LOCATION: Belgium (southern region, called Wallonia)
POPULATION: 3.2 million
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Islam; Protestantism; Judaism; Russian Orthodox; Greek Orthodox
The Walloons, who live in Belgium's southern provinces, are the country's French-speaking inhabitants. Their culture contrasts with that of the Flemings, who inhabit the northern part of the country and speak Flemish, a language similar to Dutch. The Walloons' closest cultural ties are to France and other countries in which Romance languages are spoken.
In the fifth century AD the Franks, a Germanic people, invaded the region that includes modern Belgium. They gained the most power in the northern area, where early forms of the Dutch language took hold. In the south, the Roman culture and Latin-based dialects continued to flourish. During the feudal period between the ninth and twelfth centuries AD , the Flemish and Walloon cultures continued developing along separate lines.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, both the Flemings and the Walloons came under the rule of a succession of foreign powers. These included Spain, the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), and, finally, The Netherlands. Both groups then joined together in a revolt against Dutch rule. The new Kingdom of Belgium was created in 1830 as a constitutional monarchy.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Walloons held most of the political and economic power in Belgium. The rich natural resources of their region (known as Wallonia) brought the mines, mills, and factories of the Industrial Revolution to the region early. Their language, French, was the language of government, law, the Roman Catholic Church, and education. By comparison, the Dutch-based Flemish language was associated with rural poverty and lack of education. This language division was dramatized when French-speaking Belgian officers in World War I (1914–18) couldn't communicate with their Flemish-speaking troops.
Since World War II (1939–45), Wallonia's traditional heavy industries (especially steelmaking) have declined, and its coal mines have closed.
In the 1960s, the Flemings and Walloons were given increased control over their respective regions. In 1993 Belgium's constitution was amended, making Flanders and Wallonia autonomous (self-governing) regions within the Belgian Kingdom.
With an area of 6,600 square miles (17,094 square kilometers), Wallonia covers 55 percent of Belgium's territory and includes the provinces of southern Brabant, Hainautl, Namur, Liège, and Luxembourg. Wallonia is a densely populated area with 3.2 million inhabitants.
The language of Wallonia is French. There are also a number of regional dialects. These dialects, which are referred to collectively as "Walloon," are grouped into Eastern (Liège), Central (Namur), and Western (Charleroi, La Louvière, Nivelles).
Traditionally, the spirits of the departed were thought to return to earth on All Saints' Day (November 1). Families still visit cemeteries to clean the tombs of their deceased relatives on that date. Some rural villagers still believe in the powers of folk healers. Walloon folklore includes many tales involving the devil.
Catholicism is the traditional religion of Wallonia. The Walloons are generally less religious than the Flemings to their north. Even the elderly who keep statues of the Virgin Mary in their windows often are not regular churchgoers. Wallonia is the site of two popular pilgrimage shrines, at Beauraing and Banneaux. Lourdes in southwestern France has traditionally drawn many pilgrims from Walloon.
The Walloons observe Belgium's ten public holidays as well as many folk holidays. The town of Binche is famous for its carnival festivities in the weeks before Lent. The best-known part of the annual celebration is the Dance (or March) of the Gilles. Over 1,000 people dressed in brightly colored, padded costumes throw oranges at the spectators.
Most Walloon young people undergo religious rituals such as baptism and first communion. In addition, a student's progress through the educational system is marked with graduation parties in many families.
Walloon manners are generally formal and polite. Conversations are marked by frequent exchanges of compliments and repeated handshaking. Relatives greet each other by shaking hands, hugging, or kissing each other on the cheek. A hug is a common greeting among friends. Men and women or two female friends may exchange kisses on the cheek.
The majority of Walloons are city dwellers. Most live in multistory brick row houses with large kitchens and gardens. Walloon houses, like those of other Belgians, often include an area used for a family business.
The modern nuclear family (parents and children only) is the norm in Wallonia. However, it is not unusual for an elderly grandparent to join the household. Couples generally marry in their mid-to late twenties. Wallonia's divorce rate is rising, and divorce and remarriage are considered socially acceptable.
The Walloons, like all Belgians, wear modern Western-style clothing.
Walloon cuisine is derived from that of France. However, it tends to be spicier and higher in calories than modern-day French food. The main meal of the day, which is eaten at noon, might consist of a pork dish, potatoes, and salad with mayonnaise. Both breakfast and supper are light meals that may include the popular regional cheese, makèye, served on slices of bread. Soup is a staple of the Walloon diet, often served as a first course for the midday and evening meals. Walloons drink a lot of coffee. It is common to take a 4 PM coffee break called a goûter, often consisting of coffee and a piece of pie. Walloons also like to drink and brew beer.
Education for all Belgians is required from age six through age fifteen. At the secondary level, students choose between trade-oriented, business, or college-preparatory training.
The Walloons are best known for their contributions to modern art, notably the work of painters René Magritte (1898–1967) and Paul Delvaux (1898–1994). The best-known Walloon author is mystery writer Georges Simenon (1903–89), creator of the character of the police commissioner Maigret. Wallonia's most famous music composer was César Franck (1822–90). The concert violinist Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931) founded the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Music Competition. The saxophone was invented by a Belgian, Adolphe Sax (1814–94), who was born in Wallonia.
With its steel, glass, and textiles industries, Wallonia was a leading manufacturing center in the nineteenth century. Since World War II (1939–45), however, its coal mines have closed and its traditional heavy industries have fallen into decline. The Walloons were hit harder by Belgium's high unemployment of the late 1980s and early 1990s than were their neighbors to the north.
Walloons share Belgium's national passion for soccer. Another favorite national pastime that the Walloons share is bicycling. Pigeon racing, practiced throughout Belgium, is especially popular in Wallonia.
The Walloons enjoy typical leisure activities such as watching television and reading. Like other Belgians, they are avid gardeners and maintain well-tended gardens. Other typical hobbies include stamp collecting and model trains. Many Walloons enjoy gathering with friends in neighborhood cafes after work.
The talents of traditional artists can be seen in the elaborate costumes and giant figures used in festivals and processions. Folk art can also be seen in puppet and marionette theaters.
Wallonia has suffered from high rates of unemployment in the 1990s. Some of its inhabitants have been forced to commute to jobs in Brussels or Flanders. The cultural, linguistic, and political divisions between the Walloons and the Flemings are a continuing source of conflict.
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Pateman, Robert. Belgium. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Wickman, Stephen B. Belgium: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984.