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The Dutch Revolt and Catholic Exile in Reformation Europe

0 Comments 🕔03.Nov 2015

The Reformation divided Christian Europe into confessional camps and forced the migration of religious dissidents and minorities from their homes to safe havens, often in faraway lands. Such migrations of heretical dissidents can be traced back to the medieval Waldensians. Moreover, Europe’s Jews were long subject to persecution and expulsion, the most significant incident taking place in Castile and Aragon following the conquest of Granada in 1492. Among Christians during the Reformation era, Jean Calvin is perhaps the most famous refugee, and the impact of exile for many Reformed Christians, who embraced versions of faith unacceptable to Catholics or Lutherans, led Heiko Oberman to refer to their shared experience and response as “the reformation of the refugees.” He argued that exile strengthened their faith and helped build a militant confessional self-consciousness. Many of those Reformed refugees of conscience were fleeing the Habsburg tribunals in the Netherlands. The historical literature on Protestant refugees is rich, while the plight of Catholic refugees of conscience during the Reformation era has received much less study, with the exception of those fleeing the British Isles. Janssen’s fine monograph offers a fascinating account of Catholic exiles from the Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt and offers insights into their impact on the Counter-Reformation in the Habsburg Netherlands and on their role in the development of a self-conscious, late sixteenth-century international Catholicism.

Scholars have long known the role that Reformed refugees played in sustaining the Dutch Revolt from its outbreak in 1566. The exiled William the Silent led three invasions between 1568 and 1572. The Pacification of Ghent allowed the initial wave of Reformed refugees to settle in the rebel-controlled provinces of Holland and Zeeland. When the rebellion broke out again in 1579, Reformed refugees from the Habsburg-controlled southern Netherlands poured into the six northern provinces that had subscribed to the rebels’ Union of Utrecht. Over the next three decades, the fortunes of war saw some towns fall to one side or the other, in some cases more than once, each time producing small streams of religious exiles. In the 1580s, Dutch Reformed leaders, many of them exiles, sought to confessionalize their new homeland. They could not, however, enforce consistorial discipline on all of their neighbors; but as members of the official church of the United Provinces, they did very much define Dutch religious, political, and social life in the centuries that followed. Janssen seeks to assign a comparable role to the Dutch Revolt’s Catholic refugees. They too would become individually radicalized by their experience, develop networks of devotion informed by the new post-Tridentine religiosity, and champion that religiosity on their return home or in resettling in the Habsburg southern Netherlands. Finally, exile helped them make sense of their plight in an international context through contacts with Catholic refugees from the British Isles.

Employing diaries, letters, devotional artwork, pamphlets, martyrologies, wills, and commemorative funerary plaques, Janssen offers insights into how the experience of flight, exile, and return were internalized and interpreted by many of the Catholics who left their homes and religious houses due to fear or force in the course of the revolt. It is a difficult task to draw general conclusions for Catholics of diverse social backgrounds who fled at different times, to different safe havens, and for different reasons. Some found support and community in exile; others did not. Some returned home, while ‘return’ for others meant resettlement in the Habsburg southern Netherlands, far from their homes in the Reformed north. Janssen’s sources help him frame his impressionistic general picture comprised of compelling individual stories, but the historical complexities challenge broader generalizations. Janssen divides his study into three sections: flight, exile, and return. It may prove helpful to explore each of them in some greater depth.

In the first years of the revolt, battle lines had yet to gel, but beginning in 1572, the rebels came to control large sections in Holland and Zeeland. The torture and murder of nineteen Franciscans from Gorinchem (Holland) in July 1572 convinced many Catholic clergy, men and women, to seek refuge to the south. Some Catholic magistrates, royal office holders, and other citizens of middling social background also fled from rebel held towns and lands. Initially, Amsterdam remained one of many islands of Catholic refuge in the North. The Augustinian Wouter Jacobsz, who had fled his friary near Gouda, kept a diary of his time in Amsterdam. The city was under siege, and the unwelcome refugees lacked sources for income and so suffered destitution. A few chose suicide. Everywhere Catholic exiles in this first wave were ambivalent about their flight. Royal officeholders weren’t sure that they were permitted to leave. Habsburg officials had offered no guidance. Many others felt guilty for having fled a just providential punishment from God. In 1576, the Pacification of Ghent opened the door for militant Reformed refugees to resettle in northern towns. When the Revolt reignited in 1579, the confessionalized rebels closed Catholic churches in towns where they had gained control, such as Amsterdam. By 1581, pubic Catholic worship was abolished in the six United Provinces, and Catholics were driven from all political offices. Rebels demanded a loyalty oath from the Catholic citizens who chose to stay. Many elected instead to flee to the south, and Janssen estimates that there were between 10,000 and 15,000 Catholic refugees by 1582. The process was repeated whenever a Catholic town fell, as at Groningen in 1594. The experience for this second cohort of Catholic exiles was different from the first. By the early 1580s, Habsburg officials offered support to the exiles, and the exiles themselves felt more righteous in their decision to flee. Part of this new sentiment was generated by contact with Catholic refugees from the British Isles in the safe havens that they shared. Flight was no longer a sign of cowardice, but rather an act of loyalty to their faith and to their Habsburg overlords. This new appreciation for shared voluntary exile was the first step in building a common Catholic confessional identity.

In his section on exile, Janssen notes that the Catholic refugees found dozens of safe havens, including Rome. In many towns, refugee monks, friars, and nuns were welcomed into their order’s local house. Lay men and women, however, had to fend for themselves. Janssen notes cases where only the husbands went into exile, as local laws allowed married women to hold property, and wives stayed behind in Reformed towns to guard their homes and even run businesses. It is not clear how often this was true. Among the exile communities Janssen focuses particular attention on Amsterdam, Douai, and Cologne. As we have seen, Amsterdam was problematical as a refuge with its role limited to the first wave from 1572 to 1579. Cologne, as the Rhenish seat of an Imperial Prince Archbishop, proved a welcome, if expensive, haven for wealthy Catholic merchants from Reformed Antwerp, who covered the cost of their exile through profits from their ongoing commercial activities. At Cologne, Jesuits formed a Marian confraternity, and the refugees began to engage in new forms of Catholic spirituality. Jan Gerritz Stempelse, a magistrate and first-wave refugee from Gouda, devoted his time at Cologne to drafting plans for the re-Catholicization of his home town, while a future bishop, Wilhelm Lindanus, from The Hague, submitted a proposal to the pope and Habsburg officials that they use the refugees as local agents in their Counter-Reform offensive in recaptured towns. At Douai, the exclusively male Jesuit Marian confraternity drew 630 members. Like Geneva for the Reformed movement, Douai had become a thriving publishing center for devotional and Counter-Reform literature, including martyrologies composed by the exiles in which the Franciscans of Gorinchem featured prominently. Douai also sheltered a large community of Catholic exiles from the British Isles, who befriended and commiserated with the Netherlanders. Jesuit spiritual advisors and a shared knowledge of Latin facilitated communication. Through letters, wills, pious donations to local churches, and funerary monuments of those who died in exile, Janssen shows how some refugees expressed their increased religious militancy, gratitude to their host communities, and a longing for home.

The return home began with the Habsburgs’ successful campaign in Brabant and Flanders in 1584. The following year Antwerp fell, and the exiled merchants returned from Cologne shortly afterward. To preserve Antwerp’s economic vitality, Alexander Farnese, the Duke of Parma, had permitted the Reformed residents four years grace to reconvert or leave, but the Catholic exiles wanted the city completely purged. Farnese’s policy held, but informal and persistent harassment eventually drove the Reformed residents out. Throughout the Southern Netherlands, returning refugees spearheaded the re-consecration of churches. They cleansed cemeteries by dumping heretical bones and bodies outside the city walls. Exiles commissioned new religious art and staged processions to reclaim public space. Farnese followed Lindanus’ proposal and placed exiles in critical civic posts. Jesuits set up schools and reconstituted the Marian confraternities with exiles as the initial members. Despite the influx of exiles, re-Catholicization reduced the populations of the Habsburg towns significantly. The exiles assumed civic leadership and would be central to creating a rich post-Tridentine Catholic culture that flourished in the purely Catholic Habsburg Netherlands in the seventeenth century. For the Catholic exiles whose hometowns were in the United Provinces, return was more complicated. Many decided to remain or resettle in the Habsburg south. Those who did return to the north entered into a domestic Catholic culture, which was tolerated by Dutch authorities and sustained by the women who had remained behind. With Catholic churches closed and priests few and far between, Dutch Catholicism survived through reading, private prayer, and traditional lay devotion and was little affected by new post-Tridentine practices. In time, two religious cultures emerged in the Netherlands, a pluralized and tolerant North and a staunchly Catholic South.

Janssen’s book is a valuable addition to our understanding of the Dutch Revolt’s impact on the Netherlands’ Catholics and of the roots of post-Tridentine Catholicism in the Habsburg Netherlands. The text is seasoned with personal examples and fascinating individuals, but the very complexity of the Dutch Revolt and the experiences of its Catholic refugees makes generalizations difficult. Janssen breaks his chapters into themes and then uses his examples to highlight his points. The approach clouds the chronology, which means that the changing military and political context of the revolt does not play a role in the analysis. Historical actors appear at various times as examples of a particular point in his argument, but it is difficult to gain a full sense of their personal experience of flight, exile, and return. Despite these drawbacks, Janssen has offered a thought-provoking account of the ‘counter-reformation of the refugees.’

Reviewed by Peter Wallace, Hartwick College

The Dutch Revolt and Catholic Exile in Reformation Europe
by Geert H. Janssen
Cambridge University Press
Hardback / 236 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9781107055032

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