Maaseik is a town and municipality in the Belgian province of Limburg. Both in size (close to 77 km²) as in population (around 25,000 inhabitants, of whom ca. 3,000 non-Belgian) it is the 8th largest municipality in Belgian Limburg . The town is the seat of the administrative arrondissement of Maaseik (kieskanton). Internationally, Maaseik is known as the assumed birthplace of the famous Flemish painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
Etymology and origins
As its name would suggest, Aldeneik (possibly to be translated as 'old oak') is older than Maaseik ('Meuse oak'). Although most toponyms with the affix -eik refer to a landscape with oaks, it is also possible that it is derived from the German word Ecke, which means 'corner'. 'Old corner' or 'bend' may in that case be linked to the fact that historically, the Meuse formed a bend around Aldeneik. An oaktree, however, is present in the town's coat of arms, which includes three crosses (perhaps representing the three oldest parishes) and a fish (representing the river Meuse).
The abbey probably suffered destruction by the Vikings in the 9th century. Around 950, emperor Otto I gave the restored monastery to the bishop of Liège, who turned it into a religious chapter for (male) canons. The reason for this reform may have been that there were already several religious institutions for noble women in the area: Susteren Abbey, Thorn Abbey and Munsterbilzen Abbey. Aldeneik Abbey was abandoned at the beginning of the 80-Year War but the chapter continued in Nieuw-Eycke ('new oak'), now Maaseik.
The town of Maaseik was probably founded around 1000, perhaps by the canons of nearby Aldeneik. It lay near the old Roman road that connected Maastricht and Nijmegen and was relatively safely situated in the valley of the Meuse. The settlement was originally part of the County of Loon. The village grew and became an important trading place in the Meuse region. Maaseik received its city charter in 1244. In the 14th century Loon was incorporated into the Bishopric of Liège and Maaseik became one the 23 Liège Bonnes Villes.
As a typically planned town, the four main streets start at the marketplace and led to the four city gates, none of which has been preserved. The rectangular shape of the city walls is also typical. Against the western wall, a castle was built. The walls were dismantled however in 1467, when during the Liège Wars the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, attacked the Prince-Bishopric of Liège and destroyed many towns in the region.
Up till the 16th century Maaseik's economy was flourishing, thanks to commerce and the production of broadcloth. However, a large section of the population in these days were priests, canons, monks, nuns, beguines or beghards. Until the French Revolution, no fewer than six monasteries were present in the small town.
During the religious troubles of the 16th century, Maaseik was a stronghold for Anabaptism and almost broke away from Liège, but prince-bishop Gerard van Groesbeek was able to calm the people and retain the town.
Maaseik was besieged again in 1672 by Louis XIV. The walls, which had been rebuilt in the 16th century, were strengthened by Vauban during this period. The town suffered two disastrous fires in 1650 and 1684; the 1684 fire destroyed one third of the entire town which up till then largely consisted of wooden houses. After that the building of wooden houses was no longer permitted.
After the French retreat in 1814, Maaseik became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-39). Effectively, the town, having sympathized with the Belgian Revolution, became a Belgian town in 1831.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century seems to have bypassed Maaseik. The town had lost its importance and did not experience much growth, which perhaps accounts for the survival of many houses from the 17th and 18th century. Until well into the 20th century, several farms were active within the city walls. The walls were gradually taken down in the course of the 19th and 20th century. Only a portion of the south section at Walstraat remains. Some street names recall the names of the old city gates (Bospoort, Maaspoort). In 2007, remains of a fortified tower were found during excavations for an underground parking garage.
A railroad built in the 19th century connected Maaseik to the provincial capital Hasselt, but fell into disuse and was removed around 1950; it now serves as part of a bicycle network in Belgian Limburg. In the early 20th century, a bridge was built over the Meuse, connecting Maaseik directly with the Netherlands. The bridge was destroyed several times during World Wars I and II. The present bridge was built in 1951 and replaced a temporary bridge built by American troops in 1944.
Today, Maaseik is mostly a regional centre for the surrounding communities with some small factories and businesses, shops, restaurants, a theater, schools, a court house and a hospital.