Last modified: 2012-02-25 by ivan sache
Keywords: nivelles | nijvel |
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Municipal flag of Nivelles - Image by Ivan Sache, 12 April 2004
The municipality of Nivelles (in Dutch, Nijvel; 24,622 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 6,060 ha) is located c. 30 km south of Brussels. The municipality of Nivelles is made since 1976 of the former municipalities of Nivelles, Baulers, Bornival, Monstreux and
The inhabitants of Nivelles born intra muros and able to prove several generations of ancestors in Nivelles are called aclots. It seems that this name does not mean "enclosed" but rather "whippersnappers".
Nivelles developed around a powerful abbey. Most of
the further historical developments in Nivelles were caused by the
struggle of the inhabitants of the town against the power of the
In the early Middle-Ages, Brabant was part of the Merovingian kingdom of Austrasia (511-751). Most of the power in the kingdom was exerted by the maire du palais (Mayor of the Palace). St. Pippin of Landen (a.k.a. as the Ancient) was Mayor of the Palace of kings Chlothar II, Dagobert I and Sigebert III. When Pippin died, around 640, the courtiers attempted to despoil his family. To avoid this, Pippin's widow Itte (a.k.a. Iduberge), founded c. 647-650 aRoyal abbey in Nivelles and appointed her daughter Gertrude as the abbess. She was supported by St. Amandus, an Irish monk, then Bishop of Maastricht. On 7 March 659, Gertrude died, aged 33. She was succeeded by her niece Wilfetrude. The abbey followed Sts. Colomban and Benedict's rule. Around 670, a monk from Nivelles wrote the first Vita Gertrudis (Gertrude's life), in which he relates the miracles exerted by the saint during her life and after her death. This work was the source of St. Gertrude's cult and of the popularity of the abbey.
Due to the increasing popularity of St. Gertrude's pilgrimage, the abbey church was progressively increased in size. On 4 May 1046, German Emperor Henry III (1017-1056) attended the dedication of the new collegiate church, which was more than hundred meters in length.
A document dated 1075/1076 mentions for the first time a Corps of Aldermen (Échevins). This seems to be the first time the inhabitants of Nivelles challenged the abbess' absolute power over the town. Around 1035, the Knight Templars were granted 530 ha in Vaillampont, near Thines, and founded there a commandery. A few years later (1066?), the building of the town wall was finished. A document dated 1182 calls Nivelles an oppidum (fortified town).
In 1262, the commune of Nivelles revolted against the
abbess, but the revolt was promptly suppressed. On 31 May 1298, St.
Gertrude's relics were officially presented and placed in a dedicated
reliquary which had been commissioned by the abbey chapter to the
silversmiths Nicolas de Douai, Jacques d'Anchin and Jacquemon de
In 1312, the Duke of Brabant confirmed the municipal privileges granted to the Bailiwick of Nivelles. The Crossbowmen's Guild (Serment des Arbalètriers) issued its Statutes in 1429. The guild was the first municipal militia. It was followed by the Culverinmen's Guild (Serment des Couleuvriniers), chartered in 1453, and later by the Archers' and Arquebusiers' Guilds. Charles the Bold, the last Duke of Burgundy (1467-1477), visited Nivelles around 1469 and offered the town a jacquemard, that is, an automaton ringing the hours of the day on a bell. The jacquemard is the ancestor of Jean de Nivelles, to be introduced below.
On 25 September 1647, the spinners employed in Nivelles by cloth
merchants caused a riot. The ill-advised municipal Councillor in Chief
expelled them from Nivelles, causing the ruin of the local clothing
industry, for the great benefit of the neighbouring
towns of Cambrai and Valenciennes (now
in France). The lacemakers who had developed a very specific point
also left the town.
In 1778, Empress Maria-Theresa (1740-1780) granted Nivelles new municipal Statutes. This was the last round in the struggle between the abbess and the burghers of the town. Maria-Theresa's son, Emperor Joseph II (1765-1790) decided to get rid of the "unnecessary" religious orders. On 15 January 1788, the 55th abbess of Nivelles was notified the definitive suppression of the abbey chapter and the abbey was nationalized.
Baulers (Bolarium, 877; Baulers,
1686) shared with Nivelles a motor-racing circuit on which two
Formula-One races were run in 1972 and 1974, both won by
Emerson Fittipaldi. The circuit, deemed boring, was later suppressed.
Bornival received its current name in 1656. It was called Pourbais in the 13th century and later Bornivaus. This name might have meant val borgne, "the obstructed valley". Bornival hosts the Krein Equine Center, of international reputation.
Monstreux is said to have been named after a monastery or a convent (monasteriolum) supposed to have existed there in 877.
Thines (Thienes, 1209 and 1644; Thiennes, 1566; Thisnes, 1602) is named after the river Thines.
The most important historical character related to Nivelles is Laurent Delvaux (1696-1778), who was the best sculptor in the Southern Netherlands in the 18th century. Delvaux studied in England and Rome, where he was mostly influenced by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), master in the monumental baroque style. Back to Nivelles in 1732, he opened a studio and produced several works, such as the pulpits of the churches of Nivelles and Ghent, statues for the abbey church of Nivelles and sculpture groups still kept in the former palace of Governor Charles of Lorraine in Brussels.
The St. Gertrude church in Nivelles, the former abbey church, is one
of the best example of Mosan-Romanesque style. Its building started
in the 12th century. The Romanesque-like octogonal bell-tower was
built after the Second World War to replace the Gothic spire, which
had been destroyed by a German bombing in May 1940.
The church peal of bells is made of 49 bells, one of them being rang by the jacquemart nicknamed "Jean de Nivelles". Jean is a 2 m tall, 350 kg heavy golden brass human figure hanging on the upper tambour of the southern tower of the church. The automaton rings the hours and half-hours of the day with a hammer. The jacquemart dates back at least to 1525. A document dated 1535 mentions l'homme de koeuvre [cuivre], "the brass man". It was then placed on the town hall but was moved for an unknown reason to the church tower. It seems that the automaton was called Jean de Nivelles after the transfer. Jean worked continuously until 1859, when the church tower was struck by lightning. In 1926, Jean resumed his job but was again laid off in May 1940 and eventually reinstalled after the Second World War. Jean is now the main symbol of the town of Nivelles.
The origin of the name of Jean de Nivelles is a bit obscure. A
story claims that in the 15th century Jean de Montmorency, Lord of
Nivelles, refused to join his father who had called him for fighting
war against the Duke of Burgundy.
The story was popularized by Jean de la Fontaine in his fable Le Faucon et le Chapon (The Hawk and the Capon ; VIII, 21) as follows:
Une traîtresse voix bien souvent vous appelle; / A treacherous voice often calls you
Ne vous pressez donc nullement : / Don't hurry
Ce n'était pas un sot, non, non et croyez m'en / Not at all stupid was, believe me
Que le chien de Jean de Nivelles. / Jean de Nivelles' dog.
La Fontaine twisted the original popular sentence, which was:
Ce chien de Jean de Nivelles qui s'enfuit quand on l'appelle.
The most direct translation is: "That Jean de Nivelles the Dog, who escapes when called", but ce chien de Jean de Nivelles can also be read as "That Jean de Nivelles' dog".
However, this Jean de Nivelles, with or without a dog, has probably nothing to do with the town of Nivelles. If he ever existed, he was most probably from Nivelle (without final "s"), a town located now in the north of France, close to the Belgian border.
Jean de Nivelles is the hero of a popular song from Brabant. This song seems to have been adopted by the French revolutionary soldiers stationing in Brabant in 1792, who changed the name of the hero to Cadet Rousselle. Cadet Rousselle owns three copies of every kind of things, but none of them works correctly.
Jean de Nivelles is also an opera (1880) by the French musician Léo Delibes (1836-1891).
Like several other Belgian towns, Nivelles has a carnival and a
family of giants.
The carnival is celebrated around the 17 March, which is St.
Gertrude's Day. Nivelles owns one of the most ancient giants, which
was initially kept in the abbey church. Goliath was mentioned
for the first time in 1367, and was renamed Argayon around
1500. He married Argayonne in 1645 and they got a son called
Lolo, famous for his comforter. In the 17th century, the
giants were joined by a menagerie made of the Dragon (1596),
the Horse-Godet(1637), the Eagle (1637), the
Lion (1640), the Unicorn (1668) and the Camel
As it was the case elsewhere in Belgium, the carnival of Nivelles was reestablished after the Second World War as a symbol of national liberation
Source: Municipal website
Ivan Sache, 5 March 2003
The flag of Nivelles is vertically divided blue-white-red, and
therefore, coincidentally, similar to the French national flag.
According to Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones [w2v03a], the flag was adopted by the Municipal Council on 5 October 1995 and confirmed by the Executive of the French Community on 28 March 1996.
The colours of the flag are taken from the arms of the noble Chapter of the St. Gertrude abbey, which were "Per pale France ancient, but with the fleurs-de-lis argent, and Lothier (Gules a pale argent)".
According to Servais [svm55], the former municipality of Lillois-Witterzée, incorporated into Braine-l'Alleud in 1976, was granted by Royal Decree on 29 January 1953 municipal arms made of two adjacent shields, the dexter shield showing the arms of the Chapter of the St. Gertrude abbey to represent Lillois, after a manuscript dated 1694.
Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 8 September 2007