center. Farmers grow vegetables, fruit, animal feed, forage, and grains, which in turn support large commercial baking, meat-processing, vegetable-oil extraction, commercial fiber-processing, and vegetable- and fruit-canning enterprises.

Industrial Arts. The Flemish are noted for small-scale artisanal production of foods and luxury goods. Chocolate, lace, tapestry, glass, and pottery are notable. Early Flemish dominance was based on the production and finishing of cotton, linen, and woolen cloth.

Trade. Flemish social values and cultural institutions are rooted in protoindustrial and industrial production for trade. The rise of early trade networks established Flemish municipal independence from an overarching feudal system and helped to install a system of government by a council of citizen representatives. Flemish cities established and joined trade associations that supported and facilitated trading relationships throughout Europe. Today, the Flemish character and culture are heavily influenced by traditions of trade, both on a large and small scale. The existence and persistence of the zelfstandigen, or independent self-employed business families, serves to define the Flemish people as independent Economic actors.

Division of Labor. In Belgium, occupational specialization is based on knowledge, training, and ability, but access to education and job training is limited by social class, ethnicity, gender, and economic status. Access to some occupations is facilitated only through family connections or kinship ties. In bicultural Brussels, some occupations are thought to be restricted ethnically, with the Flemish dominating many of the working-class occupations. Work is divided along gender and age lines in business, in the family, and in the household, as well, although not so strictly in practice as in widely held Gender ideologies. For women, work in small firms and commercial enterprises is overlain so completely on domestic gender roles that household and business-related tasks are often difficult to distinguish: for example, wives of business owners receive visitors in the home as wives, and they also "help" their husbands as unpaid receptionists, office assistants, and business administrators in household-based firms.

Land Tenure. Land is owned legally by individuals or by corporate groups, such as business investors or religious orders. Ownership is enforced by the legal system, based on written records of ownership through purchase or Inheritance. Rights to use and allocate the use of land and other property are held solely by the legal owner(s). Businesses and business profits are owned solely by the individuals or legal entities that have invested either property or moneybut not labor, energy, or timeinto those concerns.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is recognized bilaterally by family naming practices, but with an emphasis on the patriline. Upon marriage, the family names from both husband and wife are combined into a "household" name by which the nuclear family it creates is known; thus Geert DeJonge (the groom) and Kristin Vandeputte (the bride) create the family DeJonge-Vandeputte, but only the wife (and the business they operate, if any) adopts the combined last name. The children from this couple are given the family name DeJonge, unless the wife's family name is of high social rank.

Kinship Terminology. Most kin terms are based on descent/ascent and collateral relationships, and they are distinguished by gender: moeder, vader, grootmoeder, grootvader (mother, father, grandmother, grandfather); dochter, zoon (daughter, son); zuster, broer (sister, brother); tante, oom (aunt, uncle); neef, nicht (nephew, niece). Other kin terms are ascriptive, denoting a social, fictive kinship that echoes genealogical kinship but indicates specific social responsibilities and duties, such as meter, peter (godmother, godfather).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage unites an adult male and female into an economic unit ideally distinct from the natal families of each. Marriages are arranged by the bride and groom themselves, but with family influence. The economic aspects of marriage are not often explicitly expressed (people prefer to say they marry because they love one another or they wish to raise children together), but marriage is clearly an economic partnership between spouses and between their natal Families. Notably, zelfstandige (self-employed) couples and farmers work together in income-producing enterprises. Compatibility in work, the willingness to divide labor, and a shared work ethic are important reasons to marry a particular spouse when anticipating this work in adulthood. Men and women typically marry for the first time in their teens or early twenties, and they begin childbearing soon thereafter. Families of two to four children are the norm. Second and subsequent marriages are common following the death of, or separation from, one's first spouse. Legal divorce is increasingly Common, but it is considered a misfortune particularly for Children and wives who depend economically on husbands. Coworking couples will find it expedient not to divorce when marital difficulties arise because divorce can have a detrimental effect on business. In such cases, couples will remain married but live apart, creating social-sexual alliances with others. There are few institutions that cater to the single adult. Subtle social sanctions are brought to bear on adults who remain single past the middle thirties without a legitimate reason, such as entry into the priesthood. Extramarital alliances, both purely sexual as well as those that result in children, are common for both men and women, but they are not often maintained openly. Wealthy Flemish men and women may maintain semipermanent liaisons for years. A secondary common-law spouse is not uncommon.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family, composed of husband, wife, and their children, is the ideal family form. Coresident extended families are not common. Unmarried adults will commonly live with aged parents until marriage. Married couples establish new households when they wed, or shortly thereafter. Often in "business families," whose members work in the same trade, several nuclear families of kin will live in adjacent housing, next to or above the workspace. Old people who can no longer care for themselves are often cared for in old-age homes run by religious Orders, sociopolitical unions, or insurance organizations. There are similar institutions for the mentally and physically disabled and the mentally ill. In recent years, young unmarried adults have begun to live apart from parents in shared housing. Alternative households and unmarried cohabitation are still uncommon.

Inheritance. Inheritance is strictly partible and is governed by state laws. A property owner's estate is to be divided equally between legitimate heirs. If a spouse survives, he or she is entitled to use rights to the home the couple previously shared. Business property is handled as the personal property of the owner and willed separately in ways that often result in the disinheritance of individuals who invest years of labor in the business.

Socialization. Children are allowed carefree childhoods, without major work responsibilities. Creative, imaginative play is encouraged. Children are much loved and spoiled. Older relatives and neighbors and older children are charged with care of little ones, teaching them a rich children's Culture of play songs and rhymes as well as good behavior, which is defined as showing respect for elders, keeping quiet, following instructions well, and being resourceful. Willful and stubborn behavior on the part of children is tolerated and even admired as the first sign of a strong and independent character. Few children work, but the children of business owners often work part-time as "helpers" at as early as 8 years old. This experience is viewed as good preparation for following in a family trade. Flemish children are formally educated in schools, with the majority enrolled in private Catholic schools. After elementary grades, children are then either expressly guided to or given a choice between a trade-oriented education, a liberal education, professional training, or business training. An apprenticeship system survives in the halftime work-study programs of some vocational schools, but students still reside at their parents' home.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Flemish are socially divided into distinct social groupings defined by family pedigree and History, nobility, family business history, language use, personal occupation, and visible wealth. Both men and women try to "marry up" or marry within their social level. Gender is an important social divider; women typically do not receive as much from their natal families in terms of business training or education as men do. Women are expected to join their husband's family, fate, and fortune upon marriage. Because a woman's social status as a wife is therefore more significant to her social position in adulthood than her status as a daughter, courtship and marriage constitutes an important socialranking process for women.

Political Organization. Both small communities and large cities are directed politically by raden, elected bodies of representatives from distinct districts. As mandated by law, all adults must vote. Representatives from Flemish districts are elected to the Flemish regional assemblies and to the parliament. These representatives make law and defend the interests of the Flemish in formulating national policy. Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, with a king at its head. The king has primarily symbolic power as the most important unifying force in the nation. Kingship is inherited through the male line and devolves only to males. The Flemish in France are not recognized officially as a political or ethnic body within the nation of France. Their participation in French political life is viewed as regional, rather than ethnic, participation.

Social Control. Conflicts inherent in Flemish culture are those that center on control over private property and conflicting interpretations of private versus public interest. State social control is accomplished by means of a judicial system that interprets the laws enacted by legislators and enforced by state and local police. Cultural mechanisms of social control consist of social sanctions, public and private censure of nonconforming behavior, and effective socialization of children and young adults. Violence against the person is not tolerated, with one exception. Stiff legal penalties are levied for crimes against unrelated persons, but the state allows intrafamily violence to continue by a policy of nonintervention in nuclear-family affairs. Spouse and child abuse, as well as mistreatment of the elderly, are problems in all social classes.

Conflict. In recent years, social conflicts have arisen and divided the Flemish over social policy issues such as abortion, which has divided the nation of Belgium in ways that crosscut social-class, ethnic, and religious differences. The Flemish people do not present a unified view on the basic question of whether abortion should be a legally protected right or a crime, nor on how it should be defined by law or handled in the courts. Such policy issues have been addressed in the past by face-to-face meetings among legislators, religious leaders, the king, and cabinet advisers, in which compromise positions have been reached and made law. National-level conflict exists between the Walloons and the Flemish centering on the dynamics of economic change in the nation of Belgium. In France, conflict over issues of ethnic and regional autonomy continue to simmer and, on occasion, boil over.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Flemish are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Membership in the Catholic church is the norm, regardless of personal religious belief. Although nearly everyone is baptized and learns Catholic doctrine in catechism classes or Catholic school, many Flemish people are not practicing Catholics or are active nonbelievers. Leaving the church in an official act of excommunication, however, creates myriad social difficulties, because many social services are linked with the parish or other church institutions. Flanders has a small Protestant community composed of Flemish converts to Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormon church, and other Christian sects. In addition, there is an active, large, and dynamic Jewish community, particularly in Brussels, Antwerp, and the coastal area; an ephemeral surviving Gypsy community; and a growing community of Muslims in Brussels. "Flemish" Jews and Muslims have not adopted the Culture of their neighbors, and they continue to practice their faiths in separate ethnic communities. However, Belgian Religious minorities often speak the language of the region in which they live and participate in Belgian social and political life.

Religious Practitioners. Priests and nuns organize most religious functions. Lay religious leaders are active in parish associations and participate in the organization of religious ceremonies and church services. The Freemasons also comprise an important quasireligious group in Flemish culture, establishing ties of brotherhood that crosscut social, Religious, and ethnic differences. Freemasons have been influential in liberal party politics and in the process of defining a middle-class Flemish political interest.

Ceremonies. Baptism, first communion, and confirmation mark the child's entry into the Catholic family and Community. There are no official rituals marking entry into adulthoodexcept perhaps graduation from school, military service (for men), and marriage. The Flemish celebrate many days in the Catholic religious calendar that mark events in Christ's life. Also, there are a series of folk processions, rooted in historic events and legend, often using masks and papier-mâché "giants" (e.g., the Kattestoet in Ghent). Other ceremonies mark religious miracles, such as the Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges, or are more purely commercial, on the order of street theater, combining spectacle with romantic reformulations of history.

Arts. Flemish literature, painting, sculpture, music, and dance are highly developed arts, comprising Flemish regional and ethnic styles, as well as participating in widespread European art movements. Early Flemish literature, written in local dialect, is linked with the growth in political importance of the Flemish population, depicting folk heroes that personify the political and social character of the Flemish. More recent literature is often nihilistic or surreal, influenced by the damage inflicted by both world wars on the Flemish psyche. Many of the great early works of Flemish musical composition are liturgical pieces for voice and organ, for example Orlando de Lassus's Gregorian compositions. The exceptional works of the Flemish primitivesincluding Memling, Bosch, and the Van Eycksand the numerous Flemish masters, such as Rubens, were commissioned by noble patrons throughout Europe. More recent Flemish painting and sculpture often highlight the pleasures and pains of rural life, but others, such as works by Ensor, depict urban decadence and cultural decay. Folk arts, notably street singing, folk opera, and marionette and hand puppetry, have revived in recent years as part of the folk movement. Antwerp has a tradition of puppet theater that often crosses into the realm of political and social critique. In the plastic arts, tapestry and lace manufacture have evolved from early products of cottage industry into Domestic crafts. Today, lace is simultaneously a fine art, a hobby craft, and a tourist art; and many varieties of lace are available for sale, collection, and display.

Medicine. Modern medical care is provided in state-run hospitals and clinics and is also available through private doctors and health practitioners. The scientific model of Medicine is widely accepted, but health maintenance often involves folk beliefs regarding the use of herbs, mineral and saltwater baths, and the use of certain foods as preventative cures. Many Flemish also believe in the curative value of Oriental medical treatments, such as acupuncture. Devout Catholics often pray for divine assistance with health problems, posting placards of thanks to the Virgin Mary in churches. Many Flemish people avoid dental care, with a resulting loss of teeth from decay.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs about death and an afterlife are shaped by Catholic doctrine. Funerals are sad and frequently private events, shared only by the deceased's family, close friends, and neighbors. The death of a child is a particularly sad and private event. Public displays of grief are not common. Graves, located on church grounds or nearby, are cared for by the survivors of the deceased. National graveyards of the fallen of World Wars I and II, located in northern Flanders, are maintained by the nations whose dead are buried there. For the Flemish, these vast graveyards are monuments to sacrifice and freedom, symbolic of a national and Flemish resolve to work for international peace and political compromise.


De Meeus, A. (1962). History of the Belgians. Translated by G. Gordon. New York: Praeger.

Goris, Jan Albert (1945). Belgium. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Huggett, F. E. (1969). Modern Belgium. New York: Praeger.

Lijphart, Arend, ed. (1981). Conflict and Coexistence in Belgium: The Dynamics of a Culturally Divided Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, Institute of International Studies.

Pirenne, Henri (1915). Early Democracies in the Low Countries: Urban Society and Political Conflict in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Translated by J. V. Saunders. New York: Harper & Row.

Riley, R. C. (1989). Belgium. World Bibliographic Series, edited by R. G. Neville, vol. 104. Oxford: Clio Press.

Van Houtte, J. A. (1977). An Economic History of the Low Countries, 800-1800. New York: St. Martin's Press.



views updated Jun 27 2018

Flem·ish / ˈflemish/ • adj. of or relating to Flanders, its people, or their language.• n. 1. the Dutch language as spoken in Flanders, one of the two official languages of Belgium.2. (the Flemish) [as pl. n.] the people of Flanders.


views updated May 29 2018

Flemish pert. to Flanders or its inhabitants XIV; sb. the form of Dutch spoken in Flanders XVIII. — MDu. Vlāmisch (Du. Vlaamsch).
So Fleming native of Flanders. XV. — MDu. Vlāming, f. Vlam-, whence Vlaanderen Flanders; see -ISH1, -ING2.


views updated May 21 2018

Flemish One of two official languages of Belgium (the other being French). It is spoken, mainly in the n half of the country, by c.50% of the population. It is virtually the same language as Dutch.