In those days, the town of Steinfort didn't shine with extraordinary brilliance. Counts, barons, knights and fiefdoms warred in the distance, while the town's inhabitants toiled hard and steadfastly.
Weavers dutifully spun hemp, while shoemakers bravely pounded leather, and woodcutters from the Beauvoorde woods toiled with axes and hammers, felling wood for the heavy windmills; or chopping wood for the huge chimney fires, for charcoal had never been used in these parts.
Flemish historians affirm that in the Seigniory of "Steinfort", which then depended on the famous Châtellenie of Cassel, there was a modest cense built astride the "Ey Beck" river, two arrow-spans from the manor on the woodland side.
Here, Jan de Steinfort's family lived from father to son, the males all tradesmen, good hemp spinners, bold lumberjacks or skilful shoemakers.
Father Jan had all the qualities of his ancestors to a supreme degree, and within a radius of twenty leagues there was no better craftsman than him, as expert in the art of handling the shuttle, or "wevers-spoel", as the woodcutter's axe or "kapmes", or the shoemaker's simple flat hammer.
He was known indifferently as "Jan de Wever", "Jan de Houthakker" or "Jan de Schoenmaker". He was a man of gigantic stature and Herculean strength. In fact, strength was hereditary in the family; but Jan in particular had an extraordinary reputation, a reputation he didn't care much for, because the Flemish craftsman never sinned through pride.
Feet firmly planted like the sturdy oaks of his country, legs and torso molded, arms like young spindles, chest as broad as the table in the guardhouse of the lordly castel, a good Flemish head with blue eyes and blond hair that reached down to his shoulders, such was our friend "Jan"; who, when invited by Jacques Lauwaert, the local brewer, was not shy about taking a ton of "Oudebier" under each arm and lowering it down the wide marble staircase into the huge cellars of the manor house when the lord of "Steinfort", Thibaut-le-Fonds, invited him.Steinfort", Thibaut-le-Hardi, had distinguished guests at his table; great hunters and fine gourmets who had come to "Out-Land" to pursue fox, wolf, wild boar or stag.
Jan's family seemed at ease, and because he and his family knew and practiced three trades, there was never a shortage of work. For over twenty years, Jan had even become the official shoemaker to the Emperor of the Franks, Carolus Magnus. We know that Charlemagne, the glorious son of Princess "Berthe aux grands pieds", had imposed the length of his brodequins as the unit of measurement in the vast empire under his jurisdiction, and that his feet were difficult to put on.
We also know that the Great Emperor, attracted by the reputation of the Flemish shoemaker famous throughout Neustria, had passed through Steinfort on his way to campaign in Saxony. Saint-Crépin's disciple had supplied the Emperor with a pair of shoes so solid, so well made, so well conditioned, that they were still in use when, four years later, the Emperor left for Spain to fight the pagans and Muslims.
As a token of his gratitude, Charlemagne had delegated his nephew Roland to present the famous Flemish cobbler with a magnificent hauber or metal cuirass, a helmet or steel helmet, and a sword of the finest temper. The cuirass had the circumference of the ogival tower of the Steinfort manor chapel; as for the helmet, it could have served as a bathtub for Messire Thibaut's young son. The sword, a true marvel of art, measured nearly five cubits and was as wide as both hands.
Jan hung it in the hearth of his father's cense.
A few years later, there was great sorrow in the Flemish country due to the death of the Great Emperor Charles, and soon afterwards a frantic band of clerics and laymen, men and women, old men and children, came down the road to Castrum (now Caëstre), dragging behind them beasts of burden and provisions on carts. As the world descended upon the town, the terrifying news came that the "Noordmans" (men from the North) were advancing, laying waste to everything in their path. These "Noordmans" (or Normans) had sailed up the Seine to Lutetia with a large fleet, and a band of them numbering several thousand had reached the towns of Neustria. They were thinking of setting out again via the North Sea, promising to wipe out all their land.
When the people of Steinfort realized that their hour was near, they recommended themselves to God, and set about doing penance and disposing of their temporal goods for the salvation of their souls. Bona fide chroniclers tell us that there was only one inhabitant in the town of Steinfort who was not affected by fear, and who was not willing to give a sol tournois or even a red liard, rightly considering, he said, that his "honor as a Fleming", his "dignity as a craftsman", and his status as a "feal", were of the utmost importance.our brave Jan remembered the words of the "Great Emperor", which his nephew Roland had told him 20 years earlier, when he gave him the hauberd, helmet and sword, which are not ornaments for villains.
While "Jan Van Steinfort" and his two sons, Gilles and Jacobus, were still tapping repeatedly on the hard Flemish leather, tapping so hard and so violently that over there on the shores of Mont Cassel the echo was awakened and was going to reverberate against the flanks of the Cast-Berg, Jan, spitting into his right hand to facilitate the coming and going of the hammer said to his sons:
"Hardi, mes gars! On Saturday, God willing, we'll empty a ton of beer at Siska's, the good hostess of the Boernholl, to the health of the accursed Normans who will never dare approach Steinfort".
The superior of the Priory of Saint-Laurent, the pious Abbé Jérôme, had decided to pay a visit to the shoemaker's family, who continued to work undisturbed but had not set foot in the chapel since the Sunday after vespers, while the entire population had taken refuge in the churches and was praying fervently.
Half fearful, half trembling, the good abbot had entered the cense through the large door, whose jambs were two oak trees, the two finest in the Beauvoorde woods, felled by Jan's grandfather's own hand and carefully squared.
father," replied the cobbler, "we're good Christians, and I've made a vow to the great St. Peter, the patron saint of the village, to St. Lawrence, the protector of the priory, and to St. Crispin, the model for cobblers, never again to empty a single ton of beer if at the moment of danger I'm not in the front line; and if by my courage and that of my sons I don't contribute, for my part, to driving out of our country the accursed pagans of whom you speak to me! Help yourself and heaven will help you! That, my Reverend Father, is my family motto. Why worry in advance? What's the point of distributing the few possessions I've worked so hard to gather by the sweat of my brow and the strength of my arms, if tomorrow they're going to fall willy-nilly into the hands of these miscreants?".
that's right, my son," replied the prior, "and may the Lord grant your wish.
The next day was Laetare Thursday, the day of Mi-Carême... The pale March sun was slowly rising over the Flemish horizon, illuminating the vast plain of dreary grey tones that stretches between the municipality of Steinfort and the town of Cassel.
Suddenly, however, this ever so bleak plain seemed to come alive, with men-at-arms moving swiftly and decisively on all sides. It was the "Kings of the Sea", as the Normans called themselves, who had bypassed the town from the Castrum road and were presenting themselves on the Cassel road in front of the portcullis that commanded the main entrance to Steinfort at a place called "La Barrière".
"La gueularde", the loudest bell in the manor chapel, cast its most mournful notes across the Flemish plain.
"Jan van Steinfort, who had risen before daylight, knelt down with his two sons and prayed to Heaven...
"My gods! Let's leave the cobbler's work for the moment, for better work calls us outside; today we must try if Norman leather will be easily tanned".
Jan unhooked his cuirass and put it on, then placed the helmet on his blond head, adorned with a plume in the local colors. He kissed the hilt of his sword, which was in the shape of a cross, but did not gird himself with it; having affixed it standing at the edge of the alcove of the large bed where every evening he rested, he said to his sons:
"God forbid I should wish to stain this holy sword with the blood of miscreants. I know better how to handle the wrought-iron hammer and the polished steel kape-mes! May the great Saint-Crépin, God's good shoemaker, who was a good hammer-wielder all his life, come to my aid, and give me the courage to strike like him, hard and firm, in defense of our freedoms. You, my lads, follow me and if God forbid I should die fighting, pick up my carcass, carry it to the bed where my father died and where my grandfather gave up his soul to God, then call Father Jérôme to come and recite the prayers of the dead, after which and before the Normans have reached our cense, you will build with "heart of oak" my coffin, which you will lay in the bed of the "Ey-Beck", with my face turned towards the land of the Franks and the sword of the Great Emperor planted at my feet as a cross".
In no time at all, Jan was at the gate... It was high time! The portcullis had already been forced open.
But then came an unforgettable sight in Steinfort. Jan, who had a shoemaker's hammer at his belt and a sturdy, long-handled "kape-mes" in his rough hands, was reeling as hard as the Cassel mills ever did in the strongest of storms. Like ripe wheat falling before the advancing harvester, the Normans fell with jab and thrust, never to rise again. Sus aux infidèles! No quarter given! Proud as the lion of Flanders, the cobbler shakes his blond hair from time to time; he has all the air of a true baron, under his cuirass beats his courageous heart! And in battle our sturdy Fleming struggles hard.
"Help! Help!" shouted the enemies, while others cried out, "Let's flee as fast as we can! At this, many of them turn their backs. Jan never tires! Always striking! Always the slaughterer! The road to Cassel clears, and the pagans begin to flee through the Ryveld in a stampede! From the village, a few inhabitants went to the chapel to deliver the great news. Little by little, all the people of Steinfort rushed to the rescue, preceded by Jan's two sons, who followed closely behind their father! Then came those from the neighboring villages of Winnezeele and Watou! By evening, the Normans, who had left the bodies of several hundred of their number to fertilize the Flemish plains, had finally made their way north. Night soon began to fall, and the successful pursuit completed the rout of the pagans, many of whom were drowned in the "rings slooten" and in the salt lakes of the Moëres.
There was great rejoicing at the priory of Saint-Laurent, as well as at Messire Thibaut's Castel, and in all the thatched cottages of the town's weavers, woodcutters and shoemakers. Abbé Jérôme had the "Te Deum" sung, and Jan de Steinfort and his two sons took their places in the choir to thank the great Saint-Pierre, the courageous Saint-Laurent and the good Saint-Crépin, for their intervention in saving Steinfort from the horrors of pillage.
Jan, as modest as ever, returned to his father's cense, where he worked for more than fifty years with the same courage, and every Thursday of Laetare the magistrates of the good town of Steinfort visited the famous shoemaker.
Later, when Jan passed away, the good people of Flanders erected the image of the "Reuze van Steinfort" in effigy. Shoemakers, weavers, lumberjacks and other tradesmen, preceded by bailiffs, aldermen and other notables, marched the Reuze from the Porte de La Barrière to the Bois de Beauvoorde, where Jan's home once stood! However, the procession was brought forward by a few days, and now took place on Mi-Carême Sunday.
The Ghildes de Steenvoort kept these traditions for a long time, and they only disappeared after the horrors of the Civil War. A few years later, the Friends of Fromulus resurrected this Flemish custom to the general satisfaction of all Steenvoorde residents, who love old memories.
Jean le Bûcheron le 2ème - 1982
This is the end of the Reuze de Steinfort story.
To our friend César GILLOOTS
Founder and first president of the "Friends of Fromulus" Society
"Jan den Houtkapper, Reuze van Steinfort
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.