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The Rise of the Dutch Republic: Part 2

11: XI.

<< 10: X. || 12: XII. >>

It is impossible to comprehend the character of the great Netherland revolt in the sixteenth century without taking a rapid retrospective survey of the religious phenomena exhibited in the provinces. The introduction of Christianity has been already indicated. From the earliest times, neither prince, people, nor even prelates were very dutiful to the pope. As the papal authority made progress, strong resistance was often made to its decrees. The bishops of Utrecht were dependent for their wealth and territory upon the good will of the Emperor. They were the determined opponents of Hildebrand, warm adherents of the Hohenstaufers-Ghibelline rather than Guelph. Heresy was a plant of early growth in the Netherlands. As early as the beginning of the 12th century, the notorious Tanchelyn preached at Antwerp, attacking the authority of the pope and of all other ecclesiastics; scoffing at the ceremonies and sacraments of the Church. Unless his character and career have been grossly misrepresented, he was the most infamous of the many impostors who have so often disgraced the cause of religious reformation. By more than four centuries, he anticipated the licentiousness and greediness manifested by a series of false prophets, and was the first to turn both the stupidity of a populace and the viciousness of a priesthood to his own advancement; an ambition which afterwards reached its most signal expression in the celebrated John of Leyden.

The impudence of Tanchelyn and the superstition of his followers seem alike incredible. All Antwerp was his harem. He levied, likewise, vast sums upon his converts, and whenever he appeared in public, his apparel and pomp were befitting an emperor. Three thousand armed satellites escorted his steps and put to death all who resisted his commands. So groveling became the superstition of his followers that they drank of the water in which, he had washed, and treasured it as a divine elixir. Advancing still further in his experiments upon human credulity, he announced his approaching marriage with the Virgin Mary, bade all his disciples to the wedding, and exhibited himself before an immense crowd in company with an image of his holy bride. He then ordered the people to provide for the expenses of the nuptials and the dowry of his wife, placing a coffer upon each side of the image, to receive the contributions of either sex. Which is the most wonderful manifestation in the history of this personage—the audacity of the impostor, or the bestiality of his victims? His career was so successful in the Netherlands that he had the effrontery to proceed to Rome, promulgating what he called his doctrines as he went. He seems to have been assassinated by a priest in an obscure brawl, about the year 1115.

By the middle of the 12th century, other and purer heresiarchs had arisen. Many Netherlanders became converts to the doctrines of Waldo. From that period until the appearance of Luther, a succession of sects— Waldenses, Albigenses, Perfectists, Lollards, Poplicans, Arnaldists, Bohemian Brothers—waged perpetual but unequal warfare with the power and depravity of the Church, fertilizing with their blood the future field of the Reformation. Nowhere was the persecution of heretics more relentless than in the Netherlands. Suspected persons were subjected to various torturing but ridiculous ordeals. After such trial, death by fire was the usual but, perhaps, not the most severe form of execution. In Flanders, monastic ingenuity had invented another most painful punishment for Waldenses and similar malefactors. A criminal whose guilt had been established by the hot iron, hot ploughshare, boiling kettle, or other logical proof, was stripped and bound to the stake:—he was then flayed, from the neck to the navel, while swarms of bees were let loose to fasten upon his bleeding flesh and torture him to a death of exquisite agony.

Nevertheless heresy increased in the face of oppression The Scriptures, translated by Waldo into French, were rendered into Netherland rhyme, and the converts to the Vaudois doctrine increased in numbers and boldness. At the same time the power and luxury of the clergy was waxing daily. The bishops of Utrecht, no longer the defenders of the people against arbitrary power, conducted themselves like little popes. Yielding in dignity neither to king nor kaiser, they exacted homage from the most powerful princes of the Netherlands. The clerical order became the most privileged of all. The accused priest refused to acknowledge the temporal tribunals. The protection of ecclesiastical edifices was extended over all criminals and fugitives from justice—a beneficent result in those sanguinary ages, even if its roots were sacerdotal pride. To establish an accusation against a bishop, seventy-two witnesses were necessary; against a deacon, twenty-seven; against an inferior dignitary, seven; while two were sufficient to convict a layman. The power to read and write helped the clergy to much wealth. Privileges and charters from petty princes, gifts and devises from private persons, were documents which few, save ecclesiastics, could draw or dispute. Not content, moreover, with their territories and their tithings, the churchmen perpetually devised new burthens upon the peasantry. Ploughs, sickles, horses, oxen, all implements of husbandry, were taxed for the benefit of those who toiled not, but who gathered into barns. In the course of the twelfth century, many religious houses, richly endowed with lands and other property, were founded in the Netherlands. Was hand or voice raised against clerical encroachment—the priests held ever in readiness a deadly weapon of defence: a blasting anathema was thundered against their antagonist, and smote him into submission. The disciples of Him who ordered his followers to bless their persecutors, and to love their enemies, invented such Christian formulas as these:—"In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, the blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, and all other Saints in Heaven, do we curse and cut off from our Communion him who has thus rebelled against us. May the curse strike him in his house, barn, bed, field, path, city, castle. May he be cursed in battle, accursed in praying, in speaking, in silence, in eating, in drinking, in sleeping. May he be accursed in his taste, hearing, smell, and all his senses. May the curse blast his eyes, head, and his body, from his crown to the soles of his feet. I conjure you, Devil, and all your imps, that you take no rest till you have brought him to eternal shame; till he is destroyed by drowning or hanging, till he is torn to pieces by wild beasts, or consumed by fire. Let his children become orphans, his wife a widow. I command you, Devil, and all your imps, that even as I now blow out these torches, you do immediately extinguish the light from his eyes. So be it—so be it. Amen. Amen." So speaking, the curser was wont to blow out two waxen torches which he held in his hands, and, with this practical illustration, the anathema was complete.

Such insane ravings, even in the mouth of some impotent beldame, were enough to excite a shudder, but in that dreary epoch, these curses from the lips of clergymen were deemed sufficient to draw down celestial lightning upon the head, not of the blasphemer, but of his victim. Men, who trembled neither at sword nor fire, cowered like slaves before such horrid imprecations, uttered by tongues gifted, as it seemed, with superhuman power. Their fellow-men shrank from the wretches thus blasted, and refused communication with them as unclean and abhorred.

By the end of the thirteenth century, however, the clerical power was already beginning to decline. It was not the corruption of the Church, but its enormous wealth which engendered the hatred, with which it was by many regarded. Temporal princes and haughty barons began to dispute the right of ecclesiastics to enjoy vast estates, while refusing the burthen of taxation, and unable to draw a sword for the common defence. At this period, the Counts of Flanders, of Holland, and other Netherland sovereigns, issued decrees, forbidding clerical institutions from acquiring property, by devise, gift, purchase, or any other mode. The downfall of the rapacious and licentious knights-templar in the provinces and throughout Europe, was another severe blow administered at the same time. The attacks upon Church abuses redoubled in boldness, as its authority declined. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the doctrines of Wicklif had made great progress in the land. Early in the fifteenth, the executions of Huss and Jerome of Prague, produce the Bohemian rebellion. The Pope proclaims a crusade against the Hussites. Knights and prelates, esquires and citizens, enlist in the sacred cause, throughout Holland and its sister provinces; but many Netherlanders, who had felt the might of Ziska's arm, come back, feeling more sympathy with the heresy which they had attacked, than with the Church for which they had battled.

Meantime, the restrictions imposed by Netherland sovereigns upon clerical rights to hold or acquire property, become more stern and more general. On the other hand, with the invention of printing, the cause of Reformation takes a colossal stride in advance. A Bible, which, before, had cost five hundred crowns, now costs but five. The people acquire the power of reading God's Word, or of hearing it read, for themselves. The light of truth dispels the clouds of superstition, as by a new revelation. The Pope and his monks are found to bear, very often, but faint resemblance to Jesus and his apostles. Moreover, the instinct of self-interest sharpens the eye of the public. Many greedy priests, of lower rank, had turned shop-keepers in the Netherlands, and were growing rich by selling their wares, exempt from taxation, at a lower rate than lay hucksters could afford. The benefit of clergy, thus taking the bread from the mouths of many, excites jealousy; the more so, as, besides their miscellaneous business, the reverend traders have a most lucrative branch of commerce from which other merchants are excluded. The sale of absolutions was the source of large fortunes to the priests. The enormous impudence of this traffic almost exceeds belief. Throughout the Netherlands, the price current of the wares thus offered for sale, was published in every town and village. God's pardon for crimes already committed, or about to be committed, was advertised according to a graduated tariff. Thus, poisoning, for example, was absolved for eleven ducats, six livres tournois. Absolution for incest was afforded at thirty-six livres, three ducats. Perjury came to seven livres and three carlines. Pardon for murder, if not by poison, was cheaper. Even a parricide could buy forgiveness at God's tribunal at one ducat; four livres, eight carlines. Henry de Montfort, in the year 1448, purchased absolution for that crime at that price. Was it strange that a century or so of this kind of work should produce a Luther? Was it unnatural that plain people, who loved the ancient Church, should rather desire to see her purged of such blasphemous abuses, than to hear of St. Peter's dome rising a little nearer to the clouds on these proceeds of commuted crime?

At the same time, while ecclesiastical abuses are thus augmenting, ecclesiastical power is diminishing in the Netherlands. The Church is no longer able to protect itself against the secular aim. The halcyon days of ban, book and candle, are gone. In 1459, Duke Philip of Burgundy prohibits the churches from affording protection to fugitives. Charles the Bold, in whose eyes nothing is sacred save war and the means of making it, lays a heavy impost upon all clerical property. Upon being resisted, he enforces collection with the armed hand. The sword and the pen, strength and intellect, no longer the exclusive servants or instruments of priestcraft, are both in open revolt. Charles the Bold storms one fortress, Doctor Grandfort, of Groningen, batters another. This learned Frisian, called "the light of the world," friend and compatriot of the great Rudolph Agricola, preaches throughout the provinces, uttering bold denunciations of ecclesiastical error. He even disputes the infallibility of the Pope, denies the utility of prayers for the dead, and inveighs against the whole doctrine of purgatory and absolution.

With the beginning of the 16th century, the great Reformation was actually alive. The name of Erasmus of Rotterdam was already celebrated; the man, who, according to Grotius, "so well showed the road to a reasonable reformation." But if Erasmus showed the road, he certainly did not travel far upon it himself. Perpetual type of the quietist, the moderate man, he censured the errors of the Church with discrimination and gentleness, as if Borgianism had not been too long rampant at Rome, as if men's minds throughout Christendom were not too deeply stirred to be satisfied with mild rebukes against sin, especially when the mild rebuker was in receipt of livings and salaries from the sinner. Instead of rebukes, the age wanted reforms. The Sage of Rotterdam was a keen observer, a shrewd satirist, but a moderate moralist. He loved ease, good company, the soft repose of princely palaces, better than a life of martyrdom and a death at the stake. He was not of the stuff of which martyrs are made, as he handsomely confessed on more than one occasion. "Let others affect martyrdom," he said, "for myself I am unworthy of the honor;" and, at another time, "I am not of a mind," he observed "to venture my life for the truth's sake; all men have not strength to endure the martyr's death. For myself, if it came to the point, I should do no better than Simon Peter." Moderate in all things, he would have liked, he said, to live without eating and drinking, although he never found it convenient to do so, and he rejoiced when advancing age diminished his tendency to other carnal pleasures in which he had moderately indulged. Although awake to the abuses of the Church, he thought Luther going too fast and too far. He began by applauding ended by censuring the monk of Wittemberg. The Reformation might have been delayed for centuries had Erasmus and other moderate men been the only reformers. He will long be honored for his elegant, Latinity. In the republic of letters, his efforts to infuse a pure taste, a sound criticism, a love for the beautiful and the classic, in place of the owlish pedantry which had so long flapped and hooted through mediveval cloisters, will always be held in grateful reverence. In the history of the religious Reformation, his name seems hardly to deserve the commendations of Grotius.

As the schism yawns, more and more ominously, throughout Christendom, the Emperor naturally trembles. Anxious to save the state, but being no antique Roman, he wishes to close the gulf, but with more convenience to himself: He conceives the highly original plan of combining Church and Empire under one crown. This is Maximilian's scheme for Church reformation. An hereditary papacy, a perpetual pope-emperor, the Charlemagne and Hildebrand systems united and simplified—thus the world may yet be saved. "Nothing more honorable, nobler, better, could happen to us," writes Maximilian to Paul Lichtenstein (16th Sept. 1511), "than to re-annex the said popedom—which properly belongs to us—to our Empire. Cardinal Adrian approves our reasons and encourages us to proceed, being of opinion that we should not have much trouble with the cardinals. It is much to be feared that the Pope may die of his present sickness. He has lost his appetite, and fills himself with so much drink that his health is destroyed. As such matters can not be arranged without money, we have promised the cardinals, whom we expect to bring over, 300,000 ducats, which we shall raise from the Fuggers, and make payable in Rome upon the appointed day."

These business-like arrangements he communicates, two days afterwards, in a secret letter to his daughter Margaret, and already exults at his future eminence, both in this world and the next. "We are sending Monsieur de Gurce," he says; "to make an agreement with the Pope, that we may be taken as coadjutor, in order that, upon his death, we may be sure of the papacy, and, afterwards, of becoming a saint. After my decease, therefore, you will be constrained to adore me, of which I shall be very proud. I am beginning to work upon the cardinals, in which affair two or three hundred thousand ducats will be of great service." The letter was signed, "From the hand of your good father, Maximilian, future Pope."

These intrigues are not destined, however, to be successful. Pope Julius lives two years longer; Leo the Tenth succeeds; and, as Medici are not much prone to Church reformation some other scheme, and perhaps some other reformer, may be wanted. Meantime, the traffic in bulls of absolution becomes more horrible than ever. Money must be raised to supply the magnificent extravagance of Rome. Accordingly, Christians, throughout Europe, are offered by papal authority, guarantees of forgiveness for every imaginable sin, "even for the rape of God's mother, if that were possible," together with a promise of life eternal in Paradise, all upon payment of the price affixed to each crime. The Netherlands, like other countries, are districted and farmed for the collection of this papal revenue. Much of the money thus raised, remains in the hands of the vile collectors. Sincere Catholics, who love and honor the ancient religion, shrink with horror at the spectacle offered on every side. Criminals buying Paradise for money, monks spending the money thus paid in gaming houses, taverns, and brothels; this seems, to those who have studied their Testaments, a different scheme of salvation from the one promulgated by Christ. There has evidently been a departure from the system of earlier apostles. Innocent conservative souls are much perplexed; but, at last, all these infamies arouse a giant to do battle with the giant wrong. Martin Luther enters the lists, all alone, armed only with a quiver filled with ninety-five propositions, and a bow which can send them all over Christendom with incredible swiftness. Within a few weeks the ninety-five propositions have flown through Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and are found in Jerusalem.

At the beginning, Erasmus encourages the bold friar. So long as the axe is not laid at the foot of the tree, which bears the poisonous but golden fruit, the moderate man applauds the blows. "Luther's cause is considered odious," writes Erasmus to the Elector of Saxony, "because he has, at the same time, attacked the bellies of the monks and the bulls of the Pope." He complains that the zealous man had been attacked with roiling, but not with arguments. He foresees that the work will have a bloody and turbulent result, but imputes the principal blame to the clergy. "The priests talk," said he, "of absolution in such terms, that laymen can not stomach it. Luther has been for nothing more censured than for making little of Thomas Aquinas; for wishing to diminish the absolution traffic; for having a low opinion of mendicant orders, and for respecting scholastic opinions less than the gospels. All this is considered intolerable heresy."

Erasmus, however, was offending both parties. A swarm of monks were already buzzing about him for the bold language of his Commentaries and Dialogues. He was called Erasmus for his errors—Arasmus because he would plough up sacred things—Erasinus because he had written himself an ass—Behemoth, Antichrist, and many other names of similar import. Luther was said to have bought the deadly seed in his barn. The egg had been laid by Erasmus, hatched by Luther. On the other hand, he was reviled for not taking side manfully with the reformer. The moderate man received much denunciation from zealots on either side. He soon clears himself, however, from all suspicions of Lutheranism. He is appalled at the fierce conflict which rages far and wide. He becomes querulous as the mighty besom sweeps away sacred dust and consecrated cobwebs. "Men should not attempt every thing at once," he writes, "but rather step by step. That which men can not improve they must look at through the fingers. If the godlessness of mankind requires such fierce physicians as Luther, if man can not be healed with soothing ointments and cooling drinks, let us hope that God will comfort, as repentant, those whom he has punished as rebellious. If the dove of Christ—not the owl of Minerva—would only fly to us, some measure might be put to the madness of mankind."

Meantime the man, whose talk is not of doves and owls, the fierce physician, who deals not with ointments and cooling draughts, strides past the crowd of gentle quacks to smite the foul disease. Devils, thicker than tiles on house-tops, scare him not from his work. Bans and bulls, excommunications and decrees, are rained upon his head. The paternal Emperor sends down dire edicts, thicker than hail upon the earth. The Holy Father blasts and raves from Rome. Louvain doctors denounce, Louvain hangmen burn, the bitter, blasphemous books. The immoderate man stands firm in the storm, demanding argument instead of illogical thunder; shows the hangmen and the people too, outside the Elster gate at Wittenberg, that papal bulls will blaze as merrily as heretic scrolls. What need of allusion to events which changed the world—which every child has learned—to the war of Titans, uprooting of hoary trees and rock-ribbed hills, to the Worms diet, Peasant wars, the Patmos of Eisenach, and huge wrestlings with the Devil?

Imperial edicts are soon employed to suppress the Reformation in the Netherlands by force. The provinces, unfortunately; are the private property of Charles, his paternal inheritance; and most paternally, according to his view of the matter, does he deal with them. Germany can not be treated thus summarily, not being his heritage. "As it appears," says the edict of 1521, "that the aforesaid Martin is not a man, but a devil under the form of a man, and clothed in the dress of a priest, the better to bring the human race to hell and damnation, therefore all his disciples and converts are to be punished with death and forfeiture of all their goods." This was succinct and intelligible. The bloody edict, issued at Worms, without even a pretence of sanction by the estates, was carried into immediate effect. The papal inquisition was introduced into the provinces to assist its operations. The bloody work, for which the reign of Charles is mainly distinguished in the Netherlands, now began. In 1523, July 1st, two Augustine monks were burned at Brussels, the first victims to Lutheranism in the provinces. Erasmus observed, with a sigh, that "two had been burned at Brussels, and that the city now began strenuously to favor Lutheranism."

Pope Adrian the Sixth, the Netherland boat-maker's son and the Emperor's ancient tutor, was sufficiently alive to the sins of churchmen. The humble scholar of Utrecht was, at least, no Borgia. At the diet of Nuremberg, summoned to put down Luther, the honest Pope declared roundly, through the Bishop of Fabriane, that "these disorders had sprung from the Sins of men, more especially from the sins of priests and prelates. Even in the holy chair," said he, "many horrible crimes have been committed. Many abuses have grown up in the ecclesiastical state. The contagious disease, spreading from the head to the members—from the Pope to lesser prelates—has spread far and wide, so that scarcely any one is to be found who does right, and who is free from infection. Nevertheless, the evils have become so ancient and manifold, that it will be necessary to go step by step."

In those passionate days, the ardent reformers were as much outraged by this pregnant confession as the ecclesiastics. It would indeed be a slow process, they thought, to move step by step in the Reformation, if between each step, a whole century was to intervene. In vain did the gentle pontiff call upon Erasmus to assuage the stormy sea with his smooth rhetoric. The Sage of Rotterdam was old and sickly; his day was over. Adrian's head; too; languishes beneath the triple crown but twenty months. He dies 13th Sept., 1523, having arrived at the conviction, according to his epitaph, that the greatest misfortune of his life was to have reigned.

Another edict, published in the Netherlands, forbids all private assemblies for devotion; all reading of the scriptures; all discussions within one's own doors concerning faith, the sacraments, the papal authority, or other religious matter, under penalty of death. The edicts were no dead letter. The fires were kept constantly supplied with human fuel by monks, who knew the art of burning reformers better than that of arguing with them. The scaffold was the most conclusive of syllogisms, and used upon all occasions. Still the people remained unconvinced. Thousands of burned heretics had not made a single convert.

A fresh edict renewed and sharpened the punishment for reading the scriptures in private or public. At the same time, the violent personal altercation between Luther and Erasmus, upon predestination, together with the bitter dispute between Luther and Zwingli concerning the real presence, did more to impede the progress of the Reformation than ban or edict, sword or fire. The spirit of humanity hung her head, finding that the bold reformer had only a new dogma in place of the old ones, seeing that dissenters, in their turn, were sometimes as ready as papists, with age, fagot, and excommunication. In 1526, Felix Mants, the anabaptist, is drowned at Zurich, in obedience to Zwingli's pithy formula—'Qui iterum mergit mergatur'. Thus the anabaptists, upon their first appearance, were exposed to the fires of the Church and the water of the Zwinglians.

There is no doubt that the anabaptist delusion was so ridiculous and so loathsome, as to palliate or at least render intelligible the wrath with which they were regarded by all parties. The turbulence of the sect was alarming to constituted authorities, its bestiality disgraceful to the cause of religious reformation. The leaders were among the most depraved of human creatures, as much distinguished for licentiousness, blasphemy and cruelty as their followers for grovelling superstition. The evil spirit, driven out of Luther, seemed, in orthodox eyes, to have taken possession of a herd of swine. The Germans, Muncer and Hoffmann, had been succeeded, as chief prophets, by a Dutch baker, named Matthiszoon, of Harlem; who announced himself as Enoch. Chief of this man's disciples was the notorious John Boccold, of Leyden. Under the government of this prophet, the anabaptists mastered the city of Munster. Here they confiscated property, plundered churches, violated females, murdered men who refused to join the gang, and, in briefs practised all the enormities which humanity alone can conceive or perpetrate. The prophet proclaimed himself King of Sion, and sent out apostles to preach his doctrines in Germany and the Netherlands. Polygamy being a leading article of the system, he exemplified the principle by marrying fourteen wives. Of these, the beautiful widow of Matthiszoon was chief, was called the Queen of Sion, and wore a golden crown. The prophet made many fruitless efforts to seize Amsterdam and Leyden. The armed invasion of the anabaptists was repelled, but their contagious madness spread. The plague broke forth in Amsterdam. On a cold winter's night, (February, 1535), seven men and five women, inspired by the Holy Ghost, threw off their clothes and rushed naked and raving through the streets, shrieking "Wo, wo, wo! the wrath of God, the wrath of God!" When arrested, they obstinately refused to put on clothing. "We are," they observed, "the naked truth." In a day or two, these furious lunatics, who certainly deserved a madhouse rather than the scaffold, were all executed. The numbers of the sect increased with the martyrdom to which they were exposed, and the disorder spread to every part of the Netherlands. Many were put to death in lingering torments, but no perceptible effect was produced by the chastisement. Meantime the great chief of the sect, the prophet John, was defeated by the forces of the Bishop of Munster, who recovered his city and caused the "King of Zion" to be pinched to death with red-hot tongs.

Unfortunately the severity of government was not wreaked alone upon the prophet and his mischievous crew. Thousands and ten-thousands of virtuous, well-disposed men and women, who had as little sympathy with anabaptistical as with Roman depravity; were butchered in cold blood, under the sanguinary rule of Charles, in the Netherlands. In 1533, Queen Dowager Mary of Hungary, sister of the Emperor, Regent of the provinces, the "Christian widow" admired by Erasmus, wrote to her brother that "in her opinion all heretics, whether repentant or not, should be prosecuted with such severity as that error might be, at once, extinguished, care being only taken that the provinces were not entirely depopulated." With this humane limitation, the "Christian Widow" cheerfully set herself to superintend as foul and wholesale a system of murder as was ever organized. In 1535, an imperial edict was issued at Brussels, condemning all heretics to death; repentant males to be executed with the sword, repentant females to be buried alive, the obstinate, of both sexes, to be burned. This and similar edicts were the law of the land for twenty years, and rigidly enforced. Imperial and papal persecution continued its daily deadly work with such diligence as to make it doubtful whether the limits set by the Regent Mary might not be overstepped. In the midst of the carnage, the Emperor sent for his son Philip, that he might receive the fealty of the Netherlands as their future lord and master. Contemporaneously, a new edict was published at Brussels (29th April, 1549), confirming and reenacting all previous decrees in their most severe provisions. Thus stood religious matters in the Netherlands at the epoch of the imperial abdication.

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