Understanding Belgium : geo-cultural divisions

Maciamo

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In spit of its small size, Belgium has a disproportionate cultural diversity. The country is mainly divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the North and French-speaking Walloons in the South. If it weren't for some superficial cultural differences with their immediate neighbours, due to a different political or educational system, we could say that Flanders and the Southern Netherlands are a single cultural entirty, and so would Wallonia and Northern France (Nord-Pas de Calais, Picardie & Champagne-Ardennes) be. But it cultural division runs deeper than that, even within Flanders and Wallonia.

Here is a map of Belgian provinces and regions to situate yourself :

Belgium_Regions.gif



Flanders

Flanders was originally the name of the region made of the present provinces of East and West Flanders (main cities : Ghent and Bruges), but also of the northern tip of France (main city : Lille). Historical Flanders is thus Flemish or French speaking, part of Belgium or France.

The current provinces of Antwerp, Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant, as well as the region of Brussels, were part of the medieval Duchy of Brabant, as was the Dutch province of North Brabant. This is the historically between this part of Belgium and the Southern Netherlands. Likewise, bits of the eastern Belgian province of Limburg used to form the Duchy of Limburg with the Dutch province of Limburg, just across the River Meuse. To complicate things, parts of the current French-speaking province of Liege also belonged to the Duchy of Limburg, but most of the actual Belgian province of Limburg was part of the Principality of Liege, a French speaking city but belonging to the German Holy Roman Empire !

To summarise, the region now known was 'Flanders' (5 provinces) once belonged to 4 distinct politico-cultural entities : the County of Flanders, the Duchy of Brabant, the Principality of Liege and the Duchy of Limburg. Flanders and Brabant were majoritarily Dutch-speaking, with a French speaking minority in the South. Liege was a French-speaking principality but with a relatively big Dutch-speaking minority in the North. Limburg was Dutch-speaking, with a German-speaking minority. All feudatory states belonged to the Holy German Empire, except Flanders which was part of France !

This contradicts the image of Dutch speakers being closer to Germany and French speakers closer to France, as historically it is mostly the opposite. From the Renaissance all of present-day Belgium passed to the French Duchy of Burgundy, then to the Habsburg family (Spanish, then Austrian) until being part of France again duing the French revolution. There was an exception (of course !): the principality of Liege, making up most of the present provinces of Liege, Limburg, as well as half of Namur and parts of Luxembourg, remained "German" (Holy Roman Empire) until 1789. This leads us to Wallonia.

Wallonia

Just like Flanders, and even more so, Wallonia is not a homogenous region. The heartland of Wallonia is usually considered to on both sides of the Meuse (the Hesbaye and Condroz regions), roughly comprised between Dinant, Namur, Ciney and Huy, possibly as far as Liege (see map). This area has a particularily interesting history, as it was completely parcelled out between the Principality of Liege and the County of Namur. For instance, Dinant and Ciney, both in the centre of the province of Namur nowadays, used to belong to the Prince-bishops of Liege.

The largest province of Wallonia is the Hainaut, to the West. Historically it belonged to the County of Hainaut with the region of French Hainaut. It is the most different area from the Walloon heartland in every respect : it is flat like Flanders, has brick houses (rather than stone ones) like Flanders, people speak just like the French across the border, and the western half of Hainaut (around Tournai & Mons) traditionally speak the Picard dialect of France, not Walloon. In many ways the Hainaut is more French than Walloon.

The province of Luxembourg historically belonged mostly to the Duchy of Luxembourg, like the country of the same name. The difference is that people in the Belgian province do not speak the Luxemburgish dialect (anymore). The southern and most populous part of the province (Arlon, Virton, Florenville, Bouillon...) has more in common with the Lorraine region of France and the country of Luxembourg that with the rest of Wallonia. Even the architecture in a town like Bouillon is distinctively French (taller houses painted in white with colouful wooden shutters).

The Walloon Brabant is mostly the extension of the posh southern suburbs of Brussels in the North, and farmland prolonging the Wallonian Hesbaye in the East and South.

Brussels


Historically and geographically in Flanders (well, in fact Brabant), Brussels has become a French-speaking stronghold since it became the capital of independent Belgium in 1830. In the 19th and early 20th century Wallonia was more prosperous than Flanders, and many companies moved their national headquarters in Brussels. The nobility was (and is still) mainly French-speaking even in Flanders. Many of them also moved to Brussels. This resulted in a higher concentration of rich French speakers in Brussels than anywhere else in the country, giving the impression nowadays that Dutch speakers are more wealthy than Walloons, because Brussels' 85% French speaking majority is not taken into account. Many rich French speakers from Brussels have a second house in or retire to Wallonia, especially in the province of Namur (supposedly the most beautiful and richest in castles and historic houses nationwide). Brussels' percentage of rich French speakers would further increase if we take into account all the upper and upper-middle class working in Brussels but living just outside the city's borders, either in Walloon and Flemish Brabant. All the communes directly east and south of Brussels in the Flemish Brabant have a substantial minority, and in some cases even a majority of French speakers.
 

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