An old map of the County of Flanders (Wikipedia Commons)

Why is Flanders called Flanders and not something else?

Why is northern Belgium called Flanders and not say Brabant?  The two Flemish provinces West and East Flanders only make up part of the region that is today, Flanders, while the Duchy of Brabant with the city of Brussels arguably historically played an even more important role.  Why do we (officially) speak Dutch and not say Flemish?  That is another good question and one VRT put to historian Bruno De Wever, who was commenting on TV blockbuster “Het Verhaal van Vlaanderen” (The Story of Flanders), one of the most popular programmes ever shown on VRT and essential viewing on Sunday for many.

Episode 3 of the Story of Flanders relates the tale of the origins of the County of Flanders, a historical area that today corresponds to the Flemish provinces of West and East Flanders, French Flanders (France) and Zeeland Flanders (The Netherlands).

We follow the story of Baldwin Iron Arm, the first Count of Flanders, and his love Judith, a Francian princess. The couple hold sway over Pagus Flandriensis, a small corner of West Francia.  The part they played in history partially explains where the name Flanders comes from.

It could have turned out differently.

“The most important lesson you learn from history is that it can always turn out differently” says historian De Wever (Ghent University), who incidentally in the brother of the Mayor of Antwerp and Flemish nationalist leader, Bart De Wever.

“The third episode of the Story of Flanders tells the tale of the County of Flanders that gave us the name today used to designate the Dutch-speaking provinces of Belgium.  Many important parts of what we today call Flanders historically never formed part of the county including the Duchy of Brabant that includes what we today call Limburg”.

The County of Flanders at the end of the 14th century.  The red line designates the border of the Holy Roman Empire.  Flanders to the west was Crown Flanders.  Flanders to the East was Imperial Flanders.

The history of Flanders often rekindles memories of the Battle of the Golden Spurs, a battle fought in 1302 outside the city of Kortrijk in which Flemish burgers defeated an army of French nobles.  It has gained near-mythical significance in Flemish history and features prominently in Episode 4 of the Story of Flanders.  At the end of the battle the spurs of slain French nobles were collected from the battlefield giving it its name.

In the 19th century when Belgium had just become independent (1830) – after breaking away from the Kingdom of the Netherlands – memory of the battle helped to construct an independent Belgian and Flemish identity.

Bruno De Wever argues that if Flemish nation-building had been at its height after the Great War, when anti-German feeling was more prevalent, the Flemings might well be marking their national holiday on the anniversary of the Battle of Worringen in 1288 – 5 June - and not on 11 July, the anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs.  Victory at the Battle of Worringen, fought near Cologne, put the Duchy of Brabant on the map at the expense of German fiefdoms in what today is Limburg Province.

“The reason Flanders – and not Brabant – won the day in the battle to name norther Belgium is linked to the fact that when Belgium was created France was seen as the big imperial power and not Germany” notes De Wever. 

Napoleon’s conquests were still in living memory, while for German unification we had to wait for 1871.

Hendrik Conscience’s tome “The Lion of Flanders”, written in 1838 and translated into many languages, was a godsend for young Belgians eager to put clear blue water between themselves and the French.

It’s oft forgotten today but De Wever reminds us that Francophone Belgians initially also saw the Battle of the Golden Spurs as a lever to promote the idea of independence, albeit Belgian and not Flemish.

Belgium’s young monarchy too played along in the game naming the king’s eldest sons Duke of Brabant and Count of Flanders respectively.

“The notion Flanders is much older than the notion Brabant” explains De Wever.  “The territory Flandris is first mentioned in the 8th century and flourishes in the 12th to 14th centuries.  Brabant experiences its heyday much later in the 5th and 14th centuries”.

For centuries, internationally the name Flanders is generally used to designate the Northern and Southern Netherlands, but not everybody in Belgium was  happy with this says De Wever.

“In 1938 a Dutch-language culture council was established.  It was supposed to formulate recommendations with regard to the cultural development of the country.  It wasn’t called the Flemish culture council, because supporters of the new Belgian identity consciously avoided the word “Flemish”.  This was linked to fears Flanders would experience a nation-building process of its own.  Something that would be dangerous for Belgium”.

A re-enactment
© 2022 Illias Teirlinck All Rights Reserved

Dutch and not Flemish is the official language of Flanders.  Centuries ago there was no standard language in the Southern Netherlands, merely a ragbag of different dialects.  Flemings were eager to use the Dutch language as a defence against the dominance of the French language in young Belgium.  A group, called Flemish particularists, favoured a Flemish-Dutch language of our own and a means of setting the Flemings aside from a dominant Holland.  They vied for support against a group of integrationists that were eager to see the language of the Southern Netherlands reflect the Dutch spoken north of the border. 

At the end of the day it was this latter group that were victorious and standard Dutch was adopted here.

“Nascent Flemish nation-building formed a danger to the new Belgian identity” says de Wever, who concedes the opposite is also true:  “The more people speak of Flanders, the happier the faces in the Flemish government”.

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