Monday, August 30, 2010

A brief history of Belgium before there was a Belgium

This is a quick overview of Belgian history, from the first human activity up until the country was internationally recognized as an independent state in 1839. Certain topics mentioned, such as the Flemish art of the Late Middle Ages, political and cultural differences between Belgium and the Netherlands, and the battle of Waterloo, will receive a more thorough treatment at a later time.

People have lived in the area since at least 800,000 BC. The earliest named inhabitants were the Belgae tribes after whom the country is named. In 57-51 BC the Belgae were conquered by Julius Caesar, who wrote in his Commentaries on the Gallic War: "Of all the Gauls, the Belgae are the bravest." These words remain a source of national pride among modern Belgians.


After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Franks, and later the Holy Roman Empire, controlled the area. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the territory was fractioned into feudal states, which came under the control of Burgundy in 1384 as part of the "Low Countries", a region roughly corresponding to today's Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. The Low Countries, also known as the "Netherlands", changed hands on numerous occasions over the next four hundred years. Burgundy, the Habsburgs, the kings of Spain and Austria all desired to control the wealth of the Low Countries.

Leo Belgicus, map of the Low Countries by Claes Janszoon Visscher (1609).
Portrait of a Goldsmith, Jan van Eyck (c. 1430).

In this period, Ypres, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp took turns at being major European centers for commerce and industry (especially textiles and art). Flemish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden revolutionized the artform, and Flemish tapestries decorated the walls of castles throughout Europe.

In 1794, the French Revolutionary Army seized the Low Countries from the Austrians after a few months of fighting. It stayed in the hands of the French until Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in modern-day Walloon Brabant, which eventually led to the establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815.
Flemish tapestry from 1550, showing a rhinoceros.

The mostly French-speaking Catholic population of Belgium, then known as the Southern Provinces, grew unhappy with the rule of their Dutch Calvinist king, William I. The Belgians saw their language and religion oppressed by their northern neighbors, who had more political power and support from the king.

King William I of the Netherlands, the last Dutch king to rule Belgium.

On 25 August 1830, after a patriotic-themed opera play in Brussels sparked riots in the streets, uprisings started all over the country. The Belgian Revolution was a fact, and a claim to independence quickly followed. William had no desire to give up Belgium, but would eventually give in to international pressure.

Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830Egide Charles Gustave Wappers (1834).
On 19 April 1839, after nine years of war between the revolutionists and the army of the Netherlands, the European great powers, the Netherlands and Belgium signed the Treaty of London, officially recognizing Belgium as a sovereign, independent state.

All knowledge and images: Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Whaw! You're the best history teacher ever :-D You know, after reading your blog, I remember much more than I ever did at school! Great pictures too :)

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