Project 4

Scars of history? The cultural construction of cross-border Dutch and Belgian Limburg in the 19th and 20th centuries: courses, intercourses, and discourses

Prof. Dr. Peter Scholliers, Free University of Brussels
Prof. Dr. Ad Knotter, University of Maastricht
Karen Arijs, Free University of Brussels

The Eurocorecode-project ‘Unfamiliarity’ aims at researching the (de)construction of borders by analyzing historical representations and daily practices in border regions. In the present individual project, the border provinces of Dutch and Belgian Limburg are chosen as a case to study (un)familiarity in both historical practises (cross-border interaction and cultural behaviour) and representations (public discourse).

Today, Europe has two provinces of Limburg: one in the Netherlands, and the other in Belgium. Both emerged in 1839. The two provinces had formed one province within the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-30) and within Belgium (1830-9). This unity was based on the French Département de la Meuse Inférieure (1794-1814). Prior to 1794, however, a distinct Limburg area had never existed. As part of the broad frontier zone at the western fringe of the German Empire, this area had been divided in a myriad of feudal sovereignties and territories. Parts were governed by the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, other parts by the Dutch Republic, the German Empire or the Austrian Netherlands. In 1815, the name of the new province of Limburg had been derived from the old Duchy of Limbourg near Verviers, which had expired in 1288; it never had any territory in the newly formed province in 1815. Thus, the provinces of Limburg in Belgium and the Netherlands have barely been united for 15 years (1815 and 1830), or at best for 30 years (including the period of the French département and the nine years under Belgian rule). Yet, today many politicians, cultural authorities and a large part of the inhabitants of both provinces consider the cultural and historical unity of both provinces as self-evident. This view leads to preferential treatment of each other in the context of the larger Euregio Meuse-Rhine (including the Belgian [Walloon] province of Liège and the German district of Aachen).

This research project proposes the analysis of the historical meaning of the political border between both provinces of Limburg since 1839. Our proposal focuses on these two provinces, but the issue of attitudes vis-à-vis national borders between areas with (some) common features may be found all over Europe. Of course, spatial and historical contexts may differ widely, but the Limburg-case is not only relevant in terms of the research’s outcome, but also with regard to approach and methodology.

Defining the region is essential. Instead of limiting the definition to territorial or administrative criteria[1], criteria to define regions may be found in cultural, social and psychological spheres. We propose to categorize these in cultural behaviour, social interaction, and discursive practise, which are to be found in various spaces. Cultural spaces can be defined by recognizable social habits and commonalities of daily life, action spaces are determined by the spatial range of personal (inter)actions, while cognition spaces are based on the lived experience of a geographical space coming along with affection space that refers to the identification with spatial environment. These spaces mutually impinge on each other, and their nature and components determine the character of a ‘border region’. Non-territorial regional definitions are crucial to understand the impact of territorial borders. This approach leads to questions such as: Can Belgian and Dutch Limburg historically be considered to compose one cultural region? Do both provinces offer common spaces of cognition, affection and/or interaction? If so, how strong is this sentiment of unity? When did it emerge, and how did it develop? What was the impact of the progressive integration of these peripheral areas in their respective national states? How did public discourse on these issues develop on both sides of the border? In this respect, the concept of unfamiliarity is interesting, as it relates to cognition/affection, interaction, and discourse.

This project proposes historical research that touches upon theory (formation of the nation-state; identity construction; core – periphery development), but emphasizes empirical study. Therefore, the project will study the construction of cross-border Limburg on three, very practical levels: what people eat (courses); how people relate/interact (intercourses); how people talk (discourses). These practical levels are related to cultural behaviour, social interaction and discursive practices respectively.

This implies the study of:
  1. Food practices as a marker for common or different cultural behaviour and attitudes[2]. Both Dutch and Belgian Limburg were predominantly agricultural until the development of coal mining after 1900. Of what did the daily meal consist, and what food and drinks were consumed during special occasions? What were the specials that may have contributed to identity construction? Did both provinces have much in common with respect to ingredients, preparation, and appreciation? What was the impact of industrialisation and national integration? Did foodways diverge or converge?
  2. Cross-border marriages as a marker of social interaction[3]. What was the impact of the political border on marriage behaviour and migration? Did the Belgians in Limburg see the Dutch in Limburg as foreigners, and vice versa? Were there regional differences within the two provinces? What is the relationship with other forms of cross border interaction (e.g. migration, cross-border labour, and shopping)? Did migration and marriage change geographically, e.g., did people from Belgian Limburg reorient toward Belgium? How did general migration and marriages evolve in both provinces?
  3. Texts about the two provinces’ dealings as a marker of discursive practices[4]. What was the origin of the idea of a cultural unity? When did this appear, and how did it evolve? How was it substantiated, and (how) did people react? Who were the main devotees in both provinces? How did it relate to political goals and ideals, like the Flemish national movement, Belgian annexationism, and anti-Dutch feelings in (Dutch) Limburg?
[1] Referring to present-day questioning of national borders see T.M. Wilson & H. Donnan (eds), Border identities. Nations and states at international frontiers, Cambridge, 1998 and T.M. Wilson & H. Donnan, Borders : frontiers of identity, nation and state, Oxford, 1999. 
[2] P. Scholliers (ed.), Food, drink and identity. Cooking, eating and drinking in Europe since the Middle Ages, Oxford – New York, 2001.
[3] W. Rutten, ‘Twee nationaliteiten op één kussen. Huwelijk en partnerkeuze in de Zuid-Limburgse grensstreek in de negentiende en twintigste eeuw’, in J. Kok & M.H.D. van Leeuwen (eds.), Genegenheid en gelegenheid. Twee eeuwen partnerkeuze en huwelijk (Amsterdam 2005), p.159-180. A. Knotter, ‘The border paradox. Uneven development, cross-border mobility and the comparative history of the Euregio Meuse-Rhine’, in Fédéralisme Régionalisme, 2002-2003, vol. 3 (
[4] O.T. Kramsch, ‘Re-imagining the ‘Scalar-Fix’ of transborder governance: the case of the Maas-Rhine region’, in E. Berg & H. van Houtum (eds), Routing borders. Between territories, discourses and practices, Burlington, 2003, p. 225-235.
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