BELGIUM - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Kingdom of Belgium
Formation 1830 / 1919
Population 10.7 million / 844 people per sq mile (326 people per sq km)
Total area 11,780 sq. miles (30,510 sq. km)
Languages Dutch*, French*, German*
Religions Roman Catholic 88%, Other 10%, Muslim 2%
Ethnic mix Fleming 58%, Walloon 33%, Other 6%, Italian 2%, Moroccan 1%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Euro = 100 cents
Literacy rate 99%
Calorie consumption 3690 kilocalories
The earliest inhabitants were the Belgae, who were predominantly Celts living in northeastern Gaul in the first century B.C.E. In 54 B.C.E. Julius Caesar (100–44) expanded his empire to include the region now known as Belgium. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century C.E., however, the Germans invaded the region and by 431 had established a new kingdom under the Merovingian Dynasty.
Clovis I (c.466–511), who ruled from northern France, was the most famous ruler of the Merovingian Dynasty. He converted to Christianity, and under his rule Irish monks preached Christianity and started to convert the local people.
After his death the region began to splinter, until Pepin III (the Short, ?714–68) established the Carolingian Dynasty in 751 and created an empire that spanned nearly the whole of Europe. His son Charlemagne (742–814) succeeded him and ruled for 50 years. This empire remained intact until the death of Louis the Pious (967–87), Charlemagne’s son, when it started disintegrating due to the infighting among Louis’s three sons. The two younger sons rallied against their older brother Lothair (795–855) and defeated him at the battles of Fountenoy (841) and Aix-la-Chapelle (843), forcing him to sign the Treaty of Verdun, which divided Charlemagne’s empire into three parts. Lothair retained the title of holy roman emperor.
In the 14th century Belgium finally began experiencing growth, prosperity, and creativity under the rule of Philip II, the Duke of Burgundy (1165–1223), but this boom proved only temporary when the Low Countries (of which Belgium is one) entered into a long struggle with Catholic Spain in the mid-15th century.
In the 17th century, Belgium came first under Austrian and then under French rule again. In 1814 the French Emperor Napoleon (1769–1821) was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo. The powers that emerged following this battle included England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. At the Congress of Vienna (October 1814–June 1815), these major powers decided to reunite the southern and northern parts of the Netherlands into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which included Belgium and Luxembourg. Belgium remained part of the northern provinces in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands until the Belgian Revolution in 1830.
This revolution was the consequence of a number of factors. Above all the primarily French-speaking Belgians felt dominated by the Dutch. They were underrepresented in the government and perceived the economic and political policies of the Dutch king to be anti-Belgian. Another factor was religion—while the Belgians were Catholic, the Dutch were Calvinist Protestants.
The European powers approved Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands at the London Conference in 1830–31, and the country became independent on January 20, 1831. Also in 1831 Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Leopold I; 1790–1865) was chosen as king of Belgium under a constitution that gave the monarchy limited powers.
Trade and commerce flourished under Leopold II (1835–1909). The king acquired control of the African state of Congo after the Conference of Berlin in 1885 and made it his own personal property, capitalizing on rubber cultivation (for which there was a growing market). However rubber plantations were largely dependent on slave labor, and the local population suffered greatly. It is estimated that between 3 and 22 million Africans lost their lives during this period. International pressure finally forced Leopold II to sell his property to the Belgian state as a colony in 1908.
In World War II Belgium was invaded by Germany in 1940, and Leopold III (1901–83), the reigning king, surrendered to the German forces. After the war the people of Belgium strongly opposed Leopold’s rule, and in the interest of his country he abdicated in favor of his son Baudouin (1930–93).
Belgium joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after World War II and was also one of the founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC). Brussels is the headquarters of NATO and the EECs successor, the European Union (EU), which is why Belgium is sometimes referred to as “The Heart of Europe.”
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Located in western, Europe Belgium lies between Germany, Luxembourg, France, and the Netherlands and occupies 40 miles of coastline along the North Sea. It can be divided into three main regions: the coastal plains in the northwest, the central plateau, and the Ardennes uplands in the southeast.
Sand dunes and polders (stretches of land regained from the sea and enclosed by dikes to keep the sea from reclaiming the land) cover the coastal area in the northwest. The central plateau is a combination of smooth fertile valleys, caves, and gorges.
The Ardennes uplands have thick forests that support a variety of wildlife, but the land is too rocky for farming. The Ardennes is also an important tourist spot because of its scenic beauty. The highest point (at 2,277 feet) is Signal de Botrange. The Meuse and Schelde are the main rivers of Belgium.
Although the summers are usually cool, Belgium experiences extremes of temperature during the course of the year. The warmest months are from April to September, when the temperature averages 77°F. The maximum temperature in summer has been recorded at around 90°F. Belgium’s winters are usually mild. The lowest recorded temperature is 10°F, although the average is around 45°F.
The economy of Belgium is dominated by its import and export trade.
It capitalizes on a strongly developed transport infrastructure that includes ports, canals, railways, and highways that link its industry with neighboring states. Food products, machinery, rough diamonds, petroleum, chemicals, and textiles are imported mainly from Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States, and Spain. Exports include automobiles, food and food products, iron and steel, diamonds, textiles, plastics, and nonferrous metals. Two-thirds of Belgium’s trade is with EU countries. The agricultural industry engages a small portion of the population, mainly dealing in products such as sugar beets, fresh vegetables, fruits, wheat, oats, rye, barley, tobacco, veal, pork, and milk and milk products. The country is home to over 1,000 international companies with nearly 60 foreign banks in Brussels, its financial capital.
In 1999 Belgium was one of the first European nations to accept the Euro as its currency.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Belgium is a densely populated and highly educated country. Ninety-eight percent of the Belgian population is literate. Belgians have a high standard of living, which is reflected in their housing and health care facilities. Belgians are known for their worldclass architecture, art, elaborate castles, museums, and historic buildings. Belgian food, beer, and chocolates are exceptional as well, and the country has a booming automobile industry.
Folklore is an integral part of Belgian culture, and concerts, plays, carnivals, and other festivals are held throughout the year. Belgians mark historic occasions and celebrations with parades.
Roman Catholics represent 75 percent of the population. In addition Belgium has small but significant populations of Muslims and Jews. Protestants and others make up the rest, but only a small percentage attend church regularly.
Belgians are known for their hospitality. They have also created a place for themselves in the field of sports. Not only is the Belgian soccer team Red Devil famous, but the country has also produced world and Olympic champions in cycling, tennis, table tennis, judo, swimming, motocross, and cyclocross (motorcycling and cycling cross-country races).
Belgian cooking is among the most highly acclaimed in Europe. Potatoes are the staple food of Belgium, although the diet includes plenty of vegetables. Belgians also eat a lot of seafood and meat. Belgium’s mussels are world renowned, and mussels and pommes frites (French fries) are the national dish.
Spices, mustard, vinegars, and beer are widely used in savory and sweet recipes. Fresh herbs are also used extensively in cooking.
Belgians especially relish chocolates and produce renowned brands, such as Neuhaus. Mary’s, another brand, is known to be the preferred choice of the royal family.
Long courtships and living together before getting married are common in Belgium. Although people celebrate marriage in religious ways, only civil marriages are legal. A unique Belgian tradition involves giving the bride an embroidered handkerchief at the time of marriage. This handkerchief, which has the bride’s name embroidered on it, is later framed and hung on the wall until the next marriage in the family.
The handkerchief is taken down, and the name of the new bride is also embroidered on it. This ritual is followed and passed on to each generation.