>>A French-speaking state

The new Belgian state that was created in 1830, promoted the French language to the status of ´national language´, despite Dutch being the vernacular language in the northern, Flemish part of Belgium. French at this time was, throughout Belgium, the language of the privileged classes (i.e. monarchy, aristocracy, higher clergy, upper middle classes), the only part of the population which was represented in the bourgeois parliament and which therefore counted politically. In the Dutch-speaking part of the country the elite used French as well, both in everyday speech and, in polite conversation, as a language of culture. This had been the case already under Austrian rule and Frenchification gained further momentum as a result of the language policies of the French regime. For the upper middle classes in Flanders, the use of the French language was also a suitable means for reinforcing their higher social status vis-à-vis those lower on the social ladder. Initially, the process of Frenchification only affected the higher strata of the population – with the notable exception of >>Brussels, the capital – and was by and large an urban phenomenon. Just as the French regime and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands had done, the new Belgian state tried to stimulate national unity by promoting linguistic unity. Monolingualism – having one language – was seen as a political imperative. The official line on ´Flemish´ (as the language of the Flemings was usually called) was that it was only acceptable as a second-class language, as a ´folkloric´ relic of the past. There was thus no return to the well-established >ancien régime tradition, according to which administrative and judicial officers had to know the language of the people. To make matters worse, the language spoken by the Flemings had not yet developed into a >>standard language, lacked prestige and was considered an instrument of >pro-Dutch counter-revolution.

Frenchification of public life

1555-1715: Spanish regime
1715-1795: Austrian regime
1795-1814: French regime
1814-1830: United Kingdom of the Netherlands

The aim of the unitary, centralised Belgian state was to systematically Frenchify public administration, education, the law courts and the army. The Frenchification of official institutions advanced steadily though not unvaryingly: it was more profound at higher levels than at lower levels and more intense in cities than in the countryside. Instititions which used French virtually exclusively were: central government, provincial government, local authorities in big cities, the army, secondary and higher education (attended only by children from a well-off background) and the higher law courts. Twenty-five years´ of systematic Frenchification of Belgium´s public life (starting under the French Republic and only stopped in 1819 by the Dutch sovereign William I) was too long a time to leave no traces. Although the Belgian constitution (in article 23) guaranteed freedom of language and did not allow the use of a language to be imposed by law (which is what the French and Dutch regimes did do), in practice free choice in the matter of language allowed officials both in Flanders and in central government – posts dominated by French-speakers – to only use the language of their choice, i.e. French.

Jan Frans Willems
Jan Frans Willems
Jan-Baptist David
Jan-Baptist David
Hendrik Conscience
Hendrik Conscience


Protest against the use of French in the administrative and judicial institutions was limited between 1830 and 1848. Language issues and public policy on language was unlikely to galvanize the common man into action. It was due to men of letters and philologists like >Jan Frans Willems and >Jan-Baptist David who dedicated their lives to studying the language, culture and history of Flanders, that Dutch continued to exist as a language of culture in Belgium. And they argued that this language, the language of the Flemish Belgians, was a specific element of Belgian culture and that promoting its use would make Belgium stand out more against its neighbours, France in particular; in sum, it would make Belgium more Belgian. The desire to have Belgium´s cultural duality (being a country with both Romance and Germanic characteristics) recognized stemmed from their love of the Belgian fatherland.

A younger generation of Dutch-speaking Belgian patriots soon came to use the concept of a ´Flemish people´, standing behind the Flemish language. This was a concept created by the Flemish Movement: never before in history had there been a ´Flemish people´ or a >political entity that covered the entire territory of present-day Flanders. >Hendrik Conscience, whose romantic historical novel #The Lion of Flanders (1838) was based on an account of the >Battle of the Golden Spurs (11 juli 1302), played a large role in adding meaning to the abstract idea of a ´Flemish people´ by writing about its past – a glorious history, with both heroes and enemies –, by creating a set of powerful symbols for the present (e.g. the Flemish Lion) and by presenting the Flemish people with a future: this is a people that will awaken from its deep sleep. History was being used to create a Flemish consciousness.

The Flemish Movement, initially no more than a few pro-Flemish organisations, was supported by teachers, writers, artists and priests. Not being entitled to vote – as indeed the rest of the petty bourgeoisie – supporters of the Flemish Movement lacked political clout. A petition (1840) which was designed to pressurize the government into recognizing the vernacular in the Flemish part of the country as an official language, along with French (not instead of French), was the first political act of the Flemish Movement. The government, for its part, expressed sympathy for Flemish literature – offering various incentives to major authors – but regarded legislation in the matter of the Flemish language as overstepping the mark.

Catholicism and >Flamingantism

As time went on, the Flemish Movement came to depend particularly on Catholic support. Flanders was still a predominantly rural and economically under-developed region, which resulted in large landowners and the Catholic Church being the most privileged groups in Flemish society and the Catholic party being virtually unassailable in this part of the country, both politically and ideologically – note that Catholics and Liberals were the two parties dominating Belgian politics from the mid-century. The Catholic Church and the Catholic party, although led by French-speakers, considered the preservation of religion and of the mother-tongue as inseparable, at least as far as the common people was concerned. Religion and the Flemish language were bound up with each other because the latter was seen as a vehicle for the protection of “the ancestral faith” and as a barrier against immoral ideas originating not only from ´ungodly´ France but also from Protestant Holland. In Catholic secondary schools numerous Catholic priests and teachers cultivated the pursuit of a literature written in the vernacular. The interest in the language of the people shown by the Catholic community demonstrates that 19th-century Belgian Catholicism – an active participant in the 1830 Revolution – was in a sense more modern and less conservative than other Catholic communities, whose secondary schools maintained curricula in which the study of modern languages was even more overshadowed by the attention devoted to Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. The Belgian Church´s acceptance in 1830 of a parliamentary regime and its enormous efforts in the field of education (the establishment of an extensive network of Catholic primary and secondary schools soon after 1830) testifies as well to the fact that the Belgian Church was relatively more open-minded.

Majesteitsschennis in Belgie
Majesteitsschennis in België”,
a caricature on the Frenchification of the justice system (c.1872).
>To enlarge the illustration please click here.


“Lese-majesty in Belgium. Flanders under French rule; or, Flanders treated as a conquered country. Flemings, you have allowed both your history and the glory of your countless renowned descendants to be used in order to strengthen the Belgianness (literally: the ´Belgian´ badge) of the new fatherland and this very same grateful fatherland has seen fit to prohibit you from holding public office; what is more, it has seen fit to place you beyond the pale of the law, if you don´t consent to renouncing your origin and your upbringing in your mother-tongue.

Flemings, in the army, in the law courts, in all administrative institutions of the country one is passionately fond of the language of the eternal enemies of glorious Flanders and were you not to submit yourself to these crying injustices, one would sentence you to large fines, legal expenses or imprisonment; and the accusers, violators of the law of nations, would charge you with lese-majesty!...O! the Polish?”

Towards a political movement

The political cartoon, dating from c.1872 and denouncing the Frenchification of the justice system – the aim of the caricaturist was to collect funds for a Flemish newspaper in Brussels – beautifully illustrates the transition to a new phase in the history of the Flemish Movement, starting around 1860. Prior to this period the Flemish Movement had been above all a romantic literary movement yearning to instill a sense of pride in ´Flemish´ history, culture and language. The caricature, both the image (´Flanders´, in the centre of the print, is represented as a maiden carrying a flag) and the text, gives a stage to the heroes of “glorious Flanders”, its painters, sculptors, composers, thinkers and poets, whilst suggesting that their names were used and misused in order to strengthen Belgian national identity. At first, political actions, such as the 1840 petition, continued the be the work of extra-parliamentary pressure groups. However, the report of a government commission, which was set up in 1856 under pressure of supporters of the Flemish Movement (or: Flamingants) and looked into the principal Flemish linguistic grievances (the so-called Grievances Commission), had a sobering effect. The commission´s proposals – broadly corresponding with those of the 1840 petition – were brushed aside by the incoming Liberal government led by Charles Rogier (1857-1867).

This was the start of a second phase, with a Flemish Movement bent on acquiring a position of power inside parliament. Flamingants seized upon several scandals and incidents to draw the attention of public opinion to linguistic discrimination in the judicial system, with the aim of mobilising the pro-Flemish electorate. The caricature contains several interesting references in this respect. The counsel for the defendant (Flanders) are muzzled (right). The judges (left), meanwhile, hammer on the anvil of constitution, article 23 of the constitution in particular, in order to leave the French language a free hand in the justice system. Both text and image refer to the so-called >Karsman-affair (1863) (top right), where the law courts in Brussels prohibited a defence to be conducted in Dutch. There is also a reference here to the legendary trial of >Coucke and Goethals (1862). To conclude, on the right-hand side, on the spectators´ benches, the whole of Europe is a witness to this spectacle – we will enter into the European context of the Flemish Movement below and in the “Questions & answers” section.

Reading comprehension questions

1. Why was monolingualism seen as a matter of political expediency, not just by the Belgian government but also by the French regime and William I?

>Click here for an answer.

2. How did those in authority in the new Belgian state perceive the language spoken in the northern part of the country?

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3. Why was there so little protest in the early years against the Frenchification of official institutions?

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4. Would you say the Flemish Movement was hostile towards Belgium during its early years?

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5. Who are the “eternal enemies of glorious Flanders” referred to in The Lion of Flanders of Hendrik Conscience and in the caption of the caricature?

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>To find out more about the first political successes of the Flemish Movement please click here.