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Visiting Mont Des Cats, Godewaersvelde, France, Near the Belgian Border: Evocative of Thoughts Hard to Put Into Words

Updated on August 3, 2019
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
 Mont des Cats, Godewaersvelde
Mont des Cats, Godewaersvelde | Source

A disturbing leitmotif?

This hubpage has proved to be very hard to write.

Not because Mont des Cats, in northern France, evokes few, significant thoughts, but, on the contrary, because it has caused me so many varied thoughts that have proved difficult to put into words that it has literally taken me years to get around finally to attempting to express some of those thoughts in words.

First, where is Mont des Cats (Dutch: Katsberg)? It is a hill in France's Nord department, within Dunkirk (French: Dunkerque; Dutch: Duinkerken) 'arrondissement', within an historic region known as French Flanders (French: la Flandre française). The hill is situated in the commune of Godewaersvelde (1).

The immediate hinterland around the port city of Dunkirk is very flat, befitting land which over the centuries has been reclaimed from the sea, but French Flanders does also have some significant hills, of which Mont des Cats, rising to a height of 164 metres (2), is among the more prominent ones. Since the 16th century, with some intermission, there has been a monastery at the brow of Mont des Cats. Closed at the time of the French Revolution, a monastery has again been functional since the 19th century under the Order of Reformed Cistercians. The monastery is popularly known as a producer of cheese.

Not only during the French Revolution were there scenes of conflict in the vicinity Mont des Cats, but also during World War One there was much sanguinary upheaval as rival armies fought desperately — sometimes to a standstill — over a few square metres of mud.

In the 16th century, also, there was much agitation in the area when many Reformed and even Anabaptist congregations (including a Reformed congregation in Godewaersvelde itself, within walking distance of the site of the monastery) were rigorously stamped out (3).

A long-serving Abbot of the monastery, Dom André Louf (1929-2010), was noted for the pursuit of Cistercian contemplative discipline. His reflections on his version of spirituality were annotated by Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), a Dutch Roman Catholic priest well known for his seminars in many North American colleges (4). Dom André Louf was also close to the pursuit of mysticism followed by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), who among his various specialisms was interested in mantras repeated by people of various religions.

The novelist Maxence Vander Meersch (1907-1951) wrote extensively about Flanders; indeed, the region provides a pervasive backdrop to many of his novels; it is as if Flanders in its widest definition serves as a latent character in many of his works. Although it has not received as much critical acclaim as some of his other novels, his 'L'Élu' (The Chosen)(5) is in my humble view among the most powerful of Maxence Van der Meersch's works. 'L'Élu' is about a rational, scientifically-minded industrialist who, after enduring the many vicissitudes of life, appears in the final scene at Mont des Cats monastery, where in some sense he seems to become reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church, amidst a profound sense of the dead and their Flemish context, uttering the memorable line: 'Mes morts sont en Flandre' (My dead are in Flanders). Again, in my humble view, this argument seems to be both very irrational but also very powerful — albeit unconvincingly so — bound up as it seems to be with the strong sense of place at Mont des Cats.

But back further into the past, and to the name of the hill itself: Mont des Cats / Katsberg. It is derived from the Chatti, a Germanic tribe noted for the prowess of their warriors. Evidence suggests that men of this literally barbarian tribe would practice the custom of not cutting their beards until they had proved their supposed sense of manhood by killing someone; young men would also wear a ring as a supposed sign of shame until their 'success' in killing someone would give them the right to remove the ring.

It would indeed seem that the suggestion of some sort of cult of death — in different manifestations — has in the many subsequent centuries formed a recurring leitmotif at this intriguing and — to me, at least — disturbing hill in northern France, close to the Belgian border.

July 16, 2019

Notes

(1) NB: The standard Dutch spelling today is 'Godewaarsvelde'; the official spelling 'Godewaersvelde' in France would be regarded as archaic in Belgium.

(2) A radio and television antenna on Monts des Cats rises to 364 metres.

(3) See also (in Dutch; abstract in French): Dr. Johan Decavele, 'De aanloop tot de reformatie in Frans-Vlaanderen', in: De Franse Nederlanden / Les Pays-Bas Français, Rekkem, Belgium: Stichting Ons Erfdeel: Jaarboek /Annuaire 1977, p. p. 121-135

(4) See also: https://discoverarchives.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/reading-notes-on-spiritual-direction

(5) Maxence Van der Meersch, 'L'Élu', Albin Michel, 1937

Some sourcing: Wikipedia


Mont des Cats seen from Steenvoorde, France
Mont des Cats seen from Steenvoorde, France | Source
French writer Maxence Van der Meersch (1907-1951).
French writer Maxence Van der Meersch (1907-1951). | Source

Also worth seeing

In Goedewaesvelde itself, the Eglise Saint-Pierre has a conspicuous tower; le Musée de la vie frontalière (Museum of Border Life) is situated in the village; a Commonwealth War Cemetery notably contains the grave of Louise Kemp (1881-1917), a New Zealander who served in the Territorial Forces Nursing Service. (See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elise_Kemp )

Ieper, Belgium (French: Ypres ; distance: 21.4 kilometres) situated in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, has a rebuilt Medieval Cloth Hall, with its permanent Flanders Fields Exhibition, and the Menin Gate, commemorating World War 1 war dead.

...

How to get there: A number of North American airlines fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, where car rental is available (distance between Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and Goedewaersvelde: 235 kilometres). But the nearest large international airport is Brussels Airport (Brussel-Nationaal / Bruxelles-National), where car rental is available (distance between Brussels Airport and Goedewaersvelde: 154 kilometres). Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Map location of Godewaersvelde, in Dunkirk 'arrondissement'
Map location of Godewaersvelde, in Dunkirk 'arrondissement' | Source

Comments

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    • MJFenn profile imageAUTHOR

      MJFenn 

      5 weeks ago

      Liz Westwood: Interesting question; I can't be categorical; but most of the Commonwealth gravesites in the area related to World War One rather than World War Two. Thank-you for your comment.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      I was wondering if, given the location inland from the coast, whether on their way to Dunkirk, any troops stopped on the hill to fight a rear guard action, allowing their comrades to escape to the beaches?

    • MJFenn profile imageAUTHOR

      MJFenn 

      5 weeks ago

      Liz Westwood: The hill is inland from Dunkirk, so I doubt where it saw much action in World War Two, as opposed to in World War One. There was a considerable displacement of population in the wider area during both World Wars. Yes, it is a very historic area; and one which deserves to be better know. Thank-you for your comment.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      Did this area feature in the retreat to Dunkirk. There is so much history to discover in this part of northern France. Was the monastery inhabited continuously through the world wars?

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