Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, August 16, 2022


 "Christ in Flanders" by Honore de Balzac (first published in 1931 as "Jesus-Christ en Flandre;" reprinted and translated many times; it was revised in 1846 and included in La Comedie humaine, vol. XIV, Etudes philosophiques. vol. I, where it was combined with "L'Eglise" [1831], which was in itelf a combination of two earlier texts, "Zero" and "La danse des pierres" [both 1830]; also included in Romans et Contes Philosophiques [1831],  Shorter Stories from Balzac [1890], the anonymously-edited Tales for a Stormy Night [1891, as "Miracle in Flanders"], and innumerable collections of the author's works; the version of the story that I read was translated by Ellen Marriage)

"Christ in Flanders" starts off with a legend a la moralistic  miracle play.  As with all legends, we are told that the tale grew and morphed over the centuries to the point that what been once been true may no longer be so, but that the current state of the "truth" that the legend has taken is still valid. 

Centuries ago, communication between the Island of Cadzand and the town of Ostend on the Flemish coast was achieved only by boat. a ferry making regular trips between the two locations.  Late one day as the captain of the boat was about to leave Cadzandfor the final trip of the day, a man, bareheaded, in a brown camlet coat and trunk-hose, a plain stiff inen collar," carrying "no cap or bonnet in his hand," with "neither sword nor purse at his girdle," but somehow "sure of his authority, "  appeared a few paces from the boat on the jetty.  The wealthier passengers -- seven of them -- resented the slight delay this man's sudden appearance had caused them, and they crowded together at the forward part of the boat, leaving no room for the new-comer.  The man then went to the rear of the boat where common-folk sat and a mother holding and infant and an old soldier automatically moved aside to make room for him.

Dark was approaching as the boat left the Island and once on its way, the skies darkend and threatened a sudden storm.  The storm that came was the worst the boat captain had seen in his thirty years at his trade.  The violent waves shook the boat, lifting it over and over, then plunging it into the deep furrows caused by the gigantic waves.  All passengers feared for their lives and the captain, just as fearful, worked hard to save the vessel.

Those at the front of the boat began to bargain with the Divine.  One promised a thousand pounds of wax and a statue to be erected to the Holy Virgin of Good Hope in Antwerp.  Another, a bishop, bemoaned his luxeries and his mistress rather than concentrating on the welfare (spiritual and otherwise) of his fellow passengers.  A young schemer out to find himself a wealthy bride, tried to convince a girl of privilege to abandon her mother and to swim to safety with him where he would take of her (and her inherited wealth) for the rest of her life.  And so it went at the front of the boat.

At the rear, the passengers were also frightened and upset but faced their fate with acceptance.  The only person to remain calm on the boat was the stranger.  When the young mother pryed that her child be saved, he gently told her, "You yourself will save it."  To the others, he said, "Have faith, and you will be saved." 

The captain's Hereclean efforts at the helm eventually brought the boat to within fifty yeards of the Flemish shore when a terrible wave struck the vessel and capsized.  The stranger then told the passengers, "Those who have faith shall be saved:  let them follow me!"  With that, he left the boat and began to walk on the water to shore.  Others -- the humble ones -- followed.  Those in the front of the boat were not so lucky.  A miser tried to take his gold with him and sank to the  bottom of the sea.  The young cad drowned, taking the girl with him.  Those who mocked the stranger also drowned.  And the bishop and the old lady, both "heavily laden with sin," went to the bottom, their so-called pious devotion having nothing to do with truw religion.  At the shore, the stranger led them to shelter, then went out alone, where he found the boat's captain at the base of the cliff and carried him to the shelter.  And then the stranger vanished, leaving behind (it is said) his footprints in the sand, which were taken as relics when the Convent for Mercy for sailors was built on the spot, these bearing witness to the Savior's last known appearance on Earth.  Monks removed the footprints in 1793 during the French invasion.  The relics were never seen again.

That was the legend as passed down over the ages.

Fast forward to shortly after the Revolution of 1830, with our narrator visiting the the convent church.  He is severely stricken with despair and an ennui that had no logical cause.  The church itself was magnificent with its stained glass windows, delicate carved stone, and graceful pointed arches.  Both the sun's reflections and the shadows played with the light and the beauty of the building seemed to tke the narrator "to the borderland between illusion and reality."  Mists swirled about him and the building itself began to move.  The walls swayed with graceful caution.  The columns began to laugh and dance.  The arches dashed at the tall lancet windows.  The mitred arcades began to dance.  the whole cathedral began "whirling around so fast that everything appeared to be undisturbed."  A withered woman came up to him, took his hand, and said, "Awake and follow me."

She led him out of the curch, through the dirtiest streets of town, and to a dingy building, then to a room "hung with ancient, ragged tapestry, amid piles of old linen, crumpled muslin, and gilded brass." The old crone then said, "Behold the wealth that shall endure forever!"  In his horror, the man saw that the woman was dead apparition from a graveyard -- bald, with fleshless arms that encicled him with bands of iron set with spikes.  He recognized her as the woman who had throughout history betrayed her essentail good nature to scheme and plan and prositute herself for worldly gain, only to die having nothing, leaving noe to mourn her.  At this, the old hag transformed into a beautiful, diaphanous creature clothed in white linen, with a ring of gold hovering over her head, holding a sword with a flaming blade pointed towards heaven.

This new incarnation cried out, "See and believe!"  And our narrator saw thousands of cathedrals like the one he had just left, "but these were covered with pictures and with frescoes, and I heard them echo with entrancing music.  Myriads of human creatures flocked to these great buildings, swarming about them like ants on an ant-heap.  Some were eager to rescue books from oblivion or to copy manuscripts, others were helping the poor, but nearly all were studying.  Up above this countless multitude rose giant statues that had been erected ib their midst, and by the gleam from a strange light from some luminary as powerful as the sun, I read the inscriptions on the base of the statues -- Science, History, Literature."  The ghostly vision before him then said, "There is no faith left in the earth!..."

A hand then shook our narrator, telling him to wake up as the cathedral doors were about to close...

Awakened, our narrator said, "Belief is life!  I have just witnessed the funeral of a monarchy, no we must defend the church."

There is a lot to unpack in this story and I am not really the person to do it.  The author, Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) was one of the greatest writers of his (and perhaps any) time.  He is considered on of the founders of realism in european literature and was a major influence on such writers as Zola, Dickens, Proust, Flaubert, and Henry James.  Most of his work falls under the massive Comedie Humaine -- an enormous series of books and stories designed to cover all aspects of society in a panoramic fashion, originally designed to have three basic themes -- analytical studies, philsophical studies, and studies of manners, this last to include six types of scenes:  private, provincial, Parision, Military, political, and country life.  Blzac also used a pool of reoccurring, finely realized characters in his novels; his Comedie Humaine 2,472 named characters and 566 unnamed charcters (no, I did not count them).  Balzac's attention to detail and to characterization helped pave the way for the modern novel.

About this story.  It may help to realize that Balzac was a devout Catholic as well as a Legitimist supporting the Royl House of Borbon of King Charles, and hoped to be a mediator between the king and insurgent forces but a near-fatal accident in 1832 prevented him from attempting this.

"Christ in Flanders" is an intersting read, although somewhat confusing to this non-Catholic, non-French, non-Legitimist, and non-inhabitant of the 19th century.  Still, I think it is is worth your time.

Various translations of the story are avaiblable to be read online.


  1. There was a time when I read some Balzac but not in the last forty years. Tis a shame.

  2. Balzac is Deb's favorite writer. I've read over a dozen of Balzac's novels and enjoyed them all. I have collections of Balzac's short stories waiting to be read.