Ancient capital of Flanders, now the chief town of the Departement du Nord in France
Lille, the ancient capital of Flanders, now the chief town of the Departement du Nord in France. A very important religious center ever since the eleventh century, Lille became in the nineteenth a great center of industry. With a population of 12,818 in 1789, of 24,300 in 1821, of 140,000 in 1860, and of 211,000 in 1905, it is today the fourth city of France in population. (For the early history of Christianity at Lille, see Archdiocese of Cambrai.) The legend according to which the giant Finard was killed in the seventh century, by Lideric, whose mother, Ermengarde, he held prisoner, and according to which Lideric founded the dynasty of the counts of Flanders, was invented in the thirteenth century. The first Count of Flanders, as a matter of fact, was Baldwin of the Iron Arm, in the ninth century (see Flanders), and nothing certain is known of Lille before the middle of the eleventh century. The city seems to have been founded about that time by Count Baldwin V, and in 1054 it was already so well fortified that Henry III, Emperor of Germany, did not dare to besiege it. In 1055 Baldwin V laid the foundation stone of the collegiate church of St. Peter, which was dedicated in 1066.
One of the oldest chronicles of Flanders says that the foundation of this collegiate church was the beginning of the prosperity of the town. St. Peter’s was served by forty canons and had very prosperous schools as early as the end of the eleventh century. About the same time Raimbert, a Nominalist, who taught philosophy in St. Peter’s school, was in conflict with Odo, a Realist, afterwards Bishop of Cambrai, but at that time professor at the convent of Notre-Dame de Tournai. Raimbert’s Nominalism, however, was never carried to the extremes which caused Roscelin’s condemnation in 1092. Another teacher in St. Peter’s school was the celebrated Gautier de Chatillon (twelfth century), the author of the “Alexandreis”, a Latin epic on Alexander the Great, which was used as a substitute for Virgil’s work in some of the medieval schools. Connected with the same school about the same time were Alain de Lille, surnamed the Universal Doctor (see Alain de l’Isle); Adam de la Bassee, a canon of the collegiate church, who composed beautiful liturgical chants; Lietbert, Abbot of Saint-Ruf, author of a great commentary on the Psalms, “Flores Psalmorum”. St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Bernard of Clairvaux visited the collegiate church of Lille, and in it Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, held, in 1431, the first chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by him in 1430 for the defense of Christendom against the Turks. In a neighboring palace was held the famous “Feast of the Pheasant” (1453), in the midst of which Religion, mounted on an elephant which was led by a giant Saracen, entered the banquet hall to beg aid from the Knights of the Golden Fleece. Jean Mielot, a canon of St. Peter’s at Lille, wrote for Philip the Good twenty-two works, including translations, ascetical works, and biographies. The most important of these works, “La Vie de sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie”, was printed later. Miniatures of that period often represent this canon offering Philip a book. It was he who, after the “Veen du Faisan”, translated a work of the Dominican Father Brochart, “Advis directif pour faire le passage d’oultre-mer”, and a description of the Holy Land.
About this time the preacher Jean d’Eeckhout, another canon of Lille, author of two celebrated ascetical treatises, on the espousals of God the Father and the Virgin, and on the espousals of God the Son and the sinful soul, yielded to the prevalent impulse towards pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and died while on his pilgrimage, in 1472. Influenced by the same movement, Anselm and John Adorno, members of a distinguished Genoese family settled at Bruges, made a visit to the Holy Land of which the narrative is preserved in a manuscript at Lille. John Adorno, on his return, became a canon of Lille and devoted himself to spreading, throughout Flanders, the devotion to St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose relics he had seen on Mount Sinai—hence the large number of Flemish works of art having St. Catherine for their subject.
In the thirteenth century the statue of Notre-Dame de la Treille, which stood in the collegiate church of St. Peter, drew thither many pilgrims. The reputed miracles of June 14, 1254, are famous. It is not certain from what year of that same century the Confraternity of Notre-Dame de la Treille dates; but it is historically certain that in 1470 Margaret, Countess of Flanders, decreed that every year, on the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday and for the nine days following, processions commemorating these miracles should be held in the city. The fragment of the True Cross which is still preserved at St-Etienne, Lille, was given to the chapter of St. Peter’s by the Flemish priest, Walter of Courtrai, who was chancellor of the Emperor Baldwin I at Constantinople. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, the collegiate church of St. Peter was annually the scene of the curious election of the “Bishop of Fools”, on the Eve of the Epiphany, and, on the feast of the Holy Innocents, of the election by the choristers of a “Bishop of the Innocents”, who was solemnly carried in procession. Another much frequented religious festival at Lille was that of the “Epinette” (little thorn), the solemnities of which began on Quinquagesima Sunday and lasted until Mid-Lent. The feast was instituted in the first half of the thirteenth century shortly after the convent of the Dominicans at Lille had received from the Countess Jeanne a fragment of the Crown of Thorns; it ceased in 1487, when the burghers began to find the expense too heavy. The veneration of the Mater Dolorosa originated in Flanders in the fifteenth century. The first treatise on this devotion, which dates from 1494, was the work of the Dominican Michel Francois, Bishop of Selimbria, and confessor of Philip the Fair, a native of Templemars, near Lille. The chapter of St. Peter’s immediately combined this devotion with that of Notre Dame de la Treille, and erected in the church of St. Peter the stations of the Seven Dolors, to be made in the same manner as the Way of the Cross.
The collegiate church also originated some important charitable works. Among these were the Cour Gilson, a row of houses established by Canon Robert Gillesson in the sixteenth century, the rents of which were to be used for works of piety and charity, the orphanage of the Grange, founded in the sixteenth century by Canon Jean de Lacu; the “marriage burses”, or dowries for poor girls, instituted by Canon Etienne Ruelin in the sixteenth century; the “prebends of the poor”, a fund instituted by Hangouard, dean of the chapter, to enable the aged poor to live with their children or kin without being a burden to them; and an apprenticeship fund for the benefit of young workmen, established by Provost Manare. Very modern ideas of assisting the poor were devised and carried out as early as the sixteenth century by the canons of St. Peter’s and through the liberality of Jean de Lannoy, the collegiate scholasticus, a mont-depiete was established to lend money free of interest to the needy. The collegiate church, again, hospitably received the English refugees, when the persecution of Catholics was raging in England. Among its English canons were John Marshall (1534-68), Allen’s auxiliary in the foundation of Douai, and Gilford (1554-1629), who, in 1603, at the peril of his life performed a mission in England for the Holy See, and who died Archbishop of Reims: David Kearney, who in 1603 became Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland, and suffered bitter persecution in that diocese. Until the sixteenth century the school of St. Peter’s was the only one in Lille where Latin and the humanities were taught; the city then opened a school which was entrusted to the Jesuits in 1592, and where the humanist John Silvius taught. The collegiate church of St. Peter disappeared with the Revolution.
After having in medieval and modern times followed the destinies of Flanders, which passed from the House of Burgundy to the House of Austria, the city of Lille became French when it was conquered by Louis XIV in 1667 and fortified by Vauban. In 1792 it heroically resisted the Austrians. During the nineteenth century two manufacturers of Lille, Philibert Vrau (1829-1905) and Camille Feron-Vrau (1831-1908) labored to form among the numerous workingmen of the city a center of Catholic activity. With the aid of the Abbe Bernard, Philibert Vrau founded, in 1863, the Lille Union of Prayer, the “Bulletin” of which gradually increased its circulation to 22,000; in 1866 he established the “Cercle de Lille”, which for many years held the district Catholic Congress for the Departement du Nord and the Pas de Calais, and in 1871 the lay association for building new churches in the suburbs. Philibert Vrau and Camille Feron-Vrau undertook to build a basilica for the statue of Notre Dame de la Treille, hoping that the city of Lille would some day be detached from the Diocese of Cambrai and become the seat of a new diocese with Notre Dame de la Treille as its cathedral. In 1885 they established the Corporation of St. Nicholas for spinners and weavers, with an employers’ and a workingmen’s council, and a cooperative fund supported by monthly assessments on both employers and employees.
The Catholic University of Lille, lastly, was the result of their continued and generous efforts. This scheme was presented by Philibert Vrau in 1873 at the Catholic Congress of the North; the Abbe Mortier, later Bishop of Gap, and the Abbe Dehaisnes, known for his writings on the history of Flanders, were appointed to report on the question. In 1874, in the ancient hall of the Prefecture, which had been rented for the purpose by Philibert Vrau, law courses were opened to the public. The passing of the law on the freedom of higher education (July 12, 1875) hastened the success of the foundation. On November 18, 1875, a complete law course was organized; on January 18, 1877, the four faculties of law, sciences, letters, and medicine were inaugurated; on November 22, 1879, the cornerstone of the university was laid. As early as 1878 it was ascertained that the hospital of St. Eugenia, attached to the faculty of medicine, had cared for as many as 2448 patients, and that the contributions received for the university already amounted to 6,473,263 francs (about $1,294,000). Philibert Vrau also took the initiative in establishing, in 1880, the only professedly Catholic commercial school in France. The school for higher industrial studies was established in 1885. As early as 1876 Philibert Vrau contemplated the foundation of a Catholic school of arts and crafts at Lille, but it was not until 1898 that the institute was inaugurated under Father Lacoutre, S.J. In 1894 there was added to the faculty of law a department of social and political science, and lectures are now given every year by the most distinguished Catholic savants of France. The system of political economy opposed to the intervention of the State in labor affairs—a system long favored by the Catholic industriels of Lille—was gradually overthrown by the teaching given in this department, and Professor Duthoit’s “Vers l’organisation professionelle”, published in the spring of 1910, finally confirmed the victory of Catholic social ideas at Lille.
In 1897, following the initiative taken by Cambridge and Oxford, the Catholic University of Lille established a “University Extension” for the organization of lectures by the university professors throughout the manufacturing centers in the vicinity of Lille. In 1898 the university organized higher education for the Catholic girls of Lille. In April, 1907, the Conseil General du Nord suggested the suppression by the State of the freedom of higher education and insisted upon ordinances preventing physicians coming from the Catholic faculty of Lille from attending paupers in the Departement du Nord at the expense of the State. Before the creation of district universities by the French Government, the Catholic University of Lille presented the first example of these institutions. As early as 1886, M. Lavisse, a professor at the Sorbonne, spoke in high terms of this impressive group of faculties, saying that in centralized France it was a distinguished honor to the University of Lille to have been incorporated in Flanders. The faculties of higher education which the State controlled at Douai were transferred to Lille in 1888 and raised, six years later, to the rank of a state university. Msgr. Baunard resigned the rectorship of the Catholic University in October, 1908, and was succeeded by Msgr. Margerin, who had distinguished himself in 1888 at Fournies by placing himself between the workmen and the fire of the soldiers. Among the noteworthy works of art possessed by the city of Lille is a wax head, preserved in the museum, purchased in Italy by Wicar during the Revolution; it is ascribed by this connoisseur to Raphael; Alexandre Dumas the younger attributed it to Leonardo da Vinci; Henry Thode claims that it was an antique modeled after the head of a young Roman girl whose remains were found in 1485; M Franz Wickhoff, on the other hand, is inclined to regard it as the work of one of the pupils of Victor of ortona (end of the seventeenth century or the beginning of the eighteenth), and is of opinion that it is the head of a virgin and martyr.