From An Claidheamh Soluis, August 5, 1905
The history of most European nations – Ireland is one of the three or four exceptions – begins with Julius Caesar. It is in the Commentaries that we first catch a clear glimpse of the facts and processes which were to eventuate in modern Europe. It is in the Commentaries that we first make the acquaintance of many an obscure tribe, Celtic or Teutonic, which was afterwards to give its name to some famous nation or to some illustrious province in the European commonwealth.
When, marching victorious from his encounters with the Helvetii on the Rhone and with the Suevii on the Rhine, Caesar came face to face with a new confederation of tribes, known to him as the Belgae, the history of Belgium began. These Belgae, hailed by their conqueror as the most valiant of the Gauls, held sway in those days over a wide territory which swept from the right bank of the Seine to the left bank of the Rhine. The north-east corner of this domain forms today the Dutch province of Brabant; its south-west part belongs to France, and a broad strip on the east to Germany. The rest is Belgium.
The Belgae, when Caesar knew them, were by no means a political unity, nor were they either racially or linguistically a homogenous people. They were in part Celtic and in part Teutonic, as they remain today. The Celts had ruled in the low countries for many centuries when Germanic tribes commenced to push across the Rhine, partly expelling the Celtic clans from their homes, partly fusing with them. This went on during many generations. There resulted a loose congeries of tribes, loosely known as the Belgae.
To the north of a line cutting modern Belgium horizontally, and passing through Courtrai and Louvain, Gallia Belgica* was predominately Teutonic; south of that line it was predominately Celtic. This division, fundamental and far-reaching, has persisted to the present hour; it explains all Belgian history; it explains why Belgium is today a nation with two national languages, why its education scheme is ordered on bilingual lines, and why these articles are being written.
Thrown together in a contact first hostile and afterwards friendly, the two races, though differing so profoundly from each other in blood and language, were destined never to part company: all their future history was to be lived in common. Together they were to pass under the dominion successively of the Roman, the Frank, the Burgundian, the Spaniard, the Austrian, the Frenchmen, and the Dutchman; and finally, achieving independence, they were to form the free, gallant, and prosperous Kingdom of Belgium.
The Teuton, living northward of the line through Courtrai and Louvain, spoke a Germanic dialect akin to the Old Frisian, but forming an independent development of an older Low-German speech. The Celt, living southward of that line, spoke the language of Gaul. The Roman came and conquered. From the legionnaires quartered amongst them the Celtic tribes soon learned to speak Latin, and in the course of time the native idiom disappeared, as the Celtic vernacular disappeared everywhere on the Continent except in steadfast Brittany.
In Gallia proper popular Latin, under Celtic and Frankish influence, eventuated in French. In Gallia Belgica, under the same influences, it eventuated in a dialect which came to be known as Walloon. Walloon bears about the same relation to French as Lowland Scotch does to English. Lowland Scotch is a separate Anglo-Saxon development, influenced by Gaelic and Norse; Walloon is a separate Romance development, influenced by Flemish and Spanish. The word “Walloon” means “foreign”; it is cognate with “Wallachian,” “Welsh,” etc, and like those words, is one of the designations bestowed by the Germans on people alien to them in race. Formerly all the Celts were “Walloons” (Walsh) to the Germans, but the word has long been restricted to the Celts of Belgium.
Whether gifted with a greater staying power, or because Roman civilization pressed on them with less severity, the Teutonic speakers of the northern half of Gallia Belgica, unlike the Celts of the south, retained their ancestral speech. They retain it to the present day. It is a strange and eloquent fact in history that, except on the frontiers of their empire – in North-West Armorica and in Western Britain – the language and civilisation of the Celts were everywhere submerged and obliterated by the language and civilisation of Rome; whilst on the other hand the tide of Roman conquest, sweeping over the Teutonic lands, rolled back again and left them as Teutonic as ever.
The explanation is probably this, that when the terrible legions of Rome appeared in their midst, the Celts were already a decadent race; they had passed their prime, had aged and grown ineffective; only the daring clans who had found distant homes in the Isles of the West retained the ancient vigour of the stock. The Teutons, on the other hand, were a newer people than the Italics themselves: theirs was the buoyancy of young manhood, the self-confidence of a coming race; they had still their history before them, whilst the history of the continental Celts was all behind them.
The Celt of Caesar’s time was no longer the magnificent barbarian, who had sacked Rome and given Alexander pause. His day was over. All this is ancient history, but it is ancient history which we must bear firmly in mind if we would understand the Belgium of today. The germ of the actual situation in Belgium is to be found in the Gallia Belgica of Caesar. The Teutonic speaker on the seaboard who, the Roman conquest notwithstanding, retained his Low-German dialect is the ancestor of the Fleming; the Gallic speaker of the forests and uplands who abandoned his Celtic mother-tongue for the vernacular of the Roman legionnaires, is the ancestor of the Walloon. And Fleming and Walloon are the opposing forces of the Belgian language war of today.
* The Gallia Belgica of Caesar’s time must be distinguished from the later imperial province of the same name, which was much larger, extending southward to the Rhone.