Defining Flanders and the Flemish

Morvern French
Saturday 1 February 2014

There are two key issues that need to be addressed at this stage in the Scotland and the Flemish People Project. The first is to identify the geographical scope of Flanders in the medieval and early modern periods and the second is to define precisely who the Flemish are for the purpose of the Project. Neither have straightforward answers. This blog posting, which draws heavily on the helpful inputs of George English and F. Lawrence Fleming, explores the two issues.


Today Flanders – which has a population of some 6.3 million – is a well-defined part of Belgium comprising five provinces: West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant and Limburg. But it has not always been so well defined. Flanders is situated in a very vulnerable part of Northern Europe. Because of its location it has seen many wars and invading armies throughout its history. It has also been the subject of shifting alliances. So the borders of Flanders have moved over time and the region has experienced periods of independence and of subservience.


From around the 11th century Flanders, or more precisely the County of Flanders, was considered to be the land situated along the North Sea from the Strait of Dover to the Scheldt estuary, with ill-defined southern borders. Through marriage the County of Flanders was joined with most of the rest of the Low Countries around the 15th century, and it lost its independence.


In the 16th century the Low Countries comprised seventeen provinces that encompassed what we now know as the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, plus parts of France. The province of Flanders included Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres where they spoke Flemish [a dialect of Dutch], but also the southern French Flanders, including Lille and Douai, most of which became part of France in 1668. Since the establishment of the independent country of Belgium in 1830, Flanders has been the northern area of that country that covers mainly the Flemish speaking inhabitants.


The lack of a geographical scoping of Flanders through time or a precise definition of who the Flemish are has not to date impinged on the progress of the Scotland and the Flemish People Project. Up to now the work has mostly been focused within Scotland. A range of medieval Scottish sources has been used and reference is usually made in them rather generically to “the Flemish”, “X the Fleming”, or “Y from Flanders”. There is no way to tell whether these terms accurately reflect the origin of, say, a person or import at a particular point in history.


As the historical analysis under the Project proceeds, however, it will be examining the relationship between Flanders and Scotland in various dimensions: trade, culture, religion etc. For this purpose it will be important to get an accurate handle of how Flanders has changed over time. Accordingly, in the next stage of research an effort will be made to define, for each century: what the borders of Flanders were; who ruled Flanders; what influences were there that would have influenced emigration; and why some went to Scotland rather than another country.


The second issue is one of how to define the Flemish. Within Flanders there has historically been two primary sets of inhabitants, the French speaking population in the south and the Flemish (a Dutch dialect) speaking population in the northern area. The issue comes down to whether the Flemish should be defined for purposes of the Project simply as the Flemish speaking inhabitants of Flanders or whether the definition should include the French speakers also. The criteria for inclusion are whether an immigrant group is of measurable size and brings something noteworthy to Scotland.


Most of the weavers and religious émigrés that came to Scotland in the late middle ages and early modern period had Dutch sounding names and so many of them likely came from the Flemish speaking part of Flanders. These immigrants are clearly a group of interest for the research being undertaken as part of the Project and meet the criteria.


Many of the early immigrants to Scotland came up from England and were descended from people who had arrived in Britain with William the Conqueror. Some may have come north following David I’s ascent to the throne of Scotland. These were perhaps kinsmen of David’s Flemish queen consort. These would have almost certainly have been either French speakers from Flanders or people from France who would have had Flemish roots. These early immigrants are also people of interest to the Project because they gave rise to some of the most important Flemish families in Scotland. This group of immigrants also meets the criteria. From the Project perspective therefore it is important to include both French speaking and Dutch speaking people in a definition of Flemish.


In summary, as the Project unfolds further work will be undertaken to get a good fix on the changing boundaries of Flanders during the period under consideration. A broad definition of the Flemish will also be adopted comprising both Flemish and French speakers.


Alex Fleming

January 2014.

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