Peasant Autonomy
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Story 48

A village in Flanders, Belgium – around 1910


for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Hannes De Geest)


Jan Houtekiet is the founder of our village Deps. He died a few years ago, but many tales are told about him. That's how we Depsers honour his memory. I could spent hours talking about him, but let me tell you the best story: how Houtekiet ended up with Depserland for next to nothing.

To begin at the beginning: in former times this used to be a barren heath with a lot of marshes, and here and there some little trees. Houtekiet, who was a real lover of life, liked to wander around here when he was a young man. He always knew how to catch a hare or some fish. Whenever possible, he slept in the open, and otherwise he would cobble together a small shelter of leaves. Until he started a relationship with Lien, a peasant girl. One thing led to another, and when she had to give birth, he built a nice mud hut for her. Later on, more farm labourers and maids came to the Depser heath, who were tired of the overbearing farmers, to construct something in freedom.

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Simon Schoeters)


Fertile clay proved to be at five spits deep, and little by little, modest but flourishing little farms developed, and the village of Deps was born. For centuries the land had been owned by the castle. The earl had never done anything with it, because it was known as worthless land. You couldn't even collect firewood there decently.
The earl had not yet dared to collect rent, because the wildest stories were circulating about Houtekiet and the other heath peasants. But once the land really began producing something, all Depsers understood that sooner or later the earl would come to extract rent. They urged Houtekiet to do 'something'. So, one day he went to the estate manager and told him that he needed a paper, documenting that the castle sold the Depser heath for the price of worthless land. “Yes, but all right, but”, and this and that, the estate manager began. But, Houtekiet, not being a man of many words, had not come to discuss, and pounded his fist on the table: he needed that paper, and soon! The estate manager began shaking, and took Houtekiet to the earl. There Houtekiet also pounded his fist on the table a few times, when the laborious discussion was taking too long. And also the earl thought that he might better surrender, because after all, you only live once and he didn't want run the risk of having an 'accident' with his horse, or his castle going up in flames.

And that's how we Depsers ended up with our land, thanks to Houtekiet, our founder, our hero.


The novel Houtekiet (1939, no English translation) from the Flemish writer Gerard Walschap is a vital story with valuable details about peasant life.

Go to:
= the next page: 'Now it is my turn' - Bahia, North-east Brazil – 1910, story 49.
= the Table of contents, story 48.