The Self-Identification of the Other

July 3, 2013 Harold Tor-Daenens

The Self-Identification of the Other: How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today

Today, Flanders refers to the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. But what about the provinces of East and West Flanders? Why is it that the region took on the name of a County that existed on the western end of the country? To any historian, the name ‘Flemish Brabant’ sounds like an oxymoron, because Brabant was itself a Duchy, a centre of economic prowess and the seat of power of the Duchy of Burgundy. On the same note, for a Limburger or an Antwerper to call himself ‘Flemish’ sounds positively bizarre. Why can they not just call themselves ‘northern Belgians’?

In the search for an answer to this situation, this article will examine the historic and political context in which Flanders was defined over the last two thousand years. At the same time, the article will inadvertently try to untangle the vital differences in the perspectives of the Dutch and French language communities and their societies, which are often clouded in the highly-politicised discourse of the media and politicians here.

The article will be divided into the following chapters:

  • The Historic Flanders: The Roman Era
  • The Rise of the Barbarians
  • The Northwards Latinisation in West Francia
  • The Founding of the Franconian-speaking Nation-State
  • The Separations: War of the Churches or War of the Races?
  • What’s in a Name?
  • Who were ‘les Flamands’?
  • The Flemish Root of the Flemish Movement and the Self-Identification of the ‘Other
  • Not Once, But Twice
  • An Inconvenient Identity

To facilitate your reading, I have organised the chapters chronologically, and they will be followed by a brief conclusion.


The Historic Flanders: The Roman Era

The present-day Low Countries were inhabited by Celtic tribes called the Belgae by Julius Caesar. After the Roman conquest of 57BC, the region became the province of Gallia Belgica. The northern and western borders were formed by the (old) Rhine river that exited to the North Sea through current-day Leiden. The north was guarded by Noviomagus (Nijmegen, the Netherlands) and the west by Colonia (Cologne, Germany). The territory extended south to the border of Lutetia (Paris, France) and east to Rotomagus (Rouen, France). The inhabitants of this area were Celts, who were later romanised as time went by. This marks the beginning of the various Romance languages spoken here today, such as Picard, Namurois, Liégois, Lorrain, which evolved separately from the localised forms of Latin, and are not dialects of standard French (called ‘patois’) as today’s French or francophone Belgian republicans claim.

Throughout the two millennia that followed, French, as the official successor to Latin, is hence seen as the de facto language of the ruling class, whatever your ethnicity. It is an interesting phenomenon that Latin as a marker of social status continues even today throughout the region. The native Celtic peoples living in this area soon became romanised and hence ‘civilised’. The colonisation changed the socio-economic landscape dramatically, trade axis formed and villages turned into cities as the economy grew.

Image of How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: Roman Era

To say that Gallia Belgica was entirely Celtic is possibly untrue. Germanic tribes were already residing along the Rhine valley when the Romans arrived. The Batavi and the Usipi were living along the river, and beyond the east bank lived the Frisii, the Chamavi and the Bructeri. Noting the ethnic differences, the province was later cut into Gallia Belgica where the Celts lived, Germania inferior (lower Rhine valley) and Germania superior (upper Rhine valley) where the Germanics lived. The eastern bank of the Rhine which was outside Roman territory was known as Germania Magna.

Were the Germanics as romanised as the Celts? What was their social status in Roman society? Which province was more romanised than the other? While no clear answer could be given regarding these questions. It was clear that the Celts are later called Gallo-Romans to describe the extent of their romanisation, and Germanics were regarded as barbarians.

This racial, linguistic and social dichotomy from the Roman era, will continue to haunt the region today.



The Rise of the Barbarians

The Roman Empire officially fell on 4 September 476 when Germanic barbarian Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Before that, Rome was already sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and a second time by the Vandals in 455. But in fact, the Roman Empire had already declined prior to these sieges. What is important for our discussion, is the situation of the Gallia Belgica and Germania inferior and superior then.

In the year 406, a mixed group of barbarians that included the Vandals, the Alans and the Suebi crossed the Rhine. What ensues is known as the ‘Völkerwanderung’ or ‘Migration Period’ of the Germanic peoples. One of these groups, the Franks, already had a stronghold all along the Rhine valley in the late 4th century thanks to their cousins who lived just across in Roman territories. Frankish kingdoms rose on both sides of the Rhine and crossed over into Gallia Belgica, down to Gallia Celtica. Under the Merovingians Frankish kings, the seeds of the future country called France was planted. In 509, Clovis the First became the King of all Franks and ruled over a unified realm of Francia. By 843, the Carolingian Frankish kings expanded the kingdom into an Empire that covers what is Germany and France today.

However it broke down into three components in 843: West Francia, Middle Francia (or Lotharingia) and East Francia.

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: Between the Three Frankish Kingdoms

What is interesting for this article, is the situation of the Germanics and the Gallo-Romans in the second half of the first century at the time of the invasion. Were the Gallo-Romans annihilated? Most likely not. Were they assimilated? Maybe. Were they driven away? Maybe. Although no evidence could be found to support any of the three scenarios, no amount of evidence could ever come up with a blanket generalisation of the actual situation. In a war scenario, all three most likely occurred. Looking at the linguistic and genetic evidences in today’s Belgium, Germanic-speaking people there are indeed direct descendants of the original Frankish invaders. The cities that were formerly Roman strongholds and are now in Germanic areas, such as Kortrijk (Cortoriacum) and Tongeren (Tungrorum), point less to assimilation and more to eviction (towards the south).

The Franks incorporated many of the existing Roman structures into the new Frankish feudal structure. Within Germania inferior and superior, the Romans organised the Germanics into “pagii” or fiefs. The English word “paganism” that now refers to non-believers, used to refer to the Germanics who lived in these fiefs. In the Frankish system, these remained and were called ‘gouw’. At the time of the split of Francia into three, a small fief called ‘Vlaanderengouw‘ existed in the northern tip of the West Francia kingdom. The name came from the Germanic word ‘flaumaz‘ meaning ‘overflow, flooding’, referring to the twice daily flooding of the land by the North Sea from the 3rd to 8th century. The fief grew around the settlement of Brugge (meaning ‘bridge’) and its border with Middle Francia was marked by the River Scheldt.

On the other side of the river, lays the Kingdom of Middle Francia, that extends all the way to the North Sea. Just east of Vlaanderengouw lay the Brabantgouw. The name came from Franconian word ‘braec‘ meaning ‘wetlands’ and ‘bant‘ meaning ‘region’. No other information about the fief survives as it disintegrated into four entities in the 11th century: the Landgraviate of Brabant (between the rivers Dender and Zenne), the County of Brussels (between the rivers Zenne and Dijl), the County of Ename (later known as County of Aalst), and the County of Henegouwen. By 1183, the powerful Duchy of Brabant which combines these entities (and the County of Leuven) was born. Stretching all the way north to Breda, the Duchy had four capitals: Leuven, Brussels, Antwerp and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It survives into the 16th century until it was halved when the Protestant north broke away.

The division of the Frankish kingdoms was the territorial and historic context in which the future Flanders and Brabant were born.

Middle Francia broke down three decades later and its territories were divided between West and East Francias, which later evolved into the Royal Frankish Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. The River Scheldt which was the national border proved no boundary for the expansion of the former fief and now County of Flanders. It was the only County that spanned across both Kingdoms. The powerful Count of Flanders established its capital in Ghent, where the rivers Scheldt and Leie meet, and the entity lasted well into 1795.

 The Northwards Latinisation in West Francia

South of Flanders and Brabant (the de facto heartland of the Frankish culture and language), an ethnogenesis of a new Latin-speaking race was taking place, formed by the Gallo-Romans and the ruling Franks in the rest of West Francia. In fact, it has been a process that has been going on since the ‘Völkerwanderung’ of the Germanic Peoples began and it has lasted until today: The Goths and the Vandals swept across Europe from their Scandinavian homeland only to be absorbed into the Latin populations they invaded. The Burgundians and the Lombards have basically disappeared among the Latins. Even later, the Viking Norsemen who settled in Normandy took up French as their tongue, bringing it to England and forever changed the English language into the most latinised language in the Germanic family. In our discussion, the Franks, once settled in Roman Gaul, adopted the local Latin and transformed it into the French language of today. This points to the theory that not only in the Frankish realm, but also in the rest of conquered Roman territories, Romans were not annihilated. One reason is the dichotomy between the barbaric Germanic realm and the cosmopolitan literate world of the Romans we spoke earlier about. The Germanics did not come to destroy the Roman world, they came to take over. Hence, Roman bureaucracy, Roman culture, Roman literature and Roman way of life remained very much intact, it was this rich, upper-class, civilised world that the Germanics wanted.

It would be too easy to claim that the borders of Flanders and Brabant are the linguistic borders, anything north is still Frankish, or more correctly, Franconian, while anything south is Latin. There are three factors here that we are looking at:

  • First, the present-day Walloon languages, descended directly from vulgar Latin and the genetic make-up of the population point to the continued presence of Gallo-Romans after the Frankish invasion. As one moves towards the south right up to the Mediterranean coast, the more one finds Roman settlements and the stronger the Latin culture.
  • The second factor is the latinisation of the Franks themselves, as they absorb the urbanised and more sophisticated Latin world they have just acquired. Thus the latinisation, right from the beginning of the West Francia kingdom, is a south-to-north phenomenon, which did not stop at any border.
  • Another factor that contributed greatly to the latinisation of the Germanics was the Church. The language of liturgy was Latin, and to integrate fully into the Christian Roman world, one has to understand and speak the language of its religion. So the stronger the presence of the Church, the more latinised the population was. There are indications that even after the 11th century, pagan beliefs and practices remained in the northern parts of both Francias, such as the Semini phallic god in the Antwerp Castle.

One of the issues that contribute to the language debate in today’s Belgium, is this continued latinisation (and attempts to stop it) as well as a part of the Latin population that ignores or denies its Germanic past (which is a continuation of the barbaric-civilised dichotomy):

Take the example of the current-day Hainaut, a French-speaking province in Belgium. Its name point to a Franconian origin which is completely decipherable in its modern Dutch form ‘Henegouwen’: ‘Hene‘ is the river while ‘Gouw‘ is a fief. It is completely latinised as far as written records show, although it was originally a Franconian-speaking fief, a detail that modern-day Hainautians refuse to admit. Another example is the Prince-Bishopric of Liège that was absorbed into Belgium at the end of the 18th century. The city itself was within Germania Inferior during Roman times, and the name was of Germanic origin: ‘liudik‘ meant ‘people’, and it survives today in Dutch as ‘Luik’, in German as ‘Lüttich‘ and in Liégois as ‘Lîdje’. Yet French-speaking historians only want to make the link with its Latin name ‘Leodium’, which was a phonetic rendition of its original Germanic form.

The process of latinisation seems to have taken place extremely rapidly in West Francia and much less in East Francia. This could be due to the three factors mentioned above. West Francia, being a former Roman territory, had a deeply-rooted Romance linguistic tradition. East Francia on the other hand, had no such cultural heritage being mostly outside of the Roman realm, and it also had a wider array of Germanic tongues which it incorporated such as those of the Alemani and Saxons, many of whom were still half and privately pagan.

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: The Serments of Strasbourg

If European politics had remained so simple, then Flanders would today be completely latinised (because it was located in West Francia) while Brabant and the eastern provinces would be speaking Modern High German using Dutch (Modern Low Franconian) as a dialect (because it was located in East Francia).

The Founding of the Franconian-speaking Nation-State

The borders between the Kingdom of France (West Francia) and the Holy Roman Empire (East Francia) were carved up once again in 1384. Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy from the French House of Valois inherited the Royal County of Flanders (thus French) and acquired the neighbouring Imperial County of Brabant (thus German) and other imperial and royal states in the region. What is clear here was an attempt to recreate the original Middle Francia that was devoured by the two other Francias back in 870.

For the first time, the Frankish heartlands in the north were united in one entity that was called the Burgundian Netherlands. This event has two consequences. One, it cushioned the Franconian speakers against the rapid latinisation in what is now France. Two, it united the Franconian-speaking Frankish heartlands in a political union, which planted the seed of a separate national identity.

This does not mean that latinisation has stopped. At this time when the modern nation-state is yet to be born, all elites and literates spoke and wrote Latin. This was true in the Kingdom of France, the Holy Roman Empire and the newly-born Burgundian territories. The latinisation, refers to that of the general population, which has already affected the states within this union: Geographically in the south of the Burgundian Netherlands, notably in Namur, Hainaut and Artois; and in all major urban centres such as Ghent, Brussels, Leuven and Antwerp.[1]

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: The New Franconian-speaking Nation-State

This political identity was further strengthened in 1482 when Philip the Fair, heir to the Holy Roman Empire of the Habsburg line, inherited the Burgundian territories from his mother, thus adding the Netherlands (‘Belgica‘ in Latin) into the Holy Roman Empire. The ‘Habsburg Netherlands’, comprising Seventeen Provinces, were given additional autonomy.


The Separations: War of the Churches or War of the Races?

Today, the Dutch and the Belgians talk about how they were once colonised by the Austrians and the Spaniards. Maybe it is the element of self-pity in their nation-building myth, because in fact, there was no Austria nor Spain at that time. The territory simply changed hands in the course of the succession between different Habsburg lines.

The Habsburg family that ruled the Holy Roman Empire inherited the thrones of the Kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula. Although Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500, he ruled from the Latin strongholds of Castile and Aragon. His son, Philip II, born and bred in the south, ruled the Low Countries as Lord of the Netherlands as well as King of Castile, Aragon and Portugal, with undaunted Catholic fervour and centralised control.

The Eighty-Year War began in 1568 as a result of the revolt by the seventeen provinces against the high taxes, religious persecution, and infringement of the provinces’ political autonomy.

On the surface, it was a religious war. It was a war that the Protestants waged against what they thought was the religious and moral corruption of the Catholic Church. Led by the new class of intellectuals, who were literate and thus able to read, write, discuss and contradict, the war revealed other socio-political elements influencing the society in the then-Netherlands.

A look at the 1581 Act of Abjuration (‘Plakkaat van Verlatinghe’) tells us two things: One, it was written in Dutch, called ‘Nederduits‘ at the time. Secondly, it was signed by Brabant, Gelre (including Groningen), Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, Friesland, Mechelen, Utrecht (including Overijssel). The Act rejects the royal control of Philip II. Ignoring the relative separate identity and situation of Luxemburg (whose dynasty was firmly rooted in the Habsburg line and the Holy Roman Empire, plus it was buffered by the Prince-Bishopric of Liége), the southern Latin-speaking provinces clearly did not take part.

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: The Plakaat van Verlating

The thousand-year-old dichotomy of Roman versus Germanic, Civilised versus Barbaric, Latin versus Franconian resurfaces, now with the additional dimension of Catholic versus Protestant. This dichotomy is so deeply rooted, that it is no coincidence that all the Protestant countries in Europe today are Germanic, and if there are Catholic enclaves, they are mostly ancient Roman strongholds. [2]

Philip II, Latin and Catholic, won back most of the territories in Flanders and Brabant. By the time the war ended in 1648, the Frankish nation-state was cut into halves, politically, religiously and linguistically: the royal, Catholic, Latin(French)-speaking ‘Belgica Regia‘ (Royal or Southern Netherlands) and the republican, Protestant, Germanic(Dutch)-speaking ‘Belgica Foederata‘ (Federal Dutch Republic).

As mentioned in another article that I have written on ‘The Search for a Standard National Language: The Case of Flanders’, to further concretize his rule over the rest of the Netherlands he owns, Philip II reinforced French as the sole medium of education, administration and prestige.

With the flight of the Dutch-speaking intellectuals, the centre of Dutch literature and language shifted to the north. No literary work was produced in the Southern Netherlands between 1570 and mid-1800s.

What Philip II did, was to restart the latinisation process that his ancestors stopped when they took the Frankish heartland out of the rapidly-latinising West Francia. By the 19th century, the modern form of the original language of the Franks lingered on in Southern Netherlands as a language spoken only by the illiterate, the urban lower class and the rural farming class.

By the time Northern Netherlands attempted to reunite with Southern Netherlands, the latinisation was nearly complete and the socio-political differences between North and South were irreconcilable. With the defeat of Napolean, Dutch King William the First ruled the now-recombined United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. There are two main causes that led to the break-away of Southern Netherlands fifteen years later: One, with the willful imposition of the Northern constitution on the newly-united South, Catholics would not be able to participate in the government. Two, William attempted to impose a language reform where Dutch would replace French as the official language. For the Southerners, it was the old barbaric Germanic frontal attack on the sophisticated Roman society and its symbols of Catholicism, the Latin language, and the Roman civilisation. Led by the French-speaking upper class, the revolt was swift and independence was gained on 4 October 1830. Belgium, the youngest Latin nation-state of Europe, was born.[3]


What’s in a Name?

While the Independence of Belgium looked like a triumph for its latinised population, the event awoke a sentiment among its Germanic-speakers on both sides of the renewed border.

Belgian historian Jean Stengers remarked that from up until the independence of the country, Dutch-speakers did not have a collective name for themselves. [4] The name ‘Vlaming‘ referred to an inhabitant of ex-County of Flanders while Dutch-speaking lower classes in and rural dwellers outside of Brussels called themselves ‘Brabanters’. Even the inhabitants in the eastern hills called themselves ‘Limburgers’. Likewise, there was no collective name for the vast array of closely-related Franconian dialects that lingered among these people. In official French documents, they are known only as ‘patois‘ or local dialects; even among themselves, the Dutch-speakers called it ‘moedertaal‘ (mother tongue) or ‘volkstaal‘ (folk language).

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: Matthias De Vries

In the Dutch Kingdom however, efforts began in the 19th century to codify their language, as the symbol of the new nation. Formerly, the language was known as ‘Nederduits’, a term that points the dialect continuum of the Franconian language that stretches east into the whole of North Germany where the language is known as ‘Niederdeutsch’. With the increased use of Modern High German as the official language of Germany, the new nation of Netherlands started to call its own language as ‘Nederlands‘ (Netherlandish) after the name of the country.[5] This move gave the basis for the collective appellation of national symbols, such as the citizen is now a ‘Nederlander‘ instead of the regional ‘Hollander‘ or ‘Zeelander’. This seemingly minor naming development firmly gave this Franconian nation-state its national identity.


Who were ‘les Flamands’?

With the expulsion of the Germanics, the rulers of Belgium were determined to craft the country as a Latin state. Its capital Brussels and Brabant metropolis of Leuven and Antwerp underwent a rapid latinisation process, aided by the arrival of the Industrial Age. French was a sign of national pride and allegiance, a symbol of elevated social standing, and of one’s education level. The French-speaking population of Brussels increased rapidly due to two reasons: vast immigration of wealthy French-speakers from Wallonia who became rich from the booming mining industries there, and the stopping of the transmission of the Dutch language from one generation to the next within the existing population by speaking only French. By this time, Brabant, with its powerful cities, was the symbol of the Latin Belgian state.

The ex-County of Flanders was carved up by Napolean into East and West Flanders. In the new Belgian state, that division remained as provinces. However, Flanders did not regain its former glory. Its only urban centre was its former capital Ghent, which churned out cotton and linen. The rest of Flanders was in abject poverty. Its inhabitants had to travel to the North of France or Wallonia to work as seasonal workers, earning very low pay and in appalling conditions. Those who survived returned to risk it again the following year. Many did not make it to the end. Those who made money never came home. This dark moment in history is deeply ingrained in the Flemish psyche today. Along the E17 highway today in Aalbeke, is a sculpture called ‘De Fransman’, known locally as ‘De Sjouwer’, erected in remembrance of the Flemish workers who left to work in the sugar factories in France. Those who work in France were called ‘Fransmans‘ and those who left for Wallonia were called ‘Walenmans’. The pejorative French term for these Flemish workers was ‘trimard’, which literally meant ‘working vagabond’.

In this socio-economic context, a poor, Dutch-speaking person is invariably called a ‘Flamand’, whether or not he actually came from Flanders because chances were he might very well be. The name ‘les Flamands’, gradually came to be used NOT as regional appellation, but a sign of social class. When spoken from the mouth of an upper class French-speaker in Brabant, the term referred to a member of the underclass, while someone of the same social standing and linguistic inclination was a ‘Belge’.

Thus, ‘les Flamands‘ came to mean ‘them‘ as opposed to ‘us’.

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: De Sjouwer

The Flemish Root of the Flemish Movement and the Self-Identification of the ‘Other’

Clearly noticing that his Germanic-speaking subjects were somewhat on the edges of the Latin national identity of his new country, the first Belgian King Leopold I commissioned Hendrik Conscience in 1853 to write the historical novel of ‘De Leeuw van Vlaanderen‘ (The Flemish Lion) in Dutch, in the hope of including ‘les Flamands‘ into the national psyche and injecting some sense of national pride for Belgium in them. Ironically, the romanticisation of the tale in the written Dutch language achieved great effects in the former County of Flanders and the national pride was not so much for Belgium the country, but for the former County. It inspired Hippoliet van Peene and Karel Miry from Ghent’s amateur theatre group to write a battle song in 1847 of the same name, which later became the national anthem of the region in the 21st century. Flamed by his success, Conscience went to on pen more romanticisation of Flemish (not Brabant) heroes: ‘Jacob van Artevelde‘ (1849), ‘De Boerenkrijg‘ (1853) and ‘De Kerels van Vlaanderen‘ (1871).

Conscience was and is a well-known figure said to have planted the seed of the nationalistic self-determination movement of Belgian Dutch-speakers, but he was certainly not an isolated pioneer. Guido Gezelle (1830-1899), a priest from Bruges, who wrote hundreds of poems about nature and religion, tried to codify his native West-Flemish dialect and promote it as a literary language for all the ‘Flamands’. Young Albrecht Rodenbach (1856-1880) who died from tuberculosis at the age of 23 was a student leader, poet and drama writer. While studying law (in French) at the Leuven University, he promoted his own West Flemish dialect as the pure Frankish language for all Dutch-speakers.

Without the Conscience’s work, it would not have ignited the spark in Flemish, particularly West Flemish writers. And without Rodenbach, there would not have been a ‘Flemish’ student movement. Rodenbach’s involvement in the student union inspired other Dutch-speaking student activists from both Flanders and outside of Flanders. Hence, much like how the word ‘Nederlands‘ gave the Dutch Kingdom its national self-identity, the word ‘Flamand‘ gave a name to the collective self-identity of the Dutch-speakers in Belgium. Now, Dutch-speakers can call one another ‘Vlaming’, their language ‘Vlaamsch‘ and their common characteristics ‘Vlaamsche’.

From 1870 onwards, the movement took on the name ‘Flemish’ as well as a broader, grass-root scale.

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: The Self-identification of the Other

In the course of the 20th century, a whole chain of events eventually led to the official recognition of Dutch as a national language and as the sole official language of the Dutch-speaking region, which is now conglomerated into one as ‘Flanders’. The biggest irony of this piece of history is the rapid growth of a national identity based on the collective self-identification as the ‘Other’.

In short, the term ‘Flemish’ went from a regional definition, to a social definition, and now to an ethno-national definition.

Not Once, But Twice

This self-identification of the ‘Other’ did not happen once, but twice in Belgian history.

After the invasion of the Franks, like the Dutch-speakers in 19th century Belgium, the Gallo-Romans did not have a collective name to call themselves. The language they spoke was Latin and they were citizens of the Roman Empire and they have long shed their ethnic identity of Celts. So they took on the name the new Germanic ruling class gave them ‘Walhaz’, which meant ‘foreigner, Roman’. This term comes down to us as ‘Walloon’, and is still the name of the Romance-speakers in Belgium, and their habitat is called ‘Wallonia’. The same happened in other Germanic-ruling regions at the time, such as ‘Welsh’ being the name given to the Celtic Britons by the English, and the ‘walnut’ (which came from Italy) actually meant ‘Roman nut’.

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: The 2000-year old Latin-vs-Germanic Dichotomy

So, the Germanics called the Latins ‘Waal‘ and it stuck, and 1400 years later the Latins called the Germanics ‘Flamand‘ and it stuck. But it is the subtle differences in these two self-identifications that are causing problems in Belgium today.

When the Franks crossed the Rhine into their new homeland, they called the people they encountered as ‘foreigners’. It was not so much a name that says who those people actually were, but who they were not, i.e. ‘not of our race’. When the 19th century French-speakers called the Dutch-speakers ‘les Flamands’, it was, as mentioned before, a social-class definition and unlike the Germanic definition, it was meant to pinpoint to who they were. But when the Dutch-speakers appropriated this definition, they immediately take it on as an ethno-national definition.

This brings us back to the fundamental Roman-Germanic dichotomy: Latin versus Franconian (language), Civilised versus Barbaric (social status) and now Citizen versus Ethnicity (political self-identity).

Bear in mind that within the vastness of the Roman Empire, many different races co-existed within the realm. What was important within Roman society was not one’s ethnicity, but one’s affinity and responsibilities to the Empire as a citizen. Language was not a marker of ethnicity but of citizenry, so was the adoption of Roman bureaucracy and societal structure. Hence, when one looks at Latin societies today, such as France and Italy, they are racially pluralistic and highly centralist.

Comparatively, Germanic societies are far less so. Common language, customs, behaviours, both codified or otherwise, are treated as markers of affinity to the race, not the state like in Latin societies. This is the reason why extreme-right groups form more easily in Germanic rather than Latin societies, because people do not see the state as definer of ‘outsiders’, but the ethnic community itself.

Without recognising and understanding these fundamental differences between Latin nationalism and Germanic nationalism, as well as the deeply-rooted Latin-Germanic dichotomy, it is difficult to untangle the social, political, geographical and ethnic situation of this Frankish heartland.

An Inconvenient Identity

For all ethnic nationalisms, the ethnic identity is constructed over time, and for that identity to fit into the rigid structure of the modern nation-state, it takes long-term, consistent and systematic political acculturation through education, widespread propaganda, compulsory military and community services, cross-national internal trade, common historical experiences such as war, economic hardships or common national heroes, and common cultural experiences such as common mentalities, customs, language, literature, and commonly-identified national literary or artistic geniuses.

While the Flemish self-determination has in the course of the last hundred years achieved great strides, there are signs that it still needs to reach a mature, coherent level that can fit into the shape of a contemporary political form, such as that of its neighbour-cum-twin brother the Netherlands.

  • The first sign is that the ‘Flemish’ national identity cannot be completely applied to all Dutch speakers in its current form, should regional identities remain strong. Because of the fragmented nature of the geopolitical landscape in the counties and the duchies that lasted for so long, the local and regional identities remain the primordial identity for a Germanic-speaker, followed only by the Flemish or ‘national’ identity. For a Dutch speaker from a Flemish city to say he is Flemish poses no issue because his regional and national identities coincide. For a Brussels or an Antwerp inhabitant to say he is Flemish, it is invariably a secondary identity. A conspicuous display of this psychology is when the Antwerp natives are often accused of snobbery and conceit by the Flemish, and the Brussels natives often make it a point to pronounce the capital as their place of origin. It is clear that Brabant still holds the economic and political superiority and the geographical Flanders is very aware of their past, and present, status gap.
  • Another sign is the issue of common language. As discussed in my former article, Flanders is still in search of a standard national language. As an offshoot of the issue regarding competition with the regional identities, regional languages or regionally-accented versions of standard Dutch represent the fragmented linguistic landscape throughout the region. Apart from the fact that no standard version is being promoted with overwhelming success (there have been efforts throughout the fifties and the sixties, but regional accents and languages are right now experiencing a comeback), the name ‘Nederlands‘ (Netherlandish) is an uncomfortable one for the Flemish nationalists. To them, it is the symbol of the Dutch nation not theirs, which is why many Dutch-speaking Belgians prefer to call their standard national language ‘Vlaams‘ (Flemish) and attempt to identify as many differences with the northern variant as possible.
  • Last but not least, the Flemish national identity needs to constantly compete with other identities that contradict or precede it. Traditional old Flemish bourgeoisie still prefers to speak French at home, as it is a sign of their elevated social and economic status for several past generations. Many Dutch-speakers still consider French as the language of the upper class and use it in public as an outward display of ‘having made it in life’, especially for the new generation of middle class as the region outdoes Wallonia in economic prowess. Another issue is that it has to compete with the Belgian national identity. Not all Belgian Dutch-speakers feel they want to own the Flemish identity because they prefer the Belgian national identity, or there are Dutch-speakers who relegate the Flemish identity to a regional one, slightly above their local or provincial identity but definitely below their Belgian identity. With so many competitors, the Flemish national identity is facing a hard time achieving the same level of coverage as when the Dutch achieved theirs. To make matters worse, ethnic nationalisms are facing their biggest challenge yet in history, with the rise of global migration, the internet and digital communications, and global trade. The core of an ethnic nation is the race (or the idea of a single unique race), migration is a sudden disruption of that eco-system that has for a long time been a core component of the self-identification of that community. Notwithstanding the difference in physical appearance, common behaviour, customs, language, cultural heritage, mores and norms, moral values, both written and unwritten, take generations to acquire. To make matters worse, migrants often bring in more migrants through marriage or family reunion laws to create ghettos and mini-colonies. Digital communications and the internet provides both the easy access to and huge choice in the channels and content of information, which make the central production and diffusion of nationalistic propaganda nearly impossible, as compared with the standard national press, radio and TV in most part of the 20th century. The third challenge for any ethnic nationalism is international trade. Now that the global economy ties nations to one another more closely than ever before in human history, products and services are produced for and consumed by every single country. Jeans, an American clothing, are now worn by anyone who lives in a ‘modern’ (not western or American) society. In a globalised economy, Japanese sushi, Mexican tortillas, Chinese dumplings, Italian pizzas, American films and music are the global commodities that one consumes daily. These are global identity markers that a modern person owns in relation to the larger outside world. On the one hand, they link him to his compatriots around the world and on the other hand, undermine his more local or national identities.

How Flanders came to be the Name of the Region Today: An Inconvenient Identity


From a small settlement in a flooded marshland to a prosperous but self-searching region in the north-west of Europe, Flanders today is not quite the historic Frankish fief that could have disappeared in the mighty Latin kingdom of France or the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. Understanding the developments that have led to the formation of a Dutch-speaking nation in Belgium is crucial, if one attempts to understand the different perspectives in their political debates. For me, being an outsider is both a comfortable and rewarding position to be in, as one observes the squabbles that bubble everyday between the two ancient enemies of the Latins and the Germanics. French-speakers accuse Dutch-speakers of separatism and racism, while Dutch-speakers regard French-speakers as disrespectful and centralist. How can such an age-old feud be resolved in the modern, conciliatory form of parliamentary democracy, when it has never even been resolved in a military confrontation?

That being said, while the legacy of the millennia-long Latin-Germanic dichotomy remains, it is clear that the Flemish national identity in its current form is not a comfortable one either. The historic fragmentations as well as new challenges posed by the globalised digital era make the maturing of an ethnic nationalism all the more arduous. Whether such a form of nationalism will persist or transform to fit the contemporary global society and how, is a big unknown.


  1. The same Latinisation process has been going on in the County of Luxembourg, which speaks Moselle Franconian.
  2. This is a blanket generalisation. Other historic factors matter too of course. However, the other way does not work: Not all Germanic countries are Protestant, such as Austria and the south of Germany in Bavaria. Although linguists have pointed out that Austro-Bavarian might be an acquired Germanic language, because it shows traces of Latin and Celtic linguistic traits.
  3. With the independence of Belgium (which took with it the western, French-speaking region of the Duchy of Luxembourg), Luxembourg also gained its independence as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
  4. Jean Stengers. Histoire du sentiment national en Belgique des origines à 1918. t.1. Les Racines de la Belgique. Bruxelles, Editions Racine, 2000, p.92-93.
  5. Marijke van der Wal. Geschiedenis van het Nederlands. Utrecht, Het Spectrum, 2004, p.306-315.



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