Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

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September Books 3) Uit het Verleden van de Gemeente Oud-Heverlee

3) Uit het Verleden van de Gemeente Oud-Heverlee, by Erik Martens

I picked this up at the town hall when doing the next phase of our citizenship process. Our commune was created in the local government reform of 1977, by a merger of five village councils (Oud-Heverlee itself, St-Joris-Weert to the south, Vaalbeek to the east and Blanden and Haasrode further east), and this 1981 book, commissioned by the mayor (who is still in office here, three decades later), is obviously intended to generate some historical credibility for the new administrative entity.

I was interested to read of the original settlement of the area by Germanic-speaking tribesmen penetrating the forests from the north after the fall of the Roman empire. We are jammed right up against the taalgrens/frontière linguistique here, and this read to me as a suspiciously convenient proof that the Flemish are of different racial origin from the Walloons. By Martens' own account, there are remains from the Roman period in the commune, mainly to do with early industry (iron-smelting and charcoal-burning); are we meant to think that their descendants just fled south to speak proto-French when the barbarians came? I expect that the truth, if we could ever find it, would be much more complicated. Throughout the book I was struck that Martens uses sources from the commune itself, and from neighbouring Flemish towns, but much less so from our Walloon neighbours to the south.

Anyway, I'm willing to give the Franks credit for settling the villages per se in the 5th or 6th century. Our own village, Oud-Heverlee, is not actually any older than Heverlee (now a suburb of Leuven to the north); the "Oud" is reckoned to be a corruption of "Hout" meaning "wood". Certainly it lay deeper in the forest. Interesting that Christianity arrived only a century or so after the Frankish settlers, my occasional cracks about ancient rituals notwithstanding. Our local church dates from the eleventh century, and is therefore three times older than the oldest building in my native city, Belfast.

By various means four of the five villages became part of the estates of the Dukes of Arenberg during the middle ages (Vaalbeek, which is geographically in the middle, was an ecclesiastical possession). The book has various documents to illustrate this - I was struck by how similar 14th-century Dutch is to today's language, certainly compared with the difference between Chaucer and us. The noted anatomist Andreas Vesalius came from the de Wesele family which owned the local castle (though he himself didn't inherit as his father was illegitimate).

But the general story of the more recent centuries is one of terrible conflicts and partial recovery. The 1480s and 1740s seem to have been the worst, as the villages were devastated by other people's wars, though the 1570s and 1690s were bad too. I understood why Belgium was called the "cockpit of Europe", and why any Belgian with an understanding of history is vehemently in favour of European integration.

The revolution against the Arenbergs in these parts was motivated partly by wild boar. The Dukes kept the forest well stocked with them, but of course they much preferred to root around in the farms and gardens of the villagers (and there were a lot more of them by now; the human population of the area almost doubled in the decades after the end of the French occupation in 1749). The villagers appealed to Emperor Joseph II, who found in their favour and ordered that all boar should either be killed or kept in enclosed spaces. When the revolution finally came, the only recorded military engagement of the local revolutionary militia here is the brave slaughter of the duke's remaining boar, which were shut up in a disused convent.

The book ends, rather disappointingly, in around 1800. I wonder why? Is it because after that date, it becomes too difficult to disentangle our local affairs from those of Leuven? Or are there skeletons in the closet from the last two centuries which the mayor and the author deemed better left to rest? Perhaps I shall find out some day.
Tags: bookblog 2008, world: belgium
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