Monday, July 18, 2022

To be Flemish

The term "Flemish" has been used since the 1300s to refer to a certain group of people. What does it mean to be Flemish?

The word "Flemish" was first seen in print c.1325 as flemmysshe, although Flæming had been around since at least 1150, meaning "from Flanders."  Flanders was originally a small territory around Bruges, established in the 8th century. Flanders now is the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium. The Flemings currently make up about 60% of the Belgian population.

Is there a Flemish language? The Flemish language is sometimes called Flemish Dutch, or Belgian Dutch, or Southern Dutch. In the illustration of Belgium to the left, the dark green area is where Dutch is spoken, the light green area is mostly French-speaking. (There is a small German area on the far right, and the lighter spot among the dark green is Brussels itself, where both Dutch and French have official status.

In 1188, Gerald of Wales (a historian mentioned, among other places, here) described the Flemings as:

a brave and sturdy people […] a people skilled at working in wool, experienced in trade, ready to face any effort or danger at land or sea in pursuit of gain; according to the demands of time and place quick to turn to the plough or to arms; a brave and fortunate people.

Gerald knew about them not because he traveled to the continent, but because many Flemings left Flanders due to population growth and the need for more land, many ending up in Scotland. In fact, the surname Fleming is fairly common these days, mostly because of Flemish families in Western Europe.

Flemings are even mentioned in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, in a reference that raises its own set of questions, but we can talk about that tomorrow.

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