Monday, August 23, 2010


I know--seriously? I don't know what Flemish is? Well, much as I would like to report otherwise, I'm afraid I do not. Don't get me wrong, I have some sort of vague idea. Problem is, that vague idea may be wholly wrong.

Okay, here's what I think I know. Flemish refers to that belonging to a European region that became incorporated into some larger state, like Holland or Germany or maybe Belgium. I might not win the pin the tail on the donkey prize, but at least I'm not guessing Spain, or, for that matter, Africa. The other thing I think I know is that there was a famous Flemish school of art. Van Eyck? Even Vermeer? One of the things that got me thinking about this, though, was that among the many, many language resources that are available to anyone walking into the bookstore I work at, I have yet to see anything labeled "Teach Yourself Flemish".

Well, let's see.

So, not to brag or anything, but I'm pretty much right. Right about what, you ask? Well, everything. Okay, maybe not Vermeer. Actually, as it turns out, I might be a little bit wrong about that Spain bit too.

But first things first. Let's start with this whole language issue, because it opens up a lot. Here's a nice site that explains this in a clear and simple way, but basically, to all intents and purposes, Flemish and Dutch are the same language, somewhat different in pronunciation, but by and large mutually understandable. According to the above  mentioned site, a good way to think about the difference is to compare it to the difference between Brit-speak and American-speak. We, of course are separated by an ocean. But the Flemish and the Dutch live right next door to each other. So what happened?

History, of course.

The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemborg were once and sometimes still are called the Low Countries, a name given to them by the simple geological fact of sharing the same coastal delta region between higher ground. The region was held by a succession of foreign powers, including, yes, the Spanish Hapsburgs. but in the later part of the sixteenth century, the people of the northern provinces, or Holland as it came to be known, were able to make a break for independence. Meanwhile their brothers, cousins and significant others down south continued to live under whatever occupier happened to be in control, so they were more or less rubbing shoulders with Spanish, Austrian or French speakers on a daily basis, until Belgium too gained its independence in 1830. But well into this last century, French was the language to know in that country.

It was also the language of education, which is to say that the French speaker in what came to be Belgium could go far, while the Flemish speaker, well, not so much. Remember Hercules Poirot? French speaking, not Flemish. The Flemish, though, are understandably proud of their own native tongue and have been fighting for linguistic and cultural equality all along.

The other big and probably obvious thing to know is that the region of Belgium where the Flemish live is Flanders. I'm pretty sure that most people have heard of Flanders before, even if they haven't known exactly where it is. One of the main associations to this area is that many of the most important battles of both World War I and World War II were fought here. And of course one of the most famous poems of WWI was written about this very place. I'll link to a site where you can read In Flanders Fields if you have a mind to. There is a nice facsimile of the handwritten poem there which is very poignant to behold.

Okay, last thing--Flemish art. Yep, Van Eyck is their very famous representative, though he comes out of a whole school of admired Flemish painters. That's one of his at the top of the blog.  But there's another name from a later school that most people have heard as well. Do you know it? Would a picture help?

      Right. That's Peter Paul Rubens, the one and only.


  1. Listen I've been watching this show on TV called The Baroque and last night's episode covered the period when the Baroque went to Flanders. The presenter is a Polish English guy and the whole thing is wonderful. Try and catch it on PBS when it comes around.

  2. Thanks. I definitely will. Because, quite obviously, it will all be news to me.

    Also because in my somewhat intermittent reading of Jacques Barzun I am just now entering the Baroque period.

  3. I should have commented on this at the time, but Vermeer was not Flemish. (Of course, you did put a question mark after his name.) Flemish art came to the fore before Dutch art did, though discussions day will often refer to "Netherlandish" painting, taking artists from Flanders and elsewhere in what became Belgium/

  4. Wow. I have no idea how this post popped to the top of your interest. It's a foreign country to me again at this point. But duly noted as to Vermeer.