The history of Belgium: Part two - Expat Guide to Belgium | Expatica
Home Moving to Belgium Society & History The history of Belgium: Part two
Last update on June 15, 2020

More tales on Belgium’s history, from the Franks to Feudal Society. Discover how Charlemagne was Belgian and Belgium was responsible for crusades’ horror.

With the gradual decline of the Empire, Rome withdrew its troops to protect itself against warring tribes in the early 5th century. Belgium was overrun once again, this time by the Franks and just about everybody else. Much more unpleasantness was to follow.

455–843 Frankish Empire: The start of the great divide

A slow peaceful invasion takes place – more like a colonisation of the sparsely populated lands of today’s Flanders. It was at this time that the division between the Flemish and Walloons originated.

The Franks were not conquerors. Accepted by the Romans as mercenaries with their own chiefs, they were loyal to Rome and considered themselves a part of its army. They used its political organisation and titles, and even dressed in Roman style. But the language became Frankish, a primitive form of Dutch, and was used throughout the region right down to Paris and the Loire. Latin was the language of the church. Frankish was used for administration. The upper/ruling classes employed both.

Merovingian Dynasty

Even Clovis, a warrior chief of Tournai and the first of the Merovingian kings who subdued the whole of Gaul in 481, took the Roman title of Patrician (representative of the Emperor in Gaul). The Franks remained pagans even though Clovis converted to Christianity, making an important alliance with the church. Having transferred his administration to Paris, Clovis and his successors, were dependent on the priests to maintain control and sent many missionaries into pagan Belgium.

While the Merovingian dynasty had civil servants, a treasury, raised taxes and did their best to aid merchants and expand trade, times became primitive, almost barbaric. Northern Gaul was increasingly isolated from the Mediterranean, which was held by the Visigoths or Burgundian kingdoms. Under attack by Arabs and Saracens, the prosperous commerce founded by the Roman Empire came to a halt.

750–843 Charlemagne was Belgian (well almost) shock

A new dynasty [the Carolingians] rose up in 750, but by the time Charlemagne’s reign began in 768, the world of Gaul had turned about. There was no gold, taxation or civil servants. No aristocrats, intellectuals or teachers. The technical skills, communication systems had all disappeared. Life was agricultural with deteriorated roads and transportation. The villages by necessity had become self-contained.

Under Charlemagne, the Frankish world became centred on the now Belgian territory, the region from which his family originated. Due to the deterioration of the economy, his administration was based on direct personal transactions, mutual service and on gifts of land, but his success in rejuvenating the life of his people was a result of his own great activities.

Trade and Prosperity: Stirrups and the return of the bishops

Establishing a hierarchy of chieftains loyal to him, Charlemagne enlarged the frontiers of the Empire eastward into Germany overcoming the Saxons. He established a new trading area north and south for Flemish wool and textiles and the metal products of Wallonia. New contacts with the Mediterranean world, via the Rhine and the Adriatic brought further trade, while advancing technology from those lands, such as the watermill for milling grain, freed a large source of manpower for other work.

It is interesting to note that the introduction of the stirrup into Europe during this period. This revolutionized warfare by permitting horsemen to carry heavy armour, thus becoming deadly fighting machines.

Christianity, which had fallen to such a low status that there were no bishops in Belgium during the 6th century, slowly returned in strength in the 7th and the Carolingian family established numerous important abbeys throughout its reign.

830–900 The Norsemen are coming: hide your sheep (again)

Belgium ceded to Lothair by his three grandsons, which became known as the Duchy of Lotharingia [Loring]. This coincided with external attacks on the whole region by major enemies: Arabs, Avars, Hungarians, Slavs and the most ferocious, the Norsemen. Sweeping up rivers on their small Viking ships, the pagan warriors of Scandinavia devastated the surrounding countryside.

By using the stolen horses of their first victims they would rape the countryside, then rapidly evacuate the scene before armed resistance could be organized.

With its navigable rivers, the Belgian countryside was exceptionally hard hit. The abbeys and their priests were specially targeted as the Norsemen blamed the church for the suppression of their fellow pagan Saxon tribes in Germany. The Vikings even set up a fortified camp in Louvain where they were finally defeated in 891 by the Emperor, Arnold of Carinthia, but their actual disappearance from the scene is believed to be due to the lack of new settlements to pillage.

Devastation: Belgium becomes wasteland (again)

Belgium had become a wasteland by the year 900. After almost 60 years of attacks by the Norsemen and continued invasions by the Hungarians, the population that had not been slaughtered had sought miserable refuge in castles of local lords or fled into Germany or France. There were no governments in the towns except the feudal lords. All commerce had halted – the entire structure of society was gone.

Restoration measures had to be supported by those of defence. During the last 20 years of the 9th century the construction of urban fortifications of the cities against the invading hoards had reached its height. The disintegration of society not only proved profitable to the local lords as the only authority capable of defending the people, but with the slaughter or flight of the priests, the great wealth and property of the abbeys fell into their hands.

Feudal Society: Plague, famine and insurrection

The people returned no longer to great rural estates, but to the protection of the lords’ fortified cities and towns, each with its own military organization. Feudal principalities such as the County of Flanders, Namur, Hainaut and the Duchy of Brabant appeared. These turbulent counts set themselves up as independent communities, resisting the attempts of the kings, dukes and ruling bishops to control them. Unfortunately for the people, the next four centuries were ones of repetitive struggles for domination – all too complicated to be covered here.

Then in the 13th and 14th century the opposition to the lords came from the people themselves seeking greater power with the craft unions coming to the fore. Local disruptions, insurrections, revolutions, inter-city wars, famine, along with the horrors of the plague were the order of the day.

Belgium responsible for Crusades

This was also the period of the great crusades [four from 1095 – 1204]. To the people who had survived horrible slaughter, great starvation, anarchy–and were still subject to the tyrannies and oppressions of petty nobles–the church had become all-important as their defender. Despite repeated slaughter of the participants and completely innocent “infidels”, the crusades, which all started in Belgium, received a mix of sincere and fanatic support. Driven to religious fervour by monks and led by the lords–the most famous being Godfrey of Bouillon–thousands of ordinary men and their families went through great deprivation only to be massacred on reaching the Middle East.