Category: Flemish literature

The Revolution that Never Was: Ypres Lacemakers in 1848

18 August 1848, and all seems quiet on the main square of Ypres. This watercolour of Ypres Town Hall (the Cloth Hall) by Justin Ouvrié (1806-1879) can now be found in Ypres Museum.

In the spring of 1848, as revolution spread from Palermo and Paris across large swathes of the continent, one country remained conspicuously quiet: Belgium.  The reasons for this are not immediately clear.  Belgium had come into being through revolution only a few years before in 1830.  The country clearly possessed a revolutionary history and tradition.  It was close to the epicentre of events in France, and Belgian exiles in Paris were busy organizing propaganda and recruiting among the large number of Belgian migrant workers in France to form a Belgian Legion which might carry armed revolution back over the border.  The economic conditions in Belgium were, if anything, even worse than in France, and so ostensibly more propitious for civil conflict.  This was especially true in the provinces of East and West Flanders.  British competition had effectively wiped out the most important in the region, the linen industry, during the 1840s.  The potato blight had ruined three harvests in a row, undermining the peasant farmers’ and smallholders’ ability to feed themselves.  Even before 1848 local and national government recognized that the labouring populations of Flanders were suffering a crisis of hunger, poverty and unemployment.  As we have seen in previous posts, one of the answers to this crisis was to invest in lace schools.  However, the revolution of February 1848 in Paris would deal a blow to this industry too.  Flemish lace was made for export, mostly to France.  But luxury trades were always the first to suffer during political turmoil.  The French fashion houses weren’t buying, which meant the Belgian merchants were left with stock on their hands, which meant that they stopped putting out work to their domestic female workforce.[1]

This crisis affected the countryside but also towns like Courtrai, Bruges and Ypres where lace remained the most important employer of female labour.  The local authorities were particularly worried because, as much male employment was seasonal, over winter whole families depended on the wages that lacemakers brought in.  On 13 March, little more than a fortnight since news of the Paris revolution arrived in the city, the lace merchants of Ypres got together to lobby the government in Brussels on behalf of their industry.[2]  They sent a deputation to the Minister of the Interior, telling him that in the borough of Ypres alone there were more than 20,000 lacemakers, that lace was the sole industry of any importance to survive the crisis years of the 1840s, but that now this population too was threatened with misery.  They warned of ‘grave disorders’ if something was not done.[3]  And something was done, as the Government provided 60,000 francs of credit to the lace merchants, so that they could keep putting out orders to their workers.  Or at least that was the idea, there is some dispute about what actually happened to the money.[4]

‘Lacemakers don’t protest’ wrote one of their foremost Belgian chroniclers, explaining their invisibility in history.[5]  And so it proved in 1848, despite the fears of the authorities in Ypres and elsewhere.  West Flanders in general remained remarkably calm, despite occasional incursions by radicals and armed groups from France.  The border, only fourteen kilometres away from Ypres, was reinforced, adding an extra layer of difficulty for lace exporters (and smugglers).

However, there were some attempts to provoke lacemakers to action.  Thursday 26 June 1848 was ‘Kleinsacramentsdag’, the Thursday following Corpus Christi (a moveable feast).  This was the holy day of Ypres lacemakers, and the Wednesday preceding was ‘Mooimakersdag’, the lacemakers’ holiday which in previous years had been celebrated in some style.  The lace schools were festooned with garlands of flowers, while troops of lacemakers in fancy dress, and led by their ‘queen’, were carried off on great waggons to picnics in the surrounding countryside, much like those pictured in Watteau’s painting of ‘The Feast of the Bobbin’ in nearby Lille.  In preparation for this holiday, printers would produce new songbooks which were sold in the market-squares and other public places by street-singers.[6]  On 25 June 1848 one such broadside song drew the attention of the authorities, and it is reproduced below, followed by a rough translation.

An 1864 etching of the Antwerp streetsinger Belmont by Hendrik Frans Schaefels (1827-1904). Many nineteenth-century streetsingers became quite famous characters but we have found no portraits of Ypres singers from the period.

 

Stemme van den Boterpot no 1 of den Brabanson

A la vrienden wilt hier aenhooren,
En blyft een weinig staen,
Ik zalt u in korte gaen verklaeren,
Hoe het in dese stad zal vergaen,
Kantwerkster, gy mag het wel weten,
t’ Is van onze kante marchands,
Zy hebben lang genoeg ons herte uitgefreten, Bis
Deeze verkens moeten nu van kant. Bis, Bis.

De kleermaekers zynder espres gekomen,
Uyt de groote stad Parys,
Zy hebben het nieuws nu al vernomen,
Zy kreygen daer van den eersten prys,
Al voor de kazakken te keeren,
Van plaidons en kanten marchands,
Zy zullen haest de fransch tael gaen leeren, Bis.
Dees verraeders moeten uyt ons land. Bis, Bis.

Dat zullen deze capoenen gaen vaeren,
De plaidons zyn nu afgeschaft,
Want wy beginnen daer op te dinken,
Dees verraeders hebben te veel gemaekt,
Zy maeken met ons geld veele plaisieren,
Om te marcheren met trommels en muzik,
Wy zullen klouk op hun kazakke vieren, Bis.
Tot een exempel voor ons Belzyk. Bis, Bis.

Wy zullen onze mode doen floreeren,
Door het maeken van een nieuw kazak,
En wy ambagsheden zonder mankeren,
Hebben ook deeze mode aengevat,
Wy zullen drinken en glaezen doen klinken,
Tot floreeren voor weird en weirdin,
En de marchands van kanten te doen springen, Bis
Dat hebben wy al lang in onzen zin. Bis, Bis.

Spellewerkster laet het u niet verdrieten,
Om tegen dees barbaeren op te staen,
Zy zullen ons bloed niet meer doen vergieten,
Wy zullen stryden voor ons vaen,
Al voor het geld dat zy ons hebben genomen,
Van onze kanten en gaeren-bak,
Die schoone francs moeten weder keeren, Bis.
Dat zy van ons hebben afgepakt. Bis, Bis.

Kantwerkster al voor het letste,
En laet deeze zaeke niet meer staen,
Want ik raent u voor het alderbeste,
Eer dat zy bancroute zouden slaen,
En laet ons nu defenderen,
t’Is voor ons eygen vleesch en bloed,
Dan zullen wy ons plaisieren doen ernemen. Bis.
Al met het geld van onze kanten zoet. Bis, Bis.

Eynde.

To the tune of ‘The Butterpot’ no 1 or The Brabançonne

To friends who want to listen
And stay a while here,
I shall explain to you directly
How things fare in this city.
Lacemaker, you know it already,
It’s about our lace merchants
They have been feasting on our hearts long enough,
These pigs need to get out the way.

The tailors [buyers] have come on purpose
From the great city of Paris
They have heard the news,
They expect to get the best price,
Ready to turn the coats
Of prud’hommes and lace merchants
They’ll quickly learn French,
These traitors must be expelled.

To send these capons packing
The prud’hommes are now abolished,
Because we’re beginning to think
That these traitors have made too much,
They have had too much fun with our money,
Marching around with drums and music,
We should boldly celebrate on their jackets
As an example for our Belgium [?]

We should make our fashion flourish,
By making a new jacket,
And then we’ll celebrate without stint,
If we get a hold on this fashion,
We should drink and clink glasses
And so let innkeeper and his wife flourish,
And the lace merchants can go take a leap
We’ve wanted that for a long time.

Lacemaker, don’t let it grieve you
To face up to these barbarians,
We won’t let them shed our blood anymore,
We will fight for our standard,
And for the money that they took from us,
For our lace and thread casket,
The beautiful coins must return,
That they snatched from us.

Lacemakers, finally,
Don’t let this situation continue,
Because I urge you for your own good,
Before you go bankrupt,
And let us defend ourselves,
It’s for our own flesh and blood,
Then we can enjoy ourselves,
With the money from our sweet lace.

 

We must admit that some elements of this song, which was discovered by the archivist Joseph De Smet, remain opaque to us.[7]  We don’t really understand the author’s interest in ‘kazakken’ or jackets (perhaps it had some dialect meaning).  We don’t know the tune ‘The Butterpot’, though we assume den Brabanson refers to the revolutionary anthem of 1830 which is now the Belgian national anthem.

However, we can explain who were the ‘plaidons’ or ‘prud’hommes’ mentioned in the text.  The conseil des prud’hommes was an early form of industrial tribunal whose members were elected from both the employers and, in theory, workers.  The Ypres tribunal, set up in 1842, consisted of seven members, of which at least two had to be lace-merchants and one a male foreman or senior employee in the industry.  In practice almost all the elected members represented the employers, no employee representatives could be found for the simple reason that there were no male employees or tax-paying artisans of the kind designated by the legislation.  No female lace merchant (of which there were several) nor any female lacemaker (of which there were thousands) could participate either as electors or as members of the tribunal.  Yet almost the entire business of the tribunal was taken up by the lace industry: in 1846, of the sixty-two cases it judged, sixty-one involved lacemakers; in 1847 out of forty-three cases, forty-one involved lacemakers.[8]  And the lacemakers of Ypres were not happy with its rulings.  As the local papers observed, whatever the merits of such a system in an industrial town with clearly defined employees and employers, it was ‘clearly not fit for the lace industry’.[9]  If merchants cut lacemakers’ remuneration, claiming the work was shoddy or dirty, the lacemakers could only seek justice from the conseil des prud’hommes, where they found the same merchants sitting in judgement.[10]  In particular lacemakers complained that lace merchants were attempting to force on them the dreaded ‘livret’, or workbook which would effectively end their limited ability to negotiate wages by tying them to a single employer.[11]  In June the agitation had grown so great that the Mayor of Ypres placed public notices in the newspapers (unusually in Flemish) stating that he had written to parliament and to the ministry of Justice to make them aware of the lacemakers’ concerns.  In October 1847 a tailor, Pierre Maerten, organized a petition on behalf of the lacemakers against the prud’hommes.[12]  Neither action seems to have brought a positive result: of the seven members of the tribunal elected in January 1848, five were lace merchants.[13]  This is why the song links lace merchants and prud’hommes together as enemies of lacemakers.

The authorities soon got wind of this would-be rebel anthem.  The state prosecutor sent a copy to the Governor of West-Flanders on 1 July.  The author was identified and arrested: his name was Auguste Plancque, a former NCO in the Belgian army, but by then a day-labourer.  We do not know what punishment Plancque suffered but it was probably not too serious because when he died, in 1885, he was described as a retired postman, the kind of job that was often thought suitable for military veterans.[14]  The Ypres register of births, deaths and marriages also provides an explanation for Planque’s particular interest in the lace industry: in February 1843 he had married Marie de Graeve, a lacemaker.[15]

It seems Ypres lacemakers did not take up this song on Mooimakersdag in 1848.  However, they did have a whole repertoire of other songs to mark that day, and we have included the first verse of one such song below, so that readers can get a feel for lacemakers’ celebrations.[16]  And you can hear the whole song performed by the Belgian folk group Sidus on Youtube.

Wij hebben ons kusje in ‘t kasjen gesteken,
Boutjes en spellen en g’heel de boetiek.
We’n zullen dees’ week van geen werken meer spreken:
Boeravezeeve is onze muziek!
Tralala, lafaderalier’! tralalala, lafad’rala!

We’ve thrown our pillow into the shed,
Bobbins and pins and the whole caboodle.
This week we shan’t talk about work any more:
The tambourine is our music!

 

A streetsinger hawks his wares in Wervik, a town close to Ypres. This illustration by Emile Puttaert (1829-1901) appeared in Eugène Van Bemmel’s ‘La Belgique illustrée’ (1879).

 

[1] Brison D. Gooch, Belgium and the February Revolution (Amsterdam, 1963); For West Flanders in particular see Joseph De Smet, ‘De weerslag van de Franse Omwenteling van 1848 in West Vlaanderen’, Handelingen van het Genootschap voor Geschiedenis 89 (1952): 24-38.

[2] Le Propagateur, 15 March 1848, p. 1.

[3] Le Propagateur, 18 March 1848, p. 1.

[4] Le Propagateur, 4 August 1849, p. 1.

[5] Guillaume De Greef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886), p. 5.

[6] Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique, vol. I (Brussels, 1870), p. 298.

[7] Joseph De Smet, ‘De crisis in de westvlaamse kantnijverheid in 1848’, Biekorf 53 (1952): 174-8.

[8] Le Propagateur 24 February 1847, p. 1; Le Progrès, 3 February 1848, p. 1.

[9] Le Propagateur, 10 February 1847, p. 2.

[10] Le Propagateur, 10 March 1847, p. 2.

[11] Le Propagateur, 28 April, 1847, p. 1.

[12] Le Progrès, 23 December 1847, p. 2.

[13] Le Progrès, 6 February 1848, p. 4.

[14] Le Progrès, 11 January 1885, p. 2.

[15] Le Progrès, 26 February 1843, p. 4.

[16] Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch oud liedboek.  Teksten en melodieen uit de volksmond opgetekend (Brussels, 1962), pp. 237-318, here 238-9.

Legends of Lacemaking: Serena of Bruges and Caroline Popp

40 Zuidzandstraat in Bruges is now a perfume shop, but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was home to the lace firm Houpelyne-Mulier.  Above the shop windows four bas-reliefs depict the invention of lace, which legend ascribes to a local girl, Serena.  Of course, other lace centres dispute this claim.  Serena’s tale appears in several versions, what follows is a summary of what is probably the original version.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Serena’s story is set in the Middle Ages, the high point of the the city’s fortunes.  But twenty-year-old Serena did not partake in that wealth.  Her father, a sailor (and Bruges was then a port) had died at sea; her mother had charge of four other young children, and so it fell to Serena to support the entire family from her spinning.  She loved, and was loved in turn, by her neighbour, Arnold Van Oost, son of a rich merchant and an apprentice sculptor.  But, as poverty threatened her family, Serena made a vow before an image of Our Lady of Sorrows: ‘Holy Virgin, give me the means to aid my family and I will renounce all the joys and hopes of my heart’.

That same day, Serena’s family, accompanied by Arnold, went for a walk in the countryside.  It was a beautiful spring morning, and the fields were covered with the gossamer threads that in French are called ‘les fils de la Vierge’ [threads of the Virgin].  As she sat pondering her vow some strands floated down onto her black apron, making a beautiful pattern.  For Serena, this was a lesson from the Mother of God; if spiders could create wonderful shapes with their threads, why might not she?  Arnold knocked together a makeshift frame to carry the apron home and Serena set about trying to recreate the pattern with her own thread.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Her first attempts were hopelessly muddled but the use of a pin-cushion and Arnold’s rapid invention of bobbins to weight the threads enabled her to find her way, and soon all the great ladies of Bruges were demanding this new textile to adorn their heads.  Serena taught her younger sisters the secret and so the family’s financial problems were solved.  Arnold, in what would be an enduring division of labour within the lace industry, supplied the drawings on which they worked.  In the meantime, he had submitted his masterpiece and become a full member of the guild of sculptors.  Now in a position to marry he rushed to Serena’s house to ask for her hand.  But she, of course, was bound by her vow to refuse.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

A year passed in mutual pain as Arnold nursed his anger and confusion and Serena became listless and pale.  On the anniversary of the miracle Serena took herself once again into the fields and prayed that Arnold would recover from the hurt.  In answer the gossamer strands arranged themselves again into a pattern, a crown of orange blossom.  Serena exclaimed, ‘If this is a martyr’s crown I accept, but all others are forbidden to me’.  And in response words appeared within the crown: ‘I relieve you of your vow’.  Soon after the couple were married.

Serena and Arnold had many children, all girls, who learnt the art of lacemaking from their mother, and thus was established the industry that spread the name of Flanders far and wide.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Because lace is a relatively modern invention it is feasible to imagine that it originated with a historical personage at a particular moment.  And as it was associated with the Church – because religious institutions were responsible for teaching and spreading lace skills – it was equally feasible to imagine a miraculous origin. The legend of Serena is only one of several that ascribe a role to the Virgin Mary in the inception of lace.  However, while such stories encapsulate the notion that lacemakers were engaged in a blessed occupation (a view we have seen expressed by, for example, Guido Gezelle), they are not necessarily as old as the craft itself.  They do not appear to have their origin in narratives that lacemakers told among themselves, but in the efforts to defend or invigorate the handmade lace industry in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.  Although Serena has passed into folklore, and her story told and retold by Bruges city guides and lace aficionados, her origins are literary.[1]  We can be fairly certain she was the invention of Caroline Popp, who dated her text 12 May 1867.

Bas-relief of Caroline Popp, by her grandson-in-law Julien van den Broeck de la Palud.  Popp edited the ‘Journal de Bruges’ from her home in place Hans Memling (now Woensdagmarkt). Memling’s statue appears here in the background. Note Popp’s lace collar!

Caroline Popp (1808-1891) was a figure of some importance in nineteenth-century Bruges.[2]  Her father, Félix Nicolas Joseph Boussart, came from a military family from Binche who, having served the Austrians then fought against them, first in the Brabant Revolution of 1789 and, when that revolt was crushed, as a volunteer in the armies of the French Revolution (he would rise to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel under Napoleon; his brother, André-Joseph Boussart, became a general[3]).  It was her marriage to Philippe Christian Popp (1805-1879) which brought her to Bruges, when he was appointed the surveyor of the region.  She was co-owner of the newspaper Le journal de Bruges which she founded in 1837 alongside her husband and then edited for fifty-three years.  She was succeeded by her daughters.  Le journal de Bruges was a bastion of francophone liberalism in clerical West Flanders, having been set up in opposition to the Catholic newspaper Le Nouvelliste de Bruges.  It was a campaigning newspaper on both local and national issues, such as the establishment of a museum in Bruges, the re-establishment of the city’s port, the abolition of the death penalty, and women’s education.

The story of Serena and ‘The Legend of Lace’ was published in her 1867 collection Récits et légendes des Flandres, a book which was admired by Victor Hugo, among others.[4]  Later he would make the acquaintance of the Popps, who were hospitable to visiting writers and encouraging of local ones (including Frans Carrein).  These legends have sometimes been cited as examples of local folklore, but in fact most were fictions inspired by the topography of Bruges.[5]

Popp was under no illusions about the reality of the lace trade, nor the lives lived by lacemakers.  The Journal de Bruges had warned about the spread of lace-schools as the only solution to the linen crisis in the 1840s; was not a new crisis of overproduction being hatched?  The paper also campaigned against the abusive use of advances (the theme of Carrein’s Eliza de kantwerkster) and the exploitation of apprentice lacemakers by religious orders.  Like Joanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp complained of the conditions and hours of work in the lace-schools.  So it is perhaps surprising that she created such a romantic origin legend for this industry that was, in her own time, a breeding ground of poverty and ill health.  Given her liberal credentials it is even more surprising that she ascribed the invention to a religious miracle.  But we can perhaps unravel her motivations.  In the histories of lace written in the nineteenth century, Flanders vied with Italy, and Venice in particular, for the honour of inventing lace.  The weight of opinion favoured the latter, and history was supported by a legend which ascribed the inspiration to a woman from the Venetian lagoon who attempted to recreate an algae gifted by her sailor fiancé.  Popp mentions this story in the introduction to her own which is clearly a retort on behalf of the north.  And while Popp was critical of the way in which the lace industry was presently organized, she was indefatigable in her attempts to revive her adopted city including its native industries.  Her watchword was ‘en avant’; she looked back only to find the direction to go forwards.  Bruges had been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the Middle Ages; she might be again.  It is no surprise then that Popp located the invention of lace in this period (a century earlier than any historical evidence might allow).  And just like Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp saw no incompatibility between her liberalism and her Catholic faith.

There are still a few signs of her liberal politics in ‘The Legend of Lace’.  Serena’s mother, like Popp, believed in the importance of fresh air and exercise for young bodies, hence the walk in the fields that led to the miracle.  When Arnold joined the guild of sculptors, Popp cannot resist the opportunity to condemn these medieval monopolies.  And finally, she releases Serena from her vow of chastity to embrace another destiny as wife, mother and creative worker.  It is unlikely that Popp’s contemporary and fellow Bruggeling, the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, would consider that an appropriate ending.

‘Serena, de legende van de kant’, a Dutch retelling by Jean Vercammen, illustrated by Dora Rommelaere, published in 1945.

 

[1] See, for example, the websites of Bruges storyteller Marc Willems: http://brugselegenden.blogspot.com/2014/10/de-legende-van-serena-en-de-brugse-kant.html

[2] On Caroline Boussart-Popp see Éliane Gubin et al, Dictionnaire des femmes belges : XIXe et XXe siècles (Brussels, 2006), pp. 73-4.

[3] See the pages dedicated to the Boussart brothers on http://napoleon-monuments.eu/

[4] Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp. 163-205.  An English translation of this tale was published in 1937 by Mrs L. Paulis.

[5] So says the Flemish folklore expert Hervé Stalpaert in Westvlaamse kantwerkstersfolklore (Courtrai, 1956).

Lacemaking as slavery in ‘Aunt Klara’s Cabin’ (1864)

Joanna Desideria Courtmans-Berchmans, by Jules van Biesbroeck, Letterenhuis Antwerp

For Johanna-Desideria (Désirée) Berchmans (1811-1890), often known by her married name Courtmans, the purpose of literature was to make a difference to society.  The novel was moralisation and enlightenment by other means.  (Louise Otto-Peters, whom we looked at in a previous post, took a similar approach but it was even more prevalent in Belgium due to the absence of a substantial educated public for literature in Flemish.)  There were other women writers connected to the Flemish Movement, such as Marie Doolaeghe,[1] but Courtmans-Berchmans was probably the most important female author active in the Flemish literary revival of the mid-nineteenth century.  Although she only turned to prose in her 40s, she became a prolific novelist, producing a book every year and sometimes more.  As her father was a teacher, her husband was a teacher, her daughters were teachers, and she herself attempted to run a boarding school in Maldegem, it is perhaps not surprising that schools feature regularly in her novels.  But education was not just her theme, it was her mission.  Schooling, and particularly girls’ schooling, was a political battleground in nineteenth-century Belgium, and both in her life and her fiction Courtmans-Berchmans was a combatant.  Her novel De hut van tante Klara (1864) was an indictment of the lace schools: her title – with its deliberate echo of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) – implied that children’s lacemaking was a form of slavery.[2]

As discussed in our previous blog about Father Constant Duvillers and the lace-school in Middelburg, the 1840s were the ‘Hunger Years’ in Flanders, a situation brought on by overlapping crises in the linen industry and in agriculture.  Famine was only averted by the coordinated action of local elites, particularly the Catholic Church and landowners, with the aid of the Belgian state.  They sponsored lace-schools, which provided an alternative source of income to a population which had previously been dependent on flax-spinning.  However, this was not a purely charitable endeavour; lace-schools, even those that received philanthropic support or subventions from the local authorities, needed to make money to remain open.  A few provided some hours of basic teaching in the three Rs, but most were more workshops than schools, and the persons in charge – usually members of religious orders but sometimes private individuals – were also intermediaries in the lace trade, bound up in a network of commercial relationships.  In consequence, the schools were regularly denounced for economically exploiting their young charges, while damaging their bodies and minds in the process.  The Roeselare Chamber of Commerce, for example, used its annual report for the year 1864 to the Belgian Government to condemn the lace-schools: ‘The false mask of devotion to the working class fails to hide what is in most cases the spirit of avarice, pushed to its most extreme limits and which sacrifices the health, the education and the future of these poor slaves, wretchedly deceived and abused, to this greed.’  The American Civil War was still being fought in 1864 so the use of the term ‘slaves’ was deliberate.  1864 was also the year that Berchmans-Courtmans published her novel De hut van tante Klara.

How did she become involved with lace?  To answer this we need to go back a little in her biography.  Her father had been mayor of the village of Mespelare near Dendermonde in East Flanders (he was the model for the hero of her eponymous novel De burgemeester van 1819 [1861]).  At the age of nine she was sent to a boarding-school in the French speaking part of Belgium; at the time a good education for a woman meant first and foremost learning French.  In 1835 we find her lodging in Ghent with Coleta Tanghe, a lacemaker and dealer.  (In her letters Berchmans referred to her as ‘Aunt Colette’, but the precise family relationship is unclear.)  Also lodging in the same house was the young teacher Jan-Baptist Courtmans (1811-1856), and in very short order the pair fell in love, married and started a family, all while living with ‘Aunt Colette’, as they would for most of the next decade.  Courtmans was secretary of the Maetschappij van Vlaemsche Letteroefening [The Society for Flemish Literature], which united many of the leading writers in the nascent Flemish movement such as Jan Frans Willems, Prudens Van Duyse and Ferdinand Augustijn Snellaert.  The Courtmans family played host to visiting German writers such as the folklorist Johann Wilhelm Wolf, and Désirée narrated some of the folktales that made up his Niederländische Sagen (1843).[3]  She was also launching her own writing career.  As with almost all Flemish authors in the wake of Henrik Conscience’s De Leeuw van Vlaenderen (1838), her first poems drew on Flanders’ romantic, medieval past, although she particularly highlighted the contribution of women, especially queens, to the cause of national independence.

In 1843 the Courtmans moved to Lier when her husband took a position as professor of Flemish at the Teacher Training College.  For the next decade, as the family continued to grow, her literary output shrank, but when Jan-Baptist became too ill to work (he would die in 1856), she took up her pen again, in part to earn money.  After her husband’s death, and with eight children in tow ranging in age from three to nineteen, she moved to the small town of Maldegem.  Why she chose this location is a bit obscure, but she had a definite plan: she would open a girls’ boarding-school with herself and her elder daughter as teachers.  She placed adverts in the local newspapers.  The house she chose was on Noordstraat, directly opposite the lace-school run by Father Vinckier, Maldegem’s priest from 1832 to 1872.  The two quickly, indeed almost immediately, became bitter opponents.  Noordstraat Maldegem was one of many small-town front lines in the culture wars between clericals and liberals that divided Belgium politically.[4]  Courtmans-Berchmans considered herself a good Catholic, but she was a liberal in political matters.

Noordstraat Maldegem, c. 1909. Fifty years earlier this was a frontline in the Belgian ‘culture wars’

Like Duvillers in Middelburg, which was only a walk away, Vinckier intended to dominate his parish, and the lace-school was one of the means to achieve this end.  It had been founded as a private initiative in 1842 but was taken over by Vinckier in 1845 or 1846.  (Perhaps he had been inspired to do so after paying a call on Duvillers’ school: visiting priests were common characters in the latter’s songs.)  In the mid 1850s more than 300 girls, the bulk of the available juvenile, female population, attended.

More than one story is told about Vinckier’s first encounter with Courtmans-Berchmans, but the gist of them all is he told her that Maldegem had no need of educated women and so she had better set up shop elsewhere.  Her reply was ‘ik blijf’ [I’m staying].  However, she lost the first battle in her personal ‘culture war’ when her boarding-school was wound up in 1858 due to, as she explained to the local council, ‘malicious obstruction’.  As it was around this time that she started seriously writing again, the cause of literature gained by the failure of her boarding-school ambitions.  But in 1857 a new front opened up.  Municipal provision of some sort of primary schooling had become law in 1842, but in the 1850s the Liberal government began to put pressure on councils to build separate schools for girls.  Unlike the lace-schools these would not be places of work but would teach reading, writing and other skills.  They would be free to those unable to pay, which was the majority of the population in Maldegem.  The ecclesiastical authorities were worried that these public schools would compete with the lace-schools, and thus draw the female population away from their control.  One solution was, therefore, to convert the lace-schools into public schools by introducing a few extra lessons in reading and writing.  This was the strategy suggested by the Archbishop of Bruges and initially followed by Vinckier.  He proposed that Sophie Westerlinck, the mistress of his lace-school, should be appointed Maldegem’s first teacher of the girls’ public school, which would succeed the lace-school.  However, Courtmans-Berchmans was simultaneously lobbying hard to ensure that her daughter Mathilde got the post.  After much dithering by the council, she gained the cause, and Mathilde Courtmans was appointed on 3 February 1858.  Several of her sisters would join her as teachers in due course.

Yet this was not the end of the struggle.  Education was provided, but parents were not obliged to take it up.  Through the 1860s and 70s the lace-schools, both Vinckier’s and other establishments in Maldegem, continued to attract more pupils than the public school.  Girls in the lace schools earned money which helped support their families, and in ‘Poor Flanders’ this support could be vital to a family’s survival.  But the Church had other ways of exerting control.  In 1879 a new Liberal government attempted to laicise primary education in Belgium but the Church hierarchy fought back, threatening to excommunicate all teachers and all parents of pupils attending state primary schools.  In rural Catholic Flanders the effect of the first ‘School War’ (Schoolstrijd) from 1879 to 1884 was to empty the state primary schools and thus put the Courtmans sisters out of work.

However, this defeat lay some years off.  During the 1860s Courtmans-Berchmans was battling for decent schooling for Flemish girls on several fronts: with the local council (to whom she complained about the condition of the school buildings, and especially the playground, as she was convinced of the need for physical activity and fun as part of a rounded education), in the local papers such as De Eecloonaer where she berated her fellow citizens for their parish pump politicking, and in her novels, such as De hut van tante Klara.  No works by Courtmans-Berchmans are available in English (to our knowledge) but sections of this novel were translated by Brenda Mudde, and commentated on by Lia Van Gemert, in the latter’s collection Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam University Press, 2010).

The eponymous heroine, Klara Roman, is a herb-gatherer and the widow of a supposed ‘jacobijn’ barber-surgeon (Jacobin was a term of abuse aimed at anyone with liberal or anticlerical ideas).  Living with her are two orphaned granddaughters, Mieke and Roza, or Mieken and Rozeken as they usually appear in the text (along with their father, an unimportant character).  An industrial accident will soon rob her of her other son-in-law, and her other daughter with her tiny children will also take up residence in her crowded cottage.  At first, though, all seems idyllic, the six-year-old Mieken and Rozeken playing in the healthy outdoors while Klara picks her herbs for the apothecary.  Yet there is a presentiment of tragedy: the girls weave crowns of flowers that make them resemble two virgin martyrs.  Into the scene walk the agents of misfortune, the sisters Ludgarda and Rosanna Devroede, offspring of a disgraced notary.  They have come to persuade the local landowner, Mevrouw Van Dooren, to set up a lace-school which they will run.  Van Dooren wants to help a population suffering through the linen crisis.  But she is also an enlightened philanthropist, so the rules she lays out for her lace-school specify that children under nine should only work for three hours a day on lace, that there should be lessons in other subjects, plenty of play-time, and that the children themselves should receive the profit from their work.  This is not at all to the Devroede sisters’ liking, but they accept the position, and soon the old village spinning house is converted into a lace-school.

The school is not an immediate hit.  The poorer inhabitants want their daughters to start earning, three hours work is not enough.  The village notables object to the common people learning to read.  The most influential man in the village, Mr Hardies visits Mrs Van Dooren to warn her:

You are undermining the pillars of society.  You drive the insignificant upwards in order to bring down the great.  You wish to give the vermin wings so that they may rise up with the eagle, and you don’t even seem to understand that one swipe of its claws can crush thousands of these insects…  Artificial reading will grow into exercises to develop the mind, and then what – what will become of society once we get that far?  Oh, Madam, I am saddened, saddened to the soul when I think of it.[5]

Although not a priest, fat Mr Hardies with his sanctimonious shows of piety, is a thinly disguised portrayal of father Vinckier.  Mrs Van Dooren, fortunately, is equal to this pressure.  For three further years (we are now in the late 1840s), until they are nine, Mieken and Rozeken continue at the school with Klara’s blessing.  They learn, they earn and they remain healthy.  But then their benefactor dies, and a new regime is established in the lace school.  All the poor girls in the parish are obliged to go, or their families will cease to receive charity: within a month there are 400 girls in the school.  All other classes are stopped, as is playtime.  The children are charged for the thread and other equipment, which had previously been a cost of the establishment.  According to Aunt Klara the luckiest are those who die young, but those that survive this ‘kinderslavernij’ [child slavery] will become feeble housewives, with their twisted hands.

The fate of her two grandchildren under this new order is very different.  Mieken is constantly punished with the ‘zottekap’ [dunce’s cap] and the ‘lange tong’ [a wooden board hung on a pupil’s back as a mark of shame] for not fulfilling her lace quota, she is beaten with rods and made to sit near the door, far from the warming fire; soon she is coughing and fading.  Rozeken, however, with her ‘downcast eye’ [a regular sign of hypocritical submission and devotion in the literature of lacemaking] adapts to the Devroedes’ bigotry and greed, and so is rapidly promoted.  She transfers designs onto the parchments used by the pupils, particularly the ‘Brusselsche bloemen’ [Brussels flowers, or Duchesse lace], a specialist job.

Meanwhile Hardies has forced the Devroedes to accept his ‘protection’ and has become a silent partner in the school.  The miser estimates that each girl earns at least fifteen centimes profit a day: 600 or more girls equals 100 francs a day, divided equally between Hardies and the Devroedes.  The three plot to dispatch Rozeken to the convent at Zwijbeke, in order to improve their relationship with this important intermediary in the lace trade.

The other girls are becoming pale, thin, pinched and ill.  In fact they are dying of consumption (and this mirrors the reality: between 1852 and 1856 twelve pupils in the Vinckier lace-school died of consumption, and two others of typhus: the mayor of Maldegem wrote in 1857 that ‘the cause of death of the lace apprentices is a wasting disease to which the parents have given the vigorous name “schoolsickness”’).  Their ill-health becomes very obvious on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, 15 August, when the school parades through the town.

They were headed by the two school mistresses in their black silk dresses, lace-edged coats, and pretty, white silk hats decorated with purple violets.  Each had a fat gold chain with a precious watch around her neck, and there was nothing to find fault with in their beautiful attire. Then came the pupils.

A sigh of pity escaped each breast on seeing these pale creatures, these stunted limbs, these thin bodies, which seemed to be fighting a stubborn battle of life and death.

Never had poverty made a more painful impression than it did now that so much trouble had been taken to adorn it.

The school’s older pupils looked very neat in cotton dresses, and it was evident that their parents had done the impossible to fulfil the needs of their money-earning daughters.  Among these children, the granddaughters of Aunt Clara were to be found.

They were followed by the smaller children…. Hundreds of clogged little feet came clattering by.  Some few were in new clogs, but many wore old ones, dripping with water and sand, and the clunking, rattling and clattering of the clogs mingled with the monotonous church hymns in such an unpleasant way that it saddened all attentive viewers.

[…]

Shamelessness had never shown itself more plainly than on that procession day.  Those who, by forcing them to labour well beyond their years and strength, had transformed blooming children into creatures whose weakness would be passed on to the next generation, and had turned golden youths into pale flowers bending towards the grave even in the morning of life, they were not shamed to put the misery of these child-slaves on show as a foil to their own wealth.  They braved the looks of the crowd, which seemed to call out to them:

‘Your pomp, your wealth, is the fruit of your slaves’ labour.  It is the purchase price of the victims you drag to an early grave.’

‘Lost souls! Are you not afraid that He, who is the strength of the weak and the ealth of the poor, will one day call you to account for the fate of those unhappy creatures whose bodies and souls were entrusted to you?  You have prematurely killed their spirits, and their bodies you have tortured, so that they will never regain the strength to rekindle their extinguished spirits.  No, you are not afraid, for you recognise no other virtue for the people than ignorance, as it is ignorance on which you have built the throne of your rule.’[6]

Mieken is one of the fatalities.  Although she rallies for a while, long enough to start a romance with her neighbour Paulus, her funeral will also be her wedding.  Her father, long since too ill to work, soon follows her to the grave.  Although Rozeken’s wages would now really help Aunt Klara’s household, she follows the plan laid out by her employers and joins the convent as a novice.  Aunt Klara’s other two grandchildren are now also in the lace school and one is already showing signs of the wasting sickness.  At last Aunt Klara, who perhaps understandably is given to weeping, now turns defiant: she removes her grandchildren, even though this means the family cannot receive poor relief from the council, which is under the thumb of Hardies.

Georges Laugée (1853-1937), Enterrement d’une jeune fille à Étricourt. Musée de l’Échevinage, Saintes. This is an example of ‘the wedding of the dead’.

But times have changed.  The Crimean War knocks the bottom out of the handmade lace market; the wages of the lace mistress employed by the Devroedes is halved, and even the sisters themselves cut back on their consumption of eau-de-cologne.  Punishments increase in an attempt to squeeze more work out of the children, but still wages decline.  For the men a new opportunity has opened up as migrant harvesters in France, so the poorer villagers are not so dependent on the lace-school.  Other women start to follow Aunt Klara’s example and remove their daughters.  The partners in the venture have started to bicker when Hardies drops down dead of a heart attack; he returns like Jacob Marley as a ghost, weighed down with account books and banknotes.  The sisters’ father is released from prison and with him they slip away into the night.  The lace-school building is put up for sale.  Aunt Klara has one last task to fulfil: she goes to the convent to persuade Roza to renounce her noviciate and come back home.

In her introduction Berchmans-Courtmans made explicit that this novel had a social purpose, to expose the exploitation of young girls in the lace-schools, because such institutions ‘disgraced a civilized country’.  She was not against the idea that girls engaged in some work that could contribute to the household income, but that they should also receive an education that expanded their mental horizons, that they be taught useful lessons in tasks that would help them later as housewives (sewing, knitting), and that their bodies be allowed to bloom in exercise and fresh air.  The campaign against the lace-schools would grow, picking up themes rehearsed by Berchmans-Courtmans, such as the impact on the reproductive potential of the Flemish population.  In 1876 the sociologist Guillaume de Greef launched a newspaper diatribe against the lace-schools run by religious orders and not just because they exploited their charges and condemned to poverty, ill-health and early death, but also because they sapped the intellectual and moral strength of the female population: ‘they are not even slaves, because slaves can rise up, but not they’.[7]  However, during the ‘School War’ clerical Flanders rallied to the defence of the lace-schools, which survived well into the twentieth century.  Thus they remained a theme for later Flemish writers such as Virginie Loveling (in Sophie 1885, where the Darwinian implications of a stunted female population are brought to the fore) and Reimond Stijns (in Hard Labeur 1904).  Of course the fate of the ‘hard worked, half-stifled little girls’ in the lace schools was not just a campaigning matter for Flemish writers, as we have already seen in the case of Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family, published the year after De Hut van Tante Klara.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Funeral of a Young Woman at Damvillers, c. 1880.

 

[1] Doolaeghe (1803-1884), to whom we may return, wrote an encomium for ‘my noble friend’ Courtmans-Berchmans in 1883, in which she praised her efforts to ‘enlighten the people through her writing’ [Het volk verlichtend door zijn woord]: ‘Hulde aan mijne hooggeachte vriendin Mevr. Courtmans, geboren Berchmans’, De Vlaamsche Kunstbode 13 (1883): 261-2.

[2] There are several biographies and other studies of Courtmans-Berchmans: I have drawn mostly on Hugo Notteboom, Rik Van de Rosteyne and Michiel de Bruyne (eds) Over Mevrouw Courtmans Leven en Werk (Maldegem: Mevrouw Courtmanscomité, 1990); and Jules Pée, Mevrouw Courtmans, een letterkundige studie, (Antwerp: Ruquoy, Delagarde, Van Uffelen, 1933).

[3] Johann Wilhelm Wolf, Niederländische Sagen (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1843), p. xxi.  German philologists such as Wolf played an important part in the Flemish revival.

[4] For the ‘culture wars’ in Belgium, see Els Witte, ‘The Battle for Monasteries, Cemeteries and Schools: Belgium’, in Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser (eds), Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] Lia Van Gemert (ed.), Brenda Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam, 2010), pp. 523-4.

[6] Van Gemert (ed.), Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, pp. 525-6

[7] Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886), p. 8.  The 1886 volume is a new edition of his newspaper articles.

‘I love to watch you making lace…’ Guido Gezelle’s ode to a lacemaker

Guido Gezelle (Bruges 1830 – Bruges 1899) was the most important poet of the nineteenth century to use the Flemish language.[1]  He is often compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins and not just because he too was a Catholic priest.  Both poets took a Franciscan delight in God’s creation; both steeped themselves in the possibilities of language, all but inventing words to help the alliteration flow.  In the case of Gezelle, he really was forging a new language.  French was dominant culturally in the new Belgian state and even poets from Flanders, like Émile Verhaeren, frequently preferred it.  Flemish was in danger of becoming a rural dialect, the kind of thing that the poetry-consuming class only used to speak to their servants.  The cultural activists of the Flemish Movement were determined to rescue the language but, as we’ve seen in some earlier posts on this site, they were too often trapped in a simplistic language suitable for their moralizing precepts.  Gezelle too was a fierce advocate for Flemish, but he was also determined to reshape the language for literary purposes.  Modern Dutch would not do for him because it was the language of Calvinism, so he drew on the West Flemish dialect of his native Bruges.  Yet one cannot label him a dialect poet: he rather used the spoken vernacular to construct a new, and idiosyncratic, poetic language.

Guido Gezelle in Courtrai, 1898.  From the Stichting de Bethune.

One is less likely to encounter human beings in Gezelle’s poetry than animals, flowers, God, or all together in a celebration of the divine manifested in nature.  However, one exception is the lacemaker to whom the poem Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne is addressed.  Below we give the Flemish text and an, admittedly very rough, English translation.  The poem was first published in 1893 in the Bruges review Biekorf which Gezelle had helped to found.  The poem uses some well-known tropes associated with lacemakers, such as the ‘bolglas’, the focusing bottle of pure water which concentrated a light source onto the pillow, which we have already encountered in the poetry of John Askham.  However, he avoided one stereotype, for his lacemaker is not old but clearly a young woman or girl.  So strong has the expectation become that a lacemaker should be old that when Bruges Municipal Library acquired the manuscript poem in 2009 they described it as ‘Gezelle’s masterful description of an old woman lacemaking by the dim light of an oil lamp’!  Given that the poet calls the lacemaker ‘kleene’ (‘little one’) and ‘lieve’ (‘sweetheart’), we suspect that the lacemaker in question was considerably younger than even this example, pictured by the Belgian painter Firmin Baes.

Firmin Baes, ‘The Lacemaker’, 1913.  We found this image on Pinterest and do not know its current location.

Gezelle, an anglophile, wanted to become a missionary to England (he had good connections to the British Catholic community in Bruges, and he was serving as chaplain to the English Convent in the city when he died).  This ambition was quashed, apparently because his prominence on language and social questions had annoyed the ecclesiastical authorities.  In consequence, Gezelle passed his entire life in the lace-making regions of West Flanders – Bruges, Roeselare, and Courtrai.  However, it is not clear how much this poem was based on direct observation.  Gezelle was intimately connected with the movement to preserve and revive Flemish folk culture and was familiar with the growing literature on lacemakers’ traditions and songs whose influence one can observe in this poem.

One source was the collection of songs recorded by Adolphe-Richard Lootens (Bruges 1835- London 1902) from his mother Catherine Beyaert (born 1795), a Bruges lacemaker.  Lootens, who worked as a surveyor before his move to London, was certainly acquainted with Gezelle.  He contributed articles to the antiquarian and pious journal Rond den Heerd that Gezelle co-founded in 1865, and Gezelle reviewed Lootens’ collection of folktales taken down from his mother: Oude Kindervertelsels in den Brugschen Tongval (1868).  Perhaps surprisingly, Gezelle was not very enthusiastic about Lootens’ attempt to represent Bruges dialect.[2]  Published in 1879, Lootens’, or rather his mother’s songs are present in this poem.  Gezelle refers to the lacemakers’ custom of pricking their forehead with each pin before placing it in the pillow, in memory of Christ’s crown of thorns.  This practice was recorded by Lootens as the accompaniment to a particular song sung by Bruges lacemakers at the end of the end of the eighteenth century: it continued for seventy-seven pins, the traditional number of thorns in Christ’s mock crown.[3]

Gezelle likewise invokes the lacemakers’ practice of singing songs, and specifically ‘tellings’ as they count pins, which was described by Lootens.  However, none of the songs referred to are directly taken from Lootens’ collection.  The one telling he names, ‘Een is eene’ – a direct parallel with the English song ‘One is one and all alone’, actually comes from an earlier collection made in and around the town of Bailleul in French Flanders by the judge and antiquarian Edmond de Coussemaker.[4]  Lootens’ mother knew a version of this verse catechism but it did not include this line.[5]  She also knew a ballad about ‘Heer Alewijne’, another song mentioned in Gezelle’s poem; however her version did not end with the knight/prince murdering the king’s daughter (as Gezelle would have it), but rather returning from the Crusades to find his fiancée abused by his mother.  It is his mother he kills, not the bride to be.  As Lootens noted, this song is very different from the standard version of ‘Heer Halewijn’, the text of which could be bought from ballad singers in the marketplaces of Bruges even in the 1870s.  However, although the mysterious knight in that song certainly intends to kill the king’s daughter, in fact it is she, by cunning, who ends up beheading him and returning to her castle in triumph.  (Lootens’ mother sang a version of this in which the anti-hero was named Roland.)[6]

Illustration to the ballad ‘Heer Halewijn’ by Henricus Jansen, 1904. The ballad, though only recorded in modern times, is assumed to have a medieval origin.  Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The last five verses of Gezelle’s poem are in the voice of the young lacemaker, singing a song in praise of the Virgin Mary, protector of lacemakers like her mother Saint Anne (the patron of lacemakers in Bruges), and refers directly to the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Perpetual Virginity.  We might suspect that such a doctrinally informed text owes more to the priest than to folk traditions.  Certainly I have found no song that exactly matches these verses, though a praise song addressed to the Immaculate Conception, and recorded by Coussemaker in Bailleul, is thematically very close.[7]  In West Flanders religious orders were very active in lace-teaching.  In Bruges itself the leading lace-school was run by the Apostolate Sisters.  Gezelle’s assumption that lacemaking was a holy craft, and that it might serve as an apprenticeship for life in a religious order, was widely shared.  Indeed this message was inculcated in the lace-schools through the medium of song.  According to a legend (of recent, literary origin, but widely disseminated), Mary herself had inspired a Bruges girl, Séréna, to invent the craft of lacemaking.[8]

The final vow to Our Lady of the Snows concerns a cult held in particular honour among lacemakers, and not only in Flanders but also in Catalonia .  The story originates in early Christian Rome when a couple, intending to dedicate their wealth to the Virgin Mary, asked her to reveal how it should best be disposed.  Snow falling in August on a nearby hill led to the building of the Basilica of St Mary Major there.  However, the cult really took off with the Counter-Reformation.  Before the French Revolution, Brussels lacemakers carried their lace to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows in that city to place their work under her protection and thus preserve its whiteness.[9]  According to an article in Rond den Heerd Bruges lacemakers did the same on 5 August before a statue of a similar statue of Mary in the Cathedral of Bruges.[10]

Guido Reni, ‘Our Lady of the Snows’ with Mary Magdalen and Saint Lucia (1623).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Gezelle’s poem encapsulates a particular vision of lacemaking, which in part explain’s the Catholic Church’s continuing efforts, in the late nineteenth century, to defend women’s home work in general and lacemaking in particular.  The Church was not only the patron of most lace schools but was a substantial purchaser of lace as well.  For Gezelle lace was a tradition that linked contemporary Flanders to its medieval glory days when songs like ‘Heer Halewijn’ were composed.  And the medieval was preferable to the modern above all because it was an age of faith.  Lacemakers earned little but, in this version at least, enough to supply their basic needs and thus save themselves from prostitution, the inevitable consequence of female poverty in the eyes of the Church.  And lace itself was almost a holy textile: white like the head-dress of the Virgin herself, white like miracle snows in August.  Lace and its producers were under the protection of Mary and her mother Anne.  Those engaged in its production were materially deprived but spiritually rich, and would remain so in Gezelle’s eyes as long as they too remained ‘onbevlekte’, virginal, immaculate.

Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne,
vingervaste, oudvlaamsche deerne;
die daar zit aan ‘t spinnen, met
‘t vlugge allaam, uw kobbenet.
Vangen zult g’… hoe menig centen
in die looze garenprenten,
die grij neerstig, heen en weêr
krabbelt, op uw kussen neêr?

Schaars genoeg om licht en leven
schamel dak en doek te geven
u, die kanten wijd en breed
werkt aan ‘t koninginnenkleed.

Vangen zult ge, o, schatten geene;
maar mijn hert, dat hebt ge, kleene,
vast gevangen in den draad,
dien gij van uw’ stokken laat.

Geren zie ‘k uw lantje, al pinken,
nauwe een leeksken olie drinken,
en u, ‘t bolglas doorgerand,
volgen, daar ge uw’ netten spant.

Spellewerkster, wat al reken
spellen zie ‘k u neêrwaards steken
in uw kussen, slag op slag,
meer als ik getellen mag!

“Ieder steke maakt me indachtig
hoe men ‘t hoofd van God almachtig”
zegt ge, “en tot zijn bitter leed
vol van scherpe doornen smeet.”

“En ik rake, alzoo ‘t voorheden
altijd mijns gelijken deden,
eerst mijn hoofd, een spelle in d’hand,
eer ik ze in mijn kussen plant.”

Zingen hoor ik u, bij ‘t nokken
met uw’ honderd spinnerokken,
wijla een lied wel, lieve: och laat
mij eens hooren hoe dat gat.

En zij zong, de maged mijne,
‘t liedje van Heer Alewijne,
hoe, vol wreedheid ongehoord,
‘s konings dochter hij vermoordt.

Dan, den ‘teling’ zong zij mede,
na der spellewerkers zede,
“Een is een”, dat oud gezang,
van wel dertig schakels lang.

Zingt mij nog, mijn lieve kleene,
van de Moeder maged reene,
van sinte Anne, die gij dient,
als uw’ besten hemelvriend.

Zong zij dan, al twee drie hoopen
stokken deur malkaar doen loopen,
weêr een liedtjen, op den trant
van heur spellewerkend hand:

“Reine maged, wilt mij leeren,
na verdienste uw’ schoonheid eeren,
die, van Gods gena verrijkt,
versh gevallen snee gelijkt.

Onbevlekt zijt ge, en gebleven
reine maged, al uw leven:
wit als snee’ zoo, Moeder mijn,
laat mij, laat mijn handwerk zijn.

Laat mij, een voor een, de vlassen
webben aan malkaar doen wassen,
die ge mij beginnen zaagt,
te uwer eere, o Moeder Maagd!

On bevlekte, nooit volprezen,
laat ‘t begin en ‘t ende wezen,
van al ‘t gene ik doe en laat,
als dit maagdelijk gewaad.

Dan, wanneer mij garen, stokken,
webbe en al wordt afgetrokken,
zoete lieve-Vrouw-ter-snee’,
spaart mij van ‘t onendig wee!”

 

I love to watch you making lace
You sure-fingered true Flemish lass;
There you sit, the bobbins flying,
As you weave your spider’s web.
You’ll get, how few centimes
From the clever design of threads
that you rapidly scribbleack and forth on your pillow?

Barely enough to earn your keep,
a light, a roof and clothes for your back
You, whose acres of lace
adorns the queen’s own dress.

You will certainly not gain riches
But, little one, you have captured my heart,
Caught fast in the thread
that you release from your bobbins.

I love your lamp that flames
as it drinks up a drop of oil
and which follows you through the flash glass
where you stretch your lace net.

Lacemaker, how many pins
have I seen you stick down
In your cushion, one after the other
Many more than I can count!

You say ‘Each prick reminds me
how the head of God almighty
was, for his bitter suffering,
heaped with sharp thorns.

‘And so, just as in the past
my peers have likewise done,
I touch the pin in hand to my forehead
before I plant it in my pillow.’

Sometimes I hear you as you weave
with your hundred twirling bobbins
sing a song, sweetheart: Oh let
me hear again how that goes.

And she sang, this maid of mine
The ballad of Sir Halewijn,
how, in his unfathomable cruelty
he kills the king’s daughter.

Then she also sang a ‘telling’
as the lacemakers do
‘One is one’, that old song which lasts
for at least thirty links in the lattice.

Sing for me again, my poppet,
about the pure virgin mother,
and of Saint Anne, who you serve
your best friend in heaven.

Then she sang, as she made the bunches
of bobbins run through each other
another little song, to the rhythm
of her lacemaking hands.

‘Oh pure Virgin, please teach me
how to honour your beauty gracefully
You who, enriched through God’s bounty
ressemble freshly fallen snow.

‘You are, and will remain, immaculate
Virgin pure, all your life:
Oh Mother mine, let me and my handiwork
always be as white as snow.

‘Let my linen chains one by one
join each other and grow the work
that I began in your sight
and in your honour, Virgin Mother!

‘Immaculata, never praised enough,
Let the beginning and end
Of all that I do and make
be like this virginal garment.

‘Then, when my threads, bobbins,
net and everything is taken from me,
Our sweet Lady of the Snows
save me from unending pain!’

 

[1] For an English biography of Gezelle see Gustave L. Van Roosbroeck, Guido Gezelle: The Mystic Poet of Flanders (Vinton, 1919).  A recent bilingual edition of his poems is freely available: Paul Vincent (ed.) Poems of Guido Gezelle: A Bilingual Anthology (London, 2016).  His collected works in Flemish are all online at the ever useful Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL).

[2] On Lootens and his relationship to Gezelle and other Bruges clerical antiquarians see Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Uit de Geschiedenis der Vlaamsche Volkskunde: Adolf-Richard Lootens, Brugge 1835-Londen 1902’, Volkskunde: driemaandelijksch Tijdschrift voor de studie van het volksleven 46 (new series 5, issue 1) (1946): 1-21; and Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Bij een honderdste verjaring Lootens’ kindervertelsels’, Biekorf 69 (1968): 273-5.

[3] Adolphe-Richard Lootens and J.M.E. Feys, Chants populaires flamands avec les airs notés et poésies populaires diverses recueillis à Bruges (Bruges, 1879), pp. 262-3: ‘De Doornen uit de Kroon’.

[4] Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands de France (Ghent, 1856), pp. 129-33: ‘De Twaelf Getallen’.

[5] Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 260-1: ‘Les Nombres’.

[6] Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 66-72: ‘Mi Adel en Hir Alewijn’; pp. 60-6: ‘Roland’.

[7] Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands, pp. 60-2: ‘D’ onbevlekte ontfangenisse van Maria’.

[8] The story originates in a collection by Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp 163-205: ‘Légende de la dentelle’.  Popp was the first female newspaper editor in Belgium, and her paper, Le journal de Bruges, was francophone and Liberal in its politics.  It is therefore surprising to find that she and Gezelle shared a similar set of ideas about lace.  However, Popp allows her heroine to give up her vow of virginity and marry, which Gezelle would definitely not have thought an appropriate ending.

[9] Baron Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique: Descriptions des fêtes religieuses et civiles, usages, croyances et pratiques populaires des Belges anciens et modernes (Brussels, 1870), vol. 2, p. 74.  Despite stiff resistance from local lacemakers, the chapel was demolished during the French occupation.

[10] Rond den Heerd 5, no. 36 (July 1870): p. 282 ‘Dagwijzer’.

Songs for Lace-Schools: The Compositions of Father Constant Duvillers (1803-1885)

Eugène Laermans, ‘The Emigrants’ (1894). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Migration was one of the consequences of the Flemish linen crisis of the 1840s.

In the nineteenth century there were lots of Catholic priests like Giovannino Guareschi’s fictional Don Camillo — opinionated, prejudiced and pugnacious, but also deeply committed to the welfare of their parishioners and devoted to their ‘little world’.  They dominated their communities and examples of both their authoritarianism but also their humour have passed into folklore.  The Flemish priest Constant Duvillers was one of their number.  In Woubrechtegem, the tiny parish he was sent to in 1854 by the Bishop of Ghent (probably as punishment for his outspoken defence of the Flemish language), people still remembered him nearly 100 years after his death.  Some of the stories that had become attached to him are standards of clerical folklore, such as his ability to compel thieves to return stolen goods.  Others are perhaps more reflective of his personal eccentricities.  Priests were obliged to read the Bishop’s annual Easter message from the pulpit: Duvillers, who disliked both the Bishop and long services, would announce ‘Beloved parishioners, it’s exactly the same as last year: those that can remember it, that’s good; those that cannot, that’s just as well too.’[1]

Constant Duvillers, priest of Middelburg in East Flanders

However, this post concerns his time at his first parish ― Middelburg ― where he served from 1836 to 1854.  This village sits right on the corner where East and West Flanders meet the border with the Netherlands.  It is in ‘Meetjesland’, a nickname for the region that Duvillers popularized through his annual Almanak van ‘t Meetjesland, which he published under the pseudonym ‘Meester Lieven’ from 1859 until his death.  The story Duvillers told (and possibly invented) was that, when the locals learnt that the notorious womanizer Emperor Charles V was to travel through the region, they hid all the young women and only old women were visible, leading the Emperor to exclaim ‘This is little old lady land’ [Meetje is a colloquial term for ‘granny’].

The almanac, with its plain-speaking moralizing and practical advice, demonstrated Duvillers’ commitment to popular education and the promotion of the Flemish language.  There was nothing he disliked more than a Fleming putting on French airs, or a ‘Fransquillon’ to use the pejorative term popularized in the 1830s, and the subject of a bad-tempered satirical poem by Duvillers, ‘De Fransquiljonnade’ (1842).  For Duvillers and many other Flemish priests, French was the language of Robespierre, of irreligion and revolution.  Inoculating the good Catholic Flemish population against this toxin required the provision of wholesome and comprehensible literature in their own language.  Duvillers was responsible for a host of such small, cheap books, often pseudonymous, which, like his almanac, mixed the homely wisdom and folk humour of proverbs with overt moralizing and religious instruction.

The proverb was one of Duvillers’ favourite genres, the song was another.  Among his publications are three books of songs, the first of which (1844) was dedicated for the use of the Middleburg girls’ school: several of its twenty songs refer to lacemaking.  In 1846 and 1847 there followed two more volumes containing fourteen and fifteen songs respectively, which were intended for use in the lace schools.

The background to these publications was the devastating crisis that affected Flanders principal industry, linen manufacturing, during the 1840s.  In 1840 linen occupied nearly 300,000 people in Flanders, about twenty per cent of the population.  They were employed in their own homes as spinners and weavers, supplementing their incomes by growing their own food on smallholdings.  By the end of the decade this entire sector had all but disappeared.  The causes included competition from British factory-produced linens and the displacement of linen by cotton, but this crisis in manufacturing was also exacerbated by poor harvests in the late 1840s, the same period as the Irish Potato Famine.  Unemployment and high food prices coincided with typhus and cholera epidemics.  For the fledgling Belgian state, born out of an earlier revolution in 1830, misery and starvation in Flanders presented a crisis of legitimacy.  In other European countries the ‘Hungry Forties’ led to protest and even the overthrow of the political order.  How could that outcome be avoided in Flanders too?[2]

One answer was to retrain the population to make lace.  This might seem an odd choice given that machine-made lace was already a source of competition for Flemish handmade lace.  Nottingham and Calais tulle had effectively wiped out Lille’s lace industry in the 1830s.  But the fashion for tulle had crashed, and the market for Flemish Valenciennes lace was sufficiently recovered for this project to make sense.  Up until 1830 lacemaking had been a largely urban manufacture in Flanders, but in the 1840s it would desert the cities such as Antwerp and Ghent (though not Bruges) to take up its abode in the countryside, and especially in the villages of West Flanders that had been most affected by the linen crisis.

However, lacemaking is not a skill acquired overnight: it required teachers and schools.  According to the historian of the Belgian lace industry, Pierre Verhaegen, ‘it was now that, under the influence of humble parish priests, of charitable persons, and some convent superiors, the lace industry suddenly took flight again.  In the convents of the two Flanders and Brabant, children started to be taught to make lace; where there was no establishment of this kind then one was founded and soon there was hardly a convent in Flanders which did not possess a lace school.  New female congregations of nuns sprang up and gathered around themselves the children of the villages where they were implanted.’[3]  This describes the role of Duvillers in Middelburg: at his initiative local elites provided the funding for a lace school, and the staff was supplied by one of the new teaching congregations of nuns.

There are many ironies to this story.  The political cleavage in the young Belgian state was between the liberals and the clericals.  During the 1840s the liberals, who were largely French speaking and anticlerical, were the dominant party, but their response to the linen crisis, including the funding of the lace schools, required their collaboration with their political arch-rivals, the Flemish clergy.  Later in the century, the creation of hundreds of lace workshops masquerading under the name ‘school’ created a new battlefront in ‘culture wars’ between clericals, liberals and, later, socialists.  In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of young Flemish women were trained in a trade that effectively trapped them in poverty.  For liberals, the failure of the clergy to provide a decent education for their charges, as well as the profits the Catholic Church drew from their ignorant, emaciated and tubercular lace apprentices, was a scandal.  For socialists, the impoverished lacemaker became a symbol for ‘Arm Vlaanderen’ [Poor Flanders]: she was the personification of the entrenched misery which demanded radical action, such as the banning of domestic manufacture.  But for the clergy and their supporters the homeworking lacemaker, trained by nuns simultaneously in religion and labour, was the epitome of domestic virtue.[4]

The battle over the lace schools was fought in literature as well as in the newspapers and the chambers of parliament, as we will see in future posts on the work of Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Virginie Loveling, Guido Gezelle, Stijn Streuvels, and Reimond Stijns, among others.  All of these, however, had the opportunity to reflect after several decades on the success and failures of the lace schools: Duvillers was there at the start.

The Middleburg Girls School, for whom the 1844 volume of songs was intended, was Duvillers own project, or at least so claimed a song in which trainee seamstresses thanked ‘Our Pastor, who erected this school’.[5]  This series of songs predates the onset of the linen crisis; nonetheless, the industry was clearly in trouble.  In ‘The Song of the Spinners’, the speakers lament that ‘Wages are small, and living expensive/ There’s no butter on our bread’.[6]  However, at that time lacemaking was only one of the replacement trades being taught: ‘I feel motivated / always to go to school. I learn lovely things there;/ I learn how to make nice lace;/ I sew, I knit,/ it is all profitable for me’.[7]  Nonetheless lace was, to judge by the number of songs on the topic, the dominant occupation taught in the school, and Duvillers was clearly on a mission to promote it: ‘O blessed land!/ Where even small a small child’s hands/ Can sustain her parents,/ By playing, [she] can earn,/ By playing.’[8]  Observers like Duvillers often thought of lacemaking as a form of play, an association made easier by the fact that in Flemish the terms are homonyms ― ‘spelen’ and ‘speldewerk’: ‘Here we play a game/ Where anyone might see us;/ The lace shines/ Like a genuine fairy art.’[9]  Duvillers frequently used the term ‘toover’ – meaning magic or fairy – to describe lace, as did many other commentators on the industry.

By 1846, when Duvillers’ next volume of songs appeared, lace had become the single focus of Middelburg’s and many other schools across Flanders.  The first song in the volume describes the situation as the linen crisis reached its peak.  In years gone by father had sat to weave and mother to spin, and the loom and spinning-wheel together had saved the children from anxiety and grief as they could get their daily bread.  But now that ‘Frenchmen wear no linen anymore’ (the French army had replaced its red linen trousers with cotton ones) the girls must go to the lace-school.[10]  Yet despite the problems besetting Flanders, Duvillers’ tone in this volume is, overall, positive.  In ‘Flora, the Bold Lacemaker’, for example, the eponymous heroine sings ‘Long live lacework!  Farewell to the droning spinning wheel!/  I’ll follow the girls from the town,/ my fingers will play both large and small,/ and so Flora will earn her bread.’[11]  Here, as elsewhere in these songs, the purchaser of the lace schools’ product is identified as ‘the Englishman’ or even ‘John Bull’.  The lace school is clearly a developing proposition: one song describes the pristine building ‘on two floors!’, so much better than the ‘dark hole’ where they have been working up till now.[12]

This set of fourteen songs is essentially a promotional campaign to convince parents, and the apprentices themselves, of the benefits of the lace school.  Duvillers highlights not only the monetary rewards but also that the girls can meet their friends, be warm and safe, and kept on the path of moral rectitude by ‘singing God’s praises’ and saying the rosary.  However, they also sing other, secular songs ‘of the little weaver, or of the cat’ (probably references to lace tells).[13]  In particular he dwells on the fun and games held on the Feast of St Gregorius (9 May), the patron of lacemaking in East Flanders, when there would be a prize-giving attended by priest, the lord and lady from the chateau, as well as all the members of the philanthropic institute that supports the school, who will give out ‘big books clothes, hats and cloth’ to the pupils.[14]  Later the whole school will go on jaunt to Ghent.  In other songs Duvillers contrasts lacemaking to other occupations in agriculture or food production that might, on the surface, appear better remunerated.  For instance he relates the cautionary tale of ‘Anastasia De Bal’ who threw her lace cushion in the fire and went to work for a farmer who taught her to swear like trooper.  Although she earns a tad more, she is out shivering in the fields, her clothes are worn and tattered, and the work makes her hungry and thirsty (and implicitly food is costly).  And of course agricultural work stops in the winter, and then she’ll be forced to live on potato peelings and even grass.[15]

A large number of Duvillers’ songs in this and the next volume are in the form of dialogues, and between them they cover many of the daily interactions experienced in and around the lace-school.  For example, apprentice Mietje meets a gentleman on her way to the school, and when he learns that she is supporting her sick father as well as six children he gives her ten francs.[16]  In the next song the priest visits the school to see how the apprentices are doing, and the lace-mistress gives a run-down on each individual’s progress, or lack of it.[17]  The priest seems to be constantly dropping in on the school, showing around other clergy who are interested in setting up their own school, or philanthropic gentry who might support the enterprise, or handing out prizes.  Other visitors include the ‘koopvrouw’, the female intermediary who collected lace on behalf of the merchants in the distant cities.[18]  In another song she is named as ‘Mevrouwe Delcampo’ from Bruges, while the teacher is frequently referred to as ‘Sister Monica’.

Both of these were probably real people, though so far I have been unable to verify this.  Hopefully Duvillers was more careful to use pseudonyms to hide the  identities of the numerous girls and young women who attended the school.  Dozens are named, and in many cases in order to be upbraided.  Wantje Loete, Cisca Bral, Mie d’Hont, Genoveva d’Hont, Barbara Kwikkelbeen, all had done something to annoy Duvillers.  Most of these appear in the third, 1847 volume which is markedly more bad-tempered than its predecessors.  In the winter of 1846-7 it appears that the children were being withdrawn from the school.  Duvillers was particularly infuriated by the parents who, now their daughters had learnt the rudiments of lacemaking, kept them at home to save the few pennies that attendance at the lace-school incurred; or, just as bad, sending them out into the fields to do agricultural work.  He warns Wantje Loete that once at home her cushion will stand empty because her mother will need her to look after her latest sibling, while her father will send her to look after the goats and pigs.  Meanwhile she, and the other girls staying away from school, will never really master lacemaking.[19]  The issue, though, was not entirely economic: for Duvillers the key success of the school was establishing religious oversight of all the young women in the parish and it was this moral authority which parents and some girls, were challenging.

All was not well in the school either: in the song ‘The School Mistress and the Foolish Mother’, the latter comes to complain that her daughter Mie has been beaten, and that she will take her, her stool and her cushion out of school if another finger is laid on her.  The school mistress answers that no one has been beaten, she’s only dragged Mie into the middle of the school and made her kneel and pray because she is so lazy.  And while the stool belongs to the family, the other tools belong to the school. ‘Don’t come back later and try to flatter us/ and ask us if she can [learn to] knit,/ Or even sew your clothes:/ Woman, this is no dovecot!’[20]  However, the mistress’s protestations that no-one has been beaten are undermined by other songs in which she directly tells the children that she’s been instructed by the pastor himself ‘not to spare the rod’.[21]  Perhaps this was the reason girls like Barbara Kwikkelbeen preferred hanging around in the street or wandering through the parish.  In a fury over all this backsliding Duvillers declares ‘But as the poor are so pigheaded,/ Then I will not lift my hand to help them,/ And I’ll send them a punishment.’[22]  If these songs in any way represent the priest’s actual relations with his parishioners, then it is plausible that it was this breakdown that brought about his removal from Middelburg, and not his obstreperous involvement in language politics.

As any regular visitor to this site will know, apprentice lacemakers sang while they worked.  Duvillers frequently alludes to this custom, and even names some of the songs they sang, such as ‘Pierlala’.  He presumably wanted his songs to be adopted by the Middelburg lace school as more suitable for future ‘brides of Christ’ (that is nuns, which was clearly Duvillers’ hope for at least some of the girls) than those currently in use, that is if his choice of tunes is indicative of what was being sung.  Most of these seem derive from the theatre, such as ‘The Best is Good Enough for Me’, or ‘The Frozen Nose’.

Presumably also he hoped that his songs would be taken up in other lace schools, but is there evidence of this?  Although Flemish lacemakers sang a lot of songs, not many of them were actually about lacemaking itself.  If anything their songs served as an imagined escape from their task.  Duvillers’ songs, on the other hand, offer a detailed picture of life in a lace-school, of how the children interacted with each other, of the injunctions of the lace-mistress, of the various visitors during the day… the kind of nitty-gritty quotidian commonplaces that are a goldmine for the social historian but unlikely to excite a singer.  This mundane character, and the highly localized references, made me think that, as songs, Duvillers’ work had probably fallen rather flat.

However, at least one of Duvillers’ songs did become a lace tell, and a version was still sung a century after publication.  In 1948 Magda Cafmeyer published a series of articles ‘From Cradle to Grave’ about life-cycle traditions in Bruges and its immediate surrounding villages.  She included, under youth, lace tells, and offered one that she herself had heard.[23]

It is worth seeing
Us making net (i.e. lace)
For the bonnets
of the young ladies of the city.
The finest lace
For our customers
Enriched with flower and leaf
one link, one lattice opening made
Wantje’s lace rests unsold
Isabelle gets
Ten franks the ell (the unit used for measuring lace, about 70 cm)
But she’s a fierce one
She doesn’t even look up
Her fingers twirl
The sticks (bobbins) roll;
They seem to dance before one’s eye.
O wonder, especially if anyone sees it,
But this tough one (‘schrimmer’ in Cafmeyer’s tell, ‘grimmer’ in Duvillers’ song), hardly ever leaves the house.

Just like magic!
Says boss de Lye (an unidentified figure),
As he quickly leaves the school.

 Farewell to the field
The farmer and the baker
How fast and how wide-awake (I am)
And I also get a little wage
I work here peacefully
By my sister
I sit here warm and clean.

Unknown to Cafmeyer, these are two verses, albeit slightly rearranged, of one of Duvillers’ Speldewerksters-liedjes which appeared in his first, 1844 collection.  In his own way, he had contributed to the craft culture of Flemish lacemakers.

 

[1] For a fuller biography of Father Duvillers, and detail of his works and his legend, see J. Muyldermans, ‘Constant Duvillers (1803-1885). Zijn leven en zijne schriften’, in Verslagen en Mededelingen der Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde (1928): 148-202, and F. van Es, Pastoor Constant Duvillers, Folklorist en folkloristische figuur (Ghent, 1949).

[2] G. Jacquemyns, Histoire de la crise économique des Flandres (1845-1850) (Brussels, 1929).

[3] Pierre Verhaegen, Les industries à domicile en Belgique: La dentelle et la broderie sur tulle (Brussels: Office du Travail, 1891), vol. 1, p. 49.

[4] We will return to this political debate in future posts, but for liberal/socialist critiques of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the lace schools see Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886) and Auguste de Winne, À travers les Flandres (Ghent, 1902).  Although Pierre Verhaegen’s father, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen (1796-1862) was the effective leader of the Belgian liberals and anticlericals, and at the forefront of the battle over education (students at the Free University of Brussels – free of Catholic influence that is – still celebrate ‘Saint Verhaegen’s Day’), he himself took a more positive view on the Church’s lace schools.

[5] C. Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes, ten geebruyke der Meysjesschool van Middelburg, in Vlaenderen (Ghent, 1844): Naeystersliedje ‘O! dank zy onzen pastor:/ Hij heeft de school gesticht’.

[6] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: ‘T Liedje der Spinnetten ‘Den loon is kleyn; en ‘t is duer leven;/ Er ligt geen’ boter op ons brood’.

[7] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Huys-liedje ‘ ‘k Voel mij gedreven/ Om altyd school te gaen./ Daer leer ik fraeye zaken:/ ‘k Leer nette kantjes maken;/ Ik naey, ik brey,/ ‘t Is al profyt voor my’.

[8] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘O zalig land!/ Waer ook een’ kinderhand/ Zyn’ ouders onderstand,/ Al spelen, kan verschaffen,/ Al spelen, ja!’

[9] Ander Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘Wy spelen hier een spel/ Waer ieder moet op kyken;/ Dat speldenwerken schynt/ Een’ regte tooverkonst.’

[10] C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen, Gevolge door de Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Bruges: Vandecastell-Werbrouck, 1846): no. 1: ‘Toen ik nog een kleyn boontje was,/ Deed vader ook in ‘t linnen,/ Terwyl ik in een boekske las,/ Zat moeder daer te spinnen; En ‘t spinnewiel en ‘t weefgetouw/ Bevrydden ons van druk en rouw,/ Wy konden ‘t broodje winnen.’

[11] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Flora, of de moedige kantwerkster ‘Vivat het spellewerk! Vivat!/ Vaerwel het ronkend spinnewielken!/ Ik volg de meysjes van de stad,/ ‘k speel met ving’ren, kleyn en groot,/ En zoo wint Floorken ook haer brood.’

[12] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 6: ‘Er ryst voor ons een’ nieuwe school,/ Ze zyn al de tweede stagie,/ Sa! Dochters, schept maer goê couragie:/ Haest krupt gy uyt uw donker hol.’

[13] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Schoolvrouw, den pastor en de dry vreemde heeren ‘Sa! Kinders, zingen wy eens dat/ Van ‘t Weverken of van de Kat’.  Neither reference can be clearly identified as weavers and cats are both common characers in Flemish folksong, but two popular lace tells were ‘Daar waren vier wevers’ and ‘De katje aan de zee’.

[14] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Pastor en de

Constant Duvillers, priest of Middelburg in East FlandersSchoolvrouw ‘En, dan kom ik afgetreden/ Met den heere van ‘t kasteel,/ En mevrouw, en al de leden/ Van ‘t weldadigheyds-bureel,/ En wy geven groote boeken,/ Nieuwe kleedren, mutsen, doeken,/ Al die braef is krygt zyn deel.’

[15] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 14.

[16] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Heer en het schoolkind.

[17] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den pastor en de schoolvrouw.

[18] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Koopvrouw en de zuyster.

[19] C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen en Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Ghent, 1847): Wantje Loete.

[20] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Schoolvrouw en d’onverstandige Moeder ‘Brengt u ‘t meysken in ‘t verdriet,/ Threse, en kom dan later niet/ Schoone spreken, en ons vleyen,/ En ons vragen of ‘t mag breyen,/ Of eens naeyen aen uw kleed:/ Vrouw, ‘t is hier geen duyvenkeet.’

[21] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Zuster en de Schoolkinders ‘Den pastor heeft my streng bevolen/ Van in de beyde kantwerkscholen/ Daer op te letten, en de roê/ Zoo niet te sparen, lyk ik doe.’

[22] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): Genoveva d’Hont ‘Maer al den armen ‘t zoo verstaet,/ Dan doe ‘ker maer myn hand van af,/ En ‘k jon ze hem, de straf.’

[23] Magda Cafmeyer, ‘Van de wieg tot het graf III: Dat was de jeugd’, Biekorf 49 (1948): 206-7.

Jan Van Beers’ ‘Begga’ (1868): A Lacemaking Cinderella

‘Facades on the Handschoenmarkt, Antwerp’ by the Antwerp painter Hendrik Frans Schaedels (1827-1904). Begga and her family lived in an upper-floor appartment in such a street.

‘Begga’ was the name of a seventh-century Merovingian noblewoman and saint, an ancestor of Charlemagne.  Beguines, those pious women who had a significant role to play in the lace industry in the Low Countries, sometimes claimed her as their founder.[1]  But another Begga, a lacemaker, was the eponymous heroine of a poem by the Belgian writer Jan van Beers (1821-1888).[2]  ‘Begga’ is probably his best known poem, in part because of its powerful invocation of the author’s stumbling return to the Roman Catholic faith of his youth: ‘”he felt his soul overwhelmed with a holy trembling”, on entering the imposing temple [Antwerp cathedral] to which his mother had once taken him as a child, and where she had taught him to call the eternally Inscrutable, whose ineffable name the whole universe scarce dares to stammer, Our Father.’  Thus the theologian Cornelius Tiele quoted ‘Begga’ at length when making the argument that ‘religion always begins with an emotion’ in his influential Elements of a Science of Religion (1899).[3]

Saint Begga, often named (though incorrectly) as the founder of the Beguines. This statue adorned the Begijnhofkerk in Hoogstraten, near Antwerp. The image comes from the online resource of Hoogstraten’s museum:
www.erfgoedbankhoogstraten.be

Jan van Beers was an important figure in the Flemish Movement (‘Vlaams Beweging’) which, starting in the middle years of the nineteenth century, sought to establish a place for the Flemish (Dutch) language in the Belgian state, but just as importantly, make it a vehicle for cultural expression.  In the Romantic period, in which the Flemish Movement had its roots, the poet was envisaged as a vehicle channelling the voice of the people, of the nation even.  Naturally it could therefore only be expressed in the language of the people.  Beers contributed not just as a poet, but as a teacher of Dutch, as the composer of the lyrics for an oratorio by the Flemish composer Peter Benoit (‘De Oorlog’, 1873), and as deputy librarian for Antwerp city (he would marry Henriette Mertens, daughter of the chief librarian, and a Flemish salonnière).[4]  But Beers was also one of the generation of writers that turned from Romanticism towards Realism.  His early poems drew on history for their inspiration, but his later works depicted the life he saw around him on the streets of Antwerp.

Jan van Beers (1821-1888). Image from Wikipedia.

‘Realism’ does not necessarily mean an authentic depiction of the hard lives of Flemish working poor.[5]  Beers was a teacher and a trainer of teachers, and his writings were meant for, and were used in, schools.  He had a moral as well as an aesthetic purpose: virtue must be rewarded and faith defended.  Although ‘Begga’ is subtitled ‘a story from Flemish folk life’, it more closely resembles a folk tale: in fact it is Cinderella rewritten in a realist mode.

The poem opens with its heroine Begga lovingly overseeing the night-time prayers of her little half-brother, before taking up the pillow again to which she has been chained since the morning.  The sounds of celebration drift up from the street for it is Whitmonday, the great fair of Antwerp.  Her stepmother and half sister Coleta are enjoying the dance while she is forced to work.  Her stepmother hates Begga.  She had been the childhood sweetheart of Begga’s father, but then he had married another, who had soon died.  Moved as much by pity for the infant Begga as by love for the man, she became his second wife.  But when she too had a daughter she wondered why her husband gave Begga more kisses, why he dangled her on his knee longer than Coleta.  When she heard him whispering to Begga that she was the ‘adorable image of your dear, blessed mother’, her sympathy turned to hate.  Coleta and Begga, meanwhile, were loving sisters, until they become rivals for the affections of their neighbour Frans, the cooper’s son.  Coleta, urged on by her mother, not only dances with him at the ball, he also escorts her and her mother home.  All seems going swimmingly until Frans insists on saying goodnight to Begga too and in a burst of enthusiasm, before the astonished trio, declares his love for her.  This brings on a crisis: for the sake of her own daughter, the stepmother must dispose of Begga.  Hysterically alleging all kinds of wrongdoing, she throws her out of their lodgings.

Frans meanwhile is mooning about the town, failing to join in with his friends at the archery club or at the inn (archery was a popular sport among Flemish urban artisans and a continuing vehicle for municipal pride).  He loves Begga but she is poor; will his father approve?  In the end, though, it is the cooper who, guessing the cause for Frans’ mood, forces the issue.  He takes the occasion of a feast on their shared name-day (Saint Francis, 4 October) to drag the truth out of his son.  Striking while the iron is hot – it’s the same phrase in Dutch – he steps over the road to ask the stepmother for Begga’s hand, only to be told she has been sent packing.  With a pretence at reluctance, the stepmother admits that Albert, the son of the lace factoress (the woman who acted as an intermediary between the lacemakers and the wholesale dealers) for whom all three women work, had been making excuses to visit them, and he and Begga had been carrying on right there in her home.  Disgusted, she had sent her packing, and last heard she was sharing a room in the city with Albert.

Begga had indeed taken a room with money from Albert.  When she lost her home she went to the factoress’s house to get work, and Albert gave her a ‘voorschot’ – an advance.  But this was not just kindness: soon Albert is calling regularly on the pretext of seeing how the lace advances, but really to make advances to her.  Begga refuses his cajoling, and even his violence, but she is in a terrible plight.  As she has taken money from the factoress, she cannot take work from anyone else until the debt is cleared: she is tied to Albert and there is nothing she can do to escape.

In desperation Begga goes to the cathedral, the occasion for van Beers’ nostalgic rhapsody that so struck Tiele.  It is the feast of All Souls, when we remember the dead.  But death haunts the city: an epidemic of cholera, ‘the Blue Death’ as it was known at the time, had broken out.  This is the only incident that allows us to date these events.  A decining port with a decrepit, not to say non-existent system of public sanitation, Antwerp was an ideal breeding ground for cholera, and city was affected regularly in the nineteenth century.  The most recent outbreak occurred exactly when van Beers was composing his poem, in 1866, and it had killed nearly 3000 people in city, that is one in every forty of the population (these are the official statistics, which often undercounted).  However that was a summer outbreak, and by the 1860s lace was a moribund trade in Antwerp.  Earlier outbreaks, in 1832 and 1848-9, also seem unlikely because they took place against the backdrop of political upheavals which find no mention in the poem.  Perhaps van Beers had either the 1853 or 1859 outbreak in mind.[6]

‘The Interior of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady, Antwerp’, by Peeter Neefs The Younger (1620-1675) and Frans Franken III (1607-1667). The image was taken from Wikipedia Commons and the original hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. According to the theologian Cornelius Tiele, it was van Beers’ emotional response to this architecture, which he describes in ‘Begga’, which prompted his own reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

 

After everyone has left the Church Begga remains on her knees, effectively praying for death as a release from her sufferings.  A priest emerges, followed by a sacristan carrying a ciborium.  Someone is about to be administered the last rites.  Almost a ghost herself, Begga follows them through the winding streets to her stepmother’s door.  Coleta lies dead, and her little brother has also been taken ill.  Begga rushes in and cradles her brother despite her stepmother’s rages, which are overtaken by signs that she too is succumbing to the disease.  As she lies on the same bed where Coleta died, Begga nurses her.  The stepmother’s heart melts and in her last act she calls the cooper and his son to her, and reveals that she lied about her stepdaughter.  Angels in heaven could not be purer.  After her death Frans and his father take Begga and her little brother into their house, which from now on will also be hers.

Lace, I must admit, plays a rather small part in Begga’s story.  She works long hours for small wages; she shares a home with other lacemakers; these elements of the poem draw on life.  She embodies some of the themes that would recur in Flemish literature on lacemakers in which poverty and suffering go hand-in-hand with redemption and piety.  But the only element of her trade that is important to the plot is the issue of advances.  Lacemakers almost always needed credit, but by taking advances from the lace dealers they were effectively changing their status from free artisans to dependent workers.  This proletarianization of women worried nineteenth-century commentators in Belgium, both Liberals and Catholics (van Beers fell between these two political poles that dominated Belgian political life).  A worker could not free herself from the dealer or factor until she had paid back the advances; but the dealer could ensure – by charging too much for the thread or by reducing the price paid for her work – that she was never in a position to do so.  The lacemaker could be economically abused, but also sexually abused: this latter theme is also recurrent in nineteenth-century Flemish literature.  As we have seen, it was the central plot-device in Frans Carrein’s Elisa de kantwerkster.

 

 

[1] Incorrectly, but the Beguines’ celebration of her cult certainly helped maintain the status of Saint Begga in Belgium.  The origin of the Beguines was a matter of lively debate in the nineteenth century: see, among others, Eduard Hallmann, Die Geschichte des Ursprungs der belgischen Beghinen (Berlin, 1843).

[2] Jan Van Beers, Gevoel en Leven: Poëzie (Antwerp,1869), pp. 3-86.

[3] Cornelis Petrus Tiele, Elements of the Science of Religion (Edinburgh, 1897-99), Vol. 2, pp. 10-15.

[4] Considerable biographical information on Jan van Beers, like all Flemish writers, is available on the DBNL, digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren.  See also Steven van Impe, ‘The Librarian as a Nation Builder: Frans Hendrik Mertens (1796-1867) and the Antwerp City Library’, Quaerendo 42 (2012): 221-30; G. Schmook, ‘De “Mertensen” en de “Van Beersen” uit Antwerpen, XVIII e -XX e eeuwen’, Mens en Taak, 25 (1982): 88-113.  Their descendants include several prominent contributors to Belgian culture and politics including: Jan van Beers the younger (1852–1927), a risqué society painter and scandalmonger; Henri de Man (1885-1953), a Flemish socialist politician and intellectual who collaborated during the Second World War; Paul de Man, a literary theorist.

[5] For which see Catharina Lis, Social Change and the Labouring Poor, Antwerp 1770-1860 (New Haven, 1986).

[6] Karel Velle, ‘België in de 19de eeuw : Gevolgen van de “blauwe dood”’, Geschiedenis der geneeskunde 4 (1997): 95-105.

Lacemakers in Fiction: ‘Wit Leven’ (‘White Life’, 1897) by Stijn Streuvels

We continue our posts on lacemakers in Flemish fiction with a look at Stijn Streuvels.  Unlike almost all the other Flemish authors considered in this series, you can read some of the novels and stories by the prolific Streuvels in English.  We don’t know why, but British publishers from the nineteenth century onwards took little interest in the cultural production of the Flemish Movement, and not much more of Belgian literature in French.  Even in the case of Streuvels, who twice came close to winning the Nobel Prize for literature, translations are rare.  His Langs de Wegen (1902) was translated in 1936 by Edward Crankshaw as Old Jan; while De Vlasschard (1907) was translated as The Flaxfield by Peter Glassgold and André Lefevere in 1988.  Both are quite hard to come by, and neither are primarily concerned with lacemakers.  Streuvels’ 1909 novella ‘De Blijde Dag’ is set among lacemaking girls in an orphanage, but this is not available in English.  (The title translates as ‘The Happy Day’; we should add that happiness is at best a relative concept for Streuvels, whose work might be characterised as pastoral fatalism.)  That leaves the stories translated byAlexander Teixeira de Mattos and gathered together in a volume entitled The Path of Life (London: Unwins, 1915).  This collection is available online for free, and it includes ‘Wit Leven’ which first appeared in Flemish in the literary modernist magazine Van Nu en Straks in 1897, and in English as ‘White Life’ in The English Review in 1912.

Stijn Streuvels, 1917. From the ‘digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren’

Streuvels, whose real name was Franciscus (Frank) Lateur (Courtrai 1871 – Ingooigem 1969) started his working life not as a pastry chef, like Frans Carrein, but as a village baker in Avelgem in West Flanders.  He read voraciously in between his bread-making tasks, and taught himself numerous languages.  (In later life he would translate the work of another baker-writer who had been raised among lacemakers, Maxim Gorky.)  He only gave up the bakery in 1905 to dedicate himself to literature when his reputation as an anticlerical and a freethinker began to damage the family business.  West Flanders was then a bastion of clerical authority.  Streuvels maternal uncle was the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, almost unknown in Britain but in Belgium probably rated as the most important writer in Flemish.  Gezelle, too, ran foul of the ecclesiastical authorities for his writings, but he chose obedience rather than resistance.

‘White Life’ we think rather a good title for a story about a lacemaker.  Its heroine, Sofie, does indeed live her life in white – ‘Her life flowed on as a little brook flows under grass on a Sunday noon in summer, flowed on in calm seclusion, far from the bustle of the crowd, secretly, steadily, uninterrupted save by ever-recurring little incidents, peacefully approaching old age.’  She works in a whitewashed room with white curtains under a cap of white, and at night sleeps between white sheets under a canopy of white.  A statue of the Virgin, clad in white watches from the wall, while a canary in a white cage is her only company.  The canary and the geraniums at her window are almost the only splashes of colour in her existence (one day we might write a blog about lacemakers, canaries and geraniums).  Her ‘white and peaceful little soul’ is innocent of anything but her daily tasks and piety.  She lives almost like a nun, or a beguine, dividing her time between lacemaking and readings from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and saying her rosary.

Erzgebirge lacemakers by Gustav Zindel. Note the canary and the geraniums. Zindel (1883-1959) was a Czech-German painter and illustrator of folk life.

Lacemaking is part of her separation from the ‘bustle of the crowd’, for it draws her into a world in itself.  Her pillow

‘was her only amusement, her treasure: this half-rounded arch of smooth, blue paper on the wooden pillow-stool, occupied by a swarm of copper pins, with coloured-glass heads, and of finely-turned wooden bobbins, with slender necks and notched bodies, hanging side by side from fine white threads or heaped up behind a steel bodkin. All this array of pins, holes, drawers and trays had for her its own form and meaning, a small world in which she knew her way so well. Her deft white fingers knew how to throw, change, catch and pick up those bobbins so nimbly, so swiftly; she stuck her pins, which were to give the thread its lie and form, so accurately and surely; and, under her hand, the lace grew slowly and imperceptibly into a light thread network, grew with the leaves and flowers of her geraniums and phlox and the silent course of time.’

This peaceful if monotonous existence is interrupted when the grate on her stove needs mending and she takes it to the smith, Sander, next door.  He has already made his presence known, hammering away in the background.  But now he takes to calling in the evening, sharing a cup of coffee and a bit of a gossip about village affairs.  His eyes are kindly and impish, the smell of his pipe makes such a change in her routine.  And she begins to think ‘that calm rest, in which she had once found such a pure delight, was now a heavy weariness’, that an alteration that brought together two lonely people of mature years might do them both good.  She could teach him the rosary.  Sander too has ambitions towards matrimony.  This envisioned idyll comes to a shocking end when the smith gets drunk celebrating the feast of Saint Eligius (Eloi, the patron of metalworkers).  He breaks into Sofie’s house and assaults her.  Neighbours hearing her screams haul him off.  But now not only her new dreams of companionship but also her old ‘white life’ have been ‘stamped to pieces’, and she has been left like a naked child freezing in the snow.

We did warn you that happiness was in short supply in Streuvels’ Flanders.

A Moral Tale of ‘City and Village’. Pieter Geiregat’s ‘Stad en dorp’ (1853)

Pieter Geiregat’s literary career followed a trajectory similar to Frans Carrein’s.  Born in Ghent in 1828, he started his working life as a candlemaker, but writing would lead him to become, in 1855, editor of the Gazette van Gent.  He died in 1902.  Like Carrein he mostly authored plays for local theatre troupes, but he became better known for his writing for children.  He specialized in short ‘moral sketches’, such as his 1855 story ‘De Duivenmelkers’ (‘The Pigeon Fanciers’: in nineteenth-century Flanders the hobby of pigeon-fancying was widely portrayed as the very worst of depravities which sapped the health and rectitude of the whole Flemish people).  Whereas his plays often had a historical setting, his stories mostly featured characters from the Flemish middle and working classes, who presumably were also his intended audience.  These are simple, not to say simplistic, tales of vice punished and goodness rewarded.  Geiregat was not aiming to be a Flemish Thackeray or Eliot, but rather to provide educational and uplifting works for a public which had very limited schooling.  Nonetheless we are forced to concur with a recent Flemish critic — comparing Geiregat’s work with two better known Ghent writers of children’s fiction, the Loveling sisters Rosalie and Virginie — that for today’s readers these stories are ‘ongenietbaar’ (indigestible).[1]  Even in the 1850s and 60s, critics called his work ‘platte en triviale’ (flat and trivial).[2]

This is not, then, an attempt to resurrect a lost literary masterpiece.  But one of the virtues of mediocre works is that they spell out, unequivocably, attitudes and standpoints about which subtler writers are more equivocal.  For instance, in Stad en dorp (City and Village) of 1853, the moral chasm between the simple virtues of the village-folk and the refined vices of the town could not be more clearly articulated.  And this despite the fact that the action takes place in Ledeberg in the 1840s, a village so close to the gates of Ghent that even then it served as a suburb, and now is incorporated into the municipality, and despite the fact that Geiregat himself lived his entire life in that city.

‘The Sint Lievenspoort’ of Ghent by Pierre François De Noter (1822). Ledeberg lies just beyond.

 

The story concerns the Verloove family, Sies a peasant farmer, his wife Bello who sells milk on the streets of Ghent, and their two daughters Anna and Petronilla, the first of whom makes linen caps for villagers, while the second is a lacemaker.  While Petronilla is content to work continously at the cottage window, eyes modestly down on her pillow, Anna yearns for excitement, fashion and luxury, all of which are available in the city next door.  Anna persuades her parents, with considerable difficulty, to let her go and work as an assistant in a milliner’s shop.  Soon she is wearing a hat with feathers, and then soft leather shoes, and then she is seen talking to a young man about town, and in general falling into the debauchery associated with a metropolitan lifestyle.  Meanwhile her parents have arranged for Anna, much against her will, to be married to the wheelwright’s son Tone who lives opposite.  When Tone comes to fetch his bride on the day of the wedding, Anna has disappeared, leaving a letter to explain that she prefers to be the mistress of a rich man.  ‘Why should I bury the beauty that nature gave me under coarse peasants’ clothes?… if I became the wife of a craftsman I would be his maidservant, then the maidservant of my chldren, and the maidservant of myself’.

Tone, who is portrayed as utterly infatuated with Anna, nonetheless consoles himself a few months later by marrying her sister Nella.  Anna turns up univited at the wedding speaking French — a sign of uttermost degeneracy in Flemish literature of the nineteenth century — and dispensing gold coins and jewellery.  The congregation recoil in horror while her father curses her.  Physically wrecked by the shame that Anna has brought on his family, Sies dies a year later.  Anna’s beauty, meantimes, has been destroyed through her excesses, and the fashonable clothes and luxuries she could previously obtain by selling her favours, now she has to steal.  She arrives at her father’s graveside swiftly followed by two policemen.  She is sentenced to two years in prison.

Tone, however, has found married bliss with Petronilla: she keeps the house tidy, the floor well sanded, everything clean and neat.  She wastes no money, so there is nothing costly, rich or superfluous in their house, everything is simple, as befits country folk.  Tone feels no need to go to the inn any more, because he can sit and smoke a pipe in the corner of his own house by a warm fire with his wife beside him.  And soon there is a son as well.  The one cloud hanging over the house is that the couple are keeping Anna’s imprisonment a secret from her mother, for fear that the shame would kill her.  Unfortunately a gossipy neighbour reveals all, and mother Bello literally falls down dead in shock.

Two years pass and the newly released Anna has determined to rob Tone and Petronilla.  She creeps up to their shutters to be confronted with the sight of her sister and her nephew kneeling before a crucifix, praying ‘that unhappy aunt Anna might forsake her life of sin, reflect on her misdeeds, and that God may have mercy on her soul.’  She flees into the night, but a month later, now lying on her deathbed, she sends for the couple to beg for forgiveness, just as her soul departs her infected body.  ‘Thus men see’, concludes Geiregat, ‘that already on earth, the good are rewarded for their goodness, while the bad are punished for their wickedness’.

Reading this work the other day, it seems more like an exemplary tale of the consequences of abusive parenting.  Sies Verloove is a domineering and violent father, and it is this that drives his daughter from the house and, by a roundabout route, to her death.  However, the reason we have included it in this survey of lacemakers in literature is that it repeats a pattern we have already observed in Caroline Barnard’s The Prize: millinery is the path to corruption, whilst lacemaking is a virtuous occupation.  This despite the fact that lace formed part of the vanities that destroyed Anna, who ‘in the full flower of her beauty had been adorned with silk and lace, gold and jewels.’  There is a paradox here that we intend to explore further.

Lucian Gérard (1852-1935) ‘De kantwerkster’ (The Lacemaker). Gérard was born in Ledeberg, so perhaps this painting represents Tone and Petronella in later life.

 

[1] Ludo Stynen, Rosalie en Virginie: Leven en werk van de gezusters Loveling (Tielt, 1997), p. 129.

[2] Review of Pieter Geiregat’s De lotelingen onder Napoleon in Leesmuseum, tydschrift voor letteren, wetenschappen en kunst 1 (1856), p. 281.

Poverty and Predation in Frans Carrein’s ‘Elisa de Kantwerkster’ [Eliza the Lacemaker] (1859)

We were wrong to claim that Goldoni’s Le baruffe chiozzotte (The Squabbles in Chioggia) is the only play to feature lacemakers as its main characters. Frans Carrein’s Elisa de Kantwerkster (Eliza the lacemaker) puts one of them even more firmly centre stage.  This piece of musical theatre was first performed in Bruges in 1859 by the Flemish amateur dramatic society Yver en Broedermin (Zeal and Brotherhood).  Such ‘chambers of rhetoric’, as they were known, had a long history in the Low Countries as promoters of middle-class sociability and civic ideals.  In the nineteenth century they were, additionally, important vehicles for Flemish as a language of culture in Belgium.  Yver en Broedermin, for example, organized the first competition for new plays in Flemish in 1835.[1]

Yver en Broedermin, founded in 1822, was more socially open than its relatively exclusive rival in Bruges, the Maatschappy van Vaderlandsche Taal en Letterkunde.  Frans Carrein (1816 Eernegem – 1877 Ostend) was typical of its urban artisan and clerk membership.  His day-job was a pastry chef, but literature had become his passion.  He had started in a rival society, Kunstliebe, in 1843 (Kunstliebe had broken away from Yver en Broedermin in 1841, no doubt largely as a vehicle for personal ambitions, but it also took a more radical position on the language question).[2]  Carrein’s initial dramatic excursions, in which he often acted himself, were translations of French melodramas and vaudevilles, which were staple fare for Flemish chambers of rhetoric at the time.  But Carrein had ambitions to foster a native Flemish theatre.[3]  The nineteenth century witnessed the deliberate creation of repertoires of ‘national’ dramas which drew their inspiration from moments of national history.  Flanders was no exception, and so Carrein’s first major work told the story of Pieter Lanchals (1849), the leader of the Bruges Revolt against the Emperor Maximilian of Austria in the 1480s.  This is evidence of the tremendous influence of Hendrik Conscience’s 1838 novel – effectively the first Flemish novel – De Leeuw van Vlaanderen, which took as its inspiration an earlier revolt of the Flemish cities against their overlords.  The late medieval period was central to the Flemish Movement’s cultural memory.

However, Carrein soon shifted towards a theatre of social criticism; a transition from romantic to realist drama in other words.  So contentious was his 1851 play Arm en Ryk (Poor and Rich) that it was banned by the mayor of Bruges.  Arm en Ryk was set in a Flemish village of weavers and spinners; the villain of the piece is a linen-merchant and also, as it happens, mayor of the village, who not only exploits the weavers but also opposes the love between his son and a weaver’s daughter.  All ends happily but the depiction of social conflict, including a crowd of weavers threatening death to the cowering merchant, was uncomfortable viewing in Flanders in the mid-nineteenth century.  The 1840s had witnessed the catastrophic collapse of the once dominant linen trade in Flanders as handloom weavers and spinners succumbed under the dual effects of factory-made competition from Britain and harvest failure.[4]  The crisis gave rise to widespread hunger and even starvation.  A similar set of circumstances had led to armed rebellion among the weavers of Silesia in 1844 (the theme of Louise Otto’s novel Schloss und Fabrik which has a rather similar plotline to Carrein’s play, see our blog entry); the ‘Hungry Forties’ were part of the background to the Europe-wide series of revolutions in the spring and summer of 1848.  Belgium did not witness any similar outbreak of violence; instead the Belgian government responded by setting up lace schools in the Flemish countryside, in the hope that lace might take the place of spinning as a means of supporting the population.  But the mayor of Bruges may have feared that the play could enflame social conflict.  After all, the revolt that had led to the creation of the state of Belgium in 1830 had itself started at the theatre.[5]  In the absence of fully democratic institutions, theatre was a locus where protest could be voiced and rebellion enacted.

Carrein, however, was not really a revolutionary.  Workers’ violence, Carrein believed, was a consequence of ignorance, especially among the poor.  Ignorance could be combated through literature, which would impart moral guidance as well as knowledge.  As society became more democratic and not ruled by a single class, it was vital that the masses be provided with instruction.  But for this campaign to be successful, literature had to be in the common tongue, that is in Flemish.  Carrein set out this programme in a speech to the third Congress dedicated to Dutch Literature, held in Brussels in 1851, where he proposed the foundation of a society for the distribution of pamphlets to the people, and which would also support the writers of such works.[6]  (Carrein spoke immediately after Jan van Beers, whose own contribution to the literature of lacemaking, ‘Begga’, will be discussed in another blog.)

The fate of Arm en Ryk seems to have left Carrein a little bitter; or at least it was several years before he tried his hands at theatre again.  In the introduction to his next piece, Elisa de Kantwerkster, Carrein took his Flemish audience to task because they only had a taste for for comic pieces and songs.  Nonetheless he bent to the fashion, and Eliza is a relatively light piece with lots of music provided by P. Cools.  In a way he was proved right because Elisa was certainly his most popular work, repeatedly restaged in Ypres, Ghent and Brussels as well as Bruges.  It was a standard in the repertory of the company De Vlaams Ster who were still performing it in the 1900s.  And as if to bear out Carrein’s words, when it put on in Brussels in March 1862, ‘the public heartily laughed’.[7]  However, Carrein explicitly wanted the play to achieve something more than amusement: it was meant as a critique of the way the lace industry was run, based on his own observations and interviews with lacemakers.  In particular he attacked the practice of advancing money to workers as a means of making them dependent.  They could not change employer while they remained in debt, and there were all kinds of tricks to keep them in debt.[8]

 

 

The play opens with Elisa Nolf sitting at her pillow before dawn.  She has a lamp and a waterfilled flask beside her to concentrate light on her work, and a firepot to keep her feet warm, the standard accoutrements of the lacemaker.  She is singing, but her song is a lament: the lacemaker works from early morning to late into the night, damaging her eyes for a pitiful salary, while duchesses and baronesses wear her work to balls and grand dinners, she suffers in body and soul.  Elisa is an orphan: her father died not long before, and to pay for medicine during his last sickness she borrowed thirty francs from the lace-merchant Gierbaert (‘vulture beard’; Carrein played this part when the play was first performed).  Until she has cleared this debt she cannot work for anyone else.  She has also been left with the care of a younger brother, Joseph, a bravehearted lad but not entirely reliable.  He has in fact just been sacked though Elisa does not know this.  She sends him to the baker for a loaf, but Joseph has to tell her that the baker won’t give them credit anymore (they are two francs and thirteen centimes in debt), not now Elisa has a rich boyfriend.  The baker’s implication is that Adolf, the writer-friend of Elisa’s father, is visiting too often for her reputation.  Elisa is horrified.  She has been slaving away, denying herself all pleasures, preserving her virtue as best she can, and yet is still the subject of the neighbours’ gossip.  Unfortunately Adolf himself appears at exactly this moment, and Elisa, in her shame, sends him away.

Adolf leaves, and Rooze Dorn (there is no rose without a thorn), an elderly neighbour (played by a man) arrives to sit and work with Elisa.  Her language is colourful and plebian, and includes bits of English (eg: ‘nottink’).  The women plan to sing while they work because, as Elisa says, ‘song makes the work lighter; it gives spirit and courage’.  However, before they sit down, Joseph whispers to Rooze that ‘magerman is kok’ (‘lean man is the cook’; in other words they have had nothing to eat).  Rooze hurries off to get bread, leaving her pillow.  Elisa chides Joseph: time is the only precious thing that the poor have, and if Rooze is giving up her time for them, then she should make up time for her.  She picks up Rooze’s pillow and starts on her pattern.

Just at that moment Gierbaert appears and, spying the other cushion, accuses Elisa of making ‘dievenkanten’ (‘thieves’ lace’, that is lace for another merchant other than the one she owes).  Joseph claims that this other pillow is his, and in a song celebrates that men are now doing women’s work.  Gierbaert finds Joseph tiresome and, after he leaves, suggests to Elisa that as his own son has been selected for military service, Joseph could replace him and then the debt would be paid.  In nineteenth-century Belgium conscripts were chosen by lottery, and if someone unfortunate enough to pull a ‘bad number’ could find, that is buy, a replacement, he did not have to go.  Effectively this made military service a burden that fell disproportionately on the poor, and it was much resented.  Elisa refuses to sell her brother, but this only brings Gierbaert to the real point of his bargaining.  He wants Elisa to become his lover; and perhaps she might be his wife later, when he has first ‘tried on the shoe’.  When the indignant Elisa refuses, he explains that ‘your fate is in my hands, believe me’.  At this moment Rooze returns to hear the full force of Elisa’s anger: Gierbaert has profited from her misery, now he comes to buy her brother’s blood, her honour and her emaciated body.  Gierbaert leaves, threatening that she will soon have news from him.

Rooze herself brings news that she has just seen Joseph step in the path of a run-away coach and horses carrying a woman and children.  Joseph follows soon after, safe and sound, having stopped the coach.  But he too is followed by a policeman, who tells Elisa that Gierbaert has brought a complaint, and she must accompany him.  While Joseph and Rooze argue about what to do, Adolf appears just in time to meet Elisa returning from the magistrate, hopeless and despairing.  She has to pay her debt today or she will go to prison.  Although Rooze herself has only 30 centimes in the world, she sets off at once to rouse the other lacemakers and see if they can get the money together.  Adolf and Joseph both have plans too and leave Elisa.  Alone she soliloquizes: is honour just a foppery, something the poor cannot afford?  She could now be surrounded by luxury, her sense of honour has led her only to the gates of the prison.  Gierbaert overhears some of this and sees his chance.  He gives her the note of her debt (telling the audience in passing that it has already been repaid by Rooze and her friends), and while she is overcome with gratitude, pulls her to his chest and strokes her hair.  But before things go too far Adolf arrives to defend Eliza.

It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century gender politics that young women could not defend themselves.  Law and custom were stacked against them, as Adolf explains.  The law, he argues, that enables Gierbaert to send a worker to prison simply for trying to make a living from her work, should properly be described as ‘the white slave law’.  It was a relic from more barbarous times, incompatible with the march of civilisation.  Adolf, who is described as a writer, is evidently the mouthpiece for Carrein’s own views.  He is not impressed by Gierbaert’s surrender of the debt: what he couldn’t obtain by force he is now trying to get through a hypocritical show of generosity, making Elisa’s good heart an accomplice of his wickedness.  Gierbaert finally slinks away.

Adolf reveals that the family saved by Joseph was his sister’s.  But he also claims to be deeply unfortunate himself.  He is love with a young woman, less than half his age; he can’t reveal it for fear of rejection.  Elisa urges him to declare his feelings; the woman, of course, is Elisa, who falls into his arms.  (Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of Adolf to make Elisa’s feelings of gratitude the auxiliary of his own desires?)  At that moment Joseph and then Rooze return: Joseph with thirty francs whose origin he refuses to reveal, but Rooze, who always seems to know what’s up, explains that she saw him at the ‘soul merchant’ (i.e. the man who arranges military replacements).  As Elisa begins to lament again Adolf says he will save the man who rescued his sister and her children, and the man who is about to become his brother now that Elisa has agreed to become his wife.  They will all be one happy family, and when Rooze pops round they will all sing the song of the lacemaker.  The curtain comes down as the actors repeat the chorus of Elisa’s song from the beginning of the show.

Lacemakers’ songs are a common motif in the literature of Flemish Movement.  We will meet other examples, but this is one of the earliest songs ascribed to lacemakers to appear in print, and one which would have some influence on later representations of lacemakers, so we reproduce it in full.  It is not clear whether Carrein and Cools made up the text himself or were reproducing a song that they had heard sung on the streets of Bruges.  It certainly has some similarity to text in the Flemish lacemakers’ repertoire.  Unfortunately, the music was not included with the printed text.

Laet rollen de klosjes

Chorus
Laet rollen de flosjes,
En vlecht met uw draedjes,
En oogjes en naedjes,
Met lustigen zwier,
Op ‘t glib’rig papier.
Zy ritz’len en klotsen,
Zy tuim’len en botsen,
En glyden op ‘t kussen,
En ram’len en sussen;
Zoo ras en gezwind,
Als loof in den wind.

Verse 1
Reeds van in den vroegen morgen,
Zit ik aen het werk met vlyt,
Om myn’ nooddruft te bezorgen,
In dees guren slechten tyd.
Gauw is thans de dag vervlogen,
En het loon is toch zoo kleen;
‘T nachtwerk drukt, verkrent myn oogen,
Als ik by myn lampje ween.

Verse 2
Ach! hoe prachtig en hoe kunstig,
Is hy toch die blanke kant!
By haer die het lot was gunstig
Prykt hy eens naest diamant:
Hertogin of baronnesse,
Praelt er mede op bal en feest;
En ik, arme lyderesse,
Lyd aeen lichaem en aen geest.

 

Ida von Düringsfeld thought that Elisa gave a ‘good picture of working-class life (Volksleben) in Bruges’, and she also translated the chorus of this song into German (though she kept the Flemish terms ‘Klosjes’ and ‘Flosjes’, two different types of bobbin).  Perhaps as a baroness herself she was not so inclined to include the second verse, in which the pleasures of the lace-buying classes are compared with the misery of the lace-producing classes.

Lasst rollen die Klosjen,
Lasst rollen die Flosjen,
Und webt mit den Fädchen,
So Säumchen, wie Näthchen,
Mit Eil und mit Zier,
Auf’s glatte Papier.

Sie fallen und rasseln,
Sie wirbeln und prasseln
Sie gleiten und schwirren,
Sie klappern und klirren,
So seltsam geschwind,
Wie Blätter im Wind.

The Carmerstraat in Bruges, with typical working-class housing of the kind inhabited by lacemakers like Elisa Nolf and Roose Dorn.

 

[1]IJver en Broedermin’, openbare bibliotheek Brugge, blog.

[2] “Letterbroeders zedenvoeders”: De opkomst van Kunstliefde, Brugse toneel- en letterkundige vereniging (1841-1887), Onttoovering blog.

[3] Most of what we know of Carrein’s early literary career comes from an interview he gave, c. 1860, apparently in the middle of his pastry shop, to the German author Baroness Ida von Düringsfeld: Von der Schelde bis zur Maas: Das geistige Leben der Vlaminge seit des Wiederaufblühen der Literatur 3 vols (Leipzig and Brussels: Lehmann, 1861), vol. 1, pp. 68-71.  Carrein adapted and performed in works by French dramatists including Adolphe Poujol, Charles Desnoyer, Eugène Labiche, Adolphe Dennery and Felicien Mallefille.

[4]  Eric Vanhaute, ‘“So Worthy an Example to Ireland”: The Subsistence and Industrial Crisis of 1845–1850 in Flanders’, in Cormac Ó Gráda, Richard Paping, Eric Vanhaute (eds), When the Potato Failed.  Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).

[5] Sonia Slatin, ‘Opera and Revolution: La Muette de Portici and the Belgian Revolution of 1830 Revisited’, Journal of Musicological Research 3:1-2 (1979): 45-62.

[6] Handelingen van het derde Nederlandsch letterkundig congres, gehouden te Brussel, den 30 en 31 Augustus en 1 September 1851 (Brussels: J.-H. Dehou, 1852), pp. 187-91.

[7] De Toekomst, ‘Stad nieuws’, 6 April 1862, p.1.

[8] The epigraph to the play, from from the French writer Bernardin de Saint Pierre, states: ‘Ils ont mille ruses pour les reduire à la plus petite paie possible, par exemple, de l’argent d’avance: et quand ils en ont fait des débiteurs insolvables, ce qui est l’affaire de quelques écus, alors ils les ont à leur discrétion.’

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