‘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. But another Begga, a lacemaker, was the eponymous heroine of a poem by the Belgian writer Jan van Beers (1821-1888). ‘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).
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). 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.
‘Realism’ does not necessarily mean an authentic depiction of the hard lives of Flemish working poor. 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.
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.
 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).
 Jan Van Beers, Gevoel en Leven: Poëzie (Antwerp,1869), pp. 3-86.
 Cornelis Petrus Tiele, Elements of the Science of Religion (Edinburgh, 1897-99), Vol. 2, pp. 10-15.
 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.
 For which see Catharina Lis, Social Change and the Labouring Poor, Antwerp 1770-1860 (New Haven, 1986).
 Karel Velle, ‘België in de 19de eeuw : Gevolgen van de “blauwe dood”’, Geschiedenis der geneeskunde 4 (1997): 95-105.