Vossenplein vs Place du Jeu de Balle


On 16 May 2024, we published a Did you know? about translation issues surrounding bilingual street names in Brussels. A daily flea market is held in the old working-class neighbourhood of the Marolles, at Place du Jeu de Balle. Where does the name Vossenplein come from and why is the same square called Place du Jeu de Balle in French? 

No visit to Brussels is complete without an exploration of the working-class Marolles neighbourhood. It is located at the tip of the so-called Pentagon, the heart-shaped inner city of Brussels, roughly between Porte de Hal, the Brussels-South/Brussels-Chapel section on the North-South rail link, the Sablon and the Palace of Justice. The area was predominantly populated by craftsmen in the Middle Ages, especially around the Chapel, which was outside the first city wall from the 13th century. They were allowed inside during the day to go to work but when the curfew rang they were sent back out. This caused resentment and squabbling. Even in the 14th century, when their district was included within the second city wall, the route of today's small ring road, the discontent did not abate. In the 19th century, the appearance of the Marolles changed dramatically with major urban planning projects on the one hand, and the construction of factories, studios and interior courtyards along a maze of dead-end alleys on the other. 

Vossenstraat, better known to the people of Brussels as the Vossestroet has been around since time immemorial. It is an unofficial name, as there were no official ones at the time. The pub In den Vos once stood there, on the corner with Rue Haute. Whether the pub was named after the street or vice versa is uncertain. It was the only access road to the Société du Renard (French for 'fox'), the 1837 metal factory on today's Vossenplein where machines and locomotives were made. Or at least one locomotive: the Saint-Michel, which rivalled the Stephenson steam locomotive from the British inventor of the same name. But competition from the industrial city of Liège was already destroying Société Renard in 1844. In 1854, Public Works Alderman Auguste Blaes (1809-1855) had a new street and square constructed. As a tribute - Blaes died before the completion of his remediation project in 1863 - the street was given his name. The square was mainly designated for balle pelote, a traditional ball game. In Brussels it remained known as the Vosseplaain, in French it went by the name Place du Jeu de Balle from the 19th century.  

In 150 years, the square has accumulated a string of Dutch- and French-language names. In addition to the official Vossenplein and Place du Jeu de Balle, we also speak of Kaatsspelplaats, an old translation that recalls its original function. Or Den  Met (= Old Market) or Le Vieux Marché, the Loeizemet (= Lice Market) or Marché aux Puces, in reference to the flea market held here since 1873. The last one is the nicest, though: Hirsch par Terre. Hirsch was a luxury goods store on Brussels' Rue Neuve. But here Hirsch was just lying on the ground ... Brussels irony at its finest.