Le plat pays.

Jacques Brel sweeps the audience at L’Olympia (Paris) off its feet | Belga Image, 50307080

Borders, Language & Territory
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Le plat pays of Jacques Brel

French-Language Culture in Flanders

In 1962 Jacques Brel sang of the North Sea, the Scheldt and the wet, grey skies in Le plat pays. The song remains one of the most beautiful odes to the Flemish landscape. With the Flemings themselves the Brussels chansonnier maintained a complex relationship.

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Sam Cooke, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Nina Simone: Jacques Brel has been covered by the true greats, and closer to home by Liesbeth List and Will Ferdy. In Flanders the French-language singer with West-Flemish roots won over hearts with Le plat pays and Marieke. He also issued those songs about his love for ‘Vlaanderenland’ in Dutch. In other numbers Brel dared to make fun of the good old, Catholic Flemings. Les Flamandes (1959), La La La (1967) and Les F[lamingants] (1977), with criticism of Flemish nationalists, went down badly. In Flanders, where French always sounded more chic than Dutch, Brel’s satire hit a touchy nerve. For some he remained a ‘franskiljon’, a term of abuse for a Gallicised Fleming.

Theo Van Rysselberghe.

Ghent, MSK Museum of Fine Arts

Théo van Rysselberghe, The Lecture by Emile Verhaeren, 1903. Emile Verhaeren is dressed in red. Maurice Maeterlinck is also in the audience (far right).

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French-Language Culture in Flanders

Jacques Brel called himself ‘un Flamand qui parle français’. In so doing he was claiming a place in a long tradition of French-speaking artists who embraced a Flemish identity.

In the 19th century French was the everyday language, not only in the south of Belgium but also in higher circles in Flanders. Even after the Flemish movement scored its first successes, the bourgeoisie generally continued to opt for French.

French-language authors, like Brel, often harked back in their work to the Flemish landscape where they grew up. They also sought inspiration in the medieval past, in the folklore or the painting of the Low Countries. Flanders was often more a poetic concept than a historical or political reality. Around the turn of the century French literature in Flanders reached its zenith. The Ghent-born Maurice Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. He was particularly praised for his theatre. The poet Emile Verhaeren was rated at least as highly internationally.

The division between French-language and Dutch-language culture was far from strict. The French-speaking Antwerpian Georges Eekhoud, for example, wrote the first biography of Hendrik Conscience. Such contacts diminished in the first decades of the 20th century with the advance of Dutch in Flanders. When Jacques Brel scored his greatest successes after the Second World War a ‘Flamand qui parle français’ was no longer as natural a phenomenon as in the 19th century.

Focal points

Frontispice Uilenspiegel.

Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece of the second edition of Charles de Coster’s Ulenspiegel, 1869.

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Tijl Uilenspiegel

Tijl Uilenspiegel may be, together with Reynard the Fox, the Flemish folkloristic figure par excellence, but he appeared in around 1500 for the first time in German popular tales. Through translations the adventures of this cheerful rascal also became much-loved in the Low Countries.

The best-known version of the ‘legend’ is undoubtedly that of Charles de Coster: a French-speaking Belgian with a Flemish father and a Walloon mother, who studied and worked in Brussels. As early as 1858 De Coster had published some Légendes flamandes. In 1867 his Uilenspiegel book appeared. In it he placed Uilenspiegel in the period of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648). After his father is executed on Spanish authority Tijl chooses the side of the rebels or ‘beggars’. Together with his sidekick Lamme Goedzak and his beloved Nele he challenges Philip II of Spain.

For De Coster the figure of Tijl had at once a Flemish, a Belgian national and an anti-clerical character. But the eponymous hero of his novel turned out afterwards to lend himself to alternative interpretations. For example, in later versions the character represented reactionary Catholic and even anti-Belgian and Flemish Nationalist views.

Grafmonument Verhaeren

Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed, Oswald Pauwels, 1995.

Gravestone of Emile Verhaeren in Puurs-Sint-Amands.


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Emile Verhaeren’s Toute la Flandre

Jacques Brel was not the first to sing the praises of Le plat pays. Around the turn of the century Emile Verhaeren, who came from the village of Sint-Amands on the Scheldt had poured his love for the land on the North Sea into French verses.

Flanders was central to Verhaeren’s work, as early as his first collection Les Flamandes (1883). As an art critic he was fascinated by the Flemish Primitives like Jan van Eyck, by Bruegel and Rubens’ Baroque. His language also betrayed his origin: Verhaeren’s French was strongly marked by Germanic rhythms and Flemish imagery, although he grew up in a Gallicised environment.

In the years before the First World War Verhaeren published five collections which together formed a multi-faceted homage to his Flanders: Toute la Flandre. In it he paid tribute not only to his home village but also to the fishermen at sea, the farmers in the polders and the quiet life in the small towns. It earned him the status of poète national. Verhaeren was lionised by his Dutch-speaking colleagues, although August Vermeylen among others regretted that that he had written it in French.

From 1898 Verhaeren lived in Paris. He kept returning to Flanders in his work. He saw absolutely no contradiction between this and his appeal for a broad European culture. Because of his celebrity Verhaeren, who wrote in French, put Flanders on the literary map of Europe.

Wikimedia Commons

The French-speaking author Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), who grew up in Ghent, encouraged tourism in Bruges with his mysterious novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892). In his book the town is the protagonist. The story has been many times translated and twice filmed (in 1976 by the American director Roland Chase, and in 1981 by Roland Verhavert under the title Brugge, die stille (Bruges, the Quiet One).

Huysmans Tyl Reinaert.
C. Huysmans, Vier kerels. Reinaert en Ulenspiegel. De demon en de duivel, Antwerp: Standaard-Boekhandel, 1966, p. 89

No Flemish politician identified himself more with Tijl Uilenspiegel than the Socialist Camille Huysmans (1871-1968). In this woodcut from 1936 the Antwerp artist Joris Minne (1897-1988) depicted Huysmans in the company of Uilenspiegel and Reynard the Fox – another hero of his with contrary traits.

Wikimedia Commons

There is only one public space in Flanders where Jacques Brel is honoured: the little statue of his ‘Marieke’ on the Coupure in Bruges. It was put up there thanks to the initiative of the writer, journalist and Brel fan Johan Anthierens (1937-2000). In Brussels there has been a statue of Brel himself in place since 2017.

Les villes tentaculaires.
Brussels, Archives et Musée de la Littérature

Emile Verhaeren’s collection of poems Les villes tentaculaires (Tentacular Cities, 1895). The cover and the vignettes are by his friend Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), a splendid sample of modern typography.

Maurice Maeterlinck.
Ghent, Museum Arnold Vander Haegen

Edward Steichen, Portrait photo of Maurice Maeterlinck, 1906.

Nicola Perscheid, Henry Van de Velde, 1904. De Franstalige Antwerpenaar Van de Velde (1863-1951), die als art-nouveauarchitect faam genoot in binnen-en buitenland, ontwierp onder meer de Boekentoren in Gent.
Wikimedia Commons

Nicola Perscheid, Portrait photo of Henry Van de Velde, 1904. Van de Velde (1863-1951), a French-speaking native of Antwerp, who enjoyed fame at home and abroad as an art-nouveau architect, designed, for example, the Boekentoren (Book Tower) in Ghent.

In Une enfance gantoise (1976) schreef de Suzanne Lilar (1901-1992) over haar kindertijd in het milieu van de Gentse (Franstalige) bourgeoisie.
Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, tg:lhph:36762

In Une enfance gantoise (A Ghent Childhood, 1976) Suzanne Lilar (1901-1992) wrote about her childhood in the milieu of the (French-speaking) Ghent bourgeoisie.

Discover more on this topic

Emile Verhaeren

Bron: VRT archief – 28 maa 2016

Il pleut
Lichtjes van de Schelde

Bron: VRT archief – 20 maa 1960

Mijn vlakke land
Tienerklanken – Jacques Brel

Bron: VRT archief – 4 feb 1963


Bron: VRT archief – 6 feb 1999


Anthierens Johan
Jacques Brel: de passie en de pijn

Olympus, 2003. 

Beyen Marnix
Held voor alle werk. De vele gedaanten van Tijl Uilenspiegel

Houtekiet, 1998. 

Cuijpers Peter
Van Reynaert de Vos tot Tijl Uilenspiegel: op zoek naar een canon van volksboeken 1600-1900

Walburg, 2014. 

Janssens Jozef
Uilenspiegel. De wereld op zijn kop

Davidsfonds, 1999. 

Nachtergaele Vic
De Fransschrijvende Vlamingen als cultuurdesem
  1. Tijdschrift over de geschiedenis van de Vlaamse beweging, 1996, p. 111-126. 
Rau Daan
Schurk of schelm? Uilenspiegel 500 jaar actueel

Openbaar Kunstbezit in Vlaanderen, 49 (2011), nr. 4, p. 20-24. 

Seghers René
Jacques Brel: de definitieve biografie

Houtekiet, 2012. 

Todd Olivier
Jacques Brel: een leven

Horizon, 2018. 


Brel Jacques
Ne me quitte pas. Laat me niet alleen

Nijgh en Van Ditmar, 2004. (selectie Brel-teksten) 

Claus Hugo

De Bezige Bij, 1965. 

De Coster Charles
De legende van Uilenspiegel

Davidsfonds, 2017. 

De Rop Edward
Jerom. De wraak van Tijl (nr. 29)

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1988. 

Geerts Paul
Suske en Wiske. De Krimson-crisis (nr. 215)

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1988.  

Kehlman Daniel
Tijl: roman

Querido’s Uitgeverij, 2017. 

Petermeijer Hans & De Wit Juliëtte
Dansen op een koord

Zwijsen, 2007. (6+) 

Petermeijer Hans
Tijl Uilenspiegel

Zwijsen, 2001. (9+) 

Van Altena Ernst & Zwerger Lisbeth
Tijl Uilenspiegel

De Vier Windstreken, 2000. (6+) 

Van Daele Henri
Tijl Uilenspiegel

Averbode, 2000. (12+) 

Van Den Broek Walter
Tijl Uilenspiegel

Uitgeverij Vrijdag, 2022. 

Vandersteen Willy
De Geuzen

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1985-1990. (stripreeks). 

Vandersteen Willy
Tijl Uilenspiegel 1. De opstand der Geuzen

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1955. 

Vandersteen Willy
Tijl Uilenspiegel 2, Fort-Oranje

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1954. 

Nu kijken

Jacques Brel zingt ‘Mijn vlakke land’


Jacques Brel zingt, ‘Marieke’
Jacques Brel zingt ‘Laat me niet alleen’
Jacques Brel Don Quichotte


Interview met Jacques Brel
Adriaan Van den Hoof over zijn favoriete kinderplaat Tijl Uilenspiegel

(vanaf 16:30) 

Meer kijk/luister materiaal

J’aime les Belges


Tijl Uilenspiegel. De legendarische deugniet