Category Archives: Belgium
A Belgian farmer moved a rock and accidentally annexed France: the weird and wonderful history of man-made borders
This stone marked the boundary between Belgium and France. By moving it 2.29 metres, he expanded Belgium’s territory.
We must assume he had driven around it before — the stone was placed on this site in 1819, as part of the proceedings that established the Franco-Belgian border in 1820 after Napoleon’s defeat.
For the farmer, it stood in the way of his tractor. For the governments of France and Belgium, it was an active international border.
This story suggests a fragility to borders that contradicts their apparent solidity in an atlas or on Google Maps. Human history is, however, full of arguments about where the edges of property lie.
‘Beating the bounds’
Nations establish their borders through treaties. Rivers are sometimes relied on to set boundaries, but even here tensions rise when there are disputes about interpretation. Is the boundary on the river banks, the deepest part of the river, or the very centre of the flow?
The fact these measurements can even be calculated is remarkable. Expecting high levels of accuracy in a map is a recent development.
The first attempts at consistent accuracy were in 19th century military maps, such as Britain’s Ordnance Survey.
Later development saw the topographical charts used by bushwalkers and mountain climbers. But only with the arrival of digital mapping did it became normal to pin-point our location on a map in everyday situations.
The precise location of boundaries was usually part of local knowledge, kept and maintained by members of the community. For centuries a practice known as “beating the bounds” was followed in parts of Great Britain, Hungary, Germany and the United States.
Members of the parish or community would walk around the edge of their lands every few years, perhaps singing or performing specific actions to help the route stick in the participants’ minds. By including new generations each time, the knowledge was passed through the community and remained active.
Beating the bounds was a tradition of spatial knowledge that carried weight — it was accepted as evidence in cases of disputed boundaries. It was also part of a larger tradition maintaining borders through physical symbolism, whether for good or bad.
Britain has a long history of using enclosure (the fencing or hedging of land) as a means to excluding the poor from accessing common resources. In contrast, in colonial Australia, the first fences were built to protect essential garden crops from scavenging livestock.
Sometimes the importance of the border was demonstrated with an elaborate marker. The Franco-Belgian stone was carved with a date and compass points, representing not only a boundary but also the end of Napoleon’s destructive wars.
Likewise, the boundary markers of Sydney from the same period included the name of the Governor, Richard Bourke.
Manipulation … and incompetence
Formality was not always required. At a local level in the Australian colonies, boundaries were often marked by painting, slashing or burning a mark into a tree. These were easy to ignore, and frustrated landholders placed public notices in the newspapers cautioning against trespassing. People constantly took timber from private properties, or grazed their livestock without hesitation wherever was convenient to them.
Landholders included descriptions of their properties — detailing landmarks and neighbouring properties — in their notices, so there could be no doubt about which land was taken.
But these descriptions formed a circular argument: the potential trespasser needed to know who held each property in order to establish whose property they were about to enter. How effective they were at actually preventing trespass remains unclear.
Rivers were an obvious boundary marker, although European settlers quickly learned how to manipulate them to suit their own needs. By quietly blocking a section of river with trees and other rubbish, they could divert its route to suit their own wishes. By the time the surveyor came to verify or reassess boundaries, the landholder had been using their stolen acres for several years.
Throughout the 19th century, Australian survey departments devoted huge resources to undoing the confusion created by manipulation and incompetence in earlier years.
Markers of time
When the Belgian farmer this week got fed up with going around the stone and decided to move it, he was participating in a time-honoured tradition of manipulating impermanent boundary markers. But if he was able to move it, then who is to say it had not been moved before?
Historic boundary markers like this one have a habit of being in technically the wrong place, even if they are in precisely the right place to commemorate a moment in time.
Perhaps that is where their true significance sits.
In a new series, we look at under acknowledged women through the ages.
Anne-Josèphe Théroigne or Terwagne (1762–1817) was born at Marcourt, a village south of Liège in modern Belgium.
From a comfortable farming family, Théroigne had a remarkably unsettled life after her mother died when she was five years old, living with relatives who provided only erratic access to education. While working as a governess she lived and studied singing in London and Paris, but also survived through unhappy relationships with far older, wealthy men.
By 1789 she was living in Rome, from where she rushed back to Paris after news arrived of a revolution that immediately inspired her with its promise of individual freedoms and civic equality.
This frail and often hated woman became a passionate advocate of a woman’s place in a democratic society before a tragic episode broke her.
Much of her life is shrouded in silence and myth. While commonly assumed to have fought at the Bastille on July 14 1789 and to have led the famous march of market women from Paris to the court at Versailles in October dressed as a man or on horseback, it seems instead that she lived at Versailles throughout the summer of 1789, attending debates at the National Assembly and meeting leading political figures.
Politics and war
She returned to Paris with the Assembly in October and began speaking at the democratic club des Cordeliers and on the terraces outside the Assembly. She supported the formation of mixed-sex and women’s patriotic clubs and, with other individuals such as Olympe de Gouges, the Dutch activist Etta Palm d’Aelders and the Marquis de Condorcet, an expansion of women’s civic rights.
While the word “feminism” was not used until 1837, there is no doubt about its applicability to Théroigne, who argued women,
have the same natural rights as men, so that, as a consequence, it is supremely unjust that we have not the same rights in society.
Théroigne’s outspoken presence and discourse provoked the ire of the counter-revolutionary press, in which she was the subject of vituperative mockery and allegations. She was ridiculed as a debauchee, the antithesis of femininity, a “patriots’ whore” whose 100 lovers a day each paid 100 sous in contributions to the Revolution “gained by the sweat of my body”.
It was about this time that “de Méricourt” was added to her name in the press, an inference of noble background alluding to her birthplace which she did not repudiate, a politically unwise step at a time when noble titles and privileges were being abolished.
In May 1790, Théroigne returned to Marcourt and Liège, where she was arrested on the orders of the Austrian Government, anxious about the possible contagion of revolutionary ideas across the border, and interrogated about her revolutionary activities. By the time of her release and return to Paris in January 1792 she was impoverished and suffering from depression, insomnia, and other ailments.
“La belle Liégoise”, as she was dubbed, was welcomed back enthusiastically and, once France went to war with Austria in April she began campaigning, unsuccessfully, for women’s rights to bear arms:
Frenchwomen … let us raise ourselves to the height of our destinies; let us break our chains! At last the time is ripe for women to emerge from their shameful nullity, where the ignorance, pride and injustice of men had kept them enslaved for so long …!
During the insurrection on August 10, which overthrew the monarchy and created the republic, Théroigne was involved with the killing of royalists and awarded a “civic crown” for her courage. But her sartorial flair – she enjoyed wearing her white riding habit and large round hat in public – and her political choices made her unpopular with women of the people.
As the military position of the republic became more precarious, and the economy worsened, Paris and France became violently divided. Paris itself was a militant republican Jacobin city, but Théroigne preferred the more conservative Girondins. In vain she wrote a passionate pamphlet urging the election of women representatives with “the glorious ministry of uniting the citizens and of inculcating in them the respect for freedom of opinions”.
Institutionalisation and death
On May 15 1793, she was attacked by a group of Jacobin women outside the doors of the National Convention. The women, objecting to her pro-Girondin sentiments, lifted her dress and whipped her bared flesh.
Théroigne never fully recovered mentally or physically, and on 20 September 1794 she was certified insane and put into an asylum. It was a time when the first “scientific” diagnoses were being made of “dementia”, but the physical surrounds were medieval. She was ultimately sent to La Salpêtrière Hospital in 1807, where she lived in terrible squalor for ten years, only intermittently lucid and speaking constantly about the Revolution.
There the “alienist” (as psychiatrists were then called) Étienne Esquirol used her as a case-study of the mental illness caused by revolutionary “excess”. Following a short illness, she died there on 9 June 1817.
Théroigne was a charismatic but tragic figure who inspired later romanticised and creative works, for example, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857):
See Théroigne, by blood and fire enraged,
Hounding a shoeless rabble to the fray,
Who plays herself on a flaming stage,
As she climbs, sword in hand, the royal stairway.
She has especially interested male writers fascinated by the links they imagine between women, madness and revolution. Indeed, in 1989 Simon Schama closed his best-selling Citizens with Théroigne’s sad incarceration as its epilogue, as if to imply that revolution drives women to feminism and madness.
The same year, this male fascination was explored by the Lacanian psychoanalyst Élisabeth Roudinesco, who brilliantly exposed the links between early feminism, the birth of the modern asylum and masculine phantasms.
Whereas the English title of her biography is Madness and Revolution, in French it was Une femme mélancolique: for Roudinesco, Théroigne was not mad in 1794, rather she was in mourning for the revolution she had lost.
The link below is to another article dealing with the lead up to the First World War. In this article Austria-Hungary mobilizes against Montenegro, and Germany promises to respect Belgian neutrality.
Luxembourg Independence Maintained
Luxembourg, known as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is a small country in western Europe bordered by Belgium, France and Germany. It has a population of about 500 000 people and is almost 1000 square miles (2 586 square kilometers) in size. It’s ‘life’ began as a small fortress in 963, from which a town developed and eventually the state of Luxembourg.
Luxembourg lost its initial independence in 1437 and from that point it was ruled by various states, but regained a form of independence following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. From then however, it lost territory and was greatly reduced in size. Its independence was affirmed with two treaties, the first in 1839 and the second on this day in 1867, following what
is known as the Luxembourg Crisis.