Christ in Flanders, by Honoré de Balzac

Jèsus-Christ en Flandre
Christ in Flanders

Our narrator starts this tale by telling us that this is a tale that has been passed down from generation to generation, altering on its tellings. We, as the listeners, are to make of it what we may.

The story starts in a long ago time in the history of Brabant. A boat carrying passengers from the coast of Flanders to Ostend, is leaving. On this boat, we have two sets of passengers. In the stern sits a young knight, a damsel and her mother, a Bishop, a burgher of Bruges with his servant, and a doctor from the University of Louvain, traveling with his clerk. These are the rich passengers, full of pride, learning, and debauchery. In the bow or fore part of the boat, sits a different group of people, a poorer group of people. Here sits a young mother with a baby, a peasant and his ten year old son, and Tomas, a rower, who has, “for the love of God”, allowed a beggar woman to come into the prow and sit. The boat has a skipper.

Just as the boat is preparing to leave, a traveler, who is seen as a burgomaster, comes aboard. Seeing no seats in the stern, he takes a seat in the bow. The boat then departs.

Once on the open sea, the experienced skipper sees all the signs of a major storm and proclaims that he feels the storm in his wounds. Those in the stern of the boat relate to this news in their own ways of concern, revealing much about themselves. In the bow, the passengers are shown in sharp contrast. They have no concern for treasures, being ready to part with them “all in a belief”. Their faith is strong. Their force of will is strong and it is their will, learned men say, that is so much like the Soul.

Taking on what seems to be a Christ presence, the stranger comforts those around him and when they tremble, he says, “Have faith and you will be saved.”

It is not long after this that we see the saving of those who had faith and did believe. The stranger walks across the sea, leading the believing and faithful passengers to safety. One by one the wealthy, who sat in the stern, met their fate in the sea though they were but a short distance from the land.

The Convent of Mercy was built on the spot where these passengers came to safety. The story tells that it was until 1793 when the monks removed them, that the footprints of Jesus Christ could be seen here in the sand.

Our story now shifts to a later time. It is after the Revolution of 1830 and our narrator is at this convent, in a state of despair. Entering the cathedral, he has such an experience that he wishes to live out his life in this phantasmagoria, however a voice calls to him, “Awake and follow me!” He is lead by a woman who, being ice-cold, appears to have come from the grave. She cries, “Suffer! Suffer! So it must be!”

As our narrator follows her from the church, she continues to speak. “Defend me! defend me!” she says, and leads him into a room of old wealth saying, “Behold the wealth that shall endure for ever! It is my purpose to make thee happy for ever. Thou art my son.”

Our narrator then speaks to her, calling her a miserable woman and saying that she has been a Messalina, being dead by her own deeds. “Is not this thy story?” he asks.

We then see the aged woman rise up and become young with golden hair flowing over her shoulders. Banishing a flaming sword towards heaven, she says, “See and believe!” and we see the cathedrals overrun with those seeking to study, preserve books, and help the poor. Erected among these people are three statues on the base of which are written the words: Science, History, Literature.

The aged woman returns to what she was and leaves us with the words, “There is no faith left in the earth!”

Our narrator has beheld what he says is “the fairest and the greatest, the truest and most life-giving of all Powers.”

A parish official rouses our narrator who wakes to find himself in the original cathedral as it is closing. He leaves us with these parting words:
“Belief,” I said to myself, “is Life! I have just witnessed the funeral of a monarchy, now we must defend the church.”


Read it here

Summary by Merrie, January 2007


5 comments on “Christ in Flanders, by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Another one I haven’t read, Dagny – I have some serious catching up to do when I get back from overseas.


  2. This is a short one, but rather confusing. It’s in the Philosophiques group and I think I find all of them confusing, lol.

    Merrie did a great job summarizing it. After you read it, be sure and check the group Archives (January, 2007) for some interesting insights by Jean and others.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      I’ve read it now, and posted my observations on GoodReads before coming here to see if there was a summary. Thanks for the tip about the archives…I’ll see what I can find.


  3. scamperpb says:

    Here are Jean’s comments:
    The woman is Faith. She is skeletal because of the attacks on
    belief. She cries out that she must be defended. Then he says
    she is a Messalina, being dead by her own deeds. (Messalina was killed forher promiscuity). I don’t see how this fits.

    The vision changes and she becomes young. As a young woman she shows the church as studying and helping the poor and preserving books. The church as it once was, very vibrant? But she becomes again the old lady and announces there is no faith left on earth.

    The narrator has been inspired. He realizes the revolution has done away with the monarchy. Now he must return to defending the faith.


  4. scamperpb says:

    …and my final thoughts 4 year later:

    Saintsbury says the “Christ in Flanders” is good, but curiously doesn’t make a single specific comment on it. And other sources that I read just make a muddle of it. But Lisa and Jean get to the heart of the matter when they write that Balzac is affirming the worth of the Church that is represented by faith in the Christ of the peasants, who are able to follow him in faith when their boat capsizes (and the archbishop and wealthy sink and die). Balzac ends the story saying “having just witnessed the funeral of a monarchy, now we must defend the church.” This no doubt was Balzac’s reaction to the Revolution of 1830 and the downfall of both the monarchy (of which he was in favor) and the church (of which he was not at first). I think Balzac sees that a reinvented church is all that French society has left on which to rebuild. But I have to say it wasn’t a fun read for me, and when I read it in 2007 I said I was ‘nonplussed’.


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