Story of Flanders: Why do the Flemish get so worked up about the Battle of the Golden Spurs?
Hit series “Het Verhaal van Vlaanderen” (The Story of Flanders) recently concentrated on the Battle of the Golden Spurs. It’s a battle that has garnered totemic importance in the story of Flemish emancipation and has also given us a free day as the anniversary of the battle on 11 July is the Flemish Holiday. The real story of the battle is pretty complex as historian Jan Dumolyn and literary theorist Kevin Absillis explain.
So, what exactly happened on 11 July 1302?
On the morning of 11 July 1302 the French king Philip the Fair’s army faced a force mobilised by Gwijde of Dampierre, the Count of Flanders. The success of the cloth industry had turned Flanders into one of the most densely populated and most prosperous regions of Europe. In the cities the power of the guilds had increased. Farmers, fullers and weavers supported the Count of Flanders. Old power, the feudal lords and the patricians chose the side of the French king.
The French thought they could inflict a decisive blow on the count’s forces, but unexpectedly they were routed. A victory that had seemed impossible landed up in our collective history, was romanticised and became a myth. Here the novel ‘The Lion of Flanders’ published by Hendrik Conscience in 1838 played a crucial role. In this way the Battle of the Golden Spurs was turned into an important symbol in the formation of a Flemish identity.
Story of Flanders presenter Tom Waes warned that traditional Flemish nationalists may not be enamoured of the episode devoted to the battle, but maybe that’s not entirely true. “Once the battle was portrayed as a key steppingstone towards Flemish emancipation. For some time now historians have provided a different interpretation, based on historical sources rather than myths” says historian Jan Dumolyn (Ghent University), who serves as one of the series’ historical advisers.
The Battle of the Golden Spurs was an important milestone in social emancipation.
“During the century before the battle there was a tremendous expansion of the economy of the Southern Netherlands. Towns became cities, but social contrasts became wider. Textile workers had no power, no political say, and that triggered protests. There was a whole series of revolts, in the County of Flanders, but also in Brussels, Brabant and Liège. In these latter places there was no issue with the King of France. That was an additional dimension in the County of Flanders where the French king opposed the Flemish Count.
A dual message
Literary expert Kevin Absillis points to the importance historical writings have played in the way the battle is interpreted: “In the 18th century poems and stories featured Pieter De Coninck and Jan Breydel (leaders of forces and weavers from Bruges). It’s first and foremost thanks to these sources that people are familiar with the most important figures and the details. It’s thanks to Conscience’s ‘The Lion of Flanders’. It had an unprecedented impact that has entered our collective memory”.
Conscience and ‘The Lion of Flanders’ were later employed to shape our Flemish identity. The image of the battle as a language conflict and the role it played in Flemish emancipation originate here. “At least partially” says Absillis. “Later its importance was beefed up and given fresh significance. Conscience partly launched the myth. What he wrote about and the way he wrote about it have also become a myth”.
So, what was Conscience’s story? “Conscience had a dual message” says Absillis. “He wanted to provide a legitimacy for a Belgian identity and honour the new king, King Leopold I. He also wanted to raise the issue of the cultural and linguistic discrimination of Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the County of Flanders. He wanted people to be conscious of their own identity and demand reforms without propagating an anti-Belgian message”.
Some critics argue that Conscience rewrote history, but Absillis doesn’t agree: “Conscience was well versed in the sources that were known at this time. He consulted historians and took to the road to study his field. He didn’t invent anything. His tome is remarkably accurate, but at the same time he said he was writing a novel”.
No detail of history
Jan Breydel and Pieter De Coninck are given a prominent role in ‘The Lion of Flanders’. For many these figures are even more famous than the events of the battle itself. Historian Jan Dumolyn explains: Both are historic figures that feature in historical sources of the day. De Coninck is one of the most important leaders of a revolt in Europe. Jan Breydel’s role is less clear”.
“Historically speaking the Battle of the Golden Spurs wasn’t a language squabble, but as a consequence it’s sometimes thought that that means none of the story is true. However, the battle is no detail of history. Why is it so important? It’s the first time that a people’s army consisting of everyday folk is victorious against the biggest army of knights in Europe. That sent shockwaves through Europe”.
Towards a Flemish Canon
This spring the Flemish Canon, a list of important names and events in Flemish culture, will finally be published. Dumolyn and Absillis both collaborated on the drafting. They believe the Battle of the Golden Spurs deserves an important place in the Flemish Canon. “During the past 200 years of Belgian history and in the Flemish conscience the role of the story of the battle has been very important” says Absillis. “It’s the role of scientists to show what exactly happened and to show what impact stories may have on communities and democracies”.
Absillis is a linguist and literary theorist as well as the author of “Het slechte geweten van Vlaanderen” (Flanders’ bad conscience).
In conclusion, Jan Dumolyn believes the more discussion there is about history, the better. “The Story of Flanders has clearly all got us talking about history and that has made me a happy man. Let everybody formulate their thoughts. That’s magnificent”.