Chapter 15 - Country Life in Belgium



AS considerably more than half the population of Belgium resides outside the towns, the conditions of country life form quite as important a part of the nation's existence as those of the bourgeois classes. There are parts of the little kingdom, such as Luxemburg and Campine, where the population is sufficiently sparse to leave something like the accepted conditions of genuine country life; but in Flanders, Hainaut, and Brabant, the population is so dense that the farms and cottages occupy practically every available spot that can be utilized for a building without diminishing the area of the cultivable ground. Leaving aside the mining districts, the western provinces of Belgium present in the main the appearance of vast market-gardens without a hedge or a wall. The boundaries are marked by nothing more than an insignificant trench. The cultivation of wheat and cereals generally is being increased; but this is due more to the absorption of new land reclaimed from forest or heath than to the abandonment of vegetables. In Flanders, which was formerly given up exclusively to the cultivation of roots, however, it is not uncommon to see nowadays part of a half-acre plot assigned to a wheat crop, and the rest to cabbages.

If one wished to study the agricultural system of Belgium, and to see what has been accomplished there, a visit should certainly be paid to the district called Pays de Waes. This district lies west of the Scheldt, and southeast of Antwerp, and extends almost to Ghent. Its chief town is St. Nicholas, and Lokeren, another town of the Waes country, is scarcely less important. In 1839, the whole of the district was a wild, uncultivated tract. Now it is an unbroken expanse of gardens and fields, sustaining a resident population of five hundred persons to the square mile. There has been no such transformation scene in any part of Europe, and it would be a good experiment to tempt some Belgian agriculturists to see what they could do in some other countries - Ireland, for instance, or the abandoned land in our New England States.

Throughout the two Flanders, which produce more than half the total crops of the country, there are no large landed proprietors, and the soil is parcelled out in small lots among the peasants themselves. The farmer class in these provinces exists only to this extent, that where the commune owns the lands it has chosen to sublet them to a farmer with the means to work several hundred acres instead of dividing the land into allotments. But in Flanders the farmer is the exception, and the small proprietor of anything up to five acres is the rule, while in Hainaut and Brabant it is different. There the farmer class is in the ascendant. A historical cause lies at the root of this difference. Up to the French occupation in 1795, the soil of Belgium was the property in the main of the representatives of the aristocracy, civic as well as feudal, and of the Church. The religious orders were the chief proprietors, owning more than double the cultivated land possessed by the nobles. This was explained by the fact that the Church owned lands to make them revenue producing, and possessed the capital to do so. The nobles were not rich in capital, and a very large proportion of their territorial possessions consisted of forest and unreclaimed land. As they kept these possessions for the chase, they did not even think of developing them. When the French Republic annexed Belgium, all the lands possessed by churchmen and nobles were at once made forfeit, and the actual occupiers and tillers of the soil came into possession. At that time Flanders was just as much an agricultural country as it is today. But in the other provinces the same conditions did not prevail. Only a small portion of the soil was under cultivation, the population was scanty, and with local exceptions there were no peasants eager to take over estates that had fallen vacant and that were at their disposal. Moreover, the land had to be cleared and won over for cultivation, which required capital. For these reasons a race of peasant proprietors was not created in Brabant and Namur as had been done in accordance with easily discoverable natural laws in Flanders. When the heat of the republicans were cooled down, there is no doubt that many of the former proprietors recovered their possessions partly by occupying what no one else claimed, and partly by repurchase from the State or the commune on nominal terms. This tendency became more marked under the Emperor Napoleon, and especially after he made his peace with the Pope. After his overthrow there was a general recovery of territorial possessions by the aristocracy, subject to the recognition of the rights of occupation that had accumulated in twenty years. But in Flanders nothing of the sort took place. There the new rights entirely displaced the old title-deeds. The class of great landed proprietors in Belgium is exceedingly small, and there are many of the old noblesse without any land at all. Those who are more fortunate possess, as a general rule, not more than a thousand acres round their country residence, and the only great estates are to be found in the Ardennes and Campine, where land possessed but little value until a quite recent period. The history of the estate of the Duke of Wellington, as Duke of Waterloo, in Belgium furnishes an instance of what took place when the representatives of the ancient owners recovered the non-productive portions of their estates. The Duke was granted, as a reward for his great victory in Belgium, a portion of the old forest of Soignies.

It was about five thousand acres in extent; but the only income the great Duke ever derived from it was from the timber, which must have been quite insignificant. Upon his death his son and successor was confirmed in the possession of this estate, after some persons had represented that it was only granted for the life of the first duke. He then expressed the opinion to some Belgian officials that the estate about which so much stir was being made was really valueless, whereupon Baron Lambermont advised him to place it in the hands of the regisseur or manager of the Due d'Arenberg, who had vastly improved the estates of that nobleman at Enghien and elsewhere. The advice was followed, and in a few years the timber was all cut down and sold, and on his part of the old forest a number of farms were created. The estate then for the first time brought in an income; but the story is merely told here to illustrate the process which went on generally in Belgium outside of Flanders after Waterloo, and in a still more marked degree after the establishment of an independent kingdom.

The conditions of life among the agricultural classes of Flanders would be considered intolerably hard by the agricultural laborer in England or America, and even the sense of possessing the land on which they toil would not atone for them. The Flemish peasant, or proprietor, labors all day, and his day is the long one from sunrise until long after sunset.

Any one who has lived in the Belgian provinces has seen gray figures moving along the roads or across the fields, while gleams of light alone showed the dawn of the coming day. They wish to be at their work, discontinued late the night before, as soon as there is sufficient light to enable them to resume it. They are working for themselves, and very likely they would grumble if they were asked to do it for a master. But it is not only the men, but also the women who work thus. There are, of course, household duties and work at home to be performed; but these do not prevent the women and girls from toiling in the fields as well. Market-gardening carried on in the fashion of the Continent, where nothing is wasted, cannot be considered an altogether pleasant or even healthy occupation. It is certainly not calculated to elevate those who take part in it in intelligence, and as a matter of fact the vast body of Flemish laborers in the fields are sunk in a state of extraordinary ignorance for the twentieth century. Their education is practically nothing at all, but they are sound Catholics, and it is not thought to be to the interest of the Church, or the party that claims that designation, that they should progress in worldly knowledge.

To judge the people of Flanders plains by a cursory inspection, the conclusion come to would probably be that they must be exceedingly miserable and unhappy, and it requires a far more intimate knowledge than most foreigners are ever likely to take the trouble to acquire to discover that such is not really the case. Their workaday clothes are not of a character to impress the observer with a perception of anything in their favor. They are certainly not picturesque, and they are generally very dirty. They all wear the wooden sabot, yellow in color and clumsy in form. Their stockings are always coarse worsted and grey. Their short trousers are always tied with a ribbon above the calf, and they wear a linen smock. The usual headgear of the men is a cap with a peak, and the women have linen bonnets with a kind of hood over the forehead. If their dress is plain, their living is still plainer. Their breakfast consists of no more than coffee and rye bread, their midday meal of bread and butter, or grease - tartine - with which they sometimes have cheese or a little cold bacon, and their supper of soup and bread. On Sundays and fete days they have hot bacon, and occasionally rabbits or fish. Fresh meat never comes their way, and is practically unknown. On the other hand, they eat great quantities of vegetables, cooked and uncooked, and dandelion salads are the luxury of the Belgian peasant. It is somewhat difficult to get at an idea of the results of their toil; but the average amount of the produce of the land has been reckoned at $100 the half acre. On this sum a Flemish family will contrive to live, having no rent to pay, and supplementing the produce of the field with a pig and poultry. There are 650,000 men and boys employed in agriculture alone.

In order to correct the depressing effect of the spectacle of these peasant proprietors in their weekday costumes, when they strike the observer as mere drudges bound in misery, it is as well to take a glance at the same people on Sundays going to or returning from mass. The whole population goes ; there are no non-attendants here, except from illness and those who are bedridden. And what do we see? All the men wearing respectable black suits and boots; the women are well dressed and carry themselves well, and there are bright-colored parasols to protect from the sun the girls and young women who have been toiling in the fields all the week with no protection save a linen hood. It is difficult to realize that these are the same people; but it is quite clear from their animated conversation and laughter that they are far from unhappy or dissatisfied with their lot.

In the Walloon country the conditions of agricultural life are quite different. The country population is scanty, and the cultivation of the land is in the hands of farmers who have rented it from the landed owners or from the communes. The inhabitants show a tendency to gather in little towns, and not to spread over the country in detached cottages close to their work, but separated from their fellow-beings. When the outskirts of a townlet or large village are passed, not a house will be met with along the road until the next village is reached. Now in Flanders the cottages are scattered all over the country, and dot the chaussee, or high-road. There is another marked difference. In Flanders the country house with any extent of garden or park-land attached, is quite a rarity. There are still a few old manor houses left, but they have only a small piece of ground round them. But in Liege, Limburg, and Luxemburg it is different. There are still a certain number of old chateau and chalets left, and rich manufacturers from the cities have built a good many new country houses. All these have gardens and coverts attached to them. Some of the old houses are singularly picturesque and striking, such as the chateau of Mirwart; and the chateau of Dave, with its forest of many thousand acres, is quite imposing. The majority of the old country houses resemble a manor house or mediaeval farm in England. They are almost uniformly built in a yellowish-brown stone, which is taken from the Luxemburg quarries. They have generally farm buildings attached, sometimes in unpleasant proximity to the residence. These old houses harmonize with the landscape, and suggest the existence of a country life which might be compared with that of our own land. But none of the members of the petite noblesse, to which they mainly belong, have much income, and consequently their mode of living is conducted on lines of the strictest economy. They are also very exclusive, not so much perhaps from family pride - for the history of these families is quite provincial, and the majority of their names have never been heard of outside of their little circle - as from the dislike to being eclipsed by the wealthy newcomers from the towns. They keep to themselves and their own set, giving a few dinners in the course of the year to their relatives, and inviting a few of their neighbors whom they regard as equals. These dinners are always held at one o'clock, and the afternoon is passed in testing the quality of the host's Burgundy, the favorite wine of the Belgians, which is nowhere found in greater perfection than in the cellar of an Ardennes connoisseur. All these country gentlemen call themselves sportsmen, but there is very little game on which they can exercise their skill, owing to the absence of any system of preserving. Rabbits alone can be described as being plentiful. It is the fashion, however, for a certain number to club together and rent a chassee in one or other of the forests owned by the communes. Here a certain amount of game of a miscellaneous nature is to be had, and during the season a subscriber may hope to get as his share some venison and a little wildboar. Pheasants are only to be found on the wellstocked preserves of the Count de Limburg Stirum, and a few other noblemen. Teal and wild-duck still abound, however, on the upper courses of the Ourthe, and woodcock and snipe are also plentiful throughout the Meuse Valley. During part of the season everybody is allowed to snare these birds at their pleasure. In striking contrast with these old houses, representing the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are the modern villa or chalet, which the manufacturer or shop-keeper, having made a competence, constructs as his mats on de campagne. These are always built in some brick or stone of glaring colors, white, red, and yellow are the favorite colors, with green verandas and window frames, and gray or blue slate roofs. It is, in fact, the favorite town-house transported bodily into the country, and to which covered balconies for the purpose of enjoying the air and the view have been added. They are evidence of the liking that the Belgians have for country life, although they do not add to the beauty of the landscape. There must always be something incongruous in the appearance of a yellow match-box-like house, rising out of the wooded crest of a hill, that presents in itself a charming and perfect bank of verdure. At the same time it must be allowed that this attraction of wealthy families from the towns to the country is a benefit for the inhabitants of those provinces where there has never been much wealth or any rich class of residents to develop them. Every favored spot in the region named has its well-to-do resident from Liege or Brussels, and as soon as one settles down others follow at no long interval. The La Roche Valley, for instance, is overlooked by a considerable number of these villas, and many Liege manufacturers permanently reside in their country houses on the banks of the Vesdre and the Ambleve. These newcomers, although they evince a partiality for the country by fixing their residence in it, do not take up the pursuits of the country. They really live a town life in the country. They do not drive much in the sense of traversing distance, and they walk less. They only saunter about their places, if the phrase may be used. Even gardening, in which they take most interest, is done in a languid fashion. They pass a great part of the day in the open air, sitting on their balconies admiring the view which they have been specially built to command, and which their owners see every day without palling on them. In fact, they have raised the habit of doing nothing in the open air to the level of a science.

The houses of the Walloon peasantry are more substantial and attractive-looking than those of Flanders. They are generally built of stone, and slates are easily obtainable from the numerous slate quarries; while in Flanders the houses are brick covered with stucco, which is generally painted, or rather washed, with a yellow mixture. The ground floor usually consists of one large room that is both sitting-room and kitchen, while at the back there is a wash-house. Two or three bedrooms overhead and a loft under the roof usually complete the accommodation. There is often a cellar and a penthouse for the storage of wood ; for the collection of undergrowth in the forests is unrestricted, and at the commencement of winter there is a free distribution of firewood by the communes. Poultry and the small vegetable garden supplement the earnings of the householders, and during the summer months at least there is plenty of work going on through the large influx of visitors from other parts of Belgium and from foreign countries. The Walloon is just as restricted in his diet as his Flemish conationalist. He lives on meager fare, and flourishes on it; but he does not work as hard as the Ftemings do. He is more easily contented and spends a good deal of his day in gossip. The Walloons of Liege are, however, different from those of Luxemburg. They are a bigger and a burlier race, probably because they are meat-eaters, and they are the most impressive type among the Belgian nationalities.

Country life in Belgium is pleasant enough during the fine weather of summer and autumn, but in the winter it requires all the available philosophy of those who have to remain in the provinces. There is practically nothing to be done. Those who have to gain their own living depend during the winter on what they have put by in the summer. If it has been a good season, they are comfortable; if visitors have been few, they are pinched, and relieved when the spring brings fresh hope. Those who have not the care of daily existence upon their shoulders pass through the winter months in a state of stagnation, or overpowered at last by ennui, rush off to Brussels or Liege. As has been said, rural Belgium is merely a repetition of town life; there is no genuine country life at all. A Belgian goes into the provinces to move at his ease, to enjoy the open air when it is fine, and to hurry back to his city as soon as the leaves are off the trees, and the November mists and snow begin to put in an appearance. The less fortunate country gentleman, who has no town residence, has to put up with things. The only excitement he will be likely to have is when the wild-boar are driven by the cold to leave the forest for the farms in search of food, and then a great battue is organized, in which he will take a leading part.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.