POPULATION: About 10.4 million
LANGUAGE: Dutch (called Flemish in its regional spoken version); French; German
RELIGION: Roman Catholic; smaller numbers of Muslims and Jews
Centuries of foreign invasion and occupation—by the Romans, French, Burgundians, Spanish, Austrian, and Germans—have made the people of Belgium resilient and enterprising. When Rome invaded in 58 bc, Julius Caesar called the region's Belgae tribes the toughest opponents he had faced. Some of history's major battles have been fought in this small country, including the Battle of Waterloo that signified the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Although it was recognized as a distinct region, Belgium did not become a nation until 1831. Today some of the world's most important international organizations, including the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), are headquartered in Brussels. But tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south have led in recent years to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy. 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—the mainly Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia regions. The crisis was temporarily resolved in March 2008 when a new government was formed, and major reforms of state were planned.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Located in northwestern Europe, Belgium is one of the "low countries," so called because much of its land is at or below sea level. This small country, about as large as the state of Maryland, often serves as a crossroads between its larger neighbors. Belgium is often the point of departure or arrival for those crossing the English Channel, and it only takes about three hours or less to drive from its capital, Brussels, to the neighboring cities—Paris, Bonn, and The Hague. Belgium's major geographic divisions are the coastal lowlands, the central plain, and the high plateau of the Ardennes. Its principal rivers are the Scheldt and the Meuse.
Belgium is one of the world's most densely populated countries, but it is run so efficiently that overcrowding is not a problem. Belgian society is overwhelmingly urban: over 90% of the people live in one of 135 major cities. The Flemish and Walloon populations coexist but maintain sharply separate ethnic and linguistic identities. Traditionally, the Walloons were considered the dominant group because their region led the nation in industrial development and also because of the perceived superiority of their French cultural roots. However, since World War II, a shift in economic development from heavy industry toward commerce—much of it reliant on the port city of Antwerp—has favored the northern, Flemish region (also known as Flanders). The Flemish have surpassed the Walloons in numbers as well.
Belgium has three official languages: Dutch (also called Flemish in its regional spoken version), French, and German. Approximately 60% of Belgians speak Flemish, 40% French, and less than 1% German. Flemish is the language of the northern provinces and French of the southern ones, while most German speakers live in eastern Liège along the German border. There have been longstanding conflicts between the Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons over language use in schools, courts, business, and government. Many visitors to Belgium will be surprised by the fact that signs on highways will indicate cities' names in two languages (e.g., Brussels/ Bruxelles, Luik/Liège, Bergen/Mons). The 1970 constitution specifies four autonomous linguistic areas, one for each of the three languages plus Brussels, which is bilingual. (Most people in Brussels actually speak French, although the city itself is surrounded by a Flemish-speaking region.)
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Many of Belgium's colorful festivals are based on local myths, including the famous Cat Festival of Ypres. According to legend, cats were brought into medieval Ypres when the city was overrun by rats, but the cats multiplied so fast that they became a problem themselves and people took to throwing them off the tops of buildings (an act that is ritually repeated during the festival with toy cats). Other festivals with mythic origins include the pageant of the Golden Tree in Bruges and the Ommegang in Brussels. Folklore also surrounds Belgium's traditional puppet theater, whose marionettes are based on characters from the lore of their particular cities. These include Woltje in Brussels, Schele in Antwerp, Pierke in Ghent, and Tchantchès in Liège.
Another important festival in Bruges is the Procession of the Sacred Heart, held in summer. Originally a Catholic holiday, the celebration attracts many people both from Belgium and surrounding countries.
Belgium is a predominantly Catholic country; about 75% of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic. Muslims, mostly migratory workers from Turkey and North Africa, are the second-largest religious group, numbering 364,000 in 2005. Muslims outnumber Belgium's Protestants and Greek and Russian Orthodox. Belgium has a Jewish population of some 42,000, the fourth largest Jewish community in Europe in 2005. While Belgian Catholics are commonly baptized and receive a religious education, many do not otherwise actively practice their religion. Some are even outright nonbelievers who avoid leaving the church because of its link with many social services, at the parish and other levels. Beauraing and Banneaux in Wallonia are popular destinations for pilgrimages, as is Lourdes in France.
Belgium's legal holidays are New Year's Day, Easter Monday, Labor Day (May 1), Independence Day (July 21), All Saints' Day (November 1), and Christmas. Another important day is the Anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs on July 11. However, in addition to these official holidays, the people of Belgium find many other occasions to celebrate. Belgians have a well-known fondness for festivals of all kinds, both sacred and secular.
One of the most famous is the Shrove Tuesday Carnival at Binche, from which the English word "binge" is thought to derive. It is known for the "March of the Gilles," a ritualized dance thought either to symbolize or to have been learned during the 15th-century Spanish conquest of the Incas in Peru. Men dressed in bizarre padded and brightly colored costumes and white hats adorned with enormous ostrich plumes dance down the street in formation throwing oranges (symbolizing pieces of gold) at the spectators, who are also pelted with water-filled sheeps' bladders. The occasional foreigner who throws oranges back at the men will risk being beaten up by other inhabitants of Binche. The Binche festival is so popular that the Belgian railways have extra trains run on that day.
Other festivals include Brussels' Ommegang, in which thousands of people parade in colorful costumes; the Cat Festival of Ypres (commemorating feline rat control during the Middle Ages); the Parade of the Giants in Ath; and the Nivelles carnival, graced by ritualized fights between people on stilts.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Rites of passage include major Catholic ceremonies such as baptisms, first Communions, marriages and funerals. Although most Belgians do not really practice Catholicism, the important events in a person's life tend to be occasions of major family reunions stressing their religious heritage. Special gifts and wishes will be given for baptisms, first Communions, and marriages. Many young people do not get married, but live together; however, compared to the Netherlands where this is a common practice, Belgium seems to be a bit more conservative.
Belgian manners are generally formal and polite, and conversations are marked by frequent exchanges of compliments and repeated handshaking. Relatives shake hands, hug, or kiss each other on the cheek, while friends usually hug. Men and women or two female friends—but never two men—might exchange kisses on the cheek, and women can sometimes be seen walking down the street arm-in-arm. American-style "high fives" have become popular among Belgian youth.
Both official Dutch and official French have a polite form to be used when addressing another person, but both Flemish and Walloons tend to use the informal jÿ (Dutch) and tu (French) more often than the Dutch in Holland or the French in France.
Belgium has no significant housing shortage and few slums. Traditionally, many Flemings lived in walled cities, although villages and other types of settlements were common as well. Brick and limestone are the most popular materials for Belgian houses and public buildings—wooden structures are relatively rare due to the nation's scarce timber resources. The distinctive "stepped-gable" style seen in 17th- and 18th-century houses has influenced modern architectural styles. In a number of Belgian homes, a portion of the first floor is used for business activities: common terms for a dwelling that is used this way include winkelhuis ("shop house") and handelshuis (business residence). Many houses have large kitchens in which closely knit Belgian families can gather.
Belgians receive modern medical, psychological, and geriatric care in state-run hospitals and clinics, as well as from private doctors. Fully 99% of the people are covered by the national health plan. In every Belgian city or town, a committee administers health and hospital services.
Belgium has an excellent waterway system—many of its cities are linked by a network of rivers and canals whose center is the port of Antwerp, which also handles the majority of foreign trade. The rail system, with its hub at Brussels, is also well developed. Helicopter service is available between Brussels and several other cities on the European continent.
The Belgian family is traditionally an economic unit. Many couples work side by side in either business or farming, and traits considered desirable in a marriage partner often include those that will lead to a compatible working relationship. Instead of divorcing, couples who are in business together may remain legally married in order to protect the business, maintaining separate households with new partners. Among extended families involved in the same business or trade, several nuclear families may live in neighboring houses near their business. Men and women tend to marry young—in their teens and twenties—and begin their families early. Most families have between two and four children, and children generally live with their parents until they marry. The elderly are commonly cared for in homes run by religious orders, social or political organizations, or other types of groups. Women account for roughly 40% of the work force (but 90% of the part-time workforce), although salaried women earn about 15% less than men.
The traditional costumes of the Flemings and Walloons are a thing of the past—Belgians, especially in the city, wear modern Western-style clothes, with men expected to wear jackets to white-collar jobs (although it is often acceptable for women to wear slacks). The traditional dark-colored garb can still be seen on some farms, with women in aprons and men wearing caps.
Belgium is known for its rich, tasty food—the Belgians' daily consumption of calories is among the world's highest. They are great meat eaters and spend up to one-third of their food budget on various types of meat including pork (the most popular), beef, chicken, rabbit, and veal, which are all popular. Two of the best-known dishes are carbonades of beef (stewed in beer) and a chicken or fish chowder called waterzooi. Belgian cooking uses many rich sauces made with butter and cream, and mayonnaise is widely used as well. It is often eaten as a dip with the popular Belgian chips whose distinctive taste comes being cooked in two different kinds of fat, one of which is used only when the chips are nearly done. The plentiful North Sea and Atlantic Ocean catch includes many varieties of fish as well as eels, cockles, and mussels, all of which are considered delicacies. Other Belgian specialties include waffles, over 300 varieties of beer, and chocolate.
Education is compulsory from the ages of 6 through 15, and nearly all children start earlier with nursery school and kindergarten. Belgium has an unusually high literacy rate—adult illiteracy is virtually nonexistent. Depending on the region, classes may be taught in either French, Dutch, or German. Both the public, or "official," schools and the private "free" schools (largely Catholic) are financed by the government, and historically there have been conflicts between secular and religious schools. Belgium has eight major universities, including institutions in Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Antwerp.
Belgium has played a prominent role in European culture since the 15th century. Among the most famous elements of Belgium's cultural heritage are the paintings of Pieter Breugel the Elder, Jan van Eyck, and Peter Paul Rubens and the compositions of Orlando di Lasso and César Franck. Belgium has literary traditions in both French and Flemish dating back to the Middle Ages, although French has been used by Flemish authors at various times since the 16th century. Modern Belgians writing in French include the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck and the popular detective novelist Georges Simenon, who was born in Liège. Prominent modern painters include expressionist James Ensor and surrealist René Magritte.
The Belgians—who are largely Catholic—demonstrate what Americans call the "Protestant work ethic." Traditionally considering work something of a moral duty, they put in long hours: a businessman who arrives at the office at 9:00 is considered lazy. Small, family-run businesses were long the norm in Flanders, while industry was primarily the domain of the Walloons, especially in the Liège area. In recent years the north has undergone increased industrialization, and the service and tourist sectors have expanded rapidly. However, farmers still grow vegetables, fruit, and grains, and commercial fishing and fish processing dominate the North Sea cities.
The most popular participatory sport in Belgium is bicycling. Belgians use their bicycles to commute to work, take recreational cycling trips to the countryside, and participate in races. In the winter, some racers practice on indoor tracks, while others can be seen braving the elements on their cycles even in snowstorms. Belgians also participate in soccer in addition to watching it, and there are many regional teams. Other common sports popular in Belgium include tennis, horseback riding, hiking, and skiing.
One Belgian sport specific to western Europe is sand sailing, which is done on a sort of mini-car with sails called a "sand yacht" that is driven along the coast and powered by the wind. Also popular, especially in Wallonia, is pigeon racing. As many as 100,000 pigeons may be entered in a single race, with owners competing from other countries including France and Spain.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Like many other Europeans, Belgians are avid soccer fans. There are 18 teams in the national league, although many of the players, unlike professional athletes in America, hold other jobs in addition to playing soccer. Concerts and theater are popular evening pastimes in the cities, and Brussels also has opera, ballet, and café cabarets. Traditional puppet theaters featuring wooden marionettes have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity following a period of decline after World War II.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Traditional Belgian crafts include lacemaking (for which Brussels is especially famous), tapestry, glass, and pottery. Other folk arts include folk opera, street singing, as well as both marionettes and hand puppetry. Antwerp has a particularly lively puppetry tradition that at times has been used as a vehicle for social and political dissent. Popular hobbies include stamp collecting, model trains, and gardening.
Traditionally, ethnic differences between Belgium's Flemings and Walloons have been sources of social conflict, and even threatened to divide the country in 2007 and 2008. There are also religious divisions within the country. In particular, the degree of separation between church and state has been a divisive issue both between Catholics and non-Catholics and within the Catholic community itself. Schools, hospitals, trade unions, and numerous other institutions can be divided into those that are "secular" and those with strong church involvement. Strong differences of opinion still exist about the government's arrangement for the subsidization of Catholic-run schools. Another divisive issue—one which cuts across religious, class, and ethnic differences—is abortion. Social problems include unemployment, high rates of immigration, gradually increasing crime, and the high taxes needed to support Belgium's wide-ranging system of social benefits.
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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Fodor's Belgium. New York: Fodors Travel Publications, 2004.
Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, ed. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: UXL, 1996.
Gross, Joan. "Walloons." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures ( Europe ) . Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Hargrove, Jim. Belgium.Enchantment of the World Series. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.
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Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: Western Europeans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Pateman, Robert. Belgium. 2nd ed. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2006.
Stallaerts, Robert. Historical Dictionary of Belgium . 2nd ed. Lanham, MD : Scarecrow Press, 2007.
Wickman, Stephen B. Belgium: A Country Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984.
—revised by J. Hobby
POPULATION: About 9 million
LANGUAGE: Dutch; Flemish; French; German
1 • INTRODUCTION
The history of the Belgian people has made them strong and resourceful. For centuries their land was invaded and occupied by different groups, including the Romans, French, Burgundians, Spanish, Austrian, and Germans. In 58 bc, the Roman leader Julius Caesar called the region's Belgae tribes the toughest opponents he had faced. Some of history's major battles were fought in this small country. They include the Battle of Waterloo that signaled the downfall of the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), and the Battle of the Bulge in World War II (1939–45). Although it was always recognized as a distinct region, Belgium did not become a nation until 1831. Today, Belgium's capital, Brussels, serves as headquarters for major international organizations, including the European Community (EC) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
2 • LOCATION
Located in northwestern Europe, Belgium is one of the "low countries" (much of its land is at or below sea level). This small country is about as large as the state of Maryland. Belgium's major geographic divisions are the coastal lowlands, the central plain, and the high plateau of the Ardennes.
Belgium's two major population groups are the Flemish and the Walloons. They live side by side but maintain sharply separate ethnic identities. The Walloons were long considered the dominant group. Their region had most of the nation's industries, and their French cultural roots were considered an advantage. However, since World War II (1939–45), the northern Flemish region (Flanders) has gained an economic advantage through the growth of commerce. The Flemish have also grown more numerous than the Walloons.
3 • LANGUAGE
Belgium has three official languages: French, German, and Flemish, which is similar to Dutch. Highway signs indicate the names of cities in two languages (for example, Brussels/Bruxelles, Luik/Liège, Bergen/Mons). The Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons have had many conflicts over language-use in schools, courts, business, and government.
4 • FOLKLORE
Many of Belgium's colorful festivals are based on local myths. One is the famous Cat Festival of Ypres. According to legend, medieval Ypres was overrun by rats, and cats were brought in to kill them. But the cats multiplied too fast, and people took to throwing them off the tops of buildings. (Today this action is imitated during the festival with toy cats.) Folklore also surrounds Belgium's traditional puppet theater, whose marionettes are based on characters from the tales of their particular cities.
5 • RELIGION
Belgium is a mostly Catholic country. In 1993 about 86 percent of the population was Roman Catholic. Belgian Catholics are usually baptized and receive a religious education. However, many do not actively take part in other religious practices. Some only remain members of the church because of its link with many of the nation's social services. Beauraing and Banneaux in Wallonia are popular destinations for pilgrimages (religious journeys).
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Belgium's legal holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Easter Monday (March or April), Labor Day (May 1), Independence Day (July 21), All Saints' Day (November 1), and Christmas (December 25). Another important day is the Anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs on July 11.
In addition to these official holidays, Belgians love festivals of all kinds. One of the most famous is the Shrove Tuesday Carnival in the town of Binche, with its "March of the Gilles." On this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent), men dress in padded, brightly colored costumes and white hats adorned with enormous ostrich plumes. They dance down the street throwing oranges at the spectators, who are also pelted with bags filled with water. Anyone who throws oranges back at the marchers risks being beaten up by the other townspeople.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
Rites of passage include major Catholic ceremonies such as baptism, first communion, marriage and funerals. Special gifts are given for baptisms, first communions, and marriages.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
When relatives greet each other, they shake hands, hug, or kiss each other on the cheek. Friends usually hug. Men and women or two female friends might exchange kisses on the cheek. American-style "high fives" (slapping each other's hands held high in the air) have become popular among Belgian youth.
The languages of both the Flemings and the Walloons have formal and informal modes of addressing another person. Both groups tend to use the informal forms (jÿ in Dutch, and tu in French) more often than do the Dutch in Holland or the French in France.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Belgium has no significant housing shortage and few slums. In many Belgian homes, part of the first floor is used for the family business. Common terms for this arrangement include winkelshuis (shop house) and handelshuis (business residence). Many houses have large kitchens in which closely knit Belgian families can gather.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Men and women usually marry in their teens and twenties and begin their families early. Most families have between two and four children. Married couples often work side by side in either business or farming.
Instead of divorcing, couples who are in business together may remain legally married in order to protect the business, maintaining separate households with new partners. Children generally live with their parents until they marry. The elderly are commonly cared for in homes run by religious or social organizations. Women make up roughly 40 percent of the work force.
11 • CLOTHING
Belgians, especially those in the cities, wear modern Western-style clothes. Men who work in offices are expected to wear suit jackets to work. It is generally acceptable for women to wear slacks to work. The ethnic costumes of the Flemings and Walloons are seldom worn today. On some farms women still wear the traditional dark-colored clothing and white aprons, and men wear the old-fashioned caps.
12 • FOOD
Belgium is known for its rich, tasty food—the Belgians' daily consumption of calories is among the world's highest. Two of the best-known dishes are carbonades of beef (stewed in beer), and a chicken or fish chowder called waterzooi. The North Sea and Atlantic Ocean supply many varieties of fish. The daily catch also includes eels, cockles, and mussels, all of which are considered delicacies. Other Belgian specialties include waffles, over 300 varieties of beer, and chocolate.
13 • EDUCATION
Belgium has an unusually high literacy rate. Education is required between the ages of six and fifteen. (Nearly all children start earlier with nursery school and kindergarten.) Depending on the region, classes may be taught in either French, Dutch, or German. Belgium has eight major universities, including institutions in Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Antwerp.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Belgium's cultural heritage includes the paintings of Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1515 or 1530–69), Jan van Eyck (1395–1441), and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), and the music compositions of Orlando di Lasso (1532–94) and César Franck (1822–90). Modern Belgians writers include the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949), and the popular detective novelist Georges Simenon (1903–89), who was born in Liège. Prominent modern painters include expressionist James Ensor (1860–1949) and surrealist René Magritte (1898–1967).
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Belgians put in long hours at work. A businessperson who arrives at the office at 9:00 am is considered lazy. In recent years, industrial jobs have increased in the north (in the Flemish region). Jobs in service industries like tourism have also expanded. However, small family businesses are still common, and farmers grow vegetables, fruit, and grains. Commercial fishing and fish processing are important in cities near the North Sea.
16 • SPORTS
The most popular participant sport in Belgium is bicycling. Belgians also participate in and watch soccer, and there are many regional teams. Other sports popular in Belgium include tennis, horseback riding, hiking, and skiing.
Belgians also enjoy the popular European sport of sand sailing. A sort of minicar with sails called a "sand yacht" is driven along the coast, powered by the wind. Also popular, especially in Wallonia, is pigeon racing. As many as 100,000 pigeons may be entered in a single race.
17 • RECREATION
Like many other Europeans, Belgians are avid soccer fans. There are over sixty teams in the national league. Concerts and theater are popular evening pastimes in the cities, and Brussels also has opera, ballet, and cafe cabarets (restaurants with musical entertainment such as singing and dancing).
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Traditional Belgian crafts include lacemaking (for which Brussels is especially famous), tapestry, glass, and pottery. Other folk arts include folk opera and street singing, as well as marionettes (small wooden figures operated with strings) and hand puppets. Popular hobbies include stamp collecting, model trains, and gardening.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Ethnic differences between Belgium's Flemings and Walloons have been sources of social conflict. Religious divisions have also caused tension within the country. Social problems include unemployment, high rates of immigration, gradually increasing crime, and the high taxes needed to support Belgium's generous system of social benefits.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Egan, E. W. Belgium in Pictures. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1991.
Hargrove, Jim. Belgium, Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.
Pateman, Robert. Belgium. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Belgian Tourist Office. [Online] Available http://www.visitbelgium.com/, 1998.
Embassy of Belgium. Washington, D.C. [Online] Available www.belgium-emb.org/usa/, 1998.
World Travel Guide. Belgium. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/be/gen.html, 1998.
Belgians are citizens of Belgium (Kingdom of Belgium). Belgium occupies 30,540 square kilometers and in 1990 had an estimated population of 9,895,000. Belgium is a pluralistic society with the majority of the population divided along linguistic, cultural, and religious lines into two groups: the Flemings and the Walloons. Belgium also has a sizable foreign population, composed primarily of Italians, Moroccans, Turks, and Spaniards.
See Flemish; Walloons
Kurian, George T. (1990). Encyclopedia of the First World. 2 vols. New York: Facts on File.
Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations (1988). 7th ed. New York: Worldmark Press.