Recherches historiques sur la ville de Renaix, published in 1856, is a book I found at Google Books (see here). The book, written in French, provides the history of the city of Renaix (Ronse), where my father’s Belgian ancestors lived for several centuries before coming to America. Although I studied French for five years and occasionally take lessons at Rosetta Stone through access provided by my local library, I still needed to use a few tools to make an accurate translation of approximately 30 pages from the book. As the book has long been in the public domain, I was able to download a copy of the book in PDF format. I then used the Adobe PDF reader to export the contents to a Word document. Due to anomalies in the page images, the conversion to text rendered some words garbage. Setting the proofing of the document to French allowed me to quickly make corrections before using the translation feature in MS Word to create an almost flawless conversion from French to English.
The book, whose author is identified only by the initials GLB, is 171 pages long. However, only about thirty pages detail the history of the town of Renaix. The rest of the book focuses on the churches, an abbey, and a convent found within the city limits. The first chapter provides statistics regarding the topography of the city. This is followed by four pages detailing the floorplan of the ruined Gothic castle formerly owned by the Lord of Ronse.
The third chapter is where the real history of the city resides. Following page 45, the author devotes the rest of the book to descriptions of churches, monasteries, chapels, etc., found within the city’s limits. One chapter lists all the curés of St. Hermes collegiate church from the 1200s to the 19th century. The book ends with a few brief biographies of whom the author refers to as celebrities of Renaix. The persons showcased are all members of either the first or second estate of the ancien regime – in other words, either clergy or nobility from the time before the French Revolution. Only a few of the regular citizens of Renaix are mentioned by name. Only one person mentioned in the book can I identify as a relative, a nephew of my great, great, great grandmother, Sophie Françoise Callewaert. The book’s general tone is that of an apologist for the ancien regime and the great chain of being.
Most of what follows is a direct translation of the 1856 book. I have placed in brackets my additions and comments.
In the Paleolithic era, several hills in the Flemish Ardennes nearby Renaix were inhabited by humans. In and around the area are found traces of early human activity. During the Neolithic period, the area around Renaix became a permanent settlement based on agriculture and animal husbandry. In 1836 and 1845, several burial mounds were discovered that date to the middle Bronze Age (ca. 2100-1200 BC.)
[The author talks about mapping an ancient road that originated at Bavai, a town in Northern France and the capital of the Nervii tribe. The road ran north through Renaix, and ended at the island of Nehallenie, now known as Walcheren, formerly an island in the Dutch province of Zeeland at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary. The road from Tournay, in southern Belgium, converged on Renaix. The Nervii were a Celto-Germanic tribe that Julius Caesar considered the most warlike of the Belgic tribes and the Belgic tribes were the bravest in Gaul. (Cf. Caes. Gal. 2.4)]
The city of Ronse was fully settled in Roman times. This is confirmed by fragments of a Roman building used as salvage materials in the Romanesque arches of the St. Hermes Crypt. Roman coins were also found dating from the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. In the 19th century, an archaeologist named Eduard Joly discovered thirty-four tumulus (burial mounds) and a host of Gallo-Roman dwellings in the vicinity of Ronse [see Antiquités Celto-Germaniques et Gallo-Romaines trouvées sur le territoire de Renaix et dans les communes environnantes (Joly, 1844) in Google Books.]
Renaix was called in Latin Rothnacum. Some ancient charters bear the name Rotornacum, others Rodenacum or Rodnace. In French, it is given the names of Renesse, Ernay, and Rosnays. Baldric, a writer in the 11th century, speaks of Rotnasce villa brabatensi. This word composed of Roth and Ac means red river; the city is indeed crossed by a small river, the Meulenbeke (or Mill Brook), its source a league and a half from Renaix, flows into the Ronne River near a neighboring commune to the south called Wattripont (Waudripont). [One of my ancestors bears the surname “de Wattripont.”]
In the fifth century (442), Salian Franks invaded Belgium. Clodion, their leader, became master of Cambrai and Tournai; Ronse declined in power with the rest of the country. This event marks the start of the third historical period referred to as the Gallo-Empire or Merovingian period. Late Roman and Merovingian gold coins, domestic and funeral pottery, axes, weapons, toilet objects, and other glass or metal objects have been found in the vicinity.
[Despite centuries of pre-Christian history, the author, GLB, romanticizes the arrival of apostles of the faith in the early medieval period: ] “Most cities [of Belgium] have a common origin: a monastery rises in the middle of a wasteland; some wandering and unfortunate families stop by at the civilizing voice of Christianity. Rustic cabins are soon built on the side of the monastery, and little by little we see, the pious are sheltered around in villages, the towns, and cities.”
According to legend, the monastery of Peter & Paul, built on the left bank of the Molenbeek River, was founded by Saint-Armand in the middle of the 7th century. Between 831 and 834, the city and the monastery were given by Louis the Pious to the Abbot of Cornelismünster, near Aix-la-Chapelle. The relics of St. Hermes came to Ronse during the ninth century. During that period, the monks were forced to flee the city several times to avoid Viking raiders. The monastery was burned in 880 by the Normans. The relics of St. Hermes were recovered in 940 and placed in a Romanesque crypt in 1089. The church of Saint Hermes, which was later built, was consecrated in 1129. In honor of Saint Hermes, invoked for the healing of mental illness, Pilgrimage supported the local economy. A local proverb was: “Saint Hermes cures the mad and leaves the surrounding residents wealthy.”
The monks later became canons and shared their time between prayer, reading, and manual work. Cultivating the land and making deserts bloom. Nothing would stop them from bringing the gospel to a pagan people and converting them to civilization. At the same time, they cultivated science and letters, and by copying the manuscripts, they continued to chronicle the rich treasures of the Greeks and Romans. Classical literature, without them, would have died in the sinking of the ancient civilization.
It was learned that the Annals of the Abbey of St. Peter found that Celestine, the sixth abbot of the monastery of Saint Peter of Mont Blandine-les-Ghent, was exiled by Charles Martel. This holy saint had been falsely accused of favoring the party of Ragefride [Ragenfrid] and was pained to see its dispersed brothers and the Abbey property distributed to the said vassals. By an act of low and unjust revenge, Charles Martel had the abbot Celestine finish his days at the monastery of St. Peter at Ronse, where he died in 765.
Currently, most of Belgium was under the domain of the Kings of Austrasia. After Charlemagne became emperor, he gave a part of the income of the monastery of Ronse to Héridac. This is for the support of missions beyond the Elbe in 810. So it was that Ronse contributed significantly in the 9th century, the great work of spreading the faith among the inhabitants of Denmark and Sweden.
The Feudal Period
The children of Louis the Pious, after several bloody wars, partitioned Germany, France, and Italy. The governors of the provinces, dukes, and counts, obtained, as a result of the weakening of the kings, a heredity power over their titles and home authority that until then they only had owned for life.
In the second half of the ninth century, Flanders suffered from the continuing incursions of Normans, or inhabitants of the North of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The arrival of the Vikings was seen as punishment from God. The people, more often delivered themselves, defended their best, seeking to protect the objects of their religion against the desecration of the heathen. They had great reverence for relicts of their first apostles, and in the middle of their distress, they believed not to have not lost everything when they could save these relicts.
In 880, the monastery at Ronse was destroyed by the Vikings. The canons fled several times with the relics of the Saints to France and Germany.
In November of 1240, Gérard, sire of Waudripont, granted privileges to the city and exempted citizens of Ronse from the seigneurial system. Also gave the people the right to marry without the lord’s permission and gave the city of Ronse a contract that detailed the conditions of this privilege. The copies of letters of said Gérard are retained in the archives of East Flanders. [The citizens of Ronse were now officially members of the bourgeois class – the so-called middle class.]
The Abbot and monks of Saint-Corneille de Yda (d’Inde) of the order of St. Benedict in the Diocese of Cologne became deeply in debt. They could no longer retain and manage their possessions in Flanders due to the distance and lack of jurisdiction over areas controlled by the lords of Flanders. So, they sold to Guy, Count of Flanders & of Namur their holdings, including Ronse.
In 1280 the Count of Flanders, Guy Dampierre, bought from the abbot of Saint-Corneille d’Inde, Raynard of Ronse, only a portion of Ronse; the other part was owned by the canons of St. Hermes through the donation of Louis the Pious. In 1293 he acquired the city. Ronse in its entirety and the barony of Ronse was thus formed as an independent enclave in the Country of Aalst.
In 1289 Guy Dampierre gave to his third son, Guy de Richebourg, the city of Ronse as part of the realm of the County of Flanders; however, this later instigated a war between the Count of Flanders and the Count of Hainaut over the question of whether the towns of Lessines, Flobecq and Ronse were within the jurisdiction of the Flanders or the Hainaut, so that these lands were called Terres de débat. In 1333, an agreement was concluded between the two sides in which it was stipulated that Lessines and Flobecq would now be part of the County of Hainaut, and Ronse would remain in Flanders.
From 1250, Ronse saw a rise in industry, and from the 13th century, it was made a center of cloth manufacturing by a privilege granted by the Count of Brabant.
In 1358, Robert, Count of Namur, was Lord of Ronse: He was the son of Louis, Count of Flanders, and the nephew of Robert, son of Guy Dampierre.
In 1404, Jean de la Hamaide, the lord of Ronse, swore allegiance to John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy and Count of Flanders, and became the Baron of Ronse on this condition. He was killed on 25 October 1415 at the battle of Agincourt. He left a son named Arnould, who succeeded him.
In 1426, Philip the Good, Count of Flanders [and Duke of Burgundy], allowed Jacques, son of Arnould, to postpone his tribute until his majority, which took place in 1429. Jacques had a son named Arnould as his successor, who died without posterity in 1484. In that same year, Michel de la Hamaide requested of Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as guardian of her son, Philippe-le-beau, that her son obtain the barony of Ronse.
In 1485, John Dottinghen, who had married Isabelle de la Hamaide, lent tribute to Archduke Maximilian. After the death of her husband, Isabelle made a tribute to Charles V, Emperor, and Count of Flanders, and continued to administer as Lady Baroness of Ronse until 1516.
In 1526, William Van Roggendorf, Lord of Condé, who had married the daughter of John Dottinghen and Isabelle de la Hamaide, left the seigneury of Ronse to his son, Christophe. Still, the sale of this seigneury was given over to the Grand Council of Mechelen on 23 October 1549 so that the seigneury of the city would be sold at fair market value. Hence, the seigneury acquisition was made by the Seigneur de Granvelle Nicolas Perrenot.
Frédéric Perrenot, fifth son of Nicholas and his wife Nicole Bonvalot (d. 1570), obtained the barony of Ronse. He was Governor of Antwerp in 1571 and 1577, Consul of State, and the chief of finances in the Netherlands in 1587 and 1591. He married Constance Berchem and had by this marriage a daughter, Hélène Perrenot de Granvelle who became Baroness of Ronse. Emmanuel Philibert De Baume, Count of Saint-Amour, married the only daughter of Frederic Perrenot and died on 28 June 1622.
On 9 March 1630, Jacques-Nicolas, who succeeded his father sold his seigneury to John, Count of Nassau-Dillenbourg-Pavillion, Marquis de Cavelly in Piedmont, a relative of the King of Spain through marriage. The Count is said to have arrived in Ronse with his lady on 19 April 1630. Ronse magistrates and city notables went to the city limits to meet the Count. When the Count arrived in town, the large bell of the Collegiate Church (St. Hermes) rang out around six in the evening, and he was greeted by the Prevost, the Dean, and the Treasurer of the canon chapter. The next day, a Sunday, Count Jean witnessed the procession and the grand mass at Saint Hermès, in a place reserved for the choir, where he was introduced to the Prevost and the Dean. Count John became a colonel in the service of the emperor, a gentleman in the house of the emperors Rudolph and Ferdinand, and a Knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece.
Count John of Nassau had married Ernestine, princess of the line, daughter of Lamoral Charles Henry, first Prince of the line. He left a son, Jean-François-Désiré, who succeeded his father, and two daughters, Ernestine and Claire-Marie. Count John built in Ronse a beautiful castle, which he saw barely complete, and he died in 1638 at age 55. Ernestine, his wife and Lady of Ronse died in Brussels in 1663. His son, Jean-François-Désiré, count of Nassau-Siegen, etc., made his entry into Ronse as Baron on 8 August 1663. He was tied to the service of Spain, was successively the Governor of Luxembourg, and then of the Duchy of Limburg, the Spanish Netherlands, and Knight of the Golden Fleece. In 1654, Emperor Ferdinand III created him a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. He died at Roermond on 17 December 1699 at the age of 73 and was buried in the Church of Minimes at Louvain as well as his third wife Isabelle-Claire-Eugénie de Montant ou De la Croix, Countess of la Serre, etc., who died in Ronse 19 October 1714, at the age of 63. They wanted to be buried one and the other in a particular devotion they had to Saint Francis de Paule.
William-Hyacinthe, son of Jean-François Désiré and his second wife, Marie-Eleonore-Sophie, daughter of Herman Fortuné, Marquis of Baden, had entered Ronse around 1700 and succeeded his father. He became the eldest at that time of the second branch of the House of Nassau.
In the Canons of St. Hermès, it is recorded that Prince Alexis obtained this illustrious domain from an act of donation dated 2 September 1681 and that he came from Roermond and received the city of Ronse on 8 September 1681.
In 1737, Emmanuel, Prince of Nassau-Siegen, was Lord of Ronse, and in 1745 Princess Joan gave the lordship and barony of Ronse to the Count of Mérode and Marquis de Westerlo.
The Best of Times & the Worst of Times
Ronse was a commune with its lordship and its franchise, three authorities, and each had its rights, customs, and privileges. This is recorded in the city charter of Ronse – Costumenan van Ronsse – which Emperor Charles V confirmed on 22 December 1552. The city, having been a part of the empire, obtained for its coat of arms the Eagle of the House of Austria (the double-headed eagle).
Ronse was in the 15th and 16th century, as before that time, a very-thriving city. The chief industry was textiles, and it was the home of many weavers and launderers. Its looms had the highest income after the three main towns of Flanders.
In 1263, Jean I, Duke of Luthier and Brabant, gave the weavers of Ronse a place in the Hall of Leuven and granted the city exemption from all charges and taxes.
Philippe Auguste, King of France, granted the privileges to the citizens of Renaix in 1273 for services rendered by them to his Majesty in his camp near Lille.
The same benefits as above were granted to the bourgeois of Ronse in 1533 by Charles, Duke of Gelderland, and a few years earlier, the same concession had been made in their favor by Florent, Count of Holland, and in 1551 by the Archbishop of Utrecht.
In 1569, due to the continuing problems caused by the iconoclasts and Calvinists (de geuzen) and new taxes imposed by the Spanish Duke of Alba, many of the weavers and fullers left the city to go to England.
[GLB presented the history of the Reformation as concerns Ronse in the following manner:] “The history of these times tells us that the excesses of the iconoclasts were unfortunately only too real and troubles of Flanders caused by their heretical preachers was followed by the plundering of our churches. These fanatics, which were first held hidden in the woods surrounding Ronse, invaded the city on 19 August 1566 and destroyed the altars and the statues of saints in the Collegiate Church of Saint Hermès. Yet the magistrates of Ronse defended the city, and the sectarians were forced to give up the books, the chalices, and ornaments of the canons they had seized.”
In 1582, what little defenses Ronse had were destroyed by troops sent by Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, after taking Oudenaarde, a larger city to the north of Ronse.
The city of Ronse has been ruined by four terrible fires. On March 26, 1478, French forces sacked the town and burned it to the ground. The city recovered quickly from the attack as the textile industry flourished.
In 1518 on the Friday following Trinity Sunday, a terrible fire destroyed more than 700 houses.
In July 1559, almost all the city houses, three churches, and two monasteries were destroyed by fire. The fire was so great that even the bells in St Peter and St. Martin’s towers were destroyed, and only eight houses were left standing. The monks evacuated the city during this fire, and the Church of Saint Hermes closed.
A fourth fire occurred in March 1719 and reduced to ashes 330 houses. The fire started in the home of Adrian Camphyn around four in the afternoon. The fire spread with such violence in different directions and claimed ten victims, including Msr. Jean-François Van Hove, the mayor, was buried under the ruins of his house. The fire stopped at the corner of a brewery called Het Schip in the alley of Saint Cornelius.
On March 31, 1719, during the Austrian period, the city was destroyed again by fire but quickly restored primarily due to its importance in the textile industry.
For the previous fires, Emperor Charles V and his son Philip granted the inhabitants of Ronse a discharge of all taxes or subsidies for several years in consideration of the losses they had incurred because of these different fires.
On 23 May 1552, major floods occurred at midnight due to a dreadful storm. The Molenbeek river came out of its banks and threatened the nearby homes.
Ronse was already damaged in the past by four fires, a flood, and the iconoclasts of the 16th century experienced in 1635/36 a new event even more terrible than the previous ones – the plague came and killed off 80% of the population, making the city almost a desert.
Let us note, in passing, that the small town of Ronse, so much tested at different times, knew, by the tireless activity of its inhabitants, by its industry and its trade, to be reborn every time from the ashes and resume his rank among the cities. Its inhabitants taking advantage of the times of peace under the Archdukes, were up and running in happier days during the century and a half that followed the days of mourning. Archduchess Marie-Thérèse, known for her virtues and high wisdom, had barely closed her eyes (29 November 1780) when the horizon darkened as her son Joseph II wanted to change everything. Eventually, all was downhill.”
The Modern Era
In 1789, when the Brabançonne Revolution broke out, Ronse supplied voluntary patriots to the cause. Three companies were raised at private expense, and a fourth was dressed at the city’s expense. The town provided two large caliber artillery pieces (dry-ponders).
[According to GLB:] “Our Patriots, who were trained in secret in the handling of weapons, was perfectly equipped, as we have just said. They stood ready to fly anywhere where the danger called to go fight – pro aris et focis! was their motto. After a few trips, a few steps, and countermarches, our Patriots quietly won their laurels.”
[What GLB does not mention is that the Branbantine Revolution was triggered by attempts by a the emperor to reform the Catholic Church in the Austrian Netherlands. For details see link at the bottom of this post.]
Emperor Joseph died on 20 February 1790. He had as his successor his brother Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany, who has crowned Emperor on 9 October 1790. All returned to stability when Leopold restored order and vowed to restore the people his brother had trodden underfoot. The emperor Leopold died in Vienna on 1 March 1792.
Francis II, his son, ascended to the imperial throne on March 3 of the same year. When progress was being made every day, the French Revolution was already causing alarm in all corners of Europe. The hostilities soon spread to Belgium, and the French took the country after the battle of Jemappes. They evacuated the following year after their defeat at Neerwinden.
The young emperor took charge of the next campaign. While the Austrian troops showed much courage, the victory won by the French army on the plains of Fleurus on 26 June 1794 decisively sealed the fate of Belgium, and this assured the conquest of the Flemish provinces by the French Republic. Soon, the republic imposed its laws and political organization on the people of Flanders.
From the beginning of the year 1796, the Ancien Régime was suppressed, and feudalism was dead. The city was made into a (commune) municipality, and its members were forced to perform their duties. As the revolution progressed, little was left in the parish churches, and the churches were closed on 12 November of the following year!
The annexation by France in 1795 brought an end to the administrative and judicial diversity in Ronse. During this period, Ronse faced major takeovers, and the city soon faced financial difficulty. In 1796, the old city administration dissolved to make way for the French legislation, which continued to the fall of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815 when the Netherlands annexed Belgium. When French rule was lifted, the barony and castle of Ronse were sold. From then, the castle fell into ruins until 1823, when it was demolished.
Late in 1797, the crucifixes and the saints’ statues from the churches were placed on the street corners and were ruthlessly destroyed by the gendarmes of the revolution. On 2 January 1798, the churches of St. Peter and St. Martin were put up for public auction.
On the tenth of January in that same year, Msr. Detienne, the parish priest of St. Martin, its two vicars, and two vicars of St. Peter, were condemned by the courts in Oudenaarde to a fine of 500 pounds and three months in prison because these gentlemen had celebrated the Holy Mass on 4 June 1797, without previously having what they called the submission.
On the first of November, the bells of the three churches were removed from their towers, which had resisted the blows of the French soldiers and a few others who joined them. These same French Republicans that were, according to their manifests as allies and brothers, had exercised, the eve of Toussaint, a sacrilege in the Collegiate Church of St. Hermès against the statues of the Apostles, the confessional, the relicts of Saint Croix, and those of Saint Roch and Saint Charles Borromeo.
On the eighth of November, two bells of St. Peter, two of St. Hermès, and three of St. Martin were loaded onto wagons and taken away to Ghent.
The chapel of the Saint Eloi Hospital was transformed into a temple of the goddess of Reason. The pulpit at Saint Hermes was taken over by a group called the “Day of the Decades,” From the pulpit, these radicals recited sermons filled with civic absurdities.
Towards the end of this year, military conscription was established in Belgium. The opposition of the priests and other disturbances, which took place in Ronse on this occasion, attracted the French army to the city, who, upon entering, bayoneted all those they found in the streets. Ronse, fortunately, escaped looting, and its archives were saved by the dedication of Msr. Fostier, justice of the peace, and P. A. Bataille, the City Secretary, but many families wept for those who were massacred in Oudenaarde.
During a two-day interval (3 and 5 December 1798), two former public servants and eight bourgeois belonging to honorable families of the city were arrested. The first two were sent to Paris, and after six months in prison, they were released. The eight bourgeois detained on December 5 were sent to Ghent, housed in the city jail for twenty days. There were many political prisoners that the Directory locked up in prison.
At the same time, there were a large number of priests who had not taken an oath against the Ancien Régime. Not only could they not preach in public, as we have already said, but they also could not show themselves in the streets, unless in disguise, for fear of being arrested and deported if found. They celebrated mass in safe houses with great precautions to avoid discovery. It was under cover of night and always in disguise that they administered the sacraments. Their parishioners were known as good Catholics who would find their spiritual needs. Ronse also had its confessors of the faith.
On 9 September 1798, the Vandeputte sisters and their brother, a parish priest of Nukerke, were arrested and taken to Ghent. On the first of December, Msr. Staelens, who was curé of Poucques for twenty-three years, and Msr. Van der Eecken, a priest, were arrested and taken by way of Oudenaarde and Ghent to Valenciennes, where they had to bear relatively long captivity. On 25 December, they arrested Messrs Van Hove, chaplain-Treasurer of the Collegiate Church of Saint Hermès, Wallez, the Abbot of St. Peter of Ghent, Fransman, and Magherman, vicars of Saint Peter, and Msr. Torsin, vicar of Saint Martin. All five were transported overnight to Ghent and taken to the prison at Ile d’Oleron.
We have before us letters one of the deportees, Mr. Van Hove, abbot, wrote to his family during his exile; but our pen refuses to reproduce all the insults that these gentlemen belonging to such noble families had to suffer at the hands of officers by the tyrants of the Directory in the hunt for priests.
Towards the end of this year December 26, 1799 (5 Nivôse an VIII), Bonaparte sought to impose his authority and, as an act of justice to the citizens of Ronse who were arrested and transported to the Ile d’Oleron on December 25, were all returned within their families February 12, 1800. On July 15, 1801, an arrangement [Concordat of 1801] was concluded between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, and solemnly proclaimed in France on April 28, 1802.
The parish church S Peter and S Martin, in which no one had said mass since September 1797, a service was celebrated there on 15 and May 16, 1802, in a Mass of thanksgiving by two venerable pastors had remained at their posts during the revolutionary turmoil. Ronse, which had formerly belonged to the diocese Chambray, and since 1559 the Archdiocese of Mechelen became part (because of the new district) of the Diocese of Ghent in 1801.
[In 1840, within the newly created Kingdom of Belgium, more than 55% of residents were dependent on the textile industry. The boom in the textile industry led to a growing population and prosperity. But a few years later, this dependence on increased mechanization brought a deep economic crisis. Many residents left the city for Northern France (Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing), seeking work in the textile industry. From the 1870s, the textile industry flourished despite a temporary slowdown during World War I.]
For a different view of the period from the Revolution of 1789 to War of the Sixth Coalition see Belgium from Revolution to the War of the Sixth Coalition 1789-1814 by Dale Pappas.