The Progress of Civilization in Belgium | G.W.M. Reynolds

By George W.M. Reynolds

Much has been written on the history of the sciences, fine arts, literature, and commercial matters, in Belgium;[1] but, except in the academic memoir of Dean Heylen (De Inventis Belgarum, 1786) no one has as yet collected into a certain focus, through the medium of which it may be possible to seize the tout-ensemble at one glance, the vast productions and effects of human intelligence in that country; nor has any author taken upon himself the task—by no means a difficult one—of proving that the Belgians have been constantly in a highly progressive state of civilization and that they have not unfrequently been the means of exciting and aiding the mental energies of other nations. The materials of which we may make use to demonstrate these facts, are abundant, and not entirely confined to the mere ipse dixit or national prejudice of a Belgian historian; they may be collected from the writings of foreign authors who have not failed to recognise the inventive ability and ingenuity of a people whose territory occupies so small a space on the map of Europe.

Fighting between Belgian rebels and the Dutch military expedition in Brussels in September 1830 (Wikimedia Commons)

Belgium is now an independent kingdom, which, although circumscribed to exceedingly narrow limits, may still one day stand conspicuously amongst the nations of the European continent, if its government continue to be wisely administered, and its vast resources appreciated and brought into action, as they are at present. Indeed, what country of the same territorial dimensions can boast a population so numerous, so industrious, and so arduous in every species of toil and labour, whether manual or mechanical?—what country annually enjoys the benefits of such rich harvests?—what tract of land, parallel in extent, can present to the eye of the traveller more numerous cities, and more magnificent village?—what soil gives a more varied species of natural productions?—in fine, where is the nation that more amply possesses the true elements of a real prosperity?

In an intellectual point of view, the energies of the Belgians did not materially develop themselves till about the commencement of the reign of Charlemagne; but since that period the arts and sciences have been cultivated and held in great respect in Belgium, particularly in the Flemish territories; and notwithstanding the repeated invasions of the barbarians, even before all the other countries of Europe, did commerce attain to a flourishing state, and trade was encouraged by fairs or markets in the different towns.

It is well known that the labours and influence of the monasteries in those obscure times essentially tended to soften the ferocious manners of the Belgians, and inspired them with a taste for agricultural pursuits. The genius of Charlemagne gave an immense impulse to these exertions, and assisted in a variety of ways the meritorious task which the priests imposed upon themselves. Liege, Saint Amand Lobbes, Saint-Bertin, and other towns of minor importance were endowed with large schools, whence emanated, for the benefit of France, Germany, and England, several learned professors whose talents have been duly appreciated and eulogised by ancient chroniclers.

Desroches has brought forward ample proofs to corroborate the belief that the sciences were extensively cultivated in Belgium so far back as the ninth century. About the termination of the tenth century, music first became recognised as a study of importance and delight; and at the same period, the celebrated Guy de Dampierre, Count of Flanders, congregated a host of bards, poets, and minstrels at his court.

Guy de Dampierre (Wikimedia Commons)

The art of dyeing in scarlet, and the manufactures of linen and cloth, were already in a flourishing condition in the middle of the eleventh century. The uniformity of weights, and the regulation of measures, of which the introduction has been vaunted as a new and original plan, were established in Belgium and throughout the whole of Flanders by an ordinance published by Count Baudouin. About the same time, the arts of miniature-painting, sculpture, and working in gold and silver, had already obtained a considerable degree of repute, and raised the Belgian artizans to a peculiar eminence in the opinions of their less skilful neighbours.

It was in the thirteenth century that commerce and the manufactures attained to a remarkable degree of splendour. An increase of wealth—and, by consequence, of luxury—accompanied this prosperity; nor less did the sciences participate in the progressive march of civilization and improvement. John of Saint Amand, canon of Tournay, was one of the most eminent medical practitioners amongst the faculty of Paris. The Floral games did not then exist in France; but Belgium was already celebrated for her literary societies, known by the name of Rhetorical Meetings.

The fifteenth century was witness to the glorious reign of Philip the Good, one of the most “magnificent princes”—in the true oriental sense of the word, if the reader will allow us thus to apply it—that ever existed. The science of music was strenuously patronised and encouraged by this monarch; it was then befriended by Charles the Bold and by Margaret of Austria. M. Fétis, in many of his works, has adduced substantial evidence to prove that the Belgians were, in the middle ages, the resuscitators of that divine art. Painting was also indebted to them for a new existence, less perhaps for the invention and application of oil colours than for the admirable productions of Van Eck and Memling, whose master-pieces are still appreciated and in high reputation.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Never did the Belgians display a greater development of inventive genius than in the fifteenth century. The pages of history make frequent mention of the meritorious services rendered by them to the furtherance of the arts, sciences, and commercial interests. Never was the manufacture of lace—that chef-d’oeuvre of human industry— carried to a higher degree of perfection. The palaces of kings were ornamented with the carpets produced from the Flemish looms—the public buildings and edifices of the principal towns in Belgium were the admiration of all visitors; and their markets were stocked with the choicest merchandise of the world. In those times Bruges became an object of emulation for even Venice. With regard to the progressive march of literature, it will suffice to name George Chatelain, Montrelet, James du Clereq, de la Marche, and Philip of Comines, in order to recall to the memory of the intelligent reader the great patrons and votaries of the sciences and belles lettres in those days.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the invention of printing changed for the future the face of civilization in Europe, and gave a new aspect to the appearance of all matters, whether connected with politics, literature, or the fine arts. The new impulse that was thus given to the energies and capacities of man, was not less experienced in Belgium than its forceful efforts were perceived elsewhere. The Belgians applied themselves with ardour to improve upon the incipient knowledge of the art, and even carried the fruits of their labours to the French capital itself. Josse Badius of Assche, amongst many others, established in Paris a press that subsequently attained a considerable degree of celebrity; and in imitation of the same plan, Plantin, the well-known rival of Etienne, founded at Antwerp one of the most extensive and magnificent printing-houses in the world.

It was about the period of the abdication of Charles the Fifth, Emperor of Germany, that Belgium began to decline in importance amongst the states of Europe, and to lose its supremacy. During the forty years of that monarch’s splendid reign, the arts, the sciences, every branch of literature, and the economy of trade, had been brought to a high state of perfection; but when Philip ascended the united thrones of Germany and Spain, England and Holland enriched themselves through a variety of circumstances all prejudicial to the commercial interests of Belgium, and built their own fortunes on the ruins of Flemish wealth. England supplanted the sinking nation in those manufactures that were once her own; and Holland appropriated to herself that extensive trade which had created the former prosperity of the Belgian merchants. The arts and sciences alone flourished as before; and they, even in the midst of civil feuds which desolated the country, found votaries and patrons to cultivate or protect them. Ortelius and Gérard Mercator considerably improved the geographical chart, and perfected the till then defective system of the science of geography; Josse Hondius, born at Wacken in Flanders, and celebrated as the founder of a long race of famous engravers, assisted the researches and views of his contemporary topographers by his numerous treatises on the subject, and by his improved maps; and, in other branches, Hopperus Damhoudere, Miroeus, Meyer, Oudegherst, and several more eminent characters contributed to the literary reputation of their country in those times.

Painting, statuary, and the art of engraving have also produced their great masters. Denys Calvert was a famous painter, of whom Antwerp has the honour to be the birth-place: Michael Coxie, Franck Flore, Charles Van Mander, and François Porbus, are still remembered by an applauding posterity. In the year 1450, Martin Schenganer of Antwerp introduced to his native land the art of printing designs by means of moulds cut into the surface of smooth metal planks, and thereby established for himself a permanent and enviable reputation. It must not however be imagined that he was the original inventor of this art; he merely learnt and borrowed it from its illustrious originator, Thomaso Finiguerra. Spain and Italy sought in those times the statues sculptured by Jean de Juni and Gillis Van der Riviere,[2] and demonstrated the high opinion they entertained of those works, by the ardour with which they coveted the possession of them. But the rage of Iconoclasm, or image-breaking, which succeeded to the propagation of the reformation, speedily dispersed the chef-d’oeuvres of those celebrated artists, who were obliged to esteem themselves only too happy that they were spared the horrors of expatriation and foreign exile to avoid persecution and the appalling effects of secular fanaticism. Alas! how grievously have the progressive marches of the arts and sciences been often-times retarded by the wild excesses or mistaken intolerance of wretches, who, in the mad moments of religious fervour as they fancied their unholy excitement to be, would have been delighted to plunge intelligent man into a vortex of superstition and ignorance, where they could have modelled his mind to suit their own purposes, to submit to their tyrannies, and to kneel at their seats of usurped power, by working on his fears and stunning him with a variety of arguments his want of education could neither comprehend nor refute!

The arts and sciences were not neglected by the Belgians in the sixteenth century. The study of medicine and anatomy was essentially benefitted and facilitated by the elucidations of André Vesale; botanical researches were advantageously pursued and illustrated by Charles de Langhe and François Van Sierbeck; while history, astronomy, geography, geology, &c., were successfully cultivated by Simon Stéven, Gregory Saint Vincent, Godfrey Wendelin, Ferdinand Verbrest, and François d’Aguillan of Brussels. The progress that was made in all these various branches by their ancient professors, demonstrates the superiority of human intelligence in Belgium at that period to the knowledge and literary acquirements of the Flemish at the present day.

View of the Meir in Antwerp. Painting by Erasmus de Bie

Useless were it to recall to the minds of our readers all the obligations under which the arts lie to Rubens, whose talents cast so much lustre on the seventeenth century; or to his illustrious disciples, Vandyck, Crayer, Van Hoek, Jordaéus, and others. Nor is it more than necessary to cite the names of Breughel, Teniers, and Van Oost. In sculpture and architecture tlie two brothers Duquesnoy of Brussels, Koeberger of Antwerp, Henry Pascheu, and François Romain have left behind them splendid monuments of taste and elegance.

During the last century the arts and sciences have also flourished. John Palfyn made many precious discoveries in anatomy, and Noel Joseph Necker published a work of extraordinary merit on botany. Leonard Vanderlinden of Brussels was the first who taught zoology in that town; Sanderus, Paquot, Joseph Guesquiere, Count de Nény, Joseph Rapsaert, Martin de Bast, Charles Dierix, &c., by their immense and laborious researches materially contributed to enlighten the historians of their country, and inculcated in the breasts of the Belgians that affection for the study of history which characterizes them even at the present day. The names of Suvée, Ducq.,

Balthazar Ommeganck, and Pierre Joseph Redouté remind us of four individuals who attained to an eminent rank in the catalogue of distinguished painters. Anthony Cardon became one of the most celebrated modern engravers; and all the nations of Europe have produced disciples of the famous Gérard Edelinck. Chasing and working in gold and silver were brought to a high state of perfection by Pierre de Fraine and Nicholas Mivian, of Liege. Michel Rysbrack, whom the English selected to make the mausoleum of the immortal Newton and the equestrian statue of William the Third, was a native of Antwerp. Lastly, mechanics were illustrated by Pierre Denis of Mons, on whom Delille has bestowed the flattering title of the Modern Archimedes.

Many illustrious names have been necessarily omitted in the above short sketch; but it is our intention, in a future article, to retrace our steps, and, in pursuing the same ground, to make elaborate mention of the discoveries and inventions for which the world is indebted to Belgium, as well as to give a perspicuous sketch of the progress of their literature, from the warlike airs composed by Louis the Third on the defeat of the Normans in 883, to the present time.

[1] Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Progress of Civilization in Belgium’, The Monthly Magazine, November 1837, pp. 510–14.

[2] This celebrated sculptor is generally called by the Italians, Egidio Framingo.

1 reply »

  1. In The Steam Packet Reynolds’ alter ego laments that he never got to Belgium. The closest was about ten miles away in a mall town. I have wondered what his fascination with Belgium was. This explains it.