Early modern/medieval histories

A significant part of my research is devoted to early modern readings of medieval histories. In particular, I have written about how medieval chronicle traditions were continued into the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries: for example, one chronicle of Holland which I worked on, first printed in 1538, and itself based on a printed chronicle from 1517 which was itself based mainly on late 15th-century sources, was continuously reprinted until 1802, and regularly revised in the process. My book (previews available here and here) concerns the chronicle tradition of the county Holland – a medieval principality which from the 1580s would become one of the seven constituent provinces of the Dutch Republic. When I worked on that chronicle tradition, two aspects in particular stood out for me in the early modern treatments of medieval histories of the county of Holland: firstly, the provincialism so characteristic of the medieval chronicle tradition of the county of Holland was no problem for readers in the Dutch Republic; secondly, neither was its Catholicism. Or so I thought. But the story turns out to be quite a lot more interesting than that. In fact, judging from readers’ responses I encountered since, their Catholicism may for many readers very well have been the very point of reading such histories. I already knew that these works did find a receptive audience among Catholic communities in the Protestant Netherlands: this was indeed one of the explanations I had offered for the popularity of one particular offshoot of the chronicle tradition of Holland, namely that concerning the house and monastery of Egmond. I had found further confirmation of this kind of use of medieval histories in a fascinating early seventeenth-century manuscript (Haarlem, Noord-Hollands Archief, Collectie van losse aanwinsten [inv. 176], no. 1524), which contains excerpts from various (printed) medieval chronicles as well as polemical Catholic works of the early modern period. Such use can also be seen in what is probably the most interesting book I’ve encountered in this context: The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 393 F 18. It is a printed chronicle of Holland (one of the countless revised reprints of the 1538 chronicle mentioned above), printed in the 1590s but concluding in 1540. The KB copy, however, has been further revised and updated: the printed pages are interleaved with blank pages for corrections and additions to the text of the chronicle, and further blank pages were added at the end, and the chronicle was updated up to 1574 (with one remark postdating November 1588), thus including a report of the early years of the Dutch Revolt. [Update 15 January 2015: the full book can now be viewed, for free, here.] Image First, however, the reviser set to make corrections to the original printed chronicle. Most of these are relatively minor: deletions, mostly of matter not strictly concerned with Holland; and substitution of Arabic for Roman numerals. Image Regularly, however, additional entries of information are also included, or passages are extensively revised. Most of these additions and the continuation, while interesting, do not provide us with much information about their author: the description of an Anabaptist as a ‘false fraud’ and the teaching of Menno Simons as an ‘error’ would be shared by anyone who considered themselves to be anything but a Mennonite or an Anabaptist. Even Martin Luther is described in entirely neutral terms. But occasionally the manuscript gives us clues to the personality of the reviser, whose identity, however, remains unknown. Thus, we can deduce from the language that the continuation is written by an apparent supporter of the Revolt. The sack of Naarden by Don Federico, in 1572, for example, is written in negative terms, and a survival from a burned and collapsed building in the town described as miraculous. Support for the Revolt, however, does not necessarily imply support for the Reformation, and this is where things get really interesting: it appears that the reviser of our chronicle was a Catholic, who attempted to ground the history of the Dutch Revolt on the medieval history of Holland. Some clues are provided by some types of information: thus, the reorganization of bishoprics under Philip II is given much space, including the names of several bishops; the bishops of Utrecht are listed by name up to 1588. While the aims of the revolt are described in positive terms – to ‘expel the Spaniard from this land’ – and the rule of Duc d’Alva in negative terms – ‘oh terrible tyranny’, the writer exclaims (but subsequently deletes) – the narrative is by no means straightforward, particularly when dealing with the first wave of the Inquisition in the Netherlands. While the second wave is dismissed as cruel and cause of great conflict, the same cannot be said for the initial response to the Reformation: especially Ruard Tapper, one of the leaders of the Inquisition during the very early Reformation, is described in very positive terms: he was ‘very famous’, and a ‘staunch defender of the Pope’. Image The reader who would be interested to hear more about the ‘devout deeds’ of the leader of the first wave of the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands is referred to the Inquisitor’s own autobiographic (and hagiographic) writing, the Apotheosis. For some readers, the very point of reading medieval chronicles in the early modern period was their Catholicism. And this was not only the case for Catholic, but also for some Protestant readers, if in a diametrically opposed fashion. Such a response can be seen in a book in the Bodleian Library, H 1.8 Art.Seld., a 1591 edition of the 1517 chronicle of Holland which had been the source of the shorter chronicle from 1538. According to an ownership mark, the book once belonged to one Johan van Valckenburgh – possibly to be identified with the military engineer of that name (c.1575–1624) who was in the service of Maurits of Orange. Image Again we have a later reprint of a late medieval chronicle of Holland, and again we find manuscript additions; here, however, these remain limited to occasional annotations in the margins. The annotator in this case, however, was clearly anti-Catholic, and most of the annotations serve to dismiss ‘fables’ of the ‘papists’, and to call extra attention to narratives of corrupt and heretic popes and the like. ‘Oh God,’ our annotator at one point exclaims, ‘how can the world have been so blinded?!’ Image Indeed, the negative sentiments aroused by the chronicle seem to have been a source of a certain titillation; in this case it was not the Catholic heritage of the middle ages, but this excitement aroused by Catholic narratives, which made the medieval chronicle so appealing to this early modern reader. Image This latter type of response is in fact a frequent occurrence in early printed chronicles; another example is found in an English chronicle in the Bodleian Library (F 2.27 Art.Seld., a copy of the English translation of Higden’s Polichronicon, printed in 1515 by Wynkyn de Worde), where in the table of contents the word ‘pope’ is consistently crossed out – ‘Adrianus pope / Johannes the .xxi. pope / Nicholaus the thyrde pope‘ –, a reminder that even the most innocuous additions of readers could be crucial evidence to perceptions of texts.* It is a response perhaps similar to the deliberate scratching out of eyes in frescoes in Anatolian Churches. Such occasions of targeted destruction are, in fact, evidence of serious engagement with a culture perceived as ‘other’ by the vandal. As such, they form important evidence not only for early modern readers’ responses to medieval histories, but for their interaction with the world around them. . Images used with kindest permission from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague (images from Early European Books) and the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. . . * @EdvanderVlist kindly suggested to me that the deletion may have had to do with legislative efforts under Henry VIII to have references to Catholic icons such as Thomas Becket and the pope ‘rased and put out of all the bokes’ (thus in a decree from November 1538). This suggestion led me to this excellent article, by Dunstan Roberts, to whose evidence illustrating that many readers went ‘beyond the minimum requirements of the legislation’ the Bodleian Polychronicon can be added. I agree with him that such books appear to show that ‘the owners of books developed the habit of crossing out words on an almost systematic basis.’


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