Country Survey: Belgium


Q. Name of area

The territory of present day Belgium, as the nation state founded in 1830. We have however also included data of the the period 1808-1830 for all those municipalities that belonged to Belgium from 1830 onwards.

Q. Current status - is it:

A nation state

Q. Outline history:



Q. Describe the MODERN hierarchy of geographical areas used for civil administration:

Bottom layer: municipalities - in 1801:

1830: 2498; 1850: 2528; 1875: 2572; 1900: 2617; 1928: 2675; 1961: 2663; 1963: 2663; 1965: 2586; 1971: 2359; 1983: 589

next layer: kantonsdistricts/unitary authorities - 1796: 270

next layer: arrondissement - 1801: 44

top layer: province and departments (French period): 9

Q. How long has this system existed?

Still in existence

Q. Describe earlier administrative geographies. [a very vague question!]

Bottom: parishes

Next: heerlijkheden (seigneuries)

Next: kasselrijen, vrijheden (amalgamations of seigneuries)

Top: Counties, Duchies,...

Q. Can we identify a hierarchy of broadly similar units that exist for all countries?

Certainly for those countries where the French revolutionary systems has been introduced in the late 18-19th century. Possibly for other countries as well.


Q. When was the first national census of population carried out?

The first well-known national census was in 1846. Before that date there were national censuses in 1797-1801-1806-1816-1830.

Q. Outline the later history of the census. Have censuses been carried out at regular intervals, and if so with what frequency?

The censuses have been carried out at intervals of 10 years from 1846 onwards with some delays at some periods of time, for example during the Second World War.

Q. What are the main geographical units used in published reports? Have these changed over time?

Municipalities, no changes.

Q. Is there access to more detailed unpublished information? If so, what geographical units do these refer to? Here again, have these units changed over time?

There is no other more detailed information available except for some cesuses per hamlet. Except for a few rare exeptions there are no censuses on the house-hold level available.

Q. What publications descibe the history of the census, and of census geographies? Are any available in English?

The forthcoming repertory includes an evaluation of all unpublished censuses (1796-1846).


Q. When was the recording of vital events (births, marriages and deaths) first required by law?

In 1796 the French revolutionay government made civil registration compulsory in every municipality though a similar system already existed before.

Q. What organisation was responsible for recording vital events? How has this changed over time? Until 1796 the church was responsible for the registration of baptisms, marriage and burials. From 1796 onwards each municipality became responsible for the registration ("Civil registration" of births, marriages and deaths).

Q. What geographical units were used in recording vital events?

The municipality.


Q. What historical taxation records exist for your area?

Land taxation records: since 1834 records are kept of taxes of all parcels and properties as records by the cadastre parcellaire office. In the archives many other kinds of taxationr ecords can be found, ever since the middle ages.

Q. What geographical units do these use?

The level of the parcels.


Q. What other major sources exist, and what geographical units do they use?



Many historical sources can be used for making maps. It depends on the theme you are working on, which sources you need.

Q. When was the first computerised map of administrative units created?

The first maps were created by commercial companies, such as Teleatlas where we bought our own 1977-mastermap in the 1990s. Since the 1990s the Flemish government has been working on an extensive G.I.S. of the Flemish region. See:

Q. What does it show?

The Flemish G.I.S. shows the division of Flanders into municipalities and can show data on many geological and geographical aspects of this area.

Q. How easily is it to obtain a copy?

It can be obtained by buying the CD-ROM with the maps on it.


Q. Who was responsible for changing boundaries? (Was it a government department, and if so which one? Was it the church?) How has this changed over time?

The highest authority in the kingdom.state decided upon this: Paris 1796-1815; The Hague/Brussels: 1815-1830; Brussels: since 1830.

Q. Who was responsible for creating a legal record of boundary changes? (The answer may be the same as the previous question, but not necessarily).

The same authorities as previously mentioned.

Q. What records have been preserved of boundary changes? Are they published or unpublished? How do they describe the old and new boundaries? How accurately do they give the dates of changes?

To obtain complete information on this issue, several archives need to be consulted, in particularly the archives of the Ministery of In terior Affaires and the legal records.

Q. Who was responsible for mapping your area? When was this organisation created?

The national Geographic Institute

Q. When did systematic mapping of boundaries begin?

Between 1808 And 1834 (as the preparation of the cadastre parcellaire)

Q. For periods before maps are available, are there descriptions of boundaries in words? Where are they preserved? How easy are they to interpret? For the period 1808-1834 there are descriptions of boundaries in words available. Thereafter such descriptions were no longer made.


Q. What research projects have gathered information on HISTORICAL boundaries for your area?


(J) ASSOCIATED METADATA (Gazetters, etc)

Q. What historical gazetteers are available for your area, in published or unpublished form? How do they indicate the location of the places listed? Do they cover variant forms of names?

Two important examples:

-C. Odiette, Dictionnaire géographique et topogrphique des treize départements, Paris, 1804.

-P. Vandermaelen created a Dictionnaire gégraphique for every province in 1838.

Q. Are more specialised geographical thesaurii available?

Ever since the population censuses of 1796 information on geographical units was given per hamlet or municipality. These can be used as geographical thesauri.

© Martina De Moor (Gent, May 2000)

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