De ets Misère des Flandres (1848) getuigt van de toenmalige armoede in Oost- en West-Vlaanderen | Leuven, Centrum Agrarische Geschiedenis, B00001861

1845 - 1847
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The Potato Crisis

‘Poor Flanders’

Between 1845 and 1847 a hitherto unknown fungal disease destroyed the potato crop in large parts of North-West Europe. This resulted in the last great European famine in peacetime. The provinces of East- and West-Flanders were also badly hit.

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The potato blight was first noticed in Belgium in the area around Kortrijk in the summer of 1845. A fungus had spread through North-West Europe in no time at all and in many places played havoc with the potato crops. Ireland suffered exceptionally badly. To make matters worse the rye and wheat harvest also failed in 1846.

In Belgium the potato blight was worst in East- and West-Flanders. Precisely that region had suffered badly from the decline of the traditional linen industry. The results were dramatic. An estimated 44,000 people died from hunger and disease in Belgium between 1845 and 1847, some 30,000 of them in the two provinces.


Kortrijk, Texture Museum of Flax and Textiles

In the first half of the 19th century tens of thousands of families had a simple loom at home. They supplemented their limited income from agriculture by weaving linen materials.

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While Liège and Hainaut grew into industrial regions in the 19th century, East- and West-Flanders remained rural areas with a great deal of cottage industry. Many small farmers in that region supplemented their agricultural earnings with income from the flax or linen industry.

The linen industry was a craft activity at this time. Production took place not in large factories, but spread throughout thousands of country dwellings. Flax farmers worked the flax into flax fibres. Spinners spun them into flax yarn. Weavers wove the yarn into linen cloths to the specifications of a merchant-entrepreneur. And all this at lower and lower piece rates.

Linen was an important but vulnerable export product. In around 1830 the British had perfected the mechanical spinning of flax thread, allowing them to produce massive amounts of flax yarn cheaply. The competition was fatal for the craft flax thread of Flemish homeworkers. The almost 220,000 spinners who were still active in cottage industry, became impoverished overnight.

The situation was made worse in the second half of the 1840s by the potato crisis. Hunger, poverty and diseases like typhus and cholera caused much misery in rural Flanders. A large part of cottage industry went under. The extensive poverty in the Flemish countryside lasted for decades and the expression ‘Poor Flanders’ would affect its self-image for a long time to come.

Focal points

Het boek van botanicus Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia, uit 1601 bevat de oudste in West-Europa bekende afbeelding van een aardappelplant.

Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus/Prentenkabinet, MPM.TK.516

The book by the botanist Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia of 1601 contains the oldest known depiction in Western Europe of a potato plant.

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The Potato Revolution

In 1845 the potato was still relatively new in Europe. The plant had been brought by the Spaniards from the Andes to Europe in the 16th century and only became widespread in the Low Countries in the 18th century. The potato owed its success to a number of significant advantages. Its nutritional value per unit area exceeded that of grain. With the same amount of agricultural land, you could feed twice as many people. In addition, the potato could be grown in very small spaces. That was an extra advantage in Flanders, where people farmed on small, fragmented plots. It was not long before the potato replaced grain as the main food plant. The spud became popular in all levels of society. Yet it was mainly the poorest who benefited. For them potato dishes were an alternative to the more expensive bread.

The improved food provision led, together with better hygiene and less disease, to a striking growth in the population from 1750. But the popularity of the potato also made the population vulnerable. Dependence on the plant explains why the potato plague of 1845-1847 could cause such hunger and misery in large parts of Europe.


Koekelare, Fransmansmuseum

Down to the 20th century many Flemings went to work in France as seasonal labourers, here West-Flemings are at work in the beet fields.

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Migrants from Flanders

After the hunger years and the loss of the linen industry there was no recovery. On the contrary, an agricultural crisis in the last quarter of the 19th century brought a new blow. More and more Flemings were obliged to seek work elsewhere. Some moved to the town, others to the Walloon industrial areas, still others emigrated to Northern France in order to work in the textile factories of Lille and the surrounding area. At the end of the 19th century the number of Belgians and French people of Belgian descent in France was estimated at approximately half a million.

In Wallonia the Flemings formed separate communities in towns like Liège and Charleroi, which tried to maintain their language and culture as far as possible. They were supported in this by the church, which wanted to preserve the Catholic religion. Besides migrants there were also many seasonal workers like the ‘Fransmans’, Flemings who moved to France for several months a year to work in the sugar beet fields.

Emigration further afield also increased. From the 1870s on the boat link between Antwerp and New York gave many the chance to begin a new life in America. Up to the First World War Flanders had a negative migration balance: more people moved away than came to settle here.

Vanaf 1843 emigreerden honderden werkloze en minder vermogende Belgen naar Tomás de Castilla, een havenplaats aan de Atlantische kust van Guatemala, aangetrokken door valse beloften. De kolonie draaide uit op een mislukking en werd in 1854 opgeheven.
Londen, British Library, Mechanical curator collection, HMNTS 10480.e.21

From 1843 onwards hundreds of unemployed and less prosperous Belgians emigrated to Tomás de Castilla, a port on the Atlantic coast of Guatemala, attracted by false promises. The colony was a failure and in 1854 was closed down.

Arm Vlaanderen.
Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, C 155396

Long after the potato crisis Flanders remained known as a region marked by great material and spiritual poverty. ‘Poor Flanders’, certainly after the publication of the novel of the same name by Isidoor Teirlinck (1851-1934) and Reimond Stijns (1850-1905) in 1884, became a set expression.

Pierre de Geyter (1848-1932), die in Gent geboren was, migreerde als kleine jongen met zijn ouders naar Rijsel. Hij volgde er avondschool en schreef in 1888 de muziek voor L’Internationale. Het groeide uit tot hét mondiale strijdlied van arbeidersbewegingen.
Wikimedia Commons

Pierre de Geyter (1848-1932), born in Ghent, migrated to Lille as a young boy with his parents. He went to evening school and in 1888 wrote the music for L’Internationale, which grew into the worldwide anthem for workers’ movements.

Eugène Laermans, De landverhuizers, 1894. Tot in de vroege 20e eeuw telde Vlaanderen veel ‘landverhuizers’: arme Vlamingen die elders op zoek gingen naar werk en een beter leven.
Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Eugène Laermans, The Emigrants, 1894. Until the early 20th century Flanders had many ‘emigrants’: poor Flemings who went elsewhere in search of work and a better life.

De in Heule geboren auteur Stijn Streuvels (1871-1969) beschreef in Het leven en de dood in den ast (1926) het harde labeur van seizoenarbeiders in een droogoven voor cichoreiwortels, die werden verwerkt tot een goedkoop alternatief voor koffie. Cover van de eerste de eerste aparte druk van Het leven en de dood in den ast in 1944.
Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, 835607

The novelist Stijn Streuvels (1871-1969), born in Heule, described in Het leven en de dood in den ast (Life and Death in the Oast House, 1926) the hard labour of seasonal workers in a drying oven for chicory roots, which were processed into a cheap substitute for coffee. Cover of the first separate edition of the novella in 1944.

Heel wat seizoenarbeiders kwamen uit het Hageland, een arme rurale streek. Ze werden ‘Fransmans’ genoemd. Pastoor Jozef Willems (1922-2009) was jarenlang hun aalmoezenier. Hij kreeg een standbeeld aan de Sint-Niklaaskerk in Rillaar (deelgemeente van Aarschot).
Jan Peirelinck, Molenstede (@ Sabam Belgium 2023)

Many seasonal workers came from the Hageland, a poor rural area in Flemish Brabant. They were known as ‘Fransmans’. The Christian union honored them with a statue by Jan Peirelinck at the church of Sint-Niklaas in Rillaar (subdistrict of Aarschot). For years Father Jozef Willems (1922-2009) was their chaplain.

Discover more on this topic


12 nov 1961
Bron: VRT archief


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