1873 - 1948
Article published in
The Lion of Flanders
Artois Boulonnais Hainaut Thierache Vermandois Ponthieu
Monthly magazine of the Vlaamsch Verbond van Frankrijk
N°30 - June 1943
The birth of a Reuze
Following Nicolas Bourgeois' short story Reuzelied ou le Chant du Géant which appeared in our January issue, our excellent friend Julien Prouharam sent us a long letter, the following extracts of which will be of interest to our readers:
I read, and I confess I reread, the chapter of the short story written in "Le Lion de Flandre" by Mr. Nicolas Bourgeois, and I smiled inwardly at every line I read, because every line, in fact, brings back a very personal memory and takes me exactly 29 years back in time, to February 1914, the date of birth of the reuze Jan den Houtkapper, of whom I am honored to be the authentic godfather and even a little... the father.
His attire is simple, even frustrating," says Nicolas Bourgeois, "and that's true.
There were five or six of us. who created him, brought him into the world, dressed him, adorned him, and helped him take his first steps under the grey skies of the Flanders town of Steenvoorde.
His carcass was fashioned by a skilled local basket-maker, Father Tillie; his chain-mail rib is lined on the inside with an envelope of hop husks donated by Mr. Delobeau, father of the current burgomaster; the dress was cut and fitted by César Gilloots, whom you know well.
We four of us sewed the zine strips one by one (a patient job, I assure you) to make up the stitches of the laubert. The head and hands were molded in Paris in a workshop specially equipped for this kind of work.
From early February to March 22, the date of the first outing, we worked each evening incognito, with very few financial resources at our disposal.
By Sunday March 22, everything was ready, except that we were missing both hands. The outing had been set for the afternoon, and on the morning of that memorable day, as is the custom in our Flanders, the hunting horns and trumpets accompanying a herald had loudly announced the feast ... after vespers. We were not at all reassured.
Would the little train from Flanders, which at the time arrived from Hazebrouck around 1 p.m., bring us the long-awaited parcel? We were already thinking about how to explain the matter in extremis, how to prepare public opinion in Steenvoorde for this unfortunate setback, when at last we were satisfied and to complete our friend Jan's grooming, several of us went without dinner that day.
Mr. Nicolas Bourgeois is right when he says: "His exploits have scarcely been recorded in official plays or in books with large print runs and there are no vast archives in a town that was so well arse'd and burnt by Philippe Auguste during his campaigns in Flanders".
As I said earlier, we had very few resources, and not even a penny's worth of encouragement from the Municipality. To make matters worse, the Dean didn't give us much publicity at High Mass, having reminded his flock that it was Lent and unseemly to hold a secular festival during this penitential period.
Few financial resources, no documentary resources.
I took it upon myself, in order to raise some funds, to draw up and print programs to be sold to the attendees, in order to interest the crowd we assumed would attend the feast.
I wrote down the legend of Jan den Houtkapper and, in order to give you an accurate account of things in detail, I intentionally left a certain vagueness about the name of our hero, who practised several trades: Bücheron, défricheur, expert weaver and skilful shoemaker. I said that legend...
called him either Jan den Houtkapper, Jan den Wever or Jan den Schoenmaker, three professions of great honor in the city of Steenvoorde.
In this way, I hoped to consult the popular voice, which would not fail to give its opinion.
I had specified in the story that my hero had once lived in the nearby Beauvoorde woods, and that he had toiled there for many years for many years. Thus was born our local reuze and it was to the name of Jan den Houtkapper that the crowd rallied.
Caesar Gilloots had told me about a certain Fromulus who, according to Sanderus, had been lord of Steinfort in the 12th century, but I never had the opportunity to read about his deeds, any more than I did those of Jan den Houtkapper. Perhaps, I should say... surely, if Mr. Nicolas Bourgeois, who is a scholar, were to read this modest work of nearly thirty years ago, he would soon find idle details, Byzantine hypotheses and haphazard reminiscences, even anachronisms. In that case, I would ask him to forgive me, thinking only of the good intentions and unpretentiousness of a novice, more absorbed at the time by his thankless job as a tax collector, which took up a lot of his time and involved a lot of work, leaving him very little leisure... as an archive prospector.
Nevertheless, the party was a great success. That evening, at the Hôtel de Flandre on Steenvoorde's Grand Place, the organizing committee was in full force... César Gilloots, our president, introduced me to a friend of his as the author, or rather the finder, of the festival's hero.
I was complimented by this friend, a local notary whose name I won't mention, who was no slim figure, nor a slim character. This excellent ministerial officer added: Your account is very interesting, very lively, very much in keeping with the local note, but it is regrettable that you have missed a spelling mistake. The word gesture is masculine: we say "a gesture, the gesture"
I had in fact written at the end of my account of our hero's life: Icy s'arrête la geste du Reuze de Steinfort...
I think Jan den Houtkapper himself would have been incapable of delivering such a blow. In any case, I would have forgiven him.
No doubt like me, you learned of Jan den Houtkapper's tragic end in May 1940 in Steenvoorde. He was a victim there, an innocent victim... martyred. His head was attached to a tank which, I'm told, was heading for Dunkirk. A few years ago, he had entered Dunkirk in a very different way. I must confess that this account of Jan den Houtkapper's end made my heart sink...
Our readers will also be pleased to read the text of the "Histoire du Reuze van Steinfort, d'après un rapsode de l'époque", as it was distributed at Jan den Houtkapper's first outing on March 22, 1914, and as we found it in a copy of the festival's prospectus that fortunately survived two wars. Let's hope that the gesture of the Reuze de Steenvoorde (with all due respect to the distinguished censor of spelling) doesn't end with the May 1940 ride on the turret of a battle tank.
Extract from La Voix du Nord Hazebrouck april 25, 1981.
La Photo was taken on july 8, 1928during the festivities in Cassel to mark the inauguration of the monument to Marshal Foch.
A parade was organized, featuring almost thirty giants from all over French and Belgian Flanders. M.P.Cnockaert and the Friends of Gambrinus found for us some of the names of the people featured.
From left to right and bottom to top: Front row: Ernest Delaeter, Michel Couture, Maurice Sénéchal, Gilbert Gilloots, Raphaël François, Félix Vuylsteker, Georges Delaeter, Louis Cahon, André D'Haudt, Henri Ruckebusch, Marcel Delaeter, Paul Spilmacker, Joseph Ruckebusch, Arthur Denaes, Michel Deram, Paul Delaeter, Rémi Poissonnier.
In the second row: Jules Delaeter, Léon Vuylsteker, Félix Cappelaere, Cyrille Deschuytter, Jules Pladys, Michel Haverbeque, Robert Théry, Georges Varey, Maurice Meese, André Dereeper, Cyrille Couture, André Vannobel, Maxime Pollet, Jules Maes, Albert Decoster, Maxime Bry, Lucien Gilloots, André Maes, Roger Hollande, Jérôme Peel (conductor of the Philharmonic at the time), Roger Wyart, Paul Leduc, César Gilloots (founding president of the Friends of Fromulus and promoter of Jean le Bûcheron, which he had made in effigy).
Third row: Michel Verhille, Raoul Barigel, Auguste Verhille, Daniel Declerck, Albert Delewil, Michel Pladys and René Six.
The names of the people were found thanks to two musicians in the photo M.Haverbeque and G.Delaeter.
References and sources: Bulletin Officiel Municipal 3ème trimestre (1964) -Bulletin Officiel Municipal N° 2 (1970) - Steenvoorde Info N°4 Juin (1994) - Revue Le Lion de Flandre Artois Boulonnais Hainaut N° 30 Juin (1943) - Jean Yves Cnapelynck, photo archive (Carnaval de Steenvoorde 1950 et 1951) - L'homme qui fabrique des géants, Nord-France (1948) - La Ballade des Géants de la Flandre maritine Française, Maurice Millon (1970) - Indicateur des Flandre, April 1979 - Indicateur des Flandres, Geo Hennebelle - Voix du Nord Hazebrouck, April 1981 - Patrimoine oral, audio recording:Georges Delaeter et Michel Haverbeque (1979) - Fiche PCI en France - Géants du Nord/Pas-de-Calais, Robert Chaussois (1998) - Dictionnaire des Géants du nord de la France, Gérard Tourpier (2007) - Gigantia, Un Mundo de Gigantes (2021) - Web archives: geant-belle-helene-org - les-amis-de-fromulus.com - mcsteenvoordois.fr - musique-steenvoorde.fr.
There are no sources that are never wrong, and no sources that are always wrong.