Last revised on Oct 16th, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

This page is a result of genealogical research which revealed that the maternal great-grandfather of the owner of this Web site was able to sign his name beautifully but that some of his grandchildren were unable to sign or even 'make their mark' on documents! Exploring the history of education in the region where they lived suggests that this may have been due to poverty and partially to interference in the quality of education that resulted in some districts from political strife in the last half of the 19th century in Belgium between the Liberal party which inherited many of the views of the long-departed (about 1815) French regime which had been anticlerical and the Catholic party that favoured the idea that primary education had always been and should continue to be in control of the Church.

    1 André Van de Sompel has studied education in the village of Kalken a town about 15 km east of Gent in East Flanders. Similar findings were reported in Buggenhout, East Flanders. The educational conditions in Tremelo in Flemish Brabant probably resembled those in Kalken and Buggenhout. From the 17th century until the French invasion at the end of the 1700s there was a long period called the "Ancien Régime" during which Belgium was ruled by various states, ending with the Hapsburg (Habsburg) Austrian Empire under Maria Theresia and her son Josef II. As benevolent despots they brought in changes that resulted in prosperity in the Low Countries but some of Josef's innovations caused unrest in all social classes.
   During that long era education was entrusted to the clergy with the cooperation of the municipal administration. At its beginning, education consisted merely of the recitation and explanation of the Catechism and, under the best of circumstances, occasionally the students might have learned a bit of reading and writing. (Such fortuitous opportunities have been suggested to explain why some poor children, although deprived of regular schooling, could sign their name. (In Flemish, 'to sign'= 'ondertekenen' is related to the verb 'tekenen'='to draw'. So a signature may indicate a semi-artistic achievement rather than true '

   Certain lay people, with the local clergy's permission, also could be instructors. Administrators of the parochial council could recruit (extra) teachers for the winters if needed. Such an interim lay teacher might be a weaver, a bricklayer or a cobbler! To help such volunteers, by 1836 a book with pages like the one below was in use to help children to learn to read letters.

Towards the end of the "Ancien Régime" in about 90% of the parishes in the Diocese of Gent one or more schools operating in the above way. However in most of East Flanders in this period (1780 - 1800) not more than 50% of men and 20% of women were able to sign (onderteken) as parents, godparents or witnesses on church records of births, deaths, marriages and on legal documents. This high illiteracy has been blamed on inadequate preparation of teachers, i.e. of teaching clergy as well as of lay teachers. Aggravating this was the frequent interruption of schooling because children were expected to help with work on the farm, especially during harvest time, and with cottage industries to mitigate the frequent family poverty. Also farm folk had little reason to be interested in education because it was not evident to them how it could improve their family's circumstances or their children's future. But perhaps most important was their inability to pay the fees expected for instruction.

  Right up to the end of this period the clergy remained firmly in control. For example a 1787 document (loosely translated) described the hiring of a schoolmistress: "Petronelle Livina Roels, born in this parish, an unmarried woman living with her mother in a good Christian style (is appointed) to teach young children up to the time of their First Communion to read and write, and to instruct them in religious matters in a public school, all provided the pastor agrees." Note that the range of instruction had expanded from that the beginning of that century when schooling was directed to religious matters.
   Following the
French invasion in the early 1790s major changes occurred in education and literacy throughout the 'Southern Netherlands' (which eventually became Belgium) as a series of decrees and new laws came into effect between 1793 and 1808. These aimed at building an educational system in which its control by the Church was abolished. The clergy were required to swear to follow the French law but their verbal compliance was not always followed by changes in practice. So they were required to sign a written agreement to comply. Concurrently churches were closed and their possessions sold. (Since the Church had owned about 1/4 of the land, it might be thought that the sudden availability of so much land would benefit many farmers but this was so because it was bought up by the already affluent and combined into large private holdings that, much as before, employed the poorer farmers as near-serfs.)
   In principle, instruction in arithmetic, reading and writing and in "Napoleon's thoughts" was to be available free for all. But nearly all of these attempts at improvement failed. Thus the district administration did not have enough funds to pay the teachers' salaries so schools failed to stay open and the payment of special stipends for those who taught poor children were not forthcoming. So, in several communities individual citizens opened private school and provided salaries for the teachers. But
Frans Van de Zande an interprising teacher in Buggenhout, also in East Flanders, tried another way of increasing his income.
   By 1803 teaching occurred almost exclusively in the winters. The same year it was reported that the clergy were giving religious instruction surreptitiously. Following Napoleon's final defeat in 1815 there was an church-led movement, supported by the affluent, to restore the
Ancien Régime under the Austrians but they refused. So the 'major powers' decided that the 'Southern Netherlands", later the become 'Belgium', should be joined to the 'Northern Netherlands" under its new king, Willem I. He attempted to improve primary education by requiring better teacher training, improved instruction methods and better school housing. The Church was to be allowed to participate as long as it accepted governmental control in educational matters.
   At first, there was little to be seen of a revival of primary education. During the winter months of 1817, in Kalken with a population of 6000, some 250 children attended the two municipal schools. But in the summer months 2/3 did not attend. The parents of between 22 and 40 children in era 1823- 1830 were unable to pay for instruction and this had to be funded by the municipality. Because of lack of funds the 'public' school system built up by the Dutch again collapsed as during the French hegemony. Only instruction of the most impoverished pupils was supported and the building of new schools and improvements in educational methods were abandoned. Requirements for specific training of teachers were no enforced and anyone could open a school. The most successful teacher, Ivo Vande Velde, taught the Flemish language, writing, arithmetic, elementary rhetoric, beginning history and geography, Christian doctrine and morality, and the French language. The other five teachers in Kalken instructed the same subjects but not history, geography and French. The teachers were relatively poorly paid. For example Ivo Vande Velde took in 295 Francs in 1841, of which 212 Francs came from the municipality. For comparison, farm workers (including farmers) had incomes in the range 270 to 435 Francs per year. Despite these problems, some country people learned enough so they, including Marcel's grandfather (born 1858)
enjoyed reading.

   In 1842 the central government of the recently (1830) formed Kingdom of Belgium set out to reorganize primary education. It recognized the need for a comprise between the desires of the State and those of the Church. The municipalities on one hand were required to manage the primary schools, on the other hand the clergy could continue to teach if appointed by the municipal council. Other matters dealt with included the provision of free schooling for indigent children, the formal education of instructors., etc..    
   In 1879 open warfare, known as the "
School Strife", between the State and the Church was brought on by a new law passed by a 'Liberal' majority government which confirmed the complete control of education by the state. As a result so-called 'free schools' organized by the Church to provide education with a religious content were no longer permitted. Religious instruction was removed from the official curriculum and textbooks had to be approved by a government committee. The municipal councils were to appointed only teachers who held a diploma from the 'Royal Normal School' for teacher training.
  Then, in 1884, a newly-elected Catholic government canceled the above law of 1879, returning the situation to where it was after the law of 1842 (see earlier). This to-and-fro battle continued until 1958. In the interval the Church continued to insist that education should conform to religious principles. To enforced its views it refused the Sacrements to those who taught in State schools and to parents who sent their children to such schools. It started many 'parish schools' and as a result of these various measures the State schools were almost deserted, especially in rural Flanders.
   All parties eventually tired of the
strife and a compromise 'School Pact' was agreed upon in 1885. It granted the same State subsidy the all recognized schools, set the same salary for all qualified teachers. More State schools were set up in Flanders where they had 'faded' during the period of Catholic governments, free bussing to schools was provided and families now could send their children to their school of choice, whether Catholic or State sponsored, with penalty.

There is little doubt that during the late 1800s one of the factors that encouraged emigration overseas to the United States and Canada was the apparent freedom from the 'Religious Strife" still rumbling at that time in Belgium. Indeed the Catholic church in Canada actively sought immigrants from Belgium to join their parishes and to settle in new parishes under its guidance and support on the nearly free, high-quality farming areas such as western Manitoba.
In recent years society in Belgium has become more tolerant and more secular; also there is more cooperation between the public and Catholic school systems. Teachers from the clergy are becoming more rare. However people often continue to send their children to Catholic schools partially because of family tradition and possibly because they feel the quality of education is better there.

1"Bijdrage tot de Geschiedenis van het Onderwijse te Kalken, Periode 1795 to 1918" ("Contribution to the History of Education at Kalken, Period 1795 to 1918") by André Van de Sompel, published by "De Frienden van het Slot Van Laarne" ("Friends of the Keep [of the Castle] of Laarne"), 1993.
2Private communication from Ludo Cosijns, Heemkring Ter Palen, Buggenhout, East Flanders.

Read about life in
Buggenhout, another East Flanders village

Search billions of records on