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Archive for the ‘Issue 11 (2020) – Imagineering Violence’ Category:

Editorial ~ Imagineering Violence: the Spectacle of Violence in the Early Modern Period

Imagineering violence:
The spectacle of violence in the early modern period

Karel Vanhaesebrouck and Cornelis van der Haven


[1] In ‘Visualizing violence’ Mark Hewitson describes how World War One brought about a genuine culture of violence. World War One was perhaps the first real mediatized war (with tabloid, twenty-four-hour headline news, journalistic sensationalism, etc.). In the build-up to the war, artists like Ludwig Meidner (Apocalyptic Landscape, Burning City, both 1912) and Max Beckmann (The Destruction of Messina, 1909 and The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912) had contributed to the development of new representational strategies, which were used to evoke the atrocities of war, while other artists idealized violence, struggle and warfare, the most poignant example of this cult being the manifesto of futurism published in 1909.

[2] Very soon, however, idealistic expectations fuelled by patriotism and economic concerns clashed with the reality of industrialised warfare: heroic images of the battlefield were in abhorrent contradiction with the horrors of lived experience. The violence of warfare, it became clear, was anything but heroic. It was purposeless, banal, useless, it turned history into a senseless, disorganised, chaotic and most of all pointless narrative, as it tragically demonstrated that humanity seemed to be prepared to destroy itself. Documentary photography brought reports on war without any embellishment, radically deconstructing the heroic rhetoric of military representations. Writers like T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land) and painters like Otto Dix (Der Krieg) translated this profound crisis of Western culture in haunting artistic languages, while Dada explored the fragmentation of reality, showing that all boundaries between reality, art and advertising seemed to have become conflated in a meaningless chaos of fragmentation.

[3] With World War Two and the Holocaust, the shared cultural experience of nihilism and existential crisis became even more apparent. European culture painfully acknowledged that no meaning whatsoever could be attributed to the cataclysm of war, and it saw itself confronted with the sheer meaninglessness of history. Night and Fog, the famous 1956 film by Alain Resnais, offers an intriguing case in point for our understanding of the complex relationship between historical reality, collective memory and the cultural representation of violence. The title of the film refers to ‘Nacht und Nebel’, the infamous 1941 directive of Hitler permitting deportation of anyone opposing the Third Reich (Stackelberg 2007: 286). These deportations took place in absolute secrecy, and the Reich had no obligation whatsoever to give any information. The name of the ordinance is in its turn a quite cynical reference to the Wagner opera Das Rheingold (1869), where it is a magic formula to make someone invisible (Culbert 2007: 259-260). Resnais’ film was commissioned by the ‘Comité de l’histoire de la 2e guerre mondiale’ to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the camps, and had a double goal: documenting the atrocities in all their cruel and gruesome details on the one hand, and commemorating the lived experience of these same events on the other. The film shows the industrialisation of evil, the rationalisation, technology and efficiency of warfare, but also the banality of evil. The text written by Jean Carol (a member of the resistance deported to a camp in 1943) and read by actor Michel Bouquet accompanies the haunting footage, describing the everyday life of torture, terror and humiliation.

[4] In the fifties and sixties Resnais’ film was criticized for its generalizing perspective on suffering under the Nazi regime, which seemed to homogenize victimhood. Fog and Night presents Germany as one big camp, in which all victims seem to be alike. Historical reality, however, was not as homogenous: of the non-Jewish deported people in France, 59% returned; of the Jewish people, only 3% returned. Only from 1970 on, historians and museum workers developed a specific memorial culture devoted to the Shoah. Both the Lanzmann movie Shoah (1985) and blockbusters like Schindler’s Liszt (1993) and La vita è bella (1997), played an important role in this shift.

[5] The reception history of Night and Fog provides us with a particularly revealing example of the tension between collective memory and collective imagination: collective memory of these horrors is impossible (because too traumatic) but the film provides communities with a collective imagination as it builds bridges between eye-witnesses who could not speak of the experience and those who escaped the experience. This complex relationship between lived or observed experience and its transmission (for whatever reason) is of course not new, nor is it exclusively linked to the Holocaust experience. In the early modern period religious wars ravaged the European continent. With the gruesome violence produced by these wars, the need for documentation and representation grew. Some wanted to prove the perversity of the enemy (think of the wide range of martyr books such as Le théâtre des crautés (1587) by Richard Verstegan or Antonio Gallonio’s popular Trattato degli instrumenti di martirio e delle varie maniere di martirizzare, first published in 1591 and widely translated), while others tried to reap economic profit by exploiting the spectacle of violence. Others still tried to contribute to a new memorial culture, aiming to foster community. More often than not these different attempts were criticized for various reasons, while at the same time being facilitated by a new infrastructure for cultural distribution (the book market, public theatres, journalism). But most of all they were all attempts to make the past live in the present of historical imagination, or to bring distant worlds of violence (like the battlefields) closer to consumers of news.

[6] An important principle in the early modern representation of violence was that of transmitting an experience of witnessing the described events at first hand. The baroque, bird’s-eye views of the battlefield produced in the second half of the seventeenth century, for instance, not only depicted the spectacle of war, but also enabled the onlooker to focus on close-ups of the performed violence, like a man-to-man fight, or certain atrocities committed by soldiers against citizens.

Figure 1a.  Coloured engraving of the Battle of Blenheim by Romeyn de Hooghe (full engraving and close-up): Zegen by Hoogstad op de Fransen en Beyersen door S.H: Marlbourg en Pr. Eugenius van Savoyen verkreegen (Amsterdam: Pieter Schenck, 1704). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


Figure 1b. Detail from 1a, above.

Overwhelming spectacles of war were thus combined with detailed depictions of violence (Korsten et al. 2020). Secretly glimpsing the intriguing, horrific details of such depictions, however, can only be a source of enjoyment for the onlooker as long as he or she acts like a voyeur who is not involved in these acts and is unable to intervene in them. From the perspective of the onlooker and in contrast with fictional or symbolic violence, these representations that set out to show ‘real violence’ also raise moral questions, especially when seen from a current-day stance concerning photography and video recordings: are we actually allowed to see the pain and suffering of others? (Sontag 2003: 37-38).

[7] Harari (2008) has claimed that the early modern representation of violence was uncoupled for a very long time from the idea of ‘flesh-witnessing’, providing only factual knowledge that can easily be transmitted, but that seems to do without any references to the experience as such. This eyewitness perspective is determined by the gaze of the uninvolved onlooker who can look at an event in all its details, without taking part in it. According to Harari, this would link early modern experiences of looking at violence to a distinctively modern perspective: ‘The differentiation between eyewitnessing and flesh-witnessing is doubly important today, when so many people eyewitness war via live television broadcasts, without ever flesh-witnessing it’ (Harari 2008: 8). The early modern representation of violence, however, may contain emotional and experiential layers that we can only explore if we approach them from a historical perspective. De Boer, for instance, has shown that even the rational and factual description of the battlefield on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century siege maps helped build an emotional community between the civic buyer of such maps in town, uninvolved in military business, and war professionals who were flesh-witnessing the war events on the ground. She points to the fact that these maps (even those produced for the wider market) were also used for military business by, for instance, officers in the field. There are also affective layers involved in the reception of these kinds of representations that we today would not recognize as emotions, such as the ‘love for truth’ expressed by the very detailed description of the battlefield, its terrain and movements of troops (De Boer 2016: 214-218).

*   *   *

[8] The early modern period witnessed an explosion in the representation and performance of violence. In European cities, renaissance and baroque theatre staged gruesome and passionate plays, while in the streets, during religious festivals and public entries of sovereigns, state and church conjured up violent images of subjection and suffering. The book market added to this spectacle of violence, as the early modern period saw the development of an advanced material infrastructure for the production, distribution, consumption, and appropriation of such imagery. A fast-growing body of texts and prints registered violent episodes of the past and the present. The growing news market of pamphlets, newspapers and weeklies offered facts about public violence on a daily basis, based on a European network of information (Haks 2013: 14-16). All these publications enabled the public to study in detail the techniques used in battle, to torture martyrs, or to execute criminals. How can we explain this apparent fascination for violence? What effects and affects did these scenes aim to arouse? What relationships were evoked or enforced between the audience and the depicted or enacted scenes? What groups were depicted as violent, and with what specific violent practices and qualities were they associated?

[9] This special issue aims to analyse early modern techniques of representing violence and their transformations over time. Violence engages audiences in complex ways: it can fascinate or repulse, provide strong embodied experiences, exploit the curiosity and the desires of the public of consumers, create a breach with daily life, or turn reality into a stage. The different contributions to this special issue analyse the technical and performative aspects of the depiction of violence, whether in print or painting or on stage, in the anatomical theatre, on the scaffold, or elsewhere, questioning different regimes of representation ranging from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in various countries in Northern Europe.

[10] The idea of violence seems to have grown into a crucial theoretical and analytical problem in different fields of the humanities. Research on the historical and contemporary representation of violence covers a wide range of topics and questions, including the spectacle of violence and its aestheticisation, the problem of the beholder, our present-day obsession with the more-than-real and its historical roots in (early) modern European culture, voyeurism, sexual violence, and the complex history of trauma. Some of these studies investigate from different disciplinary angles the legitimacy (or, in most cases, the flagrant absence thereof) of the infliction of any kind of harm, whether physical or psychological, mainly focusing on different forms of violentia (illegitimate violence) (Schinkel 2009: 84; van Duijnen 2019: 37). Other authors analyze different forms of potestas, violence facilitated by state authorities; often inspired by the writings of Foucault on sovereign and governmental powers. Several contributions to this special issue explore the fundamental porosity between what is considered to be legitimate and what is not. Other contributions focus more specially on processes of mediation, such as the intertwinement of word and image, or the sensory experience of the sound of violence transmitted through words and imagery.

[11] In a recent article in History and Theory historian Penny Roberts observes a ‘violent turn’ in French historiography (Roberts 2017: 61). All of the questions addressed in this special issue, however, bring us back to a larger, fundamental question: what were the cultural, ideological and generic mechanisms behind the representation of violence in early modern Northern Europe? Each of the contributions in this special issue explores a different type of real or symbolic violence, each with a different performative impact, operating within a specific historical context. Some of the contributions, such as those of Thom Pritchard and Yannice De Bruyn, focus on memory culture and how perspectives on acts of war were shaped by political and religious interests. Other contributions more specifically pay attention to representational techniques as such, focusing on a specific type of violence, such as Michel van Duijnen’s article about judicial violence in early modern history prints, and Frans-Willem Korsten and Marijn van Dijk’s contribution about the sensory experience of sea battles in Dutch literature and the visual arts. Klaas Tindemans and Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen discuss how the theatrical representation of juridical violence and the literary representation of religious violence were shaped by the respective discourses of law and Protestantism in early modern England. The latter is focusing on Christian martyrdom, which is also true for Johan Verberckmoes, who wrote a contribution on the transcultural elements concerning child martyrs in Japan in the historical accounts of an Antwerp Jesuit.

[12] This special issue aims to contribute to a contextual approach to the history of violence in Northern Europe, through the analysis of specific case studies which operated within equally specific historical contexts. It is one result of a broader research project on the cultural representation of violence funded by the Dutch and Flemish Research Councils (NWO and FWO). Within the framework of this project we developed the concept of ‘imagineering’ (Korsten et al. 2020) to help us to analyse the complex intertwinement of cultural practices, cultural imagination and specific contexts. Imagineering refers (1) to imagination as it is used in representing other possible worlds, and (2) to engineering; that is, to the techniques employed and designed to do this — with technique indicating both the technical element of theatre and other public stages, and the broader possibilities of rhetoric, props and acting employed in such theatrical stagings. Imagineering describes a historical shift in which new techniques were deployed to make images speak to the public and to one another, with the aim of creating a shared space for cultural identity and memory. The authors in this special issue analyse a wide range of cultural practices that each in their own way contributed to the development of this new infrastructure, producing distinct historical selves through new collective cultural imaginations.

[13] The articles in this special issue combine research methods and approaches from literary studies, performance studies, visual analysis, cultural history, criminology and many other disciplines, but all of them share a similar cultural historical approach in which violence is always understood as part of a broader process of cultural representation and symbolization. Violence is always a cultural performance (Diamond 1996) and requires in that sense an anthropological approach. Moreover, the different articles show that violence is anything but a stable concept and that its nature, definition and performative impact are profoundly contextual and historical. Present-day conceptualisations of violence cannot just be retroactively transposed to the early modern period — the use of the term itself requires systematic historicisation.



Culbert, David. 2007. ‘Nuit et Brouillard (1995): Hanns Eisler’s Music and the Usage of Nacht-und-Nebel-Aktion in German’, in Historical Journal of Radio, Film and Television, 27.2: 259-263

De Boer, Lisa. 2016. ‘The Sidelong Glance: Tracing Battlefield Emotions in Dutch Art of the Golden Age’, in Battlefield Emotions 1500-1800: Practices, Experience, Imagination, ed. by Erika Kuijpers and Cornelis van der Haven (Basingstoke: Palgrave), pp. 207-227

Diamond, Elin. 1996. Performance and Cultural Politics (London: Routledge)

Haks, Donals. 2013. Vaderland en vrede, 1672-1713: Publiciteit over de Nederlandse Republiek in oorlog (Hilversum: Verloren)

Harari, Yuval Noah. 2008. The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Hewitson, Mark. 2017. ‘Visualizing violence’, Cultural History, 6.1: 1-20

Korsten, Frans-Willem, Inger Leemans, Karel Vanhaesebrouck, Cornelis van der Haven, Yannice De Bruyn and Michel van Duijnen. 2020. ‘Imagineering, or what Images do to People: The Spectacle of Violence in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic’, Cultural History (accepted for publication)

Macsotay, Tomas, Cornelis van der Haven and Karel Vanhaesebrouck. 2017. ‘Introduction,’ in The Hurt(ful) Body: Pain and suffering in early modern performance and visual arts, ed. by Tomas Macsotay, Cornelis van der Haven, and Karel Vanhaesebrouck (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp. 1-21

Roberts, Penny. 2017. ‘French historians and collective violence’, History and Theory, 56.4: 60-75

Schinkel, William. 2009. ‘Biaphobia, state violence and the definition of violence’, in Existentialist Criminology, ed. by Ronnie Lippens and Don Crewe (London: Routledge), pp. 70-93

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Stackelberg, Roderick. 2007. The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany (London/New York: Routledge)

van Duijnen, Michel. 2019. ‘Printed images of violence in the Dutch Republic, 1650-1700’ (VU Amsterdam: PhD dissertation)

Offering Peace by Showing Violence: Jan Vos’s Amsterdam Charm Offensive

Offering Peace by Showing Violence:
Jan Vos’s Amsterdam Charm Offensive

Yannice De Bruyn


[1] The Siege and Relief of Leyden was undeniably the most popular play in the Amsterdam Theatre in 1660. Jan Vos embellished the original play by Reynerius Bontius with five spectacular tableaux vivants, and from its premiere on 30 March 1660 it pulled in impressive revenues. In this paper, I will show how Vos’s additions could have interacted with the political situation in Amsterdam at that time. Around 1660, the city was engaged in a charm offensive towards the Nassau family that included two public parades designed by Jan Vos. His adaptation of The Siege and Relief most likely had its own part to play in this diplomatic venture. The tableaux vivants especially were a source of political potential: I will show that they aimed to move audiences by means of a particularly violent imagination. Employing these emotions towards the glorification of William of Orange made Vos’s adaptation politically effective at a time when his descendants were being charmed by the city of Amsterdam. This paper offers a detailed analysis of the two most relevant tableaux vivants, tableaux that are both significantly violent and bend the narrative of the original play. The first, that opens the play, portrays the Dutch Revolt as a case of tyrannical suppression; the second elaborates on the dramatic climax with a fictional naval battle between State and Spanish armies.


Bringing the Leiden siege before the eyes of an Amsterdam audience

[2] The Siege and Relief of Leyden was a 1645 play by Reynerius Bontius performed each year in Leiden as part of the festival of 3 October commemorating the city’s relief. Its subject is the Spanish Siege of Leiden in 1573-74 and the resulting famine, death and discord in the city. A disastrous surrender is only barely avoided while the threat of violation is a constant element throughout the play. At last, in a case of divine deliverance, the State fleet manages to reach the city on the surging river water and the Spanish army retreats. The city’s resilience is finally rewarded with the right to erect a university. The play remained tied to Leiden until Vos brought an adaptation of it to the Amsterdam Theatre in 1660. His tableaux vivants added much to the play’s popularity, making it a true box office success and the third most popular play ever to be performed there.[1] More than one hundred printed editions of Bontius’s Siege and Relief were produced, generating a maze of textual variants. The 1660 Amsterdam performances came with their own publication of the revised playscript and a separate booklet with elaborate descriptions of the tableaux. Both these printed texts were for sale, probably even during performances.[2] In an advertisement for the première in the Opregte Haerlemsche Courant (23 March 1660), the publication is promoted as much as the performance:

In Amsterdam, by Jacob Lescailie, on the Middeldam, was printed, and will be published, The Relief of Leyden: written by R. Bontius. Which will be shown in the Amsterdam Theatre Tuesday after Easter, and the next days. Embellished with many exquisite tableaux vivants, full of allegories, both before, during, and after the play. Made by Jan Vos. Never shown before now, or printed. Which will also be sold by aforementioned Lescailie. (my italics)[3]

The tableaux were clearly the main selling point, but we are lucky to know anything about them at all. Lescailje’s publication of a separate booklet with descriptions is a rare exception to the rule that tableaux vivants were very poorly documented, especially in the theatre (printed descriptions of tableaux performed during public festivities are more often extant). Usually, we are lucky if a playscript even mentions them, let alone gives a minimal description. The booklet is a magnificent source and the foundation for my analysis. However, it does not describe the actual performance of the play as a whole, about which we have little to no information.

[3] Each of the tableaux described in the booklet is made up of two or three sequentially revealed parts. Each of these parts is accompanied by six verses, possibly read out during the performance (Oey-De Vita 1984: 13; Albach 1987: 328). The five tableaux, all distinctly allegorical, have the following subjects. Shown before the play proper starts, the opening tableau concerns the umbrella conflict of the Dutch Revolt of which the siege and relief of Leiden formed a part. The first part shows the submission of the Netherlands by the Duke of Alba, while the second and third parts show the Spanish violation of citizens and the law. The timing of the following three tableaux is not indicated. The first part of the first tableau within the play shows Leiden’s population suffering hunger and death during the long siege. The second part shows the dawn of their resilience. In the first part of the second tableau within the play, the protagonists are the Plague and Discord. The second part concerns the restoration of Unity. In the third tableau within the play, presenting the relief of Leiden, the booklet describes the first part as depicting an elaborate naval battle between the State and Spanish armies, while the second part is about the euphoric reception of the relieving fleet in the city. Finally, in the tableau presented after the play’s conclusion, both parts revolve around the celebration of the city’s relief and the establishment of Leiden University.

[4] The addition of tableaux was undoubtedly Vos’s biggest adjustment to Bontius’s play. They fit his trademark sense for visual spectacle, which we see as much in his plays as in his work as director of the Amsterdam Theatre. Vos designed tableaux vivants to embellish existing plays, as enactments of poems he staged, and for public festivities at the request of the Amsterdam city council. Pleasing the eyes of his audience was motivated by commercial interest and by what he called the ‘poetics of utility’ (Geerdink 2014: 107-11). Throughout his extensive oeuvre, Jan Vos used powerful imagery for the audience’s moral betterment, and to promote the perspective of the city council and Amsterdam’s prestige in general (Geerdink 2014). These had been traditional functions of tableaux vivants since their earliest use in the Middle Ages. The revelation of ‘frozen’ compositions of actors remained popular in the Low Countries until well into the nineteenth century. Tableaux had a close connection to the visual arts and appeared in both public festivities and theatre plays. During the seventeenth century, their emotional and narrative roles adapted to major transformations in the theatre (Bussels 2019).

[5] Already Bontius’s tableaux vivants broke with tradition, in that they seem to have visualised the events that were discussed in the dialogue while it was taking place, thus remaining within the time and space of the plot (Bussels 2019: 90). Although they are merely referred to as ‘vertooningh’ in the playscript, the dialogue hints at their subjects as respectively hunger, discord, death, and eventually joy at the city’s relief, and the reception of William of Orange. Vos moved even further away from tradition by having each of his five complex tableaux made up of two or even three sequentially revealed parts or stages, and a newspaper advertisement for a later performance boasts of a number of more than one hundred actors.[4] This made interaction with the dialogue impossible. Unlike Bontius, Vos made his tableaux the point of focus so that they create their own, parallel narrative rather than being at the plot’s service. If the themes of the individual tableaux are looked at in relation to one another, they reveal a distinctive narrative arc. To an extent, this arc follows the highlights that had become embedded in Leiden’s cultural memory and that Bontius adhered to: the suffering from hunger, illness, and discord; agency lost and regained; and finally, survival and transcendence through the establishing of a university. However, Vos made two major changes that were crucial to the play’s potential to manipulate the political situation in Amsterdam in 1660. Firstly, he opened the play with a tableau on the Dutch Revolt. Secondly, he changed the dramatic climax to a fictional naval battle. Before exploring these violent tableaux and how their emotional effects could have supported the glorification of the House of Orange, I will take a look at the political context within which this glorification would have functioned.


An Amsterdam Charm Offensive Aimed at the Nassaus

[6] Although it had not been optimal before, the relationship between Amsterdam and the Stadtholder really dwindled when William II besieged the city in 1650. After that, any public demonstration of Orangism had been forbidden (Snoep 1975: 82-83). At the end of the 1650s, however, changes in international politics urged Amsterdam to rekindle its relationship with the Nassau family. After Cromwell’s death in 1658, things looked very different for young Prince William. He was related to the royal English House of Stuart through his mother Mary, Princess Royal, who was the daughter of King Charles I. William’s grandfather had been killed as part of Cromwell’s coup d’état in 1649, but with the reinstatement of the aristocracy it was his uncle, Charles II, who was appointed successor to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. To preserve its vital trade relationship with England, Amsterdam had to strengthen ties with the Nassaus despite being in the middle of the First Stadtholderless Period (1650-1672).[5] The city invited the family to public festivities and in 1659 welcomed Amalia van Solms with her entourage, and in 1660 Mary with Prince William. Both receptions included a parade of allegorical floats designed by Jan Vos. The parades were nearly identical, with the addition of several floats on English history in 1660. Vos made elaborate descriptions of the 1659 parade, which were published together with a series of wood prints (Vos 1659). A float carrying the representation of Unity was followed by floats representing each of the seven provinces, several generations of princes of Orange, and finally Gratitude and Amsterdam. Snoep’s reading of this allegorical ensemble is that subsequent generations of Orange princes had brought unity and peace to the Dutch Republic through military action. As such, the parades were a way for the city to express her gratitude to the princes for their service to the country and its people.[6] The addressees of this message were the citizens of Amsterdam as much as the royal guests. The display of ‘these invincible heroes’ was to imprint them with gratitude towards the House of Orange, at least according to the poem ‘Royal thanksgiving’ (‘Vorstelicke dancksegging’) that Constantijn Huygens dedicated to the burgomasters at the occasion of the 1659 parade (Snoep 1975: 86). However, as Geerdink writes, these floats exalted Amsterdam as much as they did the Nassaus (2014: 66).

[7] Only one day after watching the parade from the palace on the Dam, Mary and William were likely invited to attend a performance of The Siege and Relief with the tableaux by Jan Vos. On 18 June 1660, the Theatre’s cash register remained empty, an indication that on that date it was reserved for official guests of the city council.[7] In order to infer exactly how the play contributed to the charm offensive, I will now offer a close analysis of the opening tableau, and that performed at the play’s climax.


The Kneeling Netherlands: Allegory and Accusation

[8] The opening tableau is the first change Vos applied to the original play. While attending this play on the siege and relief of Leiden, the first thing Amsterdam audiences got to see was a gigantic tableau vivant on the Dutch Revolt. The opening tableau places everything that is about to follow in the context of the larger battle of the Dutch people against the Spanish crown. This differs from Bontius’s play, that simply refers to the Dutch Revolt as a sort of framework that makes the local situation more understandable. The Spanish violence in other cities is activated to explain the impossible position of the Leiden citizens, and to create empathy with their struggle intra muros. Vos, on the other hand, turned things around, making the situation at Leiden into an example of the Dutch Revolt and its consequences. With his opening tableau, he appropriated a local Revolt story into a national narrative, something that happened quite often throughout the seventeenth century, in the service of various political goals (Pollmann & Kuijpers 2013: 8; Pollmann 2008: 13). This appropriation provides an interpretative framework for the rest of the play.

[9] The intrinsically violent representation of the Dutch Revolt in the opening tableau was in no way new but rather a well-trodden path in all kinds of media. The three parts of the tableau move from abstract to concrete in sequential steps. The first part centres on Alba’s invasion and the vices he brings in his wake while subduing the Netherlands. The second part specifies the implications of this submission by showing the infractions of rights: forced entry, the destruction of freedom, and the mockery of justice. The third part elaborates on the violent effects of these infractions on Dutch citizens.

[10] Looking at the booklet’s description of the first part of the opening tableau, what strikes the reader is the sheer level of violence flooding the stage. Allegorical personifications such as Audacity and Violence are all involved in violent acts. The tableau freezes them right in the middle of threatening and invading, and it shows the effects of these actions on their victims: submission, fear, and flight. Their attributes — weapons, chariot, harness — are instrumental to this. In full, the first part of the opening tableau is described as follows:

The Duke of Alba, harnessed, shows himself on his chariot. War’s Destiny stands in the back. He is pulled by Vindictiveness and Bloodlust. Lust for Power holds the reins. The wagon is followed by Tyranny, Robbery, Murderousness, Counterfeit, Infidelity, Arson, Treason, Fear, Angst, and all the horrors. On the left side, Justice, Temperance and Unity are threatened by Violence, Ferocity and Discord with gag, wheel and sword. The Netherlands, that he [Alba] rides towards, are chained to one another by Audacity even though they kneel for him. The Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, Ijssel, Amstel, Vecht, Spaar, and other stream gods and goddesses are horrified by his arrival. Pallas appears before Freedom, who has several nobles and citizens with her, and advises her to flee. Prudence shows them the way.[8]

The description reveals the composition to be an enumeration of subscenes: the Duke of Alba on his chariot and all the vices that surround him; the kneeling Netherlands — probably a group of actors each representing one of the provinces, as was customary in the visual arts; the startled river gods; and Freedom fleeing with a group of nobles and citizens. Altogether, the group is too large and cohesive to suggest a traditional placement in the stage wall openings.[9] The performers were most probably placed on the proscenium, in a latitudinal juxtaposition of subscenes.[10] The chariot resembles the floats of the parades Vos designed for the Nassau entries of 1659 and 1660: the wood prints of 1659 similarly show wagons with a central figure, figures in the back, and others holding the reins. Whereas the wood prints show carriage horses, however, the chariot in this tableau is pulled by Vindictiveness and Bloodlust. Wagons are a central feature of the first and second tableaux within the play as well.[11]

[11] Central to the composition is the interaction between Alba and the Netherlands. Intuitively, one might interpret the relationship between them as one of domination. However, as all five tableaux are distinctly allegorical, understanding them goes beyond the figurative. In the tableau at hand, concepts of violence such as Murderousness and Tyranny are encrypted as human figures. Costumed, gesturing actors that perform as allegorical personifications make these abstract notions relatable and intelligible to the playgoers (Copeland & Struck 2011: 3-4).[12] It is safe to assume that most members of the audience immediately knew how to respond to an allegorical scene by trying to ‘read’ it for its ‘other-speak’, and that they mastered the literacy for it to varying degrees.[13] The following shows that this reading entails two vital steps. In order to decipher the encrypted meaning, one would have to first identify the individual personifications and then regard them in relation to one another.

[12] Identification of the personifications onstage would have been facilitated for those members of the audience in possession of the booklet. The descriptions offer a very detailed enumeration of the tableau’s characters, while the verses also point out several characters, such as ‘the furious Duke of Alba’ presenting himself on his chariot, and Pallas advising the people to ‘flee the pressing power’.[14] Another method of identification was through the great iconological standardisation in visual culture (Lin 2012: 72). The wide dissemination of a book such as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593) greatly added to the audience’s familiarity with the emblematic representation of allegories. The most popular of personifications must have been ubiquitous in the visual and decorative arts, parades, and the theatre alike (Kiefer 2003: 13-18). A Dutch translation of Ripa appeared in Amsterdam in 1644, and its influence on the theatre has already been shown.[15] It is very likely that Vos, too, observed these guidelines when designing his allegorical tableaux, for example, with ‘Geweldt’ (Violence), one of the many personifications that populate the opening tableau. The Dutch version of the Iconologia mentions ‘geweld’ twice. The word is first used in relation to ‘Violenza’, where it carries a sense of violation: ‘Violenza’ is shown as a woman killing a defenceless child with a dagger and cane (Pers 1644: ‘Violenza’). In the second use of the word, in defining ‘Impeto’, ‘geweld’ refers to the surge of passion that brings about assault, or the act of inflicting violence. We read that ‘Impeto’ looks like a semi-nude young man with a cruel and bold demeanour. Bracing himself with his sword drawn, he is ready to violently attack his enemy. His foaming mouth and covered eyes would show his divorce from reason. Iconologia’s character as a manual for the visual arts can be derived from the choice of words: this is how Impeto should be ‘painted’ (Pers 1644: ‘Impeto’).[16] Looking at actual prints or paintings depicting the character of Violence (as in the work of Jan Luyken), it becomes clear that even though these details are not rigorously adopted, there are still many similarities. Even when he is identified as ‘Violentia’ or ‘Vis’, we see a male figure whose posture communicates a readiness to strike and who is in possession of weapons such as torch, sword, mace and shield. His costume is often a harness with Roman influences, underneath which he is usually muscular and half-naked from the waist up.[17] That Vos went in the same direction with his character ‘Geweldt’ cannot be verified but seems likely. At least for tableaux vivants that were performed in public spaces, descriptions and/or prints always emphasised the attributes and costumes through which the figures could be identified (Snoep 197: 83; Kiefer 2003: 21).

[13] As a compositional technique, allegory derives meaning from the relationships between its constitutive parts.[18] Although already rich in meaning on their own, the tableau’s personifications should be read in relation to one another to unlock their full message. Even in the absence of a direct visual connection, the juxtapositional format prompts correlative interpretation (Kunzle 1973: 4; Groensteen 2012: 113). Apart from its internal coherence, allegory is also very much connected to the specific historical reality that it reflects on. If the audience failed to connect Alba and the Netherlands to the Eighty Years’ War, the allegorical meaning would be lost on them. There was little risk of that happening, however, for this link was ingrained in the original play’s subject matter and more than commonplace across media. Various sources had exploited the stereotype of Spanish cruelty, ‘the Black Legend’, for propagandistic purposes since the beginning of the Revolt. ‘Iron Duke’ Alba appeared very frequently as one of its most ruthless practitioners and even became its embodiment. There are at least twenty known paintings of the ‘tyranny of Alba’ (all post-1618), and numerous prints. Some bear a very similar composition to the tableau’s description of Alba facing the kneeling Netherlands.[19] Reading the tableau as an allegory of Spanish tyranny towards the Netherlands would therefore have been inevitable for contemporaneous audiences. The other subscenes in the composition contribute to this reading: there is the flight of Freedom, but also vices threatening virtues with weapons that were typical of the Black Legend (‘gag, wheel and sword’). Any contemporary audience would have had the cultural background to identify these personifications and read them in relation to one another.

[14] Vos’s tableau summarises the complex, eighty-year-long conflict in one strong image of illegitimate domination of perpetrator over victim.[20] By focusing on the interaction between two characters, this tableau turns the abstract and complex into something that the audience could relate and respond to. Tyranny was a strong emotional catalyst. Defined as excessive and unlawful use of power and force, and a stock feature of many plays, it typically functioned as an accusation.[21] Tyranny’s emotive potential is furthered by the verses that accompany the first part of the opening tableau:

The furious duke of Alba presents himself on his chariot.
The Netherlands are regrettably cut down.
The cruel and mighty do not refrain from bullying the people
Advised by Pallas, they flee the pressing power,
That has eyes, nor ears, for begging requests.
Angered kings are boundless in their vengeance.[22]

The abuse of power, violence without mercy or measure, and the rule of passions such as fury or vengeance — these were all familiar characteristics of tyranny (Bushnell 1990: 51).[23] Feelings of indignation are reinforced by assessments such as ‘cruel’ or ‘bullying’, or the suggestion that the Netherlands are ‘regrettably cut down’.

[15] The second and third parts of the opening tableau similarly support this emotive function by elaborating on what Alba’s tyranny entails. The second part displays forced entry, the destruction of freedom, and the mockery of justice. The third part shows the violent effects of these infractions on Dutch citizens. Specifically, the second part shows 1- the unlawful capture of citizens; 2- the farewell of the Governess Margaret of Parma, signifying the arrival of Alba; 3- the Blood Council seated behind a table filled with horrifying torture instruments; 4- the forced submission of cities, symbolised by the surrender of keys; and 5- the tearing-up of privileges.[24] Now, these subscenes take their traditional place in the stage wall openings. Judging by their description, Vos seems to have built on denunciative imagery that already circulated in visual culture.[25] Apart from indignation, the second part plays on feelings of horror: intense fear, dread or dismay.[26] The booklet specifies that the Blood Council’s assembly of torture instruments was meant to cause fear as much as pain in the detainee.[27] The third part of the opening tableau even calls for the explicit performance of ‘horrors’ (‘gruwelijkheeden’). We read that ‘after these pageants, one sees, after the opening of five new scenes, the beheading, hanging, strangling, burning of people, and other horrors.’ This line-up is paralleled in one of the accompanying verses: ‘they hang, they strangle, and burn by force of the cruel command.’[28] Again, these scenes are reminiscent of the iconic prints that were produced during the most violent phase of the Dutch Revolt.

[16] Altogether, the opening tableau is profoundly affective. This will prove significant, especially in relation to the climactic battle tableau that is Vos’s second narrative change. The emotional effects of horror and indignation achieved by the opening tableau serve as the foundation for the audience’s experience of the dramatic climax.


The Glorification of Military Violence

[17] The climax in the third tableau within the play was probably staged near the end of the play, following most of the dialogue and after the two tableaux on the Dutch Revolt, hunger and resilience, and the Plague, discord and the restoration of unity. Vos did not follow the generally accepted historical narrative here. Instead of divine deliverance, he staged a naval battle as the cause of the relief of Leiden. The booklet describes an elaborate battle between the State and Spanish armies in the flooded river:

The tritons, with the sound of their whelk horns, summon the sweet and salt waves. The north-west wind flies between heaven and earth, and helps the water rise, by blowing on it. The south-west wind urges, while floating over the meadows and fields, the streams through the breached dikes and docks, and makes them roar over land towards the city. The stream gods and goddesses, who were hiding in their mossy basins long before the rage of the Spanish army, are now seen to catapult themselves from the ground and bob on the waves. Here, the enemy burns several army camps, at the sight of the approaching fleet. There, State and Spanish [soldiers] cling to each other on board. Over there, they clash with one another in the water with rudder, spike and sword. Drowned warriors float everywhere.[29]

Reading this, we are left with many questions. How did Vos evoke the water running across the stage, for example? How did he represent the two ships and the numerous drowned warriors? Although Vos was very visually oriented, we should keep in mind that representational techniques were not necessarily all mimetic. Of particular importance in this scene are the tritons, who were a tried allegorical technique to signify ‘being on water’ (Lin 2012: 72). Other than that, most people would have been more than familiar with naval battles, as they had been a ubiquitous subject during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654). Dutch news markets had been flooded with descriptions and depictions of the naval battles that were characteristic of this conflict throughout its course (Spies & Frijhoff 1999: 527).[30] As such, playgoers had at their disposal plenty of tools to let their imagination fill in potential scenographic blanks, especially considering that many would have had access to the booklet with its descriptions.

[18] The audience’s experience of this heroic battle built on the opening tableau in two ways. Firstly, the violence against citizens and the horror and indignation it inspired now invested playgoers in a victory for the Dutch. Second, zooming out to the Revolt made the relief of Leiden necessary to the survival of the Dutch Republic as a whole. By staging a spectacular military fight on the water, Vos portrayed something that in reality never happened, placing the two rivalling camps opposite one another in a fight for victory. This would have made the relief much more exciting, eliciting feelings of elation and perhaps even cheering, and bringing about emotional relief in the audience. That the representation of violence between the soldiers did not aim to evoke the same emotions as the representation of violence against citizens has everything to do with framing. Rather than a case of power abuse, the violence has now turned into a necessity.

[19] As has been noted, Vos’s climax differs from the historically accepted narrative. The State fleet did fight the Spanish army in fortified villages near Leiden, and citizens engaged in skirmishes around the city throughout the siege. However, the actual relief was established when the Spanish army fled from the surging water. Vos’s climax also differs from the play text, which explains the surging water as an act of God in 1645 as well as in 1660 (Bontius 1645: vs. 1772-1824; Bontius 1660: 42-43). In the tableau, the hand of God is still made present through the actions of the — albeit pagan — stream gods, winds and tritons. His help is celebrated in the accompanying verses as well. However, by staging a spectacular final battle, Vos’s tableau clearly emphasises the role of human agency in the relief.[31] This turns it into a real victory, whereas with Bontius, the announcement of a God-given deliverance makes for something of an anti-climax. By staging the relief as a process rather than a given, active achievement rather than passive acquiescence, the tableau engaged the audience on a different level. The glory of the hard-won victory and the euphoria that it is bound up with could subsequently be associated with the heroes that are presented at the end of the play. Commander-in-chief William I of Orange (and before him admiral Louis Boisot) is received into the city and praised as a ‘heroic war hero’ and ‘God’s hero’. He is even compared to the invincible ‘knight of God’.[32] Notably, this praise is already present in 1645, and remains a part of the 1660 publication. However, the battle makes sure there is a solid emotional foundation for this glorification, all the more so because it builds on the opening tableau that, by zooming out to the Eighty Years’ War, implies that Orange is the saviour of the entire Dutch Republic and not only of Leiden. The text confirms this when Vander Does praises Orange for risking his life for the whole country (Bontius 1645: vs. 1947-51; Bontius 1660: 44). In 1660, furthermore, the text is abbreviated so that the play ends with praise of Orange and his departure to secure the Dutch people’s sovereignty. He states that, as long as the enemy is not defeated, he has no time to lose to go after them. All the characters that are present chant him farewell: ‘Orange fortune and hail, remain the winner in victory!’.[33] After the final scene, the prince makes another appearance in the closing tableau where he has Freedom, Holland and several provinces with him, suggesting that it is he who brings back freedom and unity.[34] Ending the play with Orange is yet another way to emphasise his importance.

[20] The combination of these interventions with the choice of a Revolt play is significant in relation to the political situation in 1660. The glorification of their progenitor reflected well on the Nassau family, especially as the military focus matched the preferred self-representation of subsequent generations of Stadtholders. It underpinned their claim to national leadership and had therefore been a frequent matter of disagreement with Amsterdam. As mentioned previously, Jan Vos performed as the city council’s spokesman on more than one occasion. Throughout his diverse oeuvre, the Nassaus only appeared when they were of interest to the burgomasters (Geerdink 2012: 63, 111-12, 119-20). If anything, the glorification of Orange in Vos’s tableaux for the Siege and Relief came directly from the city council. At the same time, the prominence of the State fleet in the final battle also added to the exaltation of Amsterdam herself. Especially during the First Stadtholderless Period, the Admiralty of Amsterdam exerted great power over the fleet (Spies & Frijhoff 1999: 144). This double focus matched the 1659 and 1660 parades’, praising subsequent generations of Orange princes while also adding to the glory of Amsterdam.



[21] When Prince William and his mother Mary responded to Amsterdam’s invitation to a reception in June 1660, they not only got to see a parade designed by Jan Vos, but most likely also a Revolt play that he embellished. Behind this invitation was an Amsterdam charm offensive towards the Nassau family. Now that William’s uncle had ascended the English throne, the city wanted to secure its trade relationship. Vos’s embellishments to The Siege and Relief consisted mainly of the addition of five allegorical tableaux vivants. This paper has argued how these could have contributed to the charm offensive. To begin with, their published descriptions suggest a genuine visual spectacle, which was Vos’s trademark. The tableaux create their own narrative, which differs from the plot of the original play in two significantly violent ways. Firstly, the opening tableau zooms out from the Leiden siege to the Dutch Revolt. Its allegorical composition can be read as an accusation: the Eighty Years’ War was a case of tyrannical oppression. Elaborating on the violent implications of this tyranny, the opening tableau aimed to evoke feelings of indignation and horror in the audience. These would subsequently have served as the emotional foundation for the climactic battle in the third tableau within the play, investing the audience in a victory for the Dutch. Here a composition showing violence between soldiers invites a different kind of emotional reaction than the torture of innocent citizens. Placing the two rivalling camps opposite one another in a fight for victory, Vos’s version deviates from both the original play and the historically accepted narrative. The elation, cheer, and emotional discharge bound up with the battle eventually benefit the military hero who is presented at the very end of the play: William I of Orange. Both tableaux place essentially violent subjects centre stage: the violation of citizens and a fictional naval battle. By exploiting the emotional potential of these acts of violence, the play had the potential to affect the political reality of its day. Glorifying their progenitor was one way to charm the Nassau family. The specific military focus was another: subsequent generations of Stadtholders loved to present themselves as military heroes as a source for their authority. However, typically for Amsterdam there was also an element of self-glorification: the focus on the State fleet added to the city’s glory as much as to that of Orange.

Universiteit Gent & Vrije Universiteit Brussel



[1] In 1660 alone, The Siege and Relief was performed no fewer than twenty-four times and its revenue was almost 1.5 times higher than the average. For the performances in 1660 (and beyond), see ONSTAGE, ‘Beleg en ontset der stadt Leyden’. For the revenues of all plays performed in 1660, see ONSTAGE, ‘Shows in 1660’. For the link between Vos’s tableaux and the play’s popularity from then on, see Hogendoorn 1976: 72. The play was performed until the mid-nineteenth century throughout the Dutch Republic and even in Hamburg (Bordewijk 2005: 20). For the popularity of The Siege and Relief in the Amsterdam Theatre between 1660 and 1772, see ONSTAGE, ‘The 50 most popular plays between 1660 and 1772’. [back to text]

[2] As a means of censorship, the theatre directorate commissioned publications for all the plays that were to be performed under their roof. Between 1658 and 1679, the official printer for the Schouwburg was Lescailje. It is very probable that these publications were sold to the audiences of the respective performances: at least, this practice is documented from 1670 onwards (Grabowsky 1995: 35-36; Smits-Veldt 1995: 216; Bordewijk 2005: 15). [back to text]

[3] ‘Tot Amsterdam, by Jacob Lescailie, op de Middeldam, wert gedruckt, en sal uytgegeven worden, Het Ontset van Leyden: Gerijmt door R. Bontius. ’t Welck op de Amsterdamse Schouburgh Dingsdagh na Paesschen, en de volgende dagen, vertoont sal worden. Verheerlickt door veel treffelijcke Vertooningen, vol Sinnebeelden, so voor, in, als naer het Speelen. Gemaeckt door Jan Vos. Nooyt voor desen Vertoont, ofte Gedruckt. Welcke oock by den voorschre Lescailie alsdan sullen verkocht worden’ (Haerlemsche Dinsdaeghse Courant, no. 12 (23 March 1660), verso). [back to text]

[4] Although there is no way of knowing if the actual performance was as ambitious, the characters described in the booklet easily add up to one hundred: ‘t’Amsterdam, by Jacob Lescailje, op de Middeldam, werdt uytgegeven; het Belegh en Ontset van Leyden, bly-eyndent Treur-spel, door R. Bontius, met de Vertooningen door Jan Vos; en een Beschryvingh van de cieraden van het Toneel, met de Verklaringen der Zinnebeelden, gelijck het selve op Maendagh nae de Kermis-Weeck, zijnde den 28 September, en de drie volgende, op d’Amsterdamsche Schouburg, door meer als hondert Persoonen, sal gespeelt, vertoont en uytgebeelt werden, met Konst- en Vlieg-wercken, Perspectiven, &c.’ (Oprechte Haerlemse Dinsdaegse Courant, no. 38 (22 September 1671), verso). My gratitude goes out to Frans Blom for referring me to both advertisements. [back to text]

[5] Upon the Act of Abjuration (1581), the role of the Stadtholder was transformed from representative of the king to top civil servant of the United Provinces. While the executive power remained with the provincial States, frequent power struggles characterised their relationship to the Stadtholders. When William II died in 1650, the office was terminated until the start of the Franco-Dutch War in 1672 (Geerdink 2014: 64; Snoep 1975: 86). Contemporaries saw a parallel between the Dutch Revolt and the English Civil War and Restoration: hence from this perspective too it would have made sense to perform a Revolt play for the reception of members of the English royal family (Helmers 2015). [back to text]

[6] The parade in 1660 recycled the floats of 1659 and added several more on periods from recent English history (Snoep 1975: 85-87). [back to text]

[7] ONSTAGE registers the parade on 17 June 1660 (‘Thursday 17th June 1660’). On the performance of 18 June 1660, see ONSTAGE, ‘Friday 18th of June’. Snoep links the lack of revenue to the official character of the performance (1975: 172). State visits often included a visit to the theatre, a custom inspired by court etiquette. Most of the time, the guests would pay for the performance: only exceptionally were they treated by the city council. It was not uncommon for theatre performances for official guests to be part of a broader program (van der Haven 2008: 88, 90-91). [back to text]

[8] ‘Vertoont zich de Hartog van Alba, in ’t harnas, op zijn staatcywaagen. de Krijgsfortuin staat achter op. hy wordt van Wraakgierigheidt en Bloedtdorstigheidt voortgetrokken. de Staatzucht heeft de toom om te mennen. de Waagen wordt gevolgt van Dwingelandy, Roovery, Moordtdaadigheidt, Geveinstheidt, Trouweloosheidt, Stoockebrandt, Bedrogh, Schrik, Vrees, en alle gruwelijkheeden. Aan de slinke zy, worden Gerechtigheidt, Maatigheidt, en Eendracht, door Geweldt, Verwoedtheidt en Tweedracht, met strop, roer en deegen gedreigt. de Neederlanden, die hy [Alba] te moet komt rijden, worden, door de Stoutheid, schoon dat zy voor hem knielen, met keetens aan elkanderen geslooten. De Rijn, de Maas, de Scheldt, d’Yssel, d’Amstel, de Vecht, het Spaar, en andere Stroomgooden en godinnen, zijn voor zijn komst verbaast. Pallas komt by de Vryheidt, die verscheide eedelen en ingezeetenen by sich heeft, en raadt haar te vluchten. de Voorzichtigheidt wijst hen de wegh’ (Vos 1660: 3). [back to text]

[9] In 1660, the stage model of the Amsterdam Theatre was still very close to that of the Rhetorician’s. The back of the proscenium was lined with a façade that had five openings, three bigger ones and two smaller ones. In the Rhetoricians’ theatre, such openings (the number varied) were a typical location for tableaux vivants (De Paepe 2012). [back to text]

[10] De Paepe has made reconstructions of the Amsterdam stage (1637-1665) that can be accessed freely on his website (3Dtheater.be: Erfgoed in beeld). According to this reconstruction, the proscenium of the 1637 Amsterdam Theatre was ca. 14m wide and max. 5m75 deep. Similarly, the description of Vos’s tableau suggests a latitudinal division across the stage, as it contains a spatial indication to Violence, Ferocity and Discord as ‘on the left side’ (‘Aan de slinke zy, worden Gerechtigheidt, Maatigheidt, en Eendracht, door Geweldt, Verwoedtheidt en Tweedracht, met strop, roer en deegen gedreigt.’ — Vos 1660: 3). Finally, frontality (as opposed to depth) was a known feature of the Rhetoricians’ acting style — one that was closely connected to the lighting possibilities of the theatre (De Paepe 2012: 352-53). [back to text]

[11] Wagons were often used by the Rhetoricians for open-air performances (van Dixhoorn 2009: 61; Elenbaas 2004: 291). [back to text]

[12] The double meaning is already encompassed in the literal meaning of allegoria, that is ‘other-speaking’. The Latin allegoria comes from the Greek allêgoria, a compound between allos (another, different) and agoreuein (speak openly) (‘Allegory’). [back to text]

[13] Lin defines allegory not simply as a means of representing situations that are difficult to stage, but as ‘one of the underlying cultural logics that shaped basic theatrical literacy’ (2012: 72). [back to text]

[14] ‘De woedend’ Alba toont zich op zijn staatcywagen. (…) Men vlucht, door Pallas raadt, voor ’t prangen van ’t Geweldt’ (Vos 1660: 3). [back to text]

[15] The Dutch version of the Iconologia was published by the Amsterdam printer and publisher Dirck Pietersz Pers, who aimed at a broad audience with his translation (Van Dael 1995: 89ff.). [back to text]

[16] See ‘Impeto’ for the reference to painting (‘wort hy gemaelt’). [back to text]

[17] Among others: Jan Luyken, Violence Tramples the Vanquished (1706), etching (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.146357); Jacob de Gheyn (I), Theatre of Violence (1577), etching, 219 x 290 mm (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.446427); Anon., Love expelled by Envy and Violence (1575), engraving, 317 x 194 mm (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.446078) (all part of the Rijksmuseum collection). Kiefer (2003: 22) also mentions Philips Galle after Maarten Van Heemskerck, The Wretchedness of Wealth (1563), engraving, 235 x 170 mm (British Museum) (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1937-0915-423). [back to text]

[18] The reception of the Greek term allegoria in Latin produced a conceptual shift from ‘meaning’ to ‘speaking’. It now became a rhetorical technique that denoted a form of writing as well as reading (Copeland & Struck 2011: 4). [back to text]

[19] Even in 1660, stories of Alba’s tyranny continued to appeal to audiences, for example in an Amsterdam maze (Kuijpers and Pollmann 2013: 180; Urbaniak 2011: 34ff.; Pollmann 2008: 12). A famous example of such a similar composition is Willem Jacobsz. Delff (attrib.), Tyranny of Alba (c. 1622), engraving, 370 x 550 mm (Rijksmuseum) (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.336158) . For the ubiquity of explicit violence in printed images produced in the Dutch Republic between 1650 and 1700, see van Duijnen 2019. [back to text]

[20] As such, the opening tableau is much more poignant than an earlier publication of the play that also starts with a series of four tableaux vivants on the topic of the Dutch Revolt. In the Baron edition, the enumeration of Spanish horrors ends with the prospect of heavenly mercy, offering a conclusion rather than a re-activation of the Revolt material (Bontius 1659: fol. A4r). [back to text]

[21] Tyranny has different meanings, but they all revolve around the Greek etymology of an absolutist ruler who has come to his unlimited power unlawfully and who puts himself above the law in general (see ‘tirannie’ in De Geïntegreerde Taalbank, ‘tyranny’ in Merriam-Webster, and ‘tyranny’ in the Online Etymology Dictionary). [back to text]

[22] ‘De woedend’ Alba toont zich op zijn staatcywagen. | De Neederlanden zijn Godtsjammerlijk gevelt. | Wie wreedt en machtigh is, ontziet geen volk te plaagen. | Men vlucht, door Pallas raadt, voor ’t prangen van ’t Geweldt, | Dat oog, noch ooren heeft voor traanen, noch voor smeeken. | Getergde koningen zijn tomeloos in ‘t wreeken’ (Vos 1660: 3). [back to text]

[23] These are the characteristics of tyrants in plays such as Geeraardt Brandt’s De veinzende Torquatus (1645) and Guilliam van Nieuwelandt’s Jerusalems verwoestingh door Nabuchodonosor (1635). Tyranny also plays an important role in Vos’s first play, Aran and Titus, where it is defined as revenge beyond measure and beyond reason, and where the rule of passion eventually leads to the death of most characters (see Geerdink 2014). The tyrant was a well-known character type in early modern theatre (Keifer 2003: 12). [back to text]

[24] The placement in the stage wall is indicated in the descriptions: ‘after this tableau, five frames are opened’: ‘Achter deeze Vertooning, worden vijf verschieten geopent: in’t eerst van de drie grootste, dat zich aan de rechterhandt laat zien, is Speldt, de Rooderoe, met zijn knevelaars, bezigh met vangen van mannen en vrouwen. In ’t tweede, aan de slinkehandt, neemt de Hartogin van Parma haar afscheidt van ’t Hof. In ’t middelste zit de Bloedtraadt aan een taafel, daar een kleene galg op staat: het kleedt, om d’aangeklaagde, buiten pijn, schrik aan te jaagen, leit vol kluisters, kettingen, geesselroeden, stroppen, zwaarden, nijptangen, pistoolen, en allerlei pijn en-moordtuig. In ’t eerste van de twee kleene verschieten, ziet men verscheide Steeden de sleutels van haar poorten, aan de Spaansche Krijghshoofden, over leeveren. In het tweede worden de voorrechten, handvesten en vryheeden, in’t byzijn van de Staaten, aan stukken gescheurt’ (Vos 1660: 3r-v). [back to text]

[25] The unlawful capture of citizens is part of almost every composition by Frans Hogenberg and his contemporaries. The Blood Council seated at a table likewise knows many versions, although I have not found any where the table is filled with torture instruments, as in Vos’s description. Handing over the city keys is mostly depicted as a voluntary act, for example in Crispijn van de Passe (II), De stadsmaagd van ’s-Hertogenbosch overhandigt de sleutels van de stad aan Frederik Hendrik (1629), engraving, 141 x 370 mm (Rijksmuseum) (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.460243). However, rather than access to the city being offered freely, the presence of Spanish warlords in the tableau suggests that it is enforced. Finally, the tearing up of privileges plays a role in the aforementioned print The Tyranny of Alba, among other examples. [back to text]

[26] Konst believes the staging of horror was meant to elicit a brief but strong emotional response of disgust, bewilderment and flinching in the audience (Konst 1993: 208-09). [back to text]

[27]  See note 24, above. [back to text]

[28] The description reads as follows: ‘achter deeze Vertooningen, ziet men, naa ’t oopenen van vijf nieuwe verschieten, de menschen onthoofden, hangen, wurgen, verbranden, en andere gruwelijkheeden’. The verses read as follows: ‘men hangt, men wurgt, en brandt door kracht van ’t wreet gebodt’ (Vos 1660: 3v). [back to text]

[29] ‘Verdagvaarden de Tritons, door het geluit van hun klinkhoorens, de zoete en zoute baaren. De Noord-weste-wind vliegt tusschen hemel en aardt, en helpt het water door gestaadigh te blaazen, aan ’t zwellen: de Zuidtweste jaagt, terwijl zy over d’akkers en velden zweeft, de vloeden deur de deurgesteeken dijken en kaaden, en doetze langs het landt naar de Stadt toe bruischen. De Stroomgooden en Godinnen, die dus lang, voor ’t woeden van ’t Spaensche leeger, in hun bemoste killen verschoolen, ziet men nu van de grondt opschieten en op de baaren dobberen. Hier steekt de vyant verscheide leegerplaatsen, door ’t naaderen van de vloot, aen brandt. Daar klampen de Staatsche en Spaansche elkander aan boordt. Gins gaat men elkander, in ’t water, met roer, spies en deegen te keer. Overal dryven verdronken Krijgsluiden’ (Vos 1660: 6). [back to text]

[30] A beautiful example of a naval battle in print is Anon., Zeeslag bij Terheide (1653), etching, 295 x 370 mm (Rijksmuseum). Significantly, Vos was assigned by the Amsterdam burgomasters to design a series of allegorical tableaux at the occasion of the end of the Anglo-Dutch war in 1654 (Vos 1662: 601ff.). During their performance on the Dam, pamphlets were dispersed with descriptive texts and poems by Vos (Snoep 1975: 82). An earlier example of Vos’s interaction with this subject is his 1653 poem ‘Zeekrygh’, in which no gory detail is spared and that may well have been performed onstage (Geerdink 2012: 68). [back to text]

[31] This follows a trend in plays on the Leiden siege. By focusing on the city’s suffering from the plague and famine, Bontius’s play already highlights the human aspect of the siege more than his predecessor Jacob Duym (Meijer Drees 1992: 171). [back to text]

[32] ‘Manhaftigh Oorloghs Helt’; ‘gelijk den Ridder Godts’; ‘Godts held’ (the latter is exclusive to the 1660 publication) (Bontius 1660: 44; Bontius 1645: vs. 1947, 1958). [back to text]

[33] ‘Oranje luck en heil, blijft winnaer in victory!’ (Bontius 1660: 45). [back to text]

[34] ‘In de vertooning na ‘t spel Staat een brandent Outaar; aan de slinke zy vertoont zich Leiden, Mars, Stadtvoogt en Burgemeesteren; aan de rechte komt Prins Willem, die de Vryheidt, Hollandt en eenige Staaten by zich heeft. Hier wordt Leiden, voor haar geleede ellenden, het recht van de Hoogeschool opgedraagen’ (Vos 1660: 7). [back to text]



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Explaining Homicide: Medical Expertise, Representations of Violence, and the Demands of the Law in Early Modern Flanders

Explaining Homicide: Medical Expertise, Representations of Violence, and the Demands of the Law in Early Modern Flanders

Kevin Dekoster



[1] From the later Middle Ages onwards, legal authorities throughout continental Europe became increasingly interested in the use of expert witnesses in criminal cases. Influenced by Roman and canon law, both of which recognised the relevance of expert witnesses in the administration of justice, the inquisitorial procedure that developed and spread throughout the continent dismissed irrational modes of proof such as judicial ordeals and emphasised the rational investigation of the material evidence by the criminal judge. This implied an adherence to strict standards of proof that eventually required judges to consult experts in a growing number of cases (Crawford 2001: 1626-27; Porret 2010: 44-49; Watson 2011: 9-20). Given the broad applicability of medical knowledge to different types of legal cases and questions, ranging from physical injuries to sexual violence, witchcraft, and insanity, medical practitioners immediately became the most frequently consulted category of expert witnesses (De Renzi 2007: 316).

[2] As indicated by the hyphen, the history of medico-legal expertise can indeed be described in terms of expanding cooperation between legal authorities and the medical profession for the benefit of justice (Ruggiero 1978: 156-66). However, recent research has increasingly started to highlight the tensions between the demands of the law and the expertise that medical practitioners were either prepared or able to offer to the authorities (e.g. Landsman 1998: 460-61 & 486-87; De Renzi 2002: 224-25; Chandelier & Nicoud 2015: 293). Focussing on the medico-legal investigation of violent deaths in the early modern County of Flanders (a principality that essentially comprised the present-day Belgian provinces of West and East Flanders, together with parts of Northern France and the Dutch province of Zeeland), this contribution seeks to answer how both the preoccupations of medical practitioners and the requirements of the judicial authorities shaped the representation of violence within a forensic context.

[3] In order to explore the interactions and tensions between medical representations of violence and the demands of the law in early modern Flanders, this article will examine three aspects of the medico-legal system that was put in place throughout the county from the sixteenth century onwards: developments in the content of post-mortem reports, the use of medical evidence in criminal sentences, and the tensions between judges and experts that were prompted by the cautious empiricist epistemology behind medical representations of violence. But before we can delve deeper into these questions, it is necessary to discuss the emergence of the Flemish medico-legal system and the nature of the consulted source materials.

Medico-legal expertise in early modern Flanders: origins and practices

[4] While the consultation of medical experts in cases of violent death had been a routine feature of the administration of criminal justice in Northern Italy and parts of France since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, medico-legal expertise took longer to develop in Northern Europe, where it was only systematically adopted from the sixteenth century onwards (Porret 2010: 44-51; Watson 2011: 34-38). One of the regions that witnessed a particular ‘medico-legal turn’ in criminal proceedings during this period was the County of Flanders, where a steady stream of princely ordinances and edicts, writings of legal scholars, and compilations of customary law gradually enshrined the relevance of medical expertise in the investigation of suspicious deaths (Dekoster 2019: 128-61).

[5] For much of the sixteenth century, however, Flemish criminal judges conducted summary inspections of the bodies of homicide victims without relying on the expertise of medical practitioners.[1] On 9 July 1543, for instance, the bailiff and local judges of the parish of Eine (near the town of Oudenaarde) examined the corpse of a certain Inghel Vander Straeten, discovering three wounds on the body: a blow to the head, a wound in the left shoulder near the jugular vein, and a wound near the right eye, all inflicted by sharp instruments.[2] In the 1550s, the Flemish legal scholar Joos de Damhouder (1507-1581) exhorted judicial officials to consult medical practitioners when inquiring into violent deaths, drawing to a large extent on his own experiences as criminal clerk to the aldermen of Bruges. Furthermore, Damhouder was probably inspired by legal precedents within the Holy Roman Empire, where the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina — a code of criminal law proclaimed by Emperor Charles V in 1532 — required expert testimony by surgeons in homicides cases and that of midwives in cases of presumed infanticide. For this reason, the Carolina is considered a milestone in the history of legal medicine, the influence of which quickly transcended the borders of the Empire (Crawford 2001: 1623; Watson 2011: 20-22; Pastore 2017: 22). The first domestic normative texts on forensic post-mortems only started to appear from the final decades of the sixteenth century onwards. Two princely ordinances, proclaimed respectively by Philip II of Spain (1589) and his successors, the Archdukes Albert and Isabella (1616), made post-mortem examinations mandatory in all homicide investigations, while a 1626 ordinance by the Council of Flanders (Raad van Vlaanderen), the provincial judicial council of the county, required the presence of at least one properly trained and admitted surgeon at every post-mortem (Dekoster 2019: 134-38).

[6] Furthermore, the ordinances of 1589 and 1616 both required that whenever a homicide had taken place within their jurisdiction, the local judicial officers had to send — within a term of fourteen days — a copy of both the post-mortem report and the accompanying depositions of eyewitnesses to the provincial judicial council, in our case the Council of Flanders. A large number of these reports can still be found in the Council’s archives.[3] On the basis of samples taken from these archives, I have compiled a corpus of 128 post-mortem examinations of homicide victims — spanning the period between the 1540s and the year 1790 — that will constitute the backbone of the following analysis.[4] This material will be supplemented by court records (primarily post-mortem reports and criminal sentences) preserved in the municipal archives of the county’s three major cities: Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres.


Post-mortems and the representation of violence

[7] On 15 April 1561, the aldermen of the small rural parish of Moerbeke-Waas — situated to the north-east of Ghent — ordered a surgeon named Anthuenis De Brune to examine the body of Jan De Vogelere, who had been stabbed to death by Pieter De Brune the preceding day. In his report, the surgeon explained that he had discovered two wounds on the body: one above the right nipple, which he considered lethal, and a second one in the left leg, which was not considered lethal or dangerous.[5] This case is, in many ways, highly illustrative of sixteenth-century Flemish forensic procedures. While the aldermen in question no longer deemed themselves competent to examine the corpse without the assistance of a medical practitioner, the investigation remained of a very cursory nature. First, the term ‘autopsy’, as we understand it today, does not really apply to the examination in case, as no incision was made in order to examine the inner parts of the body. This almost exclusive focus on external marks of violence seems to have been a common feature of most sixteenth-century Flemish post-mortems, as the first opening of a body in the present sample of reports only took place in 1614.[6]

[8] Secondly, the inspection of Jan De Vogelere’s corpse is very illustrative of the way in which sixteenth-century medical practitioners represented the effects of violent crime. In his Practycke ende handbouck in criminele zaeken (Practice and Handbook in Criminal Cases, 1555), the jurist Joos de Damhouder advised legal officials and their medical ancillaries to ‘diligently consider all the victim’s wounds, blows, and injuries, and to faithfully record and write, which were lethal, which were not, and whether he died from his injuries or from another cause’ (Damhouder 1981: 104-05).[7] When comparing the observations of surgeon De Brune with Damhouder’s instructions, one can immediately notice the similarity in approach: De Brune only provided a short description of the location of the wounds, stating that the first was lethal and the second not. No attempts were made to offer a causal explanation of the link between the inference of the wound and the subsequent death of the victim, and even the criterion for distinguishing lethal from non-lethal wounds remains obscure.

[9] Damhouder’s instructions make clear that summary reports of this kind readily met the requirements of the law. As Marilyn Nicoud and Joël Chandelier have uncovered in their research on late medieval Bologna, judges were generally satisfied with a concise overview and classification (as either lethal or non-lethal) of the injuries observed on the corpse, which allowed them to initiate criminal proceedings and to characterise the severity of the violent act in question (Chandelier and Nicoud 2012: 155). Evidence from Flemish reports suggests that assessments of this kind were generally based on the extent to which the wounds in question penetrated certain vital parts of the body, such as the heart, lungs, or liver.[8] In order to answer such questions, surgeons made use of tintijzers or probes, long and thin surgical instruments that were inserted into a wound in order to follow its trajectory, allowing them to make pronouncements on the depth of wounds and the possible penetration of vital organs without having to open one or more body cavities. In 1543, for instance, the surgeon Anthuenis Pygoesse inserted a probe into the head injury of Lievin De Brudegom, who had been stabbed by Jason Van Eede. When he withdrew the probe from the body, Pygoesse discovered that pieces of brain tissue had stuck to the instrument, leading him to the conclusion that the injury was lethal because it had penetrated the brain.[9]

[10] From the early seventeenth century onwards, a new approach to the representation of lethal violence can gradually be discerned. In 1633, the bailiff and local judges of the parish of Huise required a physician and a surgeon to examine the corpse of Adriaen Der Weduwen, who had been stabbed in the abdomen by Adriaen De Groote. The report is worth reproducing in full:

On the request of the honourable Adriaen Wandele, bailiff of Huise, we the undersigned sworn physician and surgeon have examined the dead body of Adriaen Der Weduwen, son of Joos, in whose corpse around the navel we have found a wound penetrating the cavity of the abdomen, with wounding of the omentum and cutting of many and diverse veins of the omentum and mesentery, which has caused a great effusion of blood in the abdomen, therefore we declare and attest that the aforementioned wound, which has been inflicted by a sharp cutting instrument, has caused the death of the said Adriaen Der Weduwen. In the presence of vassals and aldermen of Huise and court of Oplozer, 20 May 1633, below was written Joos Rekenaere, and somewhat further was written with a signature Adriaen Mas.[10]

While the experts in question did not explicitly state that they had opened the corpse in order to examine the damage to the abdominal cavity, it is nevertheless clear that they devoted more attention to the inside of the body than their predecessor in the 1561 case. Furthermore, the experts provided the authorities with a clear account of the trajectory of the murder weapon, which entered near the umbilicus, penetrated the abdomen, and damaged a number of important veins, resulting in a haemorrhage that caused the victim’s death. This focus on the trajectory of the murder weapon enabled them to create a ‘narrative’ of violence, in which a chain of causality was established between the infliction of a wound and the subsequent death of a victim.

[11] In this respect, dissection became the experts’ most important aide. While the corpses were only opened in 26% of the seventeenth-century cases encountered in the archives of the Council of Flanders, this almost doubled to 51.5% for the eighteenth-century cases.[11] However, as these numbers demonstrate, purely external examinations of the corpses of homicide victims continued to be undertaken until the very end of the eighteenth century.[12] When incisions were made, these tended to focus exclusively on those parts of the body where external evidence hinted at the presence of the cause of death. Complete autopsies in which the three major body cavities (skull, thorax, and abdomen) were opened remained extremely rare, even in the late eighteenth century.[13]

[12] Moreover, the traditional binary distinction between lethal and non-lethal wounds was gradually replaced by more elaborate analytical schemes, as early modern medico-legal theorists increasingly started to subdivide mortal wounds into those that were absolutely lethal and those that were only ‘accidentally’ lethal as a result of complications or neglect (e.g. Ludwig 1774: 105-17). The surgeon Joannes Carolus Huart (1715-1785) of Tienen, author of a comprehensive treatise on medico-legal reports, even used a tripartite scheme, dividing lethal wounds into categories such as ‘absolutely lethal’, ‘lethal by themselves’ (but curable), and ‘accidentally lethal’ (Huart 1794: 6-8), qualifications that were also used in actual forensic practice.[14] This obsession with degrees of lethality is clearly evidenced in eighteenth-century medico-legal handbooks, every one of which contained a comprehensive chapter in which all possible injuries to the human body were classified according to similar two- or tripartite schemes, usually following the a capite ad calcem (from head to toe) structure of contemporary anatomy textbooks (e.g. Devaux 1746: 30-199; Ludwig 1774: 150-94).

[13] How can we make sense of these changes in the ways in which medical experts represented the effects of violence? Two important developments in medical theory and practice should be taken into account, both of which took off in the second half of the sixteenth century. First, the publication in 1543 of Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica led to a gradual improvement of anatomical knowledge amongst Flemish physicians and surgeons, which undoubtedly influenced their forensic activities.[15] Armed with a more profound knowledge of normal human anatomy, the experts might have felt more confident to open bodies in order to examine their pathologies. Secondly, these developments in anatomical knowledge were accompanied by the publication of the first vernacular treatises devoted to the art of writing medico-legal reports. In 1575, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (ca. 1510-1590) published a treatise on medico-legal reports that is genuinely recognised as the first vernacular work on legal medicine (Lecuir 1979: 231; Forbes 1985: 37). In 1592, Paré’s collected works were translated into Dutch by Carel Baten (ca. 1540-1617), the town physician of Dordrecht, and this made his forensic insights available to medical practitioners operating within the Dutch-speaking provinces of the Habsburg Netherlands (Paré 1592: 1082-92).[16] During the seventeenth century, Baten’s translation of Paré’s works was the most frequently consulted and most influential textbook on surgery within the Habsburg Netherlands (Van Hee 1990: 102). The eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of an extensive body of vernacular medico-legal literature, consisting of a combination of original writings by practitioners operating within the Dutch Republic and the Habsburg Netherlands and translations of works by French and German authors.[17]

[14] Finally, changes in legal requirements should also be taken into account. In this sense, a comparison of Joos de Damhouder’s discussion of post-mortems with an eighteenth-century treatise on medico-legal autopsies, written by the Dutch jurist Johan Jacob van Hasselt (1717-1783), is quite revealing. While Damhouder was generally satisfied with a summary external examination by one or more surgeons (Damhouder 1981: 104-06), Van Hasselt required medical experts to open corpses and to properly explain to judges why a particular wound should be considered lethal or not. He therefore considered it necessary for judicial authorities not only to rely on the expertise of surgeons, but also to consult university-trained physicians as medical examiners (Van Hasselt 1772: 11-15).[18]


Medical evidence and judicial decision-making

[15] Joos de Damhouder provided a clear explanation for judges’ and experts’ obsession with the lethality of injuries. If the experts could demonstrate that the wounds inflicted on a homicide victim were not definitively lethal in themselves, but only became lethal because of negligence on the part of the victim or because of the incompetence of the medical practitioners who had treated him or her, the aggressor in question could only be prosecuted for assault, and not for manslaughter, which automatically excluded capital punishment (Damhouder 1981: 105-06). In 1589, for instance, the onderbaljuw of the city of Ghent demanded that Franchoys Van Lokeren be beheaded for having killed a certain Philips Van Heghelsem. Van Lokeren, however, maintained that the injury he had inflicted in the victim’s abdomen with a pike was superficial, and that Van Heghelsem had actually succumbed to an infectious disease. To prove this, he provided the aldermen of Ghent with a number of attestations that unfortunately are not preserved, but some of which were undoubtedly written by medical practitioners. The report of the autopsy conducted by a physician and three surgeons largely confirmed Van Lokeren’s allegations, and so the aldermen only sentenced him to perform a public penance and to pay a fine of ten guilders.[19] In 1640, the Council of Flanders made a similar ruling in the case of Jan de Loraine, who had used a candle to assault a fellow inmate in the prison of Kortrijk. As the head injuries in question were not judged to be lethal, de Loraine was sentenced to perform a public penance rather than receiving the death penalty.[20] The fact that medical practitioners considered the injuries not absolutely lethal could also be grounds for a defendant to obtain a princely pardon. Therefore, petitioners frequently referred to medical evidence in their pardon requests, and some even added attestations by surgeons and physicians to their petitions in order to strengthen their case (Vrolijk 2004: 220-25).[21]

[16] Because of the profound implications of the experts’ verdicts, criminal sentences in homicide cases extensively drew on medico-legal representations of violence when describing victims’ injuries. Consequently, many sentences either cite medical examinations or quote from them.[22] In the case of Francois Vander Meulen, who had stabbed Gheeraert Debbaut in the abdomen with a knife, the aldermen of Ghent even copied the entire medical content of the post-mortem report into the criminal sentence in order to demonstrate that the injury in question had caused the victim’s death.[23]

[17] A particularly interesting example of the inclusion of medical evidence in criminal sentences is the judgment pronounced by the aldermen of Ghent against Adriaen De Joode, who was suspected of having committed six particularly atrocious murders over the course of a decade. The aldermen readily cited from the medico-legal reports produced in the 1664 case against De Joode for the murder of the wool merchant Martinus Vander Brugghen and three members of his household. The sentence related how the killer attacked the twenty-five-year-old maidservant Christina De Scheppere with a hammer. The strike passed ‘through the substance of the brain, a blow so heavy that she fell to the earth, whose throat you furthermore cut with your knife, slicing her from the throat to the stomach, whereupon she immediately died’. With regard to the murder of her mistress, Joanne Livine Beernaert, the sentence mentions that ‘having hit her equally with your hammer […] on the head, and having cut her throat in a very inhumane fashion by inflicting ten murderous wounds with your knife, you let her wallow in her blood like an animal’.[24]

[18] What is particularly interesting about the sentence in question, is that the entire narrative of the murders of Adriaen De Joode was not only neatly written down on sheets of paper, but also a relatively large number of copies were printed, which suggests that the text was probably handed out, sold, or distributed during or after De Joode’s execution.[25] In this sense, the inclusion of medical details in the sentence had a clear function. Through a detailed description of the atrocities committed by De Joode, the judges aimed to legitimise the particularly cruel and severe punishment they had devised. First, Adriaen De Joode would be pinched six times with glowing irons, once for each victim. Afterwards, his body would be broken on a cross, and finally he would be burned alive. While the aldermen’s intention in publishing this sentence and including the medical details was probably to edify their subjects and to deter them from committing similar crimes, published sentences of this kind might also have satisfied the popular demand for sensational details on horrific and atrocious crimes, in this way closely imitating the notorious English murder pamphlets, which Carol Loar appropriately described as ‘the mechanism capable of generating the widest audience for medico-legal knowledge’ (Loar 2010: 486).

[19] In this respect, and to fully appreciate the early modern post-mortem report as a specific discourse on violence, one equally has to understand that a large number of medico-legal investigations were conducted in a (semi-)public context. Most post-mortems were conducted at the location where the body was found, or at least in a nearby house or tavern. Furthermore, the reports often explicitly acknowledge that the discovery of a dead body and its subsequent examination attracted a large number of bystanders, even when the actual post-mortem took place in a private home.[26] The (semi-)public nature of most post-mortems was due in part to the functional nature of the bystander’s presence. First of all, observers could often help the authorities identify the corpse in question.[27] Secondly, a crowd of local inhabitants constituted an interesting pool of potential witnesses to question about the circumstances surrounding a suspicious death. On a more symbolic level, conducting a post-mortem in a public location could also function as a ritual demonstrating the activity and (purported) effectiveness of the judicial system, allowing judges to make clear that they would thoroughly investigate every suspicious death.[28] In this sense, conducting a post-mortem — although situated at the start of a criminal procedure — might serve an aim very similar to the public execution of a criminal or the public pronouncement of a criminal sentence at the end of the same procedure.


Medico-legal empiricism and legal dissatisfaction

[20] Notwithstanding the clear advances in forensic practices and procedures throughout the early modern period, and despite the importance attached to medical evidence by Flemish criminal judges, contemporary judicial officials occasionally felt that medico-legal representations of violence still had their deficiencies. In 1723, the attorney-general (procureur-generaal) of the Council of Flanders requested permission from the Council to inquire into an assault on a lesser judicial officer from the parish of Baaigem, stating that the medical report sent to him by the local authorities did not clearly state the cause of the wounds in question.[29] When sending over an autopsy report to the attorney-general in 1783, the stadtholder of the Land and Castle of Beveren apologised for the fact that ‘the report does not fully seem to decide the cause of death’.[30]

[21] Looking more closely at early modern Flemish post-mortems, one does indeed notice that many autopsy reports seem to lack essential information. In many cases, in fact, it is not even possible to ascertain whether a person died a violent death or not by relying solely on the medical report. In 1653, for instance, two surgeons examined the body of a certain Tanneken Causmaeckers on behalf of the aldermen of Ghent. During an external examination, they found a number of contusions on her head. After removing the skull, the experts discovered a large quantity of blood on the dura mater, which they considered the cause of death. However, the surgeons did not give any opinion as to the probable origin of these wounds. As no depositions of witnesses survive for this case, it is impossible to ascertain whether Tanneken died following an accident (e.g. falling on stairs) or an act of violence (e.g. someone threw a stone at her or hit her with a stick).[31]

[22] While some judicial officials might have lamented the omission of crucial information from the reports, the experts believed they had clear reasons to do so. Their reticence touches on an essential aspect of early modern medico-legal epistemology, namely its strong empiricist nature. This implied that medical experts almost exclusively focused on what could be observed and experienced through the senses (with primacy accorded to the sense of sight), while trying to avoid speculative statements as much as possible (McClive 2012: 493-94). This epistemological outlook was certainly not limited to the medico-legal sphere. Focussing on eighteenth-century France, Toby Gelfand has convincingly emphasised the outspoken empiricist and experience-based approach of early modern surgery. From the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, this empiricist attitude was increasingly shared by university-trained physicians, who traditionally had fewer objections against hypothetical reasoning (Gelfand 1980: 11, 138-39).

[23] This cautious empiricist epistemology found its most potent expression in the medico-legal handbooks of early modern France, which considered prudence (together with professional skill) to be the expert’s principal quality (Lecuir 1979: 242-243). The Parisian surgeon Jean Devaux (1649-1729), author of an influential handbook on the art of writing medico-legal reports, clearly echoed this empiricist outlook, stating that ‘a judicious surgeon is obliged not to say anything affirmative in his report concerning absent causes, pains, and generally anything that does not fall under the senses’ (Devaux 1746: 12).[32] Devaux’s colleague Nicolas de Blégny (1652-1722) suggested that surgeons should only testify on matters that are apparent to the senses and ought to avoid speculation on symptoms or phenomena that were only reported by the victims themselves (Blégny 1684: 33). Experts who deviated from the empiricist mantra of ‘voir et visiter’ by indulging in speculation could expect severe criticism from colleagues and the broader public opinion (McClive 2012: 489-503).

[24] The caution advised by the French authors found a clear counterpart in Joos de Damhouder’s enumeration of the principal qualities required of medical experts. According to Damhouder, a good expert ‘should not be too bold in uncertain cases’ (Damhouder 1981: 117).[33] The Dutch translation of Ambroise Paré’s treatise on medico-legal reports advised surgeons ‘to be very cautious and attentive […], as judges always base themselves on and act upon the observations of the physician or the surgeon’ (Paré 1592: 1082).[34] Furthermore, the empiricist nature of Flemish medico-legal expertise is mirrored in the most frequently used contemporary term for a post-mortem, aenschauw, which was derived from the verb aenschauwen, literally meaning ‘to see, to observe’.

[25] These statements by medico-legal theorists can also be corroborated with archival evidence demonstrating the reticence of Flemish medical practitioners when being asked to represent the effects of violent crime. First, the advanced state of decomposition of some corpses made experts extremely cautious to identify a possible cause of death. In 1738, two surgeons from the town of Warneton examined the body of fifteen-year-old Agnes Therese Cousin, whose corpse was found ‘covered with a very large number of worms because of the corruption of the said cadaver or corpse, which spread a great stench’. They then concluded that ‘as the said corpse is in such a state of corruption that none of its parts can be considered in their natural state, we declare that we cannot establish the cause of death’.[35] Likewise, when a physician and a surgeon were asked to examine the body of a female infant found in a bush, they explained that ‘as the principal external and internal parts were already eaten by birds or vermin, and partially rotten, they cannot judge whether the child was born alive or not’.[36] Secondly, medical uncertainty sometimes forced judges to grant suspects the benefit of the doubt. In 1645, the aldermen of Ghent sentenced Adriaenne Le Riche to a public whipping and a banishment of ten years instead of the death penalty because the experts who conducted the post-mortem of Niclaeys Moutton could not establish whether the stab wound inflicted upon him by Adriaenne had necessarily been fatal.[37] One of the reasons why Anthoine Papegay was pardoned for the homicide of Matheus Rondeel was the fact that the four surgeons involved in the case disagreed as to whether the injury in question had been lethal.[38]

[26] Cases such as these reveal the epistemological conflicts that could arise between judges and experts within the medico-legal arena. As Joël Chandelier and Marilyn Nicoud have argued, the law required precise and unequivocal responses that often clashed with the uncertain, prudent, and increasingly empiricist epistemology of medicine (Chandelier & Nicoud 2015: 293). According to Ian Maclean, conflicts between jurists and medical practitioners can be traced back to the fact that ‘medicine is shown to have a much laxer operative logic than law, reflecting its commitment to the theory of idiosyncrasy as opposed to the demands made upon the law by the need for a uniform application of justice’ (Maclean 2000: 256). In this sense, ‘the judge expects from the expert a clear-cut response that the medical expert is not always able to offer’ (Chandelier & Nicoud 2015: 293).[39]

[27] Early modern judges devised a host of strategies to circumvent the epistemological concerns of the medical profession. The Italian judge Antonio Maria Cospi (ca. 1560-1635) suspected that overly cautious medical experts were quite willing to exonerate killers by ascribing death to natural causes rather than violence and advised his colleagues to acquire a basic grasp of anatomy and pathology.[40] Armed with this knowledge, they could then question the experts on their observations and critically evaluate their conclusions (De Renzi 2002: 225; Pastore 2017: 23-26). Generally, Flemish judges did not exhibit a profound knowledge of medical and surgical teachings — in fact most of them did not even possess law degrees. Nevertheless, some legal officials demonstrated a clear desire to establish the cause of death by all means necessary, even if this meant putting pressure on experts or circumventing medical expertise altogether. When, in 1717, the physician and the surgeon who examined the corpse of Guillaume Pollé noted that it was no longer possible to discover any substantial marks of violence on the severely decomposed body, exhumed a week after the victim’s death when rumours of murder began to spread in the parish of Kemmel, the judges of the castellany court of Ypres circumvented this problem by questioning the neighbours and relatives who had seen and examined Pollé’s corpse prior to burial. Most witnesses testified that they had observed injuries around the victim’s throat and had seen blood around his nose and mouth, and thus the judges’ suspicions that Pollé had been killed by his wife’s lover were largely confirmed.[41]

[28] Other judges applied increasing pressure on experts until they delivered the desired answers. On 24 March 1675, the city physician and the city surgeon of Bruges examined the corpse of Jan Verstraete, lying in Saint John’s Hospital. Although they discovered a head injury that penetrated the cranium, the experts did not remark upon any alteration to his brain matter and concluded that death resulted from ‘a continual fever’. This response did not satisfy the local aldermen. Five days after the autopsy, the experts were separately summoned before the aldermen and asked whether Verstraete had died as a consequence of the wound. Both of them declared that the injury in question could not be regarded as the cause of death.[42] That early modern judges could be extremely tenacious in their attempts to establish causes of death is demonstrated by the case of Guillaume Sijs. More than seven years after Sijs’s death, the aldermen of Staden questioned the attending surgeon, Jacques Forret, to discover whether the head injury inflicted by Guillaume Reins had been the actual cause of the victim’s demise.[43] As demonstrated by the systematic references to medical evidence in criminal sentences, too much depended upon the verdicts of medical experts to allow any lingering doubts over the lethality of injuries.



[29] Drawing on a sample of post-mortem reports and other court records, this article has demonstrated how the emergence of medical expertise in Flemish criminal proceedings afforded new avenues for the pursuit of justice, while simultaneously leading to conflicts and misunderstandings between judges and experts. First of all, a remarkable evolution in the representation and explanation of corporal violence took place throughout the early modern period. While sixteenth-century post-mortem reports essentially offered summary descriptions of wounds and assessments of their lethality, largely based on the interpretation of external bodily signs, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a more elaborative approach to violent death. Experts attempted to explain how particular acts of violence could result in the victim’s death by opening the corpse in question, in this way uncovering the trajectories of wounds and creating a causal narrative of violent death. Both contemporary developments in anatomical knowledge and the appearance of the first vernacular treatises on the art of writing medico-legal reports, as well as changing legal requirements, had an important role in shaping the content of early modern medico-legal discourse.

[30] Secondly, medical representations of violence could have a profound impact on the punishments meted out to the accused. If at least one mortal wound could be discovered upon the victim’s corpse, there was little doubt that the suspect was indeed responsible for the death in question and therefore deserved a harsh punishment. When none of the wounds was considered definitively lethal, or if the experts disagreed on the lethality of the injuries, suspects were generally punished for assault rather than homicide and stood a fair chance of successfully petitioning for a pardon. Furthermore, the judicial authorities made avid use of medical evidence when communicating with their subjects about the prosecution of violent crime via the publication of criminal sentences in notorious murder cases. Therefore, the ways in which medico-legal information appeared in printed sentences and popular crime reports certainly merit a more profound examination, which might result in a renewed understanding of the interplay between medicine, law, and popular mentalities.

[31] Nonetheless, this marriage of medicine and the law was not always a harmonious one. Although the cautious empiricism of the experts might have been consonant with the epistemological concerns of early modern surgery, and to a growing extent also of theoretical medicine, it did not always match the requirements of the law, which demanded a clear-cut and definitive answer to specific medical questions. While early modern Flemish judges developed several strategies to deal with the reticent attitude inherent to medico-legal representations of lethal violence, the high number of deaths ascribed to ‘fevers’ and ‘internal diseases’ testifies to a deep-seated anxiety among medical practitioners concerning the far-reaching consequences of their expertise upon the lives of alleged suspects. This anxiety must have severely frustrated judicial officials whose primary intent was to catch killers and to bring them to justice.

Ghent University



[1] The same practice is documented for Amsterdam throughout large parts of the same century (Hallema 1963: 1922-30). [back to text]

[2] Rijksarchief Gent (RAG), Raad van Vlaanderen (RVV), no. 31105, inspection of the body of Inghel Vander Straeten, Eine, 9 July 1543. The same file also contains reports of similar examinations in the parish of Moorslede (1542) and the city of Bruges (1541). A bailiff or baljuw was an official, appointed by the prince or local lord, who was responsible for maintaining public order within a certain territorial jurisdiction. His judicial tasks included, among other things, tracking down and arresting criminals, collecting evidence, formulating criminal charges, and the execution of the criminal sentences rendered by local judges. Depending on the jurisdiction, the administration of criminal justice was entrusted to the local bench of aldermen, the main governing body of Flemish villages and towns, or a court consisting of vassals of the local lord. The bailiff and a deputation of members of the local criminal court were expected to be present at every post-mortem, even as medical practitioners gradually took over the actual examinations. [back to text]

[3] They can be found in RAG, RVV, no. 6828-7086 (inquests by subaltern courts) and no. 31105-31166 (post-mortem reports). Both series also contain medical reports concerning suicides, drownings, accidents, and cases of rape. The reports in question represent only a tiny fraction of all inquests into suspicious deaths undertaken by Flemish criminal judges during the early modern period. As both series were artificially created by twentieth-century archivists, it is not entirely clear why these specific reports have survived and where the others are, presuming that they are still extant. Most reports hail from a rural context, which is a welcome addition to the well-preserved registers of post-mortem reports of cities such as Bruges and Ghent. [back to text]

[4] The cases are spread over the three centuries as follows: twelve fom the sixteenth, fifty-four from the seventeenth, and sixty-two from the eighteenth century. As the amount of conserved material dramatically increases from the 1730s onwards, I have chosen to work with samples for the period 1730-1790, studying the reports for two years per decade. [back to text]

[5] RAG, RVV, no. 6855, inspection of the body of Jan De Vogelere, Moerbeke-Waas, 15 April 1561. [back to text]

[6] RAG, RVV, no. 6894, inspection of the body of Tanneken Van Damme, Nieuwpoort, 6 September 1614. However, Vrolijk (2004: 305-09) mentions a 1545 case in which three surgeons from the town of Harelbeke opened the head of a woman who had allegedly been killed by her husband. Internal examinations sporadically took place in Ghent, Bruges, and the castellany or rural district of Ypres during the second half of the sixteenth century, usually in particularly complex cases. Nonetheless, the large majority of forensic post-mortems conducted in these jurisdictions only involved an external examination. [back to text]

[7] ‘Ende neerstelick considereren alle zijn wonden, slaeghen ende quetsueren, ende die ghetrauwelick teekenen ende scriven, welcke doodelick waeren, welcke niet, ende of hy ghestorven es uuter quetseuren oft andersins’. [back to text]

[8] When inspecting the body of Jan Herwijn in 1617, the two surgeons involved discovered a wound in the middle finger of his left hand, which was curable, and a second one above the diaphragm. They considered the second wound lethal and incurable because it penetrated the victim’s stomach and liver: RAG, RVV, no. 31106, inspection of the body of Jan Herwijn, Bambeke, 19 August 1617. [back to text]

[9] RAG, RVV, no. 31105, deposition of the surgeon Anthuenis Pygoesse, Assenede, 25-26 June 1543. [back to text]

[10] RAG, RVV, no. 6914, inspection of the body of Adriaen Der Weduwen, Huise, 20 May 1633. The original Dutch text runs as follows: ‘Ten versoucke vanden eersamen Adriaen Wandele, baulliu van Huusse, es bij ons onderschreven gheswoeren medecin ende chieregin anschaut gheweest het doode lichame van Adriaen Der Weduwen, filius Joos, in wiens lichame ontrent den affel hebben ghevonden een wonde penetrerende tot inde hollenheijt vanden ondersten buijck met quetsijnghe vant omentum ende afsnijdijnghen van veele ende diversche aderen soo vant omentum alst mesenterium, waer door ghecauseert es gheweest groote huijtstortijnghe van bloet inden ondersten buijck, dienvolghende verclaren ende attesteeren dat de voornoemde wonde, d’welck gheschiet es met een serp snijdende instrument, ghecauseert heeft de doot vanden voorseijden Adriaen Der Weduwen. Actum ter kennisse van leenmannen ende schepenen van Huusse ende Hove van Uplosere den XXen meye 1633, onder stont gheschreven Joos Rekenaere, wat voorder stont gheschreven met een hanteecken ghemaeckt Adriaen Mas’. [back to text]

[11] These numbers might be underestimates, as I have only counted those cases in which the experts explicitly stated that they removed the skull or opened the thoracic or abdominal cavitiy. [back to text]

[12] For instance, when Judocus De Jaeghere was found dead in his bedroom, a physician and a surgeon concluded that he had been strangled by the burglars who had entered the house the night before. They reached their conclusion by relying exclusively on external bodily signs such as a dislocated larynx and wounds in the neck: RAG, RVV, no. 31164, inspection of the body of Judocus De Jaeghere, Lovendegem, 12 August 1784. [back to text]

[13] In 1783, a physician and a surgeon opened the skull, thorax, and abdomen of a certain Joannes Fobé, who had been hit on the head with a stone. The unusual thoroughness of this examination can probably be explained by the fact that the head injury was not considered absolutely lethal: RAG, RVV, no. 31163, inspection of the body of Joannes Fobé, Beveren, 28 May 1783. [back to text]

[14] In 1669, the surgeon Adriaen Monet declared that both the wound that Michiel Wostyn had received in his chest, penetrating the thoracic cavity, and the one on his back — which penetrated the stomach — were lethal, although only the latter was considered incurable: RAG, RVV, no. 31111, deposition of the surgeon Adriaen Monet, Keiem, 28 June 1669. [back to text]

[15] Surprisingly, the first vernacular treatise on Vesalian anatomy available in Flanders was not a translation of the Fabrica, but a Dutch version of the Historia de la composición del cuerpo humano of the Spanish anatomist Juan Valverde de Amusco (ca. 1525-1588), which was printed in Antwerp in 1568. While he ‘borrowed’ most of the anatomical plates in his work from Vesalius, the text itself was an original contribution from Valverde, whose prose is generally easier to understand than the ornate rhetorical style of Vesalius. Furthermore, Valverde corrected some of Vesalius’s mistakes (Okholm Skaarup 2015: 25 & 233; Van Hee 2000: 45). [back to text]

[16] Baten was actually born in Ghent, but fled the Habsburg Netherlands in 1586, shortly after the Fall of Antwerp. An English translation of Paré’s works appeared in 1634 (Loar 2010: 482). [back to text]

[17] A good overview of eighteenth-century medico-legal books and treatises that were written in, or translated into, Dutch is given in Siebold (1847: xiii-xiv). [back to text]

[18] Van Hasselt was probably inspired by the judicial practice of the provincial court in his native province of Guelders, which made similar recommendations in its correspondence with local judicial officers (Overdijk 1999: 78-80). [back to text]

[19] Stadsarchief Gent (SAG), Oud Archief (OA), series 214, no. 12, fol. 30v-31r, sentence of 31 July 1589, and series 218, no. 1, inspection of the body of Philips ‘Negenerschen’ [sic], 8 June 1589. [back to text]

[20] RAG, RVV, no. 8594, fol. 389v-390v, sentence of 7 July 1640. A public penance or amende honorable usually took the form of the condemned person appearing — bare-headed and on his knees — before the local judges, where he had to beg God and the judicial authorities for forgiveness for his crime(s). [back to text]

[21] Examples of such attestations can be found in SAG, OA, series 213, no. 8, documents regarding the petition for a pardon for Pauwels Luytens, 1643-1645, and no. 9, attestation of the surgeon Loys Vander Swalmen in the case of Loys Verschaffelt, 27 April 1644. [back to text]

[22] For instance RAG, RVV, no. 8594, fol. 48r-49r, sentence of 6 June 1598, fol. 211r-212r, sentence of 7 April 1629; SAG, OA, series 215, no. 1, sentence of 26 June 1643, and no. 7, sentence of 11 October 1735. [back to text]

[23] SAG, OA, series 214, no. 109, fol. 99v-101r, sentence of 27 May 1704, and series 218, no. 4, fol. 60r-v, inspection of the body of Geeraert Debbaut, 24 May 1704. Vander Meulen was beheaded and his goods were confiscated. [back to text]

[24] SAG, OA, series 215, no. 3, sentence of 2 May 1664. ‘Hebt de voorschreven dienstmaerte met uwen hamer ghegheven op haer hooft eenen soo swaeren slach, door de substantie vande herssenen, dat sy oock ter aerden viel, die ghy voorts met u mes hebt ghekeelt, emmers ghegheven eene steke inden hals, tot inde maeghe, daer van dat zy dadelick is commen te overlijden […], ende haer oock met uwen moort-hamer […] op haer hooft hebt ghebolt, ende met u mes met thien moordadighe wonden inden hals seer on-menschelijck ghekeelt, die ghy oock al oft sy hadde geweest eene beeste liet wentelen in haer bloedt’. The relevant post-mortem reports can be found in series 218, no. 2, fol. 84r-v, and series 219, no. 2. [back to text]

[25] The publication of criminal sentences and the rhetorical strategies and manipulations this involved are discussed in more detail in Franck (2009: 14-16). Concerning a similar case (a fivefold murder committed by two burglars) that took place about a hundred years later, a local newspaper announced that copies of the criminal sentence could not only be bought in Ghent, but also in print shops in Bruges, Ypres, Kortrijk, Oudenaarde, Sint-Niklaas, and Aalst: Gazette van Gendt, 5 December 1763. [back to text]

[26] For instance RAG, RVV, no. 6914, inspection of the body of Jan De Pau, Waarschoot, 28 November 1634 (which speaks of ‘the presence of many and various bystanders’), and no. 31151, inspection of the body of Pieterken De Mey, Sint-Lievens-Houtem, 24 March 1774 (post-mortem in a private home). [back to text]

[27] RAG, RVV, no. 31130, inspection of the body of Eugenius Arckens, Zwevegem, 20 May 1754; SAG, OA, series 218, no. 5, fol. 102r-v, inspection of the body of Lucas Everaert, Zelzate, 25 April 1724. [back to text]

[28] An interesting remark concerning the ‘spectacular’ nature of early modern post-mortems appeared in an eighteenth-century report produced on behalf of the aldermen of Ghent. When asked if he wanted to attend the post-mortem of a woman who had fallen from a watermill, situated on the border of the jurisdictions of Ghent and Drongen, the clerk of the parish of Drongen declined, stating that ‘it was not a nice spectacle to see’: SAG, OA, series 218, no. 7, inspection of the body of Anne Marie De Vos, 25 April 1764. The ‘spectacular’ nature of English coroners’ inquests, whose public character was even much more pronounced than that of continental post-mortems, is acknowledged in Butler (2015: 182). [back to text]

[29] RAG, RVV, no. 7024, attorney-general to the Council of Flanders, 16 November 1723. [back to text]

[30] RAG, RVV, no. 31163, Jacobus Rochus Joannes De Belie to the attorney-general, 6 August 1783. ‘Mits d’acte van aenschouw d’oorzaek van de dood niet ten vollen en schijnt te decideren.’ [back to text]

[31] SAG, OA, series 218, no. 2, fol. 86v, inspection of the body of Tanneken Causmaeckers, 29 May 1653. [back to text]

[32] ‘Un Chirurgien judicieux est obligé à ne rien dire d’affirmatif dans son Rapport sur les causes absentes, sur les douleurs, & généralement sur tout ce qui ne tombe pas sous les sens’. [back to text]

[33] ‘Dat zij in twijffelicke zaeken niet te stout en zijn’. [back to text]

[34] ‘Hier in moet hy seer voorsichtich ende wel toesiende wesen […] mits dat de Rechters haer altijt fonderen ende reguleren op het aengeven des Medicijns oft des Chirurgijns’. [back to text]

[35] RAG, RVV, no. 7037, inspection of the body of Agnes Therese Cousin, Warneton, 28 May 1738. ‘Couvert d’un très grand nombre de vers par la corruption dudit cadavre ou corps mort, qui répandoit une grande puanteur […], et comme ledit corps mort étoit tellement en corruption qu’aucune partie de son corps ne pouvoit être consideré dans leur essence, ainsi nous déclarons que nous ne pouvons aucunement juger de la cause de sa mort’. The victim’s corpse was found in a forest after she had been missing for a couple of days. The judges of the feudal court of Warneton suspected foul play and issued a public notice promising a financial reward to the person who could identify the purported killer. [back to text]

[36] RAG, RVV, no. 31129, inspection of the body of a female infant, Bornem, 25 February 1751. ‘Door dien sij bevonden hebben dat de principaelste partijen soo interne als externe, alreede door de vogelen ofte gedierten waeren op ge’eten, ende ten deele verrot, sulcx sij niet en connen ordeelen oft het soude geleeft hebben oft niet’. [back to text]

[37] SAG, OA, series 215, no. 1, sentence of 9 December 1645. [back to text]

[38] RAG, RVV, no. 31112, advice of the bailiff and aldermen of Steenbeke regarding the granting of a pardon to Anthoine Papegay, 12 March 1670. [back to text]

[39] ‘Là, le juge attend de l’expert une réponse tranchée, que le médecin expert n’est pas toujours en mesure de lui apporter’. The problems that the ‘divergence between medical and legal assessments of what constituted satisfactory proof of causation’ could pose in early modern rape cases are discussed in Stephan Landsman’s article on medical witnesses at the eighteenth-century Old Bailey (Landsman 1998: 460). [back to text]

[40] The same remark has been made by many historians working on early modern forensic practices (e.g. Vanhemelryck 1972: 369-370; Denys 2000: 99; Chaulet 2008: 318). [back to text]

[41] Stadsarchief Ieper, Kasselrij Ieper, series 8, no. C3, inspection of the body of Guillaume Pollé, Kemmel, 1 October 1717, and depositions of witnesses, 1-2 October 1717. The victim’s wife and her lover were sentenced to death in absentia. [back to text]

[42] Stadsarchief Brugge, Oud Archief, series 191, no. 5, fol. 135v-136r, inspection of the body of Jan Verstraete, 24 March 1675, and questioning of the experts, 29 March 1675. Ten years earlier, the same experts examined the corpse of a person who had purportedly broken a leg. However, they did not discover any fracture and were not prepared to give an opinion on the cause of death. The aldermen of Bruges then questioned the victim’s attending physician, who ascribed death to a fever: series 191, no. 5, fol. 68v-69r, inspection of the body of Pieter De Wispelare, 8 November 1665, and questioning of the physician, 10 November 1665. [back to text]

[43] RAG, RVV, no. 6935, deposition of the surgeon Jacques Forret, 27 October 1653. The surgeon was probably questioned in response to a petition for a pardon by the offender. He considered the injury not to have been lethal. A similar course of action was undertaken in a 1566 case, in which a number of surgeons were questioned regarding a homicide that had occurred seven years before, again in response to a request for a pardon (Vrolijk 2004: 334-335). [back to text]



Archival sources

Bruges, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 191, no. 5, register of post-mortem reports, 1655-1690

Ghent, Rijksarchief (RAG), Raad van Vlaanderen (RVV), no. 6828-7086, inquests by subaltern courts

Ghent, Rijksarchief, Raad van Vlaanderen, no. 8594, register of criminal sentences, 1585-1641

Ghent, Rijksarchief, Raad van Vlaanderen, no. 31105-31166, post-mortem reports

Ghent, Stadsarchief (SAG), Oud Archief (OA), series 213, criminal trial records

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 214, ‘books of crime’ (boeken van den crime)

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 215, criminal sentences

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 218, registers of post-mortem reports

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 219, post-mortem reports

Ypres, Stadsarchief, Kasselrij Ieper, series 8, no. C3, trial against Joris Calmein and Marie De Jonghe for the murder of Guillaume Pollé, 1717


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Violence Heard: The Ekphrasis of Sound from Thundering Sea Battles to Thick Silence

Violence Heard: The Ekphrasis of Sound from Thundering Sea Battles to Thick Silence

Frans-Willem Korsten & Marijn van Dijk


​[1]​ The study of violence has long been marked by the dominance of scopophilia, the love of the visual. There is a practical reason for this: sound could not be recorded until the late nineteenth century. In the case of the early modern period, the scopophilic emphasis is intensified thanks to the explosion of images that resulted from rapidly developing print techniques and the baroque fascination with visual representations (Van Duijnen 2019). In recent decades, however, more and more attention has been paid to the relevance of sound in our making sense of periods, situations and texts. Relatively few studies, though, pay this kind of attention to representations of violence, although there is ample reason to do so. Images and texts start to work differently, affectively, when sound is taken into consideration. This paper therefore attempts to focus on the sound of early modern violence, by considering the acoustic analogy to what in the field of texts and images has been defined as ekphrasis. Our argument is that in its transformation from a classical rhetorical concept to a modern literary concept, ekphrasis lost its voice, and, by implication, its sound.

​[2]​ We will develop our argument in four steps. First, we will define what we mean by ‘ekphrasis of sound’ and illustrate its relevance for the representation of violence. Second, we will focus on how ekphrasis of sound involves the imagination of space, both in terms of a source and of a surrounding. Third, we will deal with the symbolic aspect of ekphrasis of sound, since the experience of sound is different from the way in which sounds acquire symbolical meaning in texts. Finally, we will focus on representations in which sound acquires its force through forms of silence, as an expression of threat – and we note beforehand, here, that silence is not the absence of sound.

1. Ekphrasis of sound: vividness in the representation of violence

​[3]​ In a study titled Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice, Ruth Webb shows how modern definitions of ekphrasis deviate from its original use to describe a rhetorical concept. In modern literary criticism, ekphrasis is usually seen as a text or textual fragment that engages with visual art or that is considered in the competition between the textual and the visual in terms of paragone (Mitchell 1986, 1994). In the modern literary context, a few paradigmatic examples of definitions of ekphrasis are, as mentioned by Webb: ‘the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art’, or ‘the verbal representation of visual representation’ or even more basic ‘words about an image’. Yet according to Webb, a classical rhetorical definition of ekphrasis would be ‘a speech that brings the subject matter vividly before the eyes’ (Webb 2009: 1). When Caspar De Jonge (2016), building on Webb, dealt with ekphrasis in the context of rhetorical education, he pointed out two differences between the ancient rhetorical concept of ekphrasis and the modern literary understanding of the term. According to De Jonge, firstly, descriptions of objects or works of art are hardly ever mentioned in rhetorical exercises; they deal, rather, with descriptions of persons, events, times and places. Secondly, ancient rhetoricians focus on ekphrasis because of their concern with the impact on the recipients’ minds. Ekphrasis is aimed at how the reader or listener can somehow be turned into a spectator who feels present at the scene described (De Jonge 2016: 210).

​[4]​ What the classical rhetorical definition of ekphrasis shares with modern literary definitions, then, is the exciting intercommunication of speech and view, words and images, verbal and visual. Yet there are three pivotal differences. One difference is that literature concerns the written text, with its descriptions, that is mostly read in silence. The classical definition concerns the spoken word of orators who are listened to, operating rhetorically and, at times, theatrically. A second point is that the subject of classical rhetorical ekphrasis is not restricted to objects of visual art, as is the case in the modern definition. Instead, the subjects that were considered particularly appropriate had more dimensions than a mere silent object: they concerned people, events, times and places. The third difference is that the aim of ekphrasis was not the description in itself but the impact on the listener’s mind (De Jonge 2016: 209-210). The classical rhetorical term for this impact is, as De Jonge mentions, enargeia (ἐνάργεια) which can be translated as ‘sensory vividness’. It concerns the experience of any audience’s being, as it were, present at the scene. In recent studies this effect is also called ‘immersion’ (Allan, De Jong & De Jonge 2017).

​[5]​ Since description is not the purpose of ekphrasis, De Jonge points out that it is misleading to translate ἔκφρασις as such. He explains that the verb ἔκφρασειν means ‘complete telling’ or ‘complete showing’: the prefix ἐκ- expresses integrality, completeness and thoroughness. This, we will translate in what follows as an issue of detailed-ness, which has as its aim the vividness of a representation. The verb φράζειν, in turn, means ‘to communicate’ or ‘to tell’ and has, since Homer, a visual connotation, which links it to ‘showing’ (De Jonge 2016: 210). Yet this showing is again multi-sensory, just as people, events, times, and places are multidimensional and multisensory. If the aim is to evoke them as completely as possible one cannot only call upon the mind’s eye, but has to involve the mind’s ear as well.

​[6]​ If classical rhetorical ekphrasis wanted to turn the listener into a spectator, the subject matter that this spectator was supposed to behold could not be complete so long as sound was not in play. Perhaps the visual connotation of φράζειν in Homer caused a shift from more general scenes to a focus on specific objects considered fit for ekphrasis, to visual art. But if we move back to the original topics (people, events, times places), we have to assume that ekphrasis had an acoustic component. Perhaps this acoustic component has not been stressed in the Greek and Roman schoolbooks because it was self-evidently present in the voice of the orator. As stated earlier, in its transformation from a rhetorical to a literary concept, ekphrasis lost its voice. Yet in working by means of an ekphrasis, the orator presents a detailed story in a theatrical manner, evoking in its completeness a clear presentation for a listener, who is turned, as it were, into a spectator of the presented event. Accordingly, although visual terms dominate in relation to ekphrasis, its aim (enargeia) is not restricted to the visual. Sensory vividness implies all the senses and thus opens the door to the acoustic. The relevance for the representation of violence will be clear: sound is pivotal in not keeping violence at a distance but making it felt.

​[7]​ In the examples that follow, the mechanisms of this original definition of ekphrasis are at work, and in this context we aim to show that violence is very much a matter of sound, which may be self-evident. Yet more specifically, our aim is to argue that the bodily impact of violence on an audience may depend on its capacity to hear such sounds. To analyse this connection between sound and the impact of violence, we want to broaden the scope of classical ekphrasis by looking not only at text or spoken word, but also at images – images that work rhetorically. In all cases our definition of the ekphrasis of sound is that the level of detail in text or image contributes fundamentally to its sensory vividness, which in turn helps any audience to be, as it were, present at the scene. If ekphrasis of sound takes place in a written text, its words can turn the reader into a listener in whose mind sounds come to resound; by the same mechanism, images can turn the viewer into someone who is also open to aural perception.

​[8]​ We opt for the phrase ‘ekphrasis of sound’, here, as opposed to the existing terms ‘acoustic ekphrasis’ or ‘musical ekphrasis’. The latter is mostly used for the musical representation of an event, as in Tchaikovski’s Ouverture 1812, in which battle scenes between Russian and Napoleonic forces are represented by musical means. In line with the modern definition of ekphrasis, ‘musical ekphrasis’ is used to indicate that music is describing something else.​[1]​ ‘Acoustic ekphrasis’, meanwhile, is synonymous with ‘ekphrasis of music’, and is used to describe musical pieces or musical performances captured by language in a literary text. This is the acoustic equivalent of the modern idea of ekphrasis in which language is used to describe a visual work of art (Bernam 2004, Schirrmacher 2016).

2. Matters of detail: from description to telling it completely

​[9]​ Our definition of the ekphrasis of sound is a matter of detail, which is obviously a matter of scale. Consider a poem by the merchant and poet Johannes Six van Chandelier (1620-1695), a poem inspired by the unexpected operation of an instrument of violence: ‘On the cracking of my gun, against gunpowder’ (Op het barsten van mijn pistool, teegens buskruid). The poem informs us that the narrator was at sea when his gun backfired and missed his head by a hair’s breadth. The cracking of a gun is a multisensory experience with a strong acoustic component, evident in the word ‘cracking’ (barsten). Yet the description of the cracking gun, with the poet present in the cabin of a captain Blok, is so concise that it does not work as ekphrasis:

Daar ‘k hier, op zee, in Bloks kajuit,
Myn sakpistool loste achter uit,
Dat barstende in een klaaren donder,
Myn hoofd voor by schoot, tot groot wonder.
(Chandelier 1991: 569, ll. 89-92)

When here, at sea, in Blok’s cabin
I backfired my gun,
Which bursting in a clear thunder,
Missed my head by great wonder.​[2]​

The reader will form some kind of image and imagination of the sound of this event, but Six van Chandelier does not, by means of a detailed narration, make the reader or hearer as it were present at the occasion. The poem remains on the level of description.

​[10]​ In the opening lines, Six van Chandelier deals with the history of gunpowder and then hints at something that is of relevance in relation to ekphrasis of sound. He gives the example of Apelles, considered to be the greatest painter from classical antiquity (whose work is solely known via ekphrasis). Apelles’s paintings managed to render the roaring of thunder in such a way that viewers felt the urge to protect themselves against its violence.

Die Fenix, aller schildren wonder,
Houdt d’eer, hy ’t rollen van den donder,
Als die, uit dikke wolken, straalt
Met barstingh, zoo heeft afgemaalt,
Dat niemand, sonder lauwerieren,
Het oogh dorst wenden, naa die vieren.
(Chandelier 1991: 569, ll. 7-12)

This Phoenix, a wonder to all painters,
Holds the honour of having painted the rolling of thunder,
When it shines forth from fat clouds
With outbursts, in such a way,
That none, without laurels,
Dared to turn his eyes to those fires.

This example demonstrates how ekphrasis of sound might work through images. Apparently, Apelles’ painting caught the thunderstorm in such detail, completeness and vividness that the average viewer might experience the thunderstorm in all its dimensions, not only seeing the fat clouds but also hearing the rolling of thunder. Thus, the viewer is also turned into a listener, because the painter managed to paint ‘the rolling of thunder’.

​[11]​ One clear example of successful ekphrasis of sound, as the detailed textual or visual capturing of sound with vividness as effect, is the painting by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707), ‘The canon shot’ (Het kanonschot, 1680):

Figure 1. Willem van de Velde the Younger, ‘The cannon shot’, 1680, oil on canvas, 78.5 x 67 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Object number SK-C-244.

The title already indicates that this picture has sound as its subject. The sea on the painting is almost completely flat, and its surface not only reflects the light, but would also form the most effective acoustic ground for reverberating sound. Wind and waves could attenuate or partly overrule the acoustic strength of the explosion, but the flat waters amplify the sound of the shot dramatically. An indication that this painting should be experienced acoustically is the fact that we do not see the side of the ship where the canon is actually fired. Only a little light from the canon’s flash is visible to the left side of the ship, but the actual explosion is not visualised. Instead, we see the cloud of smoke stretching out over almost the entire width of the painting, indicating the thunderous roaring of the canon over the still waters.

​[12]​ The picture captures something, here, that is an often-ignored aspect of sound. Whereas vision is immediate, sound takes time. Visually, the cloud is the remains of the canon shot. It is also an icon for the way in which sound appears and spreads itself through time. The cloud suggests both the immediacy of sound by means of the explosive, loud appearance of the shot – it bursts into the air in the very moment of its witnessing – and the difference between the immediate visual perception of the event of the shot and its acoustic delay. In this context, an acoustically meaningful accent in the painting is the presence of the gulls in the foreground near the water surface. Gull cries are piercing sounds that carry far over a flat sea. But in this painting the gulls are not only miniscule figures alongside the impressive war ship; their cries are also drowned out by the thundering shot of the canon. Their presence thus stresses the enormous impact of the sound that the picture captures. Another source of noise in the painting, contrasting with the stillness of the water, is the human voice, indicated by the dramatic gestures of the seamen on the pinnaces. Next to the human voice there is the sound of human activity. The warship is crowded with sailors at work, as is the pinnace to the left, the oars of which splash the water’s surface as if to move away from the thundering sound, further emphasizing the way the canon shot fills its environment.

​[13]​ Willem van de Velde the Younger captures sound in this picture to such an extent, in such detail and completion, that it turns the viewer into a listener, thus performing the ekphrasis of sound. The difference with Six van Chandelier is, then, the intensity of detail and completeness. Meanwhile, the image also presents us with a double quality of sound that makes it distinct from the textual or visual. Sound both has a source, and will surround the listener. It is this double capacity that is of relevance in the representation of violence.

3. The theatre of violence: surrounding sound and sound’s source

​[14]​ On the morning of August 10, 1653, the retired doctor and poet Jacob Westerbaen set himself to read and write in the quiet study of his estate Ockenburg. This estate was located about one kilometre from the coast near The Hague. However, his peaceful study was suddenly disturbed by violent sounds:

My grouwelt van den dagh, die niet en sal verouwen,
Doe ’t huylen in myn buyrt der brullende kortouwen
Quam stooren myne rust door ’t dreunen en ’t gedruys
Van myne vensteren en glaesen in myn kluys,
Daer ick my had geset te leesen en te schryven
Om in myn eensaemheyt den uchtend te verdryven.
Myn blyven was niet langh daer buyten het geschut
My seyde, komter uyt, wat meackt ghy in uw hut?
Kom, hoor en sie, so verre’ ghy oor en oogh kunt recken
(Westerbaen 1654: 94)

I am still horrified by the day, which I can never forget,
When the howling in my neighbourhood of roaring cannons
Came to disrupt my tranquillity by the thundering and rattling
Of my windows and their glass in the cell,
Where I had seated myself to read and write
To pass through the morning in loneliness.
My stay there did not last long since outside the guns
Told me: ‘Come outside, what are you doing in your cabin?
Come, hear and see, as far as ear and eye can stretch…’

Westerbaen here describes his experience of the last sea battle in the first Anglo-Dutch war (1652-1654), as part of an extensive poem on his estate. The battle – called the Battle of Ter Heijde by the Dutch, and the Battle of Scheveningen by the English – started on 8 August near the coast of Wijk aan Zee, about 70 kilometres north of Ter Heijde. It was witnessed by audiences from the dunes along the coastline. As we learn from Westerbaen’s poem, the battle announced itself from a distance through sound that manifested itself close by, invisible sound waves rattling the glass. As a result, there are two sources of sound: one that has a direction but no pinpointed source, and one that is nearby and does have a source.

​[15]​ The sound waves from afar not only move the glass: they also move the narrator. The sound speaks to him, lyrically, and urges him to come out of his study and witness the violence. The poet climbs the dunes to join the audience:

Ick kom, en hoor en sie; het dondert op het waeter,
Het vinnigh blixem-vyer met grouwelijck geklaeter
Ging uyt een dicke wolck gedreven by der zee.
Ken’t Jupiter om hoogh, men kent beneden mee.
Als hy syn vlam laet sien en synen donder hooren
Geeft hy wat tusschen-tijds aen oogen en aen ooren,
Hier gaet het anders toe, het dondert even dicht,
Daer’s niet een oogen-blick dat dese buye swicht.
(Westerbaen 1654: 95)

I come and hear and see; it thunders on the water,
The fierce lightning fire with horrific splatter
Came out of a vast cloud rolling above the sea.
What Jupiter can do above, people can do down here too.
When he shows his flame and makes his thunder be heard
He gives some intervals to eyes and ears,
Here it goes differently, it thunders so densely,
There is not one instant that this storm relents.

Westerbaen describes both the auditory and visual aspects of the battle. In his comparison of the sound of the cannons with a thunderstorm, the rhythm of natural or divine thunder differs from that of human artifice. The battle’s thundering knows no rest, it is an incessant roaring. But the audience is given a break as the low tide draws the battling ships away from the coast:

Maer wind en ebbe nam het verder sien en hooren,
Die ’t oogh den roock ontvoer, en het geluyt den ooren,
Tot dat de vloed weerom, die nae de middagh quam,
Aen oogh en ooren gaf dat wind en ebbe nam.
(Westerbaen 1654: 95)

But wind and low tide took the seeing and hearing with them,
By taking the smoke from sight, and the sound from ears,
Up until high tide again, coming in the afternoon,
Returned to eye and ears what wind and low tide had taken.

This quote shows a fascinating play with the differences in distance that work differently on what can be seen and heard. At first not much more could be seen than a massive cloud from which the roaring canons resounded. And as the sight and sound of both are removed by the effects of low tide and wind, high tide brings sound and vision closer again.

​[16]​ One spectator who did not have such a break was Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693). Van de Velde, one of Holland’s most influential seascape painters (Prud’homme van Reine 2009), was employed by the States General to record the course of the battle, much like a reporter. He witnessed it from a small boat, called a galjoot, from which he made sketches. In elaborating these into pen paintings afterwards, Van de Velde has a habit of not presenting the scene from his own perspective, but instead inserting himself in the galjoot into the picture:

Figure 2. Willem van de Velde the Elder, detail from ‘The Battle of Terheide’, 1657, ink on canvas, 170 x 289 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Object number SK-A-1365

This detail, in which one can actually see the pen in Van de Velde’s hand, is part of a scene from the battle of Ter Heijde. Van de Velde’s appearance in the small boat is part of a bigger picture, however, with the galjoot slightly to the left of centre, as seen below:

Figure 3. Willem van de Velde the Elder, ‘The Battle of Terheide’, 1657, ink on canvas, 170 x 289 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Object number SK-A-1365

Van de Velde artfully lifts up the perspective to a bird’s eye view (or that from a high dune), in order to show the immense proportions of the fleets, while at the same time showing himself, drawing in the small boat in the front. The painter and his company consequently come to function as a mise-en-abyme. They combine both the larger audience looking at this theatre of war and spectators inside the scene of war.

​[17]​ Another piece is a sketch that Van de Velde the Elder actually made in his galjoot at the battle of Ter Heijde. He probably worked out the details of the drawing afterwards, but his annotations made in the course of the battle are still visible at the top: ‘The last charge near midday being about two o’clock & Tromp lost his main topmast about midday’ (our translation).​[3]​

Figure 4. Willem van de Velde the Elder, ‘The Battle of Scheveningen, 31 July 1653: the last pass in the battle’, 1653, graphite & wash, grey, 228 x 363 mm, Royal Museums Greenwich, Object ID: PAH1713. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Available online at <https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/141660.html>.

Even though this drawing shows the battle from sea level, Van de Velde inserts another galjoot into the picture, on the far right this time, partly covered by a cloud of smoke. The small, fast and easily manageable galjoots were commonly used by war fleets for communication purposes (Daalder 2016: 86). This galjoot might thus have been there in the scene Van de Velde witnessed, but here it also functions as a reference to his own presence in a similar vessel, another mise-en-abyme.

​[18]​ In terms of an ekphrasis of sound, the sounds of violence are part of a larger soundscape. The sea is relatively tranquil, but still forms the keynote for everything that happens. The term keynote, or tonic, indicates a sound that forms the acoustic ground upon which other sounds present themselves (Murray Schafer 1977: 9-10). Other sounds constituting this ground include the wind, indicated by the movements of the clouds and flags and sails. In themselves the latter are not sounds of violence, although they are indices to it, just as the sounds of ships moving through the waters are indexical to it. That movement is indicated, here, by the ripples of the water at the front and sides of the ships. Sounds of violence are apparent in the sailors drowning to the left, or being rescued by the pinnaces that carry off survivors of ships that have already been destroyed, as we can see between the two ships on the left. Most prominent are the clouds produced by the thundering canons, with Dutch and English ships enmeshed in close range battles. These clouds confuse the perspective of the image, or, rather, make it very difficult to define the vanishing point. As a result, the eye has to roam. Acoustically speaking, this is an icon for the way in which sound surrounds. It has the capacity to engulf. Iconic, here, is the galjoot to the right – referencing the galjoot in which Van de Velde found himself – deprived of any perspective by a cloud of smoke.

​[19]​ If we compare the two reports of Westerbaen and Van de Velde on the battle of Ter Heijde it is clear that their different forms of focalisation result in a different capturing and rendering of sound. With Westerbaen, listening from a fixed point, the audience would hear the violent sounds increase and decrease with the tide, while the galjoot is inside the scene and is completely surrounded by the sounds that Willem van de Velde the Elder captures visually. The imagined reorganisation of a scene, either through images or words, allows for the pinpointing of the source of sound as coming from a distinct subject, or for a visual rendering of how sound surrounds. In both cases sound does not stay outside of the body. The essence of sound is that it may make windows rattle, that it can enter the body, that it may make bodies vibrate. In the experience of violence this is pivotal. Having dealt with matters of experience above, we now move to the question of what sounds may mean and the relevance of the ekphrasis of sound in that context.

4. The music of violence: symbolic sound

​[20]​ In the same battle of Ter Heijde, the ship of one of Holland’s most famous admirals, Maarten Tromp, lost its main topmast, and the admiral himself was killed by a sniper. On the occasion of his funeral, Johannes Six van Chandelier wrote a poem that describes the battle and mourns his loss:

O! Petten, wat een naar gehuil
Loeit, op uw strand, uit Nereus kuil.
De donder, en de blixemmynen,
Aan ’t braaken, uit tweehondert pynen,
Halsstarrigh anderhalven dagh,
Om Engelands of Hollands vlagh,
Saam strydend, konnen ’t hart des kykers,
Des Scheevlingers, en Beverwykers
Zoo niet, met schrik, beklemmen, als
De neerlaagh van dien strydbren hals.
(Chandelier 1991: 604-605)

Oh! City of Petten, what dismal howling
Lows, on your beach, from Nereus’ pit.
The thunder and lightning mines,
Spewing from two hundred pines,
Stubbornly, for one and a half days,
For Holland’s or England’s flag,
Mutually battling, could no viewer’s heart,
Of Scheveningen or Beverwijk peoples,
Oppress as much with fright, as
The defeat of this combative man.

In contrast to Westerbaen, Six van Chandelier was not part of the audience that witnessed the battle. His invocation of the city of Petten is based on an erroneous pamphlet claiming that the battle started near the coast of Petten on August 8, while it actually started about 35 kilometres to the south near the coast of Wijk aan Zee (Chandelier 1991: II.631). Yet the theatricality of the event is captured again by describing its audience: the people are summoned from Petten, Scheveningen and Beverwijk, all coastal towns. In our analysis the description is again not detailed or complete enough for an ekphrasis but stays on the level of description. Yet the passage does point to another level of analysis: described sounds acquire a symbolic function.

​[21]​ The sea is represented as a pit from which a howling sound wails (loeit) over the beach. ‘Loeien’ (to wail) is a verb that refers to sounds that are heavy, deep, long-stretched and consequently have a howling character. In Dutch, the verb is used to indicate the sound of cows, storms, large fires, and human beings in agony. In his evocation of a ‘dismal howling’, Six opens with exactly the same word (gehuil) that Westerbaen used to start his description of the sound of the sea battle: ‘the howling (huilen) of the roaring cannons’. In describing the explosions as resonant howling sounds, the two authors give a metaphoric voice to them that connotes pain. In relation to this there is a double loaded word that calls for attention in Six’s poem: ‘pines’ (pijnen). In Dutch this denotes not only pine-trees, indicating the material of which ships were partly made, but also ‘pains’. The word thus conveys the pains suffered by those on the ships, but also the pain suffered by the ships themselves, built from pine trees, signifying either cries of pain or the snapping sounds of cracking wood. And there is yet other pain involved. In his lament for admiral Tromp, Six van Chandelier states that all the horrific sounds spreading over the beach of Petten could not frighten the audience as much as the news of the death of their admiral. The painful sounds he evokes metonymically indicate another kind of pain: the hurt done to a nation fighting under one flag.

​[22]​ If Six stayed on the level of description, without enough detail to pull the reader or listener into the scene, let us now move to Holland’s greatest poet, playwright and writer of occasional poetry: Joost van den Vondel. His lament over Tromp’s death proves him to be an expert in using the ekphrasis of sound while giving symbolic meaning to actual sounds of violence. The passage below may make clear what the difference is between Six’s description, and this one, as a matter of ekphrasis of sound.

Laet zich Europe niet verwondren,
Alscheen de weerelt te vergaen,
Toen, uit den Noortschen Oceaen,
Dat oorloghsonweêr op quam dondren,
En baldren over duin, en strant,
Een’ halven dagh, en noch een’ heelen;
Tweehondert dryvende kasteelen;
De bare zee in lichten brant;
De barstende salpeterwolcken,
En d’elementen altemael
Gelost van ‘t zwangere metael,
Op ‘t vlack, daer twee vermaertste Volcken
Te water, boort aen boort geklampt,
Hun’ wellust schepten, in ’t vernielen
Van eicke ribben, mast, en kielen,
En menschebeen, tot stof gestampt;
Dat moortgeschrey, en yzerbraecken;
De doôn en levenden, gemengt,
Gebraên, verdroncken, en gezengt;
Dat weerlicht, blixemen, en kraecken;
Zoo veel gewelts heeft altemael
Gezweet om HARPERTS te beschreien,
En ‘t lyck en d’uitvaert te geleien
Van Hollants Grooten AMIRAEL;
(Van der Vondel 1931: 581)

Let Europe not wonder,
Although the world seemed to perish,
When, from the northern ocean,
The storm of war came thundering,
And rolling over dune, and beach,
For half a day, and yet another one;
Two hundred floating castles;
The naked sea on fire;
The bursting clouds of nitre,
And the elements all together
Released from pregnant metal,
On the floor, where two famous nations
In the waters, clenched board by board,
Sought lust, in the destruction
Of oak ribs, masts, and keels,
And the bones of men, stamped to ashes;
That murderous crying, and spewing iron;
The dead and the living, mixed,
Baked, drowned, and burned;
That lightening, flashing, and cracking;
So much violence has all together
Sweated to bemoan HARPERTS,
To accompany the corpse and funeral
Of Holland’s great ADMIRAL;

Here, the lyrical subject first evokes the violence dramatically, appealing to all the senses, and above all to the ear. Just as with Westerbaen, the theatre of war announces itself by sound spreading over the dunes and beaches. Then the actors enter the stage, a massive cast of two hundred floating castles setting the sea on fire. Vondel makes his audience feel and hear the human bones mashed to ashes, smell the clouds of nitre and the roasted flesh of those who could not escape the fire, even taste the smoke, the ashes and the salty water. And even when sight is lost as the actors vanish behind clouds of smoke or below the water surface, the sounds of screams, cannons and cracking wood still prevail. Then the lyrical subject suddenly transforms his role from being more of a theatrical director to being a composer or musical conductor who translates the sounds of violence into music. The description of the musical accompaniment of Tromp’s funeral is a pun on the middle name of the admiral: Maerten Harpertszoon Tromp. The cacophony of violence has come to accompany harps that sing to the admiral on his last journey.

​[23]​ A similar process takes place in a triumphal song (‘Zegezang’) that Vondel wrote for another, even greater admiral, Michiel de Ruyter, on his victory at the Four Days Battle (June 11-14, 1666) during the second Anglo-Dutch war. Here the musical element is even stronger; or simply dominant. First Vondel thematises the difference between fact and fiction. The ancient poets wrote about heroes at sea, about the sailors of the Argo passing through the Symplegates to fetch the golden fleece or Perseus killing the sea monster, but these were all ‘lies’, fictional stories. Instead, Vondel will sing praise of a real event. Yet after claiming just this, Vondel clothes the battle as unrealistically in a classical way by presenting an audience of mermaids and mermen and the god Mars ascending from the heavens. The mermaids and mermen are not just watching a performance, they are singing, and thereby fulfil the role of the choir, which formed the link between the dramatic act and the audience in classical drama. Mars is the theatrical deus ex machina entering the scene to designate the winner. The drama Vondel thus presents becomes a musical drama conducted by De Ruyter; the battle is presented as a brilliant composition from his hand, supported by the hand of God:

Waer voerde oit RUITER zoo rechtschapen
In zijnen schilt het eêlste wapen,
Voorzichtigheit en krijghsbeleit,
Het oogh in eene hand van boven,
In ‘t midden van dien gloênden oven,
Gesterkt van Gods almogenheit.
Dees’ zeehelt gaf de maet en wetten
Aen zoo veel stemmen van trompetten,
Kartouwe en donderbussse, in een,
Als naer de zangkunst hecht geslooten,
En rolde, op korte en lange nooten
Den oorloghsgalm op ‘t water heen.
Meerminnen meermans Tritons hooren
Den bas en bovenzang der koren
Van Mars, gesteegen in de mars,
Die met de koningsvlagh quam daelen
Al juichende, op de zeekooraelen
In ‘t houte en ysre krijghsgekners
En twijfelen der oorloghskansen.
Nu zwijgen d’oude harnasdanssen.
(Van der Vondel 1937: 212-213)

Where did ever a RUITER carry so honestly
In his shield the noblest blazon,
Foresight and war strategy,
The eye in one hand from above,
In the middle of that glowing oven,
Strengthened by God’s almightiness.
This sea hero gave measure and rules
To so many voices of trumpets,
Kartaws and blunderbusses, together,
Like the well-composed art of song,
And rolled on shorter and longer notes
The sound of war over the waters.
Mermaids and mermen’s Triton’s horn
The bass and soprano voice of choirs
Of Mars, high up in the mast,
Who came down with the king’s flag
Rejoicing, in the sea chorales
In the wooden and iron grinding of battle
And contingencies of war.
Now the old harnass-dances remain silent.

De Ruyter is conducting the orchestra of war, then, and Vondel symbolically shifts the sound of war to another domain by turning it into the triumphant music of victory and by structuring the battle as music. Meanwhile, he makes De Ruyter do exactly the same thing we saw Willem van de Velde the Elder do in his pen drawing of the enormous fleets at the battle of Ter Heijde. The focalising eye is lifted up to the level of a bird, or a god. It is thus creating an overview of, and giving structure to, an otherwise completely chaotic situation, while at the same time being present in the scene, in the fire of its oven, with its smoke clouding the eye.
5. Liminal silence: anatomy’s threat

​[24]​ Whereas in war scenes the sounds of violence are explicit, abundantly present and dominant, there is also a sound of violence in silence. We turn, finally, towards the silence of violent horror, or rather to two different forms of silence that are meaningful in differing ways. In ‘The Sovereign Ear: Handel’s Water Music and Aural Historiography’, Sander van Maas analyses sound and the organ that perceives sound, the ear, in its relation to the historical and political origins of political sovereignty. His most important partner in dialogue is Roland Barthes’ essay ‘Écoute’.​[4]​ There, Barthes develops a distinction between hearing and listening, analogous to the difference between looking and seeing. As Van Maas puts it:

In keeping with Nietzsche, who dubbed the ear ‘the organ of fear’ and saw a close connection between the art of music and the dark of night, Barthes’ representation of listening insists on the experience of insecurity and on acts of vigilance as points of gravitation that pull listening back, as if they were the dark matter of the ear. The history of listening would appear to resonate with the idea of sovereignty and its others (surveillance, control), including the experience of threat and violence.  (Van Maas 2018: 159)

The quote alludes to a passage in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudice of Morality in which the term ‘dark’ denotes a characteristic of the ear, as an outer organ with an inner cavern, or a spiral inward towards the darkness through which sound penetrates the head and thereby the body. Nietzsche’s aphorism is a short one, which also notes that ‘in bright daylight the ear is less necessary’ (Nietzsche 1997: 143). It is in the dark, whether the dark of night or of caverns or cells, that human beings listen, in order to register what is ‘out there’. Van Maas aims to analyse the relation between violence and the dark, on the one hand, and the relation between violence and silence, on the other. If the ear is the organ of fear, of insecurity and vigilance, this is not because of what it already hears, but because of what it listens to, of what is to come, unexpectedly, and if not unexpected, then feared.

​[25]​ If the relation between violence and silence concerns this element of the threat of what is to come, then silence in relation to violence consequently has a double characteristic. In the sound of silence, it is the sound of coming violence that is imminent. Or the sound of silence is what theologist Burcht Pranger defined as liminal sound: ‘a realm of pure possibility’ (2018: 230). In the context of violence, this comes down to a feeling of ‘anything may happen’, even if this anything is what one already feared. This double or liminal quality of silence is evident in the following image, taken from Govert Bidloo’s Ontleding des Menschelijk Lichaams (Dissection of the Human Body) from 1690.

Figure 5. Gerard de Lairesse (drawing) and Abraham Blooteling and Pieter Stevens van Gunst (engravers), ‘Engraved Plate no. 70’, in: Govert Bidloo: Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams, 1690, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda. Photo credits: NLM.

Bidloo was a trained doctor who became a famous anatomist, as well as a poet and playwright. In close cooperation with the artist Gerard de Lairesse, he published this impressive book of the entire anatomy of the human body, male and female. We are here concerned with table 70, a dissection of the left hand and lower part of the arm. Though the picture suggests nothing but silence, since the act of dissecting has already passed, the image resonates with several reminiscences and possibilities of sound.

​[26]​ Whereas on other plates the instruments of dissection that helped to cut or saw the body are shown, in this case the instruments shown function predominantly to keep things apart, with the uncanny result that the tendons are put under tension. There is one needle at the bottom that pierces the middle three fingers to show the tendons running to the fingertips. The instrument to the right consists of three parts, with one larger comb being kept in place by two pins in order to show five tendons: two for the index finger, one for the thumb, and one for the middle and ring finger each. The compass-like instrument to the left, meanwhile, is to separate and keep in place the two tendons running to the middle finger and index finger. The resulting image very much resembles a stringed instrument. Whereas previously we saw a sea battle that could be read and heard as a musical piece, here we have a body part that can be read (and listened to) like a musical instrument. The sounds that this silent image suggests are both harmonious and chilling, however. The sounds of dissection, on the one hand, fall under the frame of anatomy in their attempt to show the harmony inherent in the human body. On the other hand, the sounds capture precisely the practical consequences of anatomy: the perhaps soft but also sharp sounds of dissection, in accordance with the title of the volume: Ontleding – that is, ‘dissection’.

​[27]​ The notion of silence as a liminal sound appears to be inapplicable here if we read it in terms of what Pranger defined as ‘pure possibility’. The dissection, after all, has already taken place; the violence has already been enacted. Yet as Jonathan Sawday (1996) argued, the very manifestation of dissection and anatomy in so-called anatomical theatres across Europe was a clear sign of sovereign power. As Sawday states: ‘The anatomists traced the handiwork of God in each body brought to them, and thus reaffirmed the monarch’s power over the bodies of people’ (191). In this light the theatres posed an implicit threat to all subjects, a threat of what might conceivably happen to them. In this context, the silence of the images is indeed a liminal silence, in that it shows the thin line between subjects being able to live their lives and being subjected to torture and dissection. This liminal silence is captured, here, by tendons put under tension. That tension not only announces the possibility of their snapping, but also embodies the threat that keeps subjects in tension. They could be taken apart in a similar way. The pins and compass that are pinned in the wood connote the threat of other sounds, moreover, of things being hammered into subjects, pinning them down, both literally and acoustically.

6. Thick silence: bodies enslaved

​[28]​ In the context of violence, liminal silence is a silence of threat and fear. No actual sounds are textually or visually present, but they are suggested. Such a silence is different from, though contiguous with, the silence that is the result of a violence that affects live bodies in the present. We will define the latter silence as ‘thick silence’ in what follows. Such a silence is central to some of the situations described by Rebecca Parker Brienen in her study of representations of the Brazilian situation under Dutch colonial rule. As she notices, there were fairly few representations showing the real violence that characterized the lives of enslaved people. Yet the few representations we have show their ‘miserable existence’, driven together in ‘pathetic, huddled groups’ (Brienen 2006: 136). Such groups are conveniently absent in the following image, made by Pieter Nason in 1666, of Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679). As governor, he was responsible for the development of the transatlantic slave trade by the Dutch (Emmer 2005), the impact of which has been the topic of fierce debates in recent years (Fatah-Black & Van Rossum 2016).​[5]​

Figure 6. Pieter Nason, ‘Portrait of Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen’, 1666, oil on canvas, 232 x 171 cm, collection of National Museum in Warsaw, Accession number M.Ob.527 (187142). Photo credits: Krzysztof Wilczyński/NMW.

Johan Maurits was nicknamed the Brazilian due to his conquest of parts of Brazil. The prince is shown here in the costume of the protestant Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of which he had become Grand Master (or ‘Herrenmeister’) in 1652. Defined for some time as a humanist or enlightened prince in Europe and Brazil, Maurits’ reputation is currently being re-assessed. Susie Protschky, for instance, has criticized previous scholars for ‘minimizing the despotic traits’ of Maurits during his time as WIC governor (2011: 160).

​[29]​ Before going into the sounds that are suggested by visual means here, there are different silences apparent in the figure of Johan Maurits and the figure to the left, who is generally defined as a ‘page’, an ‘edelknaap’ or noble boy. The same young man appears slightly differently in a painting from 1675, which shows an iron ring around his neck that suggests he is enslaved. He is represented here as a sign of Maurits’ wealth and power. The enslaved adolescent points with the index finger of his left hand to a region on the map of Brazil around the Brazilian-Portuguese city of Recife, which was accompanied between 1630 and 1654 by the newly built Maurits-city on the opposite side of the river, next to the fortress. The young man’s right hand holds a compass that suggests the map is not finished, or that the city still needs to be designed and built. The fortress that should defend it is already standing, however.

Figure 7. Pieter Nason, detail from ‘Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679); known as “the Brazilian”’, 1675, oil on canvas, 134.5 x 107 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Accession number SK-C-1653. Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

It is telling that the young man’s mouth, in contrast with that of Johan Maurits, is slightly open, as if he is about to speak. (This is more clearly visible in the second version of the painting.) As a consequence, the image connotes two forms of violence, a violence that is characterized by two forms of silence. With regard to one such silence, the concept of ‘epistemic violence’ was introduced by Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak in her study Can the Subaltern Speak? and was derived from the Foucauldian notion of the episteme, the historical dominant that produces the kinds of knowledge that define a period with its systems of power, and that allows some subjects a voice while denying one to others. The half-open mouth of the young black man suggests he is about to speak but is not allowed to do so. Johan Maurits’s silence is of another order. His silence expresses the resoluteness of power that enabled him to design and build a fortress, or to capture the slave trading posts of El Mina and Luanda (off the coasts of Ghana and Angola respectively) from the Portuguese.

​[30]​ Maurits brought with him artists and scholars to study and chart the people, animals, plants, and landscapes of what was already redefined by the Portuguese as ‘Brazil’. It is this convoy of artists and scholars that has allowed Maurits to be defined as a humanist or an enlightened prince. Most of the artists and scholars that Maurits took with him, however, would make charts, images and reports from which the violence of colonisation, conquest and slavery was absent, or only hinted at. In this context, the compass scratching or drawing on paper evokes a perhaps humble sound, but a sound of epistemic violence nevertheless. Still, the violence involved is not only epistemic. There is also the physical violence suggested by the cannons and cannonballs at the bottom right of the first painting, and the armour that is temporarily laid down.

​[31]​ Zacharias Wagener (1614-1668) was one of those travelling with Maurits who did not mind reporting on the violence. In this he was ‘largely unique’, as Brienen notes in her study on the artists travelling with Johan Maurits; especially the more famous Albert Eckhout (Brienen 2006: 134-37). Wagener is described by others as ‘a watercolor painter of limited talent, yet an excellent investigator of the social life in Recife during the Dutch occupation’ (De Carvalho & De Biase 2016: 50). Perhaps the phrase ‘social life’ is rather euphemistic here. Below we find an aquarelle he made of the slave trade as it took place in practice, in this case in Jew Street, a major street in the Brazilian-Portuguese city (De Carvalho & De Biase 2016: 44-64). The street took its name from the fact that Jewish traders, who in previous years had been chased out of Portugal to find refuge in the Dutch Republic, had now followed the Dutch to Brazil (Teunissen 2012; Davis 2016).

Figure 8. Zacharias Wagener, ‘Slave market in Jews Street Recife’, ca. 1641, in Thierbuch, drawing no. 106, © Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Photo credits: Herbert Boswank.

One of the most prominent features in a first impression of the image, also noted by Menachem Wecker (2016), is the difference between the distinguishable, individual traders and the homogenous masses of black bodies. In terms of sound, the painting offers a clear acoustic space with individuals conversing with one another, greeting one another, and perhaps also quarrelling with one another. Then there are sounds of violence the painting evokes, with a man raising a stick against a small group of captives at the left end; the seller in the left foreground ordering the enslaved figure for sale to raise their hands in order to be better assessed by a trader; the soft sound made by the figure crawling in the sand at the right below, who is perhaps being ordered by the man in the centre to join the group with the small children in the front. But apart from these sounds of either friendly, business-like or violent human interaction – the experience of which is a matter of reading the expressions and gesticulations of the depicted people – there are two more sounds present in the scene which are distinct yet intrinsically connected. These are the sounds of the masses of black bodies and isolated, at the upper right end of the street, of the small black child playing a flute.

Figure 9. detail from Zacharias Wagener, ‘Slave market in Jews Street Recife’, ca. 1641, in: Thierbuch, drawing no. 106, © Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Photo credits: Herbert Boswank.

​[32]​ The sounds made by the big groups to the left and in the background are indeterminable. When one zooms in on the image, the mass of bodies consists of individuals tightly packed together. Still, they form one mass as opposed to the individuated figures at the front. The massed bodies packed together may suggest a murmuring, but not a conversation. The most probable reading in this case, however, is that the groups are sitting there in silence. Opposite the large group of slaves on the left sits a small flautist. In contrast to all the interactions between individual figures in the scene, nobody interferes with this child. Not only is the autonomous position of this almost insignificant figure striking, read acoustically it is almost overwhelming. The piercing sound of the small flute must dominate the entire acoustic space, resonating against the bare walls of the newly built houses, coming from all sides, surrounding the listener. This dominant sound is not coming from the traders: the flautist is one of the black people, connected with the masses of black bodies sitting in silence. We propose to read the flautist in line with Mieke Bal’s example of the nail and the hole in the wall on Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance. Both the nail and the hole, indicating where previously a nail had been, are small, almost insignificant details in a picture that can pull the viewer into a radically different reading. This is how Bal describes this effect: ‘The nail and the hole, both visual elements to which no iconographic meaning is attached, unsettle the poetic description and the passively admiring gaze that it triggered, and dynamize the activity of the viewer. Whereas before the discovery of these details the viewer could gaze at the work in wonder, now he or she is aware of his or her imaginative addition in the very act of looking’ (Bal 1991: 4). In this case the little flautist at the back points to a reading where the audience is invited to imagine more specifically both the sounds in the foreground and the silence in the background.

​[33]​ Though the violence depicted remains more or less at a distance, visually speaking, it is the heavy sound of silence that may come to surround the listener, that may enter their head and body. This sound of silence becomes a sound of violence that captures the true horror of what is going on, precisely through the juxtaposition with the friendly conversations and market-place bartering, which are accompanied throughout by a silence filled with a fear not of what is to come, but a fear of what is. The flute is giving a voice to those who are not allowed to speak, a wordless expression in music. The silence at stake is distinct from the liminal silence we have seen operative in anatomy. In this case, the people depicted sitting here have long histories of violence behind them, of being captured, sold, and put into the belly of the boat (Glissant 1997: 6). They have experienced sickness and death, to then enter a radically new world in which they will be traded again. The silence here is not liminal, in terms of an opening, but is rather filled with horror. Inspired by the term ‘thick description’, coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), and in opposition to liminal silence, we want to call this ‘thick silence’.

​[34]​ When Geertz developed his ideas in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) he was working as an anthropologist and developing a method that wanted to provide an alternative to colonial and modern modes of studying others for the sake of instrumental knowledge. Geertz’ principal contention was that people could not and should not be studied from an outside, but by a scholar within the given situation, and that attention should be paid to reports by peoples themselves, that made clear how they experienced things. It concerns an attitude, then, that one can adopt. In a sense the entire method of Geertz consisted in a method of concentration on detail and context, on the expansion of attention, and, as a consequence, on scholarly or descriptive delay. This is in line with our definition of the ekphrasis of sound, which needs detail in order to make the audience present in the scene, not in a moment of quick attention, but in a mode of involvement. If experiences are to be somehow shared, they have to be sensed, transmitted and received in order to be felt and understood, which takes time. If we translate ‘thick description’ into ‘thick silence’, then, this implies a similar attitude of concentration, expansion, and delay. Though the image itself is silent, it is filled with diverse sounds, including the sound of silence. It therefore invites a detailed reading in terms of an ekphrasis of sound. It not only invites the eyes to roam, but also invites the ears to listen. The Wagener watercolour, consequently, is not something to be looked at as a testimony to violence. If the scene is to be felt and understood, all those looking at it will have to become listeners, who are willing to sense the silence, who are willing to be receivers of what is transmitted through this silence, and who will take the time to be with this silence and feel its density. ‘Thick silence’ is a silence packed with the close range, actual, immediate and multisensory threat of violence. Listening to it, being with it, may be uncomfortable. Still, it is necessary, as it can make us sense what the situation was in which these people found themselves, captured by the violence that surrounded them.

Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society
Erasmus School of Philosophy



​[1] Other examples include Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting, or Schoenberg’s Pelléas and Mélisande, in which music comes to describe poetry (Bruhn 2000, 2008).​[back to text]​

​[2] All translations are ours: note that the translations given do not aim to be literary, but rather to enable the reader to follow the lines and connotations of the original texts as much as possible​.[back to text]​

​[3] In the original: ‘de Leste charsije tegenover [altered from ‘ontrent’] de Middach sijnde ontrent 2 urren [altered from ‘de Vier urren’] & verliet tromp de groote steng ontrent middachs’. See Royal Museums Greenwich online collection: <https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/141660.html>.​[back to text]​

​[4] The essay was originally published in 1976, in collaboration with psychoanalist Roland Havas; see Barthes 1992.​[back to text]​

​[5] The famous Mauritshuis in The Hague, named after this prince, has been working over recent decades towards a reconsideration of the figure of Johan Maurits. This has resulted in ‘shifting perceptions’: see Mauritshuis 2019.​[back to text]​



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‘Vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’: The Cultural Afterlife of the Valtellina Crisis in the Early Stuart Imagination

‘Vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’:
The Cultural Afterlife of the Valtellina Crisis in the Early Stuart Imagination

Thom Pritchard

1. Introduction

​[1]​ A distant Alpine valley to the northeast of Milan may seem an unlikely location to have been of much concern to the inhabitants of the Stuart kingdoms. From at least the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, the Valtellina had been a ‘volcano of political, linguistic and religious instability’ thanks to its role (both literal and metaphorical) as ‘one of the cross-roads of European politics’ (Parker 1979: 193). Forming a horse-shoe above Lake Como, it occupied a key strategic position, connecting northern Italy to routes into central and northern Europe. The concessions granted at the Peace of Lyon (1601) following King Henri IV of France’s victory in the War of Saluzzo had deprived Spain of a corridor to move her troops north to the Franche-Comte and the Netherlands beyond, while also taking away France’s access to Italy through Savoy. Subsequently, both states looked towards the Valtellina as the passageway to restore their interests: the French secured military exclusivity with the valley’s Protestant Grison overlords, while the Spanish retaliated by building a fort to guard the southern entrance to the valley and by fermenting revolt and sectarian violence among the Catholic majority. This culminated in July 1620 in the slaughter of around 600 Protestants, and a pro-Spanish takeover. The ensuing crisis would draw in Spain, France, and the Papal States, and threaten to spill the Thirty Years War into the Italian peninsula.[1]

​[2]​ At the bloody onset of the war, British attention would come to be focused on the rapid deterioration of militant Protestant causes, most notably the crushing of the Bohemian Revolt at the Battle of White Mountain in November 1620, and the loss of the Palatinate when Spanish troops stormed Heidelberg in 1622. Perhaps as a result, the reactions of the Anglophone public sphere(s) to the persecutions of the Protestant Grisons have been critically neglected by cultural historians. However, news of the violence in the valley circulated throughout Europe, and events in the Alps were seared into the consciousnesses of those anxiously observing the triumphs of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. As this essay will demonstrate, the Valtellina came to haunt the early Stuart political imagination despite its apparent peripherality, not only as a strategically important locale, but also as a gruesome exemplar of the cruel ambitions of the Spanish Habsburgs and their alleged pursuit of universal monarchy.

​[3]​ Jacobean subjects would initially learn of events in the Valtellina primarily through the medium of cheap printed news. Yet the printed afterlife of the slaughter of the Grisons metamorphosed significantly over time, as the news-book accounts of atrocities, troop movements, skirmishes and diplomatic intrigues transcended their apparently ephemeral character and were woven into martyrologies, providential narratives, and even reasons of state. Through polemic the ghosts of Grison priests would cry outrage, from heaven the deceased Tudor dynasty would discuss the significance of the slaughter, and the presence of Spanish troops behind the bloodshed would implicate the Habsburgs in diabolical designs. Though spatially distant and seemingly politically remote from the complexities of Stuart foreign policy, the Valtellina crisis came to be deployed to highlight the precariousness of Protestantism, and to encourage a long-awaited war with Spain. Over the following decades the crisis would transition into a cultural memory, a stark warning of the potential for sectarian civil war influenced by foreign powers. So pervasive was this sensation that over a decade later, at the onset of the British Civil Wars, the persecution of Protestant Grisons would be cited as a gruesome example of Catholic cruelty in an updated Acts and Monuments. Its inclusion there, decades after the death of former Marian refugee John Foxe, attests to the enduring desire within the fractured Protestantism of the Stuart Kingdoms to identify with the plight of co-religionists in Europe.

​[4]​ This fascination with the Valtellina was not an insular phenomenon, but the product of a pan-European flow of information. Perceptions of the Valtellina crisis were shaped not only by reasons of state from the Grison canton, but also by discourses from France and the Republic of Venice. Through translation these polemics contributed to the shaping not only of immediate reactions to the crisis, but also of its cultural afterlife for decades after. The very translation of Catholic French and Venetian treatise and reasons of state into English, and their subsequent deployment within the polemic of even staunch Protestants, challenges the notion that anti-Catholicism in the Stuart kingdoms was a homogenised entity. Instead, in the context of dramatic Protestant defeats by the Spanish Habsburgs, an atmosphere of vociferous anti-Spanish hysteria sought to incorporate the Hispanophobic writings of European Catholic authors into the uneven strata of the Stuart public sphere(s).

2. Printing the Providence and Persecution in English and Scottish News

​[5]​ Before we discuss the avid Jacobean consumption of news from the Valtellina, we need to explore the diplomatic and religious stressors unleashed by the Bohemian Revolt. At the onset of the Thirty Years War, French diplomats had ‘thrown their weight behind a negotiated solution to the Bohemian revolt and had helped neutralise a large part of the Protestant support for the Palatine Elector’ (Parrot 2011: 141). The Habsburgs, however, interpreted these movements as ‘an indication of political weakness and division within France’ (141). Spanish troops would therefore opportunistically occupy the Valtellina, strengthening the corridor between the Habsburgs in Lombardy and the Habsburg Austrian lands (141).

​[6]​ The opportunity was presented by the eruption of fierce sectarian conflict in the Valtellina between the Protestant Grison overlords of the valleys and the local Catholic population. As Peter Wilson explains in his account of the slaughter (2012: 381-382) the Bohemian revolt had stirred tensions within the valley, and the ‘radical Calvinists’ who controlled the Grison Canton had sent troops to support Frederick in Bohemia. The Spanish governor of Milan would respond by conspiring with the Catholics of the Valtellina, using Capuchin monks as intermediaries, and by sending Spanish troops to the south of the valley. The Catholics attacked before the Grisons were ready and perpetrated fifteen days of ‘holy slaughter’, massacring four hundred Protestants by July of 1620; a counter attack by 1,500 Swiss Protestants routed the Catholics and proceeded to destroy Catholic churches, only to be checked by Spanish troops. In an attempt to maintain influence in the Italian peninsula, representatives of Louis XIII began a series of deliberately well-publicized talks with Savoy and Venice, culminating in the Treaty of Lyons in February 1623, which envisaged an army of 40,000 to expel the Spanish. However, neither France nor Spain wished for open war and instead they accepted papal mediation, with papal troops replacing the occupying Spanish forces (382). A decade later, French and Spanish troops would continue to fight over this vitally important valley, keeping the Valtellina as a major topic of European news.

​[7]​ Even before this episode, the Valtellina was not unknown to the Stuart popular imagination. Andro Hart, the ‘most successful and important Scottish book merchant and book importer before the Restoration’, with extensive literary links to the continent (Mann 2004), reported upon a natural disaster in the Grison Alps in 1618, using as his source a translation of a Parisian copy of an earlier Milanese report. In Newes from Italie: or, A prodigious, and most lamentable accident Hart provided a providential interpretation of the destruction of Pleurs, a ‘whollie Popish’ city (1619: 5). Hart related how an earthquake, ‘some windes vnder the ground’, sent a fatal landslide upon the city, killing ‘two thousande soules’, an act of wrath upon the Catholic inhabitants which calls ‘to remembrance another Sodome’ (6).

​[8]​ Only months before the outbreak of sectarian violence, arriving from the Grison cantons through translation and printed in London in 1619, The Proceedings of the Grisons detailed the fragile condition of the religious and civic liberties of the Grisons in the face of Catholic fifth columnists and Spanish interference. Although since ancient times God had granted the Grisons the ‘most precious jewell’ of ‘the libertie of our Church and Commonwealth’, these gifts were threatened by internal discord thanks to the machinations of a ‘tyrannizing faction’ who plot with ‘forraine States’ and fortify their settlements with ‘men and munitions’ (Anon 1619: B1R- C1V). In opposition to the Grison Protestant overlords, the Catholic faction exploit the topography of the valley, ‘keepe the passages, throwe downe the Bridges’, beseeching foreign military support in order to ‘drawe a civill Warre upon his owne Countrey’ (C2R). The anonymous translator solemnly hinted at the strategic significance of an imminent escalation: the Grisons ‘stand in the gates of Italy, as firme as the Mountaines wherein they live, against any forraine force whatsoever’ (1619: A1V). Within this polemic there is, however, a marked unease over the execution of the Catholic priest of Sondrio, Nicolo Rusca, by the Grison authorities. Responding to rumours ‘spred abroad by some false Calumniators, that this Rusca was tortured’ and subsequently died of his afflictions, the Grison authors go to great lengths to stress the legitimacy of his execution: he ‘shewed himself a Rebel’, ‘hindered the free course of preaching the Gospell’, and plotted the murder of a Protestant preacher (H1r-H2r). As will later be observed, the death of Rusca would be later employed by Spanish polemicists to frame the Grisons as the aggressors rather than the victims of the crisis.

​[9]​ Following the outbreak of violence in July 1620, news of the massacres would arrive through European letters and proclamations, translated and disseminated into pamphlets, with snippets of news of the trouble in the Alps bundled into bulletins reporting the wider continental turmoil. Reports of violence in the Valtellina can therefore be located within a vast corpus of pamphlets frantically furnishing a domestic audience with news of the tribulations of continental Protestantism during the disastrous onset of the Thirty Years War. In a landmark study of London’s News Press and the Thirty Years War, Jayne Boys explores London’s fledgling news-book industry, where from October 1622 news from abroad was ‘channelled into a series of licensed weekly periodicals run by a syndicate of five publishers’, before being distributed across England, supplying the anxious ‘English middle classes’ with news (2011: 8). These news publications quickly travelled across an ‘impressive distribution network’: over 400 London news periodicals published between the onset of war and the Treaty of Westphalia have survived (8). Nor was this news consigned only to the literate middle class: it was also disseminated orally, synthesised into ballads, sermons, and plays.

​[10]​ London’s position as an epicentre of news is exemplified by Coppies of Letters Sent from Personages of Accompt Unto Divers Personages of Worth in London, printed on 22 June 1622, wherein ‘Doctor Welles and Others’ provided a synthesis of European events, ranging from the Palatinate to the ongoing crisis in the Valtellina. ‘For three weeks word came from Valtellina’, the editor(s) reported, relating how the forces of the Habsburg Archduke of Austria Leopoldus ‘had also put the Valtellines to the sword [showing] for them and their Religion (…) such crueltie, as the like hath not bin heard of’ (Welles et al. 1622: 2). However, the editors perceived that providence was at work, and gleefully related how the next week brought news of a remarkable feat of divinely inspired female fortitude and gender subversion leading to a dramatic reversal for Leopoldus. The dispatch describes how at a ‘towne called Bunfen’, around ‘fiftie men’ and ‘many women, […] putting themselves into men’s apparrel, slew at severall times two thousand Papists’ (2). This sensational tale of Samson-like strength is ‘accounted here as a worke and a wonder of God’ (2).

​[11]​ Increasingly sensationalised reports of this violence travelled across the Jacobean kingdoms. That same year, John Everard recorded sightings of fantastical meteorological phenomena in Cornwall, comparing them with haunting preternatural reports from the Valtellina in an eschatological narrative entitled Somewhat vvritten by occassion three sunnes seene at Tregnie in Cornewall. In relations like Everard’s, we can glimpse the beginnings of the metamorphosis of the Valtellina crisis, from letters regarding skirmishes to events which correlated with wider metaphysical developments. In an apparent occurrence of a parhelion, or sun dog, the inhabitants of Tregnie were stunned by the appearance of ‘three Sunnes, of equall lustre and brightnesse’; stranger yet are reports from the neighbouring county of Devon, that ‘did as much affright the eares of men, as this did their eyes’ (Everard 1622: 10-13). Here, witnesses heard an auditory battle in the sky, ‘unusuall cracks or claps of thunder, resembling in all points, the sound of many Drums together’; they identified the distinct sounds of beating Charges, sometimes Retreats, sometimes Marches (…) many volleyes of Small-shot (…) volleys of Ordnance’ (13).

​[12]​ Everard offered no definitive explanation for the preternatural wonders. Instead, he abruptly turned his narrative to the ‘massacres committed by the Papists upon the persons of more than 400 Men women, and children, of the Reformed Religion, in the Valtellina’, ‘examples of cruelties and inhumanitie’ which occurred two years past (15). Everard claimed to omit the worst descriptions of the massacres, focusing instead on the eerie occurrences before and after the slaughter, as reported by an ‘eye-witnesse’ (16). In May 1620, two months before the slaughter, sentinels standing watch one night in the steeple of the church in Sondrio had heard ‘a great murmuring and noyse, as if it had been of many people, earnestly reasoning […] about some great and serious matter’ (16). The astonished sentinels then saw ‘a great light’, emanating from the church and heard the church bell of its own accord toll ‘ten times’, as if ‘giving an Allarme’ (16). Following the massacres, ‘in the Churches which were formerly used by them of the Reformed Religion’, disembodied voices cried ‘Woe, woe unto you, vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’, and in the church where the priest Antonio Bassano was decapitated by ‘rebellious and seditious Papists’, the bell tolls ‘without any mans hands, at the time that the Sermon was wont to be’, and the spectral voice of Bassano is heard (18-19).

​[13]​ Given the general abhorrence of Protestant preachers at ‘heathenish’ attempts to predict the future through the interpretation of strange portents (Walsham 1999: 168), Everard’s apparent reluctance to provide explanations as to the implications of the phenomena is to be expected. However, from the inclusion of the apparitions in the Valtellina, several conclusions could be formed in the ambiguous space left by Everard’s apparent refusal to provide explanation. Could the witnesses to the battle in the sky in Devon be hearing the battles raging in the Palatinate or the Valtellina valley, in a miraculous case of hyper-contemporaneity? Or, instead, does the battle in the sky over Devon offer a stark warning of the dangers faced by domestic Protestants, just as the bells tolled, moved by unseen hands, to warn the Grisons of Sondrio of imminent slaughter? Everard believed that the Anglican Church had been deceived by Catholicism, and would a year later, in 1623, be imprisoned for his opposition to the Spanish Match; despite the protestations of Francis Bacon and Lord Verulam for his release, James I would retort, ‘Who is this Dr Ever-out you come so oft about? his name shall be Dr Never-out’ (Allen 2004).

​[14]​ Given Everard’s anxious preoccupations, the inclusion of the Valtellina can plausibly be seen as a warning. Indeed, through nature, ‘signs and portents’ of the apocalypse could be revealed: the comet of 1618 heralded momentous events, and phenomena such as parhelia were ‘considered to be an omen of horrible sufferings to come’, of wars and famines linked to the imminent second coming (Cunningham & Grell 2001: 76-79). From the sixteenth century onwards, accounts of apparitions of armies fighting in the skies were disseminated across Europe, vividly represented on broadsheets, such as those of a vision seen over Rome in 1580, of a clash between Turkish and Christian soldiers (80). As Cunningham and Grell note ‘identical visions of armies involved in eschatological battles were repeatedly reported in most of Protestant Europe’, with some claiming that these visions had been witnessed in several locations (81-82).

​[15]​ Furthermore, eschatological apparitions could provide a profound source of comfort despite the menacing warnings of judgement and slaughter. In fashioning some semblance of a moral victory, these preternatural events could reassure beleaguered Protestants that providence would restore justice, fulfilling what Alexandra Walsham describes as the ‘imperative to establish God’s positive endorsement of that community and creed’, an essential factor in even ‘crudely polemical providentialism’ (1999: 241). In these reports of the suffering of the Grisons, divine intervention is at hand. For example, when a ‘host of armed men’ are seen ‘comming downe from the Mountaines’ in Sondrio, before abruptly vanishing, the people below flee, ‘for feare of the divine punishment’ (Everard 1622: 19). This heavenly host, like the disembodied voices who cried for justice, or the slaughter of Leopoldus’s troops by the Grison women related by Welles and his contributors, attests to a providential interpretation of events amidst the desolation of Protestant defeats.

​[16]​ News would continue to flow through the arteries of Europe’s news networks to London, providing regular updates on the Valtellina crisis, as the valley threatened to dramatically expand the scope of the Thirty Years War southwards. From 1624 onwards, the syndicate of London news printers was succeeded by a ‘partnership of the stationers Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne who continued approximately weekly periodical publication’ (Boys 2011: 8). This prolific partnership provided regular updates on the Valtellina. Take for example, a report published on the 4th October 1622. ‘Post letters of Italy come from Venice’ related a grim situation in the Valtellina, ‘for there is nothing but killing and intercepting of passages among the Grizons’: soldiers are reported to be mobilising in Switzerland, ‘an army of seven thousand […] resolved to defend their countrey against the usurpation of strangers’ (Butter & Bourne 1622: 5). Despite talk of peace between the Duke de Feria and ‘Switzers’, and the arrival of ‘severall Embassadours from France, Venice’, the Duke de Feria, Leopoldus of Austria, sends his troops to forage the ‘Valleys of the Grisons, as farre as Tiroll’, stealing cattle, and increasing his forces so as to ‘subjugate that Countrey wholly to the use of the Spaniard’(6).

​[17]​ The conclusion from the Serene Republic is bleak: ‘the Spaniard will have no Peace, but are resolved to continue the Warre’, so that ‘his Armies may passe from Millan into Germanie, without interception’ (6). With the arrival of the ambassadors, we can see not only a preoccupation with the suffering of Grison Protestants, but a wider concern regarding the international implications of this violence. Both these preoccupations would be fuelled by translated reasons of state. Although Catholic, the polemics of the anti-Spanish Bons Français faction at the French court and the Venetian lawyer and prelate Paolo Sarpi would be eagerly translated for a domestic audience.

​[18]​ One such pamphlet, The favorites chronicle, a translation of Chronique des Favoris by François Dorval-Langlois Fancan (1576-1628), is indicative of the need not only to report upon the conflict in the Valtellina, but to shape perceptions of it. Fancan entered the services of Richelieu in 1617 and has been praised by Victor Tapie as ‘one of the most brilliant controversialists who ever lived’ (1975: 145). Fancan was a polemicist who held a ‘hatred of the Spanish’, ‘sympathy with the Huguenots’, and ‘an extreme Gallicanism’ (Church 1972: 116-17). For Fancan, religion was irrelevant to the struggle in the Valtellina: Spain merely cloaked their designs of ‘territorial aggrandisement’ with religion (Church 1972: 117).  Fancan began his address by requesting his readers to consider ‘the Tragedies that are acted upon the Theatre of this World’, before invoking a paranoid Hellenistic metaphor:

Whereupon our neighbours (having Argus eyes) being alwayes vigilant, and never sleepe, and with their spectacles continually beholding our proceedings (…) they advised with themselves that a civill warre in France would fall out well to the purpose, to be a meanes for them to attaine to the end of the Germane revolts, and of the usurpation which they pretended to make upon the Palatinate, Inlliers and Valtellina. (Fancan 1621: 1-4)

​[19]​ For Fancan, a Spanish occupation of the Valtellina was a sinister prospect. If Spain held the Valtellina, not only would France’s prestige and influence in the Italian peninsula be weakened, but Spain could move troops from Milan northward with far greater ease to either hereditary Habsburg lands, or to the Low Countries, since the Twelve Years Truce with the Dutch Republic had expired. English anxieties would be stoked following the failed Protestant uprising in the Valtellina in 1622, when Spanish troops brutally suppressed resistance and tightened their grip on the valley (Parker 1979: 197). This prompted Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice, to lament a ‘terrible moment’ which enabled the Spanish to move men from Milan to Dunkirk. Wotton’s fears were confirmed in 1623 when 7,000 men marched northwards through the Valtellina (Parker, 1979:197). The remarkable successes of Spain at the onset of the Thirty Years War stirred cultural memories amongst English Protestants of the Marian persecution, of atrocities committed against the Dutch Rebels, of the Armada, and of the gunpowder plot orchestrated by former soldiers of the Army of Flanders. Therefore, for many, peace with Spain during the height of Protestant tribulations on the continent was not just a betrayal: it could plausibly sow the seeds of ruin for Protestantism in the Jacobean kingdoms.

​[20]​ The 1624 Votivæ Angliæ petitioned James I to draw England’s sword for the restoration of the Palatinate from the treacherous Spanish monarchy. Authored by the multi-lingual writer and merchant John Reynolds, who was based in France from 1619 (Grudzien 2004), this polemic argued that the French king had been lulled by ‘the Syreen tunes, and the charmes of Spayne’ to wage a ‘sacrilegious Warre against his owne Protestant subject’ (Reynolds 1624a: B4r). During this slumber, Spain seized the initiative. Addressing James and employing the language of rape, Reynolds explains how ‘Spayn recovered the Valtellina, and deflowered the Fortes of the Grisons’, whilst Gondomar ‘lull’d your Majestie asleep’, and seized the Palitinate also (B4r). Reynolds thereby compared the Spanish monarchy to ‘the Cyclope Polephemus’ who ‘devoured his passengers one after another’, as the ‘King of Spayne eated upp whole Countries and Provinces’ (B4r). The implications are menacing: are the Jacobean kingdoms be devoured next?

​[21]​ The same year, Reynolds’ Vox Cœli, Or Newes from Heauen was printed in London by William Jones. Originally written in 1621 in opposition to the Spanish match, according to Reynolds its publication was delayed because King James’s affection for Spain would have created hostile conditions for its reception (Colclough 2005: 110). 1624 was a markedly different context. As Cogswell demonstrates in The Blessed Revolution, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Spanish Match and the mobilisation of men and opinion towards war, 1624 would witness ‘a flood of anti-Catholic literature’ reflecting the ‘revolution in political attitudes’ (1989:302). In its form, it self-consciously imitates Thomas Scott’s reworking in his Nevves from pernassus of Trajano Boccalini’s rhetoric in Raggauagli de Parnasso (Colclough 2005: 109). It imagines a regal meeting in heaven of the Tudor dynasty, who proceed to discuss the lamentable events befalling Europe. Surprisingly, even Queen Mary I is present, admitted to heaven in spite of her persecution of Protestants due to the ‘prayers of the protestants’, and begrudgingly entreated to join the conversation of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Prince Henry because Mary ‘knew many secrets of Spaine’ (Reynolds 1624b: 3-4).

​[22]​ Talk quickly turns to the Valtellina. Henry VIII concludes that ‘if Grisons at any time lose the Swissers friendship’, then they will part ‘with their liberties and their lives’ to the Spanish (23). Although Elizabeth I admires the Grisons ‘warlike’ defiance, her brother Edward VI agrees with their father that tragedy awaits: ‘I feare the Grisons will buy their peace […] with teares of blood’ (23). In imagining the Tudor dynasty discussing contemporary strife, Reynolds is throwing down a gauntlet to James I, urging him to heed the advice of his glorious Protestant predecessors (and of that lost hero of England, his son Prince Henry, upon whose shoulders so much militant expectation was placed) and pursue war with Spain.

3. Translating Paolo Sarpi’s Valtellina to Influence Stuart Foreign Policy

​[23]​ Venice had also been watching the unfolding crisis near its borders with grave concern. Whilst mobilising her own forces in preparation for war, her writers condemned the illegitimacy of Spanish operations. These condemning reasons of state would through translation be appropriated to support the bellicose revolution in the foreign policy of the newly enthroned King Charles I. Through posthumous publication following his death in 1623, the Venetian prelate and all-round Renaissance man Paolo Sarpi provided Stuart subjects with another virulently anti-Spanish narrative of the Valtellina crisis. Sarpi ‘was at the centre of a vast scholarly and political web’: John Milton would later praise him as ‘the unmasker of the Council of Trent’ for his history on the council (Vivo 2005: 36). The 430 letters which survive him are evidence of his vast pan-European correspondence network. Of particular note are the 45 letters from Sarpi to William Cavendish, the Earl of Devonshire, which survive as translations by the earl’s secretary Thomas Hobbes: written under pseudonyms and referring to Sarpi only in the third person; they highlight the risks Sarpi faced when writing to recipients who were not Catholic (38).

​[24]​ In the 1625 posthumous translation of The free schoole of warre, using the Dutch Revolt(s) as a starting point, Sarpi undertook a survey of European statecraft. Considering the cross-confessional allegiances which undermined any conception of a unified Catholic Christendom, and turning his attention to the international implications of the Valtellina crisis, Sarpi wrote:

 the crowne of France hath for a long time entred into league with the Protestant Switzers, with mutuall articles of defence; with the Grison Protestants of Rhetia, unto whom that Crowne is to giue ayde ordinary and extraordinary […] alliance and confederation with the Protestants of Germany […] an annual summe of money of twenty five thousand Crownes to the Common wealth of Geneva […] hath defended the same against Savoy and Spaine, who are Catholike Princes. (1625: 26)

For Sarpi, the union between Rome and Spain had resulted in a series of plots, often instigated by the Jesuits, ‘Bloody, Trecherous, and Insidiarie persons’ (9). In 1618, Venice had been gripped by fears of a Spanish conspiracy: fearful of a possible Spanish assault upon the Republic, many Venetians ‘expressed with great intensity the opposition of a free, Republican Venice, to an intolerant, tyrannical Spain’ (Martin 2007: 232). It is significant that Sir Nathaniel Brent and William Bedell’s translation of The free schoole of warre appeared in 1625, the year of the debacle of the expedition to Cadiz: this suggests it may have been intended to support the necessity of a raid to cut the purse strings of the Spanish Habsburgs. As Cogswell notes, whilst the ‘vindication of English honour’ and ‘ulterior motives may well have been behind the bellicosity of Charles and Buckingham […] no evidence suggests that their concern about Habsburg expansion was insincere’ (1989: 66). Cogswell also observes that the Secretary of State Edward Conway, cited the seizing of the Valtellina, alongside Spanish triumphs in Bohemia and the Palatinate, in what can be seen as the ‘seventeenth century equivalent of the domino theory’ in which the United Provinces and England could be victims of this chain reaction (70).

​[25]​ The translation of Hispanophobic polemic from Venice not only served to create the impression of a pan-European echo of revulsion at Spain’s years of victories, but also sought to fashion the semblance of a community of states whose very survival depended on their opposition to Spain. Secretary Conway had envisaged an anti-Habsburg confederacy, uniting Catholic ‘Venice, Savoy and France’ with Protestant ‘Denmark, Sweden, the United Provinces and England (Cogswell 1989: 70-71). Under Conway’s plan the sheer size of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs’ possessions would be an ‘Achilles heel’ and force them to fight a war across several fronts: ‘the French, Savoyards and Venetians would strike the Valtellina passes’, whilst the Danes would assist German Protestants fighting in the Empire, and the English and the Dutch would wage a naval war (Cogswell 1989: 71). However, in 1625, the long-anticipated war with Spain resulted in a failed expedition to Cadiz, and promised subsidies to support Christian IV of Denmark hampered the Danish intervention into Germany. Worse was yet to come for hopes of an anti-Spanish dynastic alliance.

​[26]​ By the late summer of 1627, England and France were at war following another Huguenot rebellion, ‘and cheap corantos, readily available in the bookstalls around St Paul’s Cathedral, reported weekly on the fighting’, some publications even going so far as to question ‘the way in which the king and the privy council were running the war’ (Thompson 1998: 653). Confronted with the dispersion of potentially seditious literature, Conway tasked his servant Georg Rudolph Weckherlin (1584-1653) with censoring these publications (654). Weckeherlin would later sanction a translation of Palo Sarpi’s A discourse vpon the reasons of the resolution taken in the Valteline (hereafter referred to as A discourse), an ‘anti-Spanish diatribe’, evidently translated to fuel ‘national hatred of Spain’, and ‘to encourage further Parliamentary support for England’s wars’ (670). It is here that we can see a distinct transition in the way in which the Valtellina was represented in English language polemic.

​[27]​ By 1627 a fragile peace resided in the valley. Although French troops had arrived in the Valtellina at the end of 1624, even opening fire upon troops marching under the papal banner, tensions had been lowered by the Treaty of Monzon in 1626: both France and Spain had agreed upon the restitution of the Grisons, with the condition that only Catholicism be practiced in the valleys (Church, 1972: 105-06). With the easing of tensions, and the events of the Holy Slaughter now seven years old, the injustices inflicted upon Grison Protestants would be employed as a polemical example of the cruelty of the Spanish Habsburgs, warning against peace with Spain. Conrad Russell noted that, with the gargantuan costs of Caroline foreign policy from 1626-28, and the failure of the expedition of the Duke of Buckingham’s expedition to relieve Huguenot La Rochelle, some at the Parliament of 1628 expected Buckingham to make peace with Spain (1979: 323-29).

​[28]​ Addressing the Parliament of 1628, the ‘Translators’s Epistle to the Commons House of Parliament’ prefaces a translation of Sarpi’s A Discourse. The translator, described only as ‘Your humble Seruant Philo-Britannicos’, spewed forth abuses of the Habsburgs. The bibliographical notes of Early English Books Online state that the translator was the diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, a suggestion which opens an intriguing possibility. Roe served as ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople from 1621 to 1628, during which time he encountered the Prince of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen. Roe envisaged that the Palatinate might be restored by Bethlen attacking from the south whilst the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, attacked from the north (Strachan, 2004). What is unmistakable is the endeavour to remind Parliament of the usurpation of the Valtellina, challenging any voices who advocated ceasing hostilities with Spain in order to concentrate on a French war. Roe praised Sarpi for opening ‘the eyes of all Princes’ to a Habsburg ‘secret project of Universall Monarchy’; surveying the world for Spanish abuses, Roe echoed Sarpi in claiming the ‘Valtellina [was] possessed under the colour of Religion’, the latest illegality in a list that included the usurpation of India and the seizure of the Palatinate (Britannicos 1628: 5)

​[29]​ Any overt mention of the failed 1625 expedition to Cadiz is omitted, as is the failure of Buckingham to relieve La Rochelle. Instead, the translator advises continued and imminent action against the Habsburgs:It is Time onely that will macerate England, when without traffique and exchange, and that especially of Germany, our owne treasure must be exported to pay forraine Armies’ (29). In a closing line, a sensation of temporal urgency is reinforced, imploring Parliament through print, ‘It will be time to be thrifty in the members and particulars, when the Head and the whole State is safe’; the alternative is serve: ‘And if you deferre untill a lingring warre hath exhausted you’ (29).

​[30]​ Following Britannicos’ urgent preface, the translation of Sarpi’s A Discourse on the occupation of the Valtellina was printed. Posthumously published in English, a full four years after Sarpi had died, Roe brought back the ghosts of persecution past as a dreadful past precedent to caution against any truce with Spain. Curiously, at the onset of Sarpi’s A Discourse, the Venetian had included a piece of pro-Habsburg polemic called The Manifest: Wherein the Reasons of the Resolutions lately by them taken against the tyranny of the Grisons and Heretiques, bringing the claims of Catholic resistance theorists to light before proceeding to unravel and deconstruct their legitimacy. As we have seen, while slaughtered Grisons found a cultural afterlife in Protestant polemics, becoming martyrs in the landscape of providential memory, a similar phenomenon had been underway within Catholic polemic, fashioning the victims of Grison rule into Catholic martyrs. The Manifest can be seen amongst a corpus of anti-Grison polemics, such as the 1621 Kurtzer vnnd warhaffter Bericht deß KelchenKriegß (Short and truthful relation of the war on chalices), a German language broadside depicting Grisons as iconoclasts and devil worshippers.

​[31]​ Anti-Grison polemics such as these endeavoured to justify armed resistance to radical Calvinists. The fact that Sarpi dedicated time and ink to devaluing their validity attests to a subtle Venetian anxiety stemming from favouring the cause of French backed Grisons Protestants over Spanish backed Catholic rebels in the Valtellina. The events which inspired anti-Grison justifications can traced back to the immediate prelude of the slaughter in 1620. When in 1618, some of the leaders of the valley’s Catholics objected to Grison support for Venice against Ferdinand of Styria, a radical Protestant preacher named George Jenatsch led an army into the Catholic areas, arresting and torturing two Catholic leaders and expelling fourteen more (Parker 1979: 195). This incident was used in The Manifest, wherein the victims of this incident are glorified as martyrs of the Catholic Church, their deaths providing a sanguine justification for armed rebellion:

Nicolo Rusca Arch-Priest of Sondrio, a Priest of most innocent life, and a true Martyr of Christ, tormented and put to death, with all cruelty, and possible infamy, without any other fault, then being a good Catholique, & a priest. Now these Iniuries and Cruelties hauing necessitated some Catholique Communities, to seeke redresse of so many euills, vsing their vtmost force. (Anon 1628: 36)

​[32]​ Indeed, the anxiety surrounding the accusations of torture behind the demise of Rusca can be glimpsed within the Grison version of events in the 1619 Proceedings of the Grisons. Sarpi then proceeded to lampoon The Manifest. Its allegations ‘hath giuen great scandal to all wise men, who easily do comprehend from whence, and why it was put to the Presse’ (1628: 39). Employing the metaphor of concealment and darkness, a similar device used by Fancan in anti-Spanish/ anti-Jesuit polemic, Sarpi stated that whilst The Manifest endeavoured ‘to wrap up in darknesse; I have thought it an act of Iustice’ to bring it ‘to light, that truth’, unless ‘it become deceived with a false appearance of Pietie and Religion’ (4). For Sarpi the danger of lies and concealment are potentially diabolical, ‘the Devill, a perpetual enemy of Princes well enclined, useth oftentimes to transforme himselfe into an Angell of light’ (40). In a moment of urgency Sarpi implored Phillip to consider the results of religious persecution against heretics across Europe: ‘a consideration worthy of many teares’ (68). ‘Poore Germany, into what state is it reduced?’, ‘Flanders too had been ruined’, and now, the Valtellina sits precariously like a powder keg: ‘the present warre against the Grisons prove not a fire of faith and religion, in all Italy’ (68-69). Phillip’s ministers have been corrupted by the designs of Satan, ‘The Deuill hath prepared the wood, the Ministers of your Majesties have kindled the flame’ (69). This image, of religious war as a flame, spreading from country to country, is perhaps the most paranoid of Sarpi’s discourses, yet it resonates with pan-European literature and the many scattered perceptions of a contemporaneous world in a state of combustion. In a further attack upon The Manifest, Sarpi exonerates the Grisons, who ‘have not tyrannised their Subjects, neither concerning Religion, nor in the politike life’, instead ‘Tyranny’ was ‘treacherously induced by the Ministers of your Majestie’, the Catholic rebellion not a voluntary act, but one compelled by manipulation of the ‘present Governor of Millan’ (74).

​[33]​ Reprinting Sarpi’s A Discourse on the Valtellina reminded Parliament of both the fragile balance of power, of the states and valleys which narrowly held back Spanish ascendency, and also of the sombre accusation that behind Spanish policy were diabolical machinations. For many Stuarts the onset of the Thirty Years War was not just a dynastic conflict, but an apocalyptic unfolding where the forces of the antichrist threatened universal Protestantism. Sarpi’s Valtellina was appropriated to reinforce this world-view. By employing the legal discourse of the deceased Sarpi on the subject of Grison Protestants who had died almost a decade before, we can glimpse the beginnings of an enduring cultural afterlife in English language polemic, a vital transition from contemporary events, to past precedents and cultural memories.

4. The Memory of Grison Martyrs on the Eve of Civil War

​[34]​ The persecution of the Protestant Grisons would continue to haunt the imagination of Stuart Protestants. As the 1630s dawned, their macabre deaths were not merely consigned to reasons of state to be debated and argued by politicians and diplomats, but immortalised in martyrologies for the wider community to remember. In 1632, the great behemoth of the English martyrology and contributor to English Protestant identity, John Foxe’s (c.1516-1587) Acts and Monuments, would be given a seventh volume, printed by Adam Islip, Foelix Kingston, and Robert Yong. Amongst its additions, was the 108 page A continuation of the histories of forrein martyrs from the happy reigne of the most renowned Qu. Elizabeth,  presenting a newly updated martyrology, starting with the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It featured the ‘famous deliverances of our English nation’, the 1588 Spanish Armada and the 1605 Gunpowder plot, before finishing with ‘the barbarous cruelties exercised upon the professors of the Gospell in the Valtellina’ in 1621. It is striking that this  addition was reprinted and included in the 1641 edition. With the British Isles sliding into bloody civil war, the graphic examples of continental persecution offered a stark warning. The martyrs of the Valtellina would, to echo Pierre Nora, evidence the fact that memory is ‘vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being dormant and periodically revived’ (1989: 7). In 1641 the ghosts of Grison martyrs were summoned to warn of sectarian possibilities.

​[35]​ In addition, the ‘Grison Lords’ are the ‘Soveraigne Magistrates’ of the Valtellina, and for merely practicing their religion, were persecuted by murderous Catholics. Violence erupted at a Protestant Church in ‘Boalez’, where a ‘multitude and concourse of the papists in that place in Armes’ beat to death Protestants with staves, setting in motion a slaughter, ‘where the rage and fury of those murderers grew unto that height’ (99). The attempts of the Grisons’ council to organise a garrison are in vain, as ‘barbarous and wicked fellowes’, both ‘domestique’ and ‘forraine’, arrive with malicious intentions’ (100). With the arrival of Spanish troops, slaughter ensued:

Protestants, who without feare or suspicion of any practise against them, came out of their houses into the streets to see what the matter was, were suddenly shot and most cruelly murthered in the place. Others by force entred into the houses of the Protestants, drew them out of their beds, and without any compassion slew all they could meet withall (100)

Distinct parallels begin to emerge with reports of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, where Protestants are pulled from their beds and slaughtered like cattle in the street. Accounts of the 1572 massacre had been included in the 1610 edition of Acts and Monuments: as Mark Breitenberg notes, this edition ‘may well have been in response to the tumult surrounding the Gunpowder Plot and to the increasing tide of puritan opposition’(1989: 384). With the inclusion of the St Bartholomew’s Massacre, ‘James could hope to rally his own divided nation against an inveterate English enemy’ (384-85). In a scene which strongly echoes  the murder of the Huguenot hero Admiral Coligny, in 1620 the Grison Governor of Teglie, ‘seignior Andrea Enderlin of Kublis in Prettigonia, a Gentleman of great worth, very singularly learned, and skilful in many languages’, is strangled to death before being thrown from the window down into the street below, where his corpse ‘was so beaten and bruised, that you could not know him’ (Anon 1641: 58). In the account of the night in 1572, realising that his murder is at hand, Coligny commends his soul unto God, moments before he is slaughtered, and his naked body is defenestrated down upon the bloodthirsty mob below: ‘mockes of the multitude’ trample their trophy; his mutilated corpse is so disfigured and bloody that ‘his visage could not be discerned’ (59).

​[36]​ Such parallels are unsurprising, by 1610, and indeed by the date of these additions in 1632 and 1641 respectively, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre had been ingrained into the cultural memory of European Protestants. As Judith Pollmann notes, communicative memory, the testimonies relayed by survivors of an atrocity or other significant moments, could transition into cultural memory, especially through the medium of cheap print, a phenomenon which early modern contemporaries were conscious of (2017: 169). Although Huguenot refugee communities in London and Norwich could have provided access to eyewitness testimony, the dispersion of cheap print was pervasive, inspiring polemics and plays, for instance Anne Dowriche’s The French Historie (1589) and Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris (1593). The 1572 massacre looms large in the cultural memory as a bloody warning of the dangers of sectarian civil war. Its sheer pervasiveness in Anglophone polemic over fifty years later cannot be understated.

​[37]​ As Susannah Brietz Monta states, ‘most simply, the martyrologist’s task is to show that the lives and deaths of particular witnesses confirm the beliefs they held’ (2005: 11). In order ‘to shape reading communities’ which celebrate the martyr, accounts ‘proposed that the cause, not the death, makes the martyrs’, as evident with Foxe’s emphasis on the conscience of the martyr (11-12). Here in this martyrology of Grison Protestants, the victims are afforded no opportunity to profess their faith before the persecuting authorities, or allowed the option to recant. The martyrdom is brutal and operates outside of the judiciary, in fact in many cases, it is the respectable agents of the Grison religious and civic administration who are being butchered. However, as with Foxe’s martyrs of the early Reformation, names and biographical details are included, thereby enhancing the sensation of a personal connection to the victims. The Protestant martyrs imitate Christ’s crucifixion, ‘having recommended their soules to God, they were most cruelly slaine’ (Anon 1641: 101), and their killers enact, to borrow the language of Mikhail Bakhtin, a bloody rendition of the carnivalesque, beheading the local priest and mocking his extinguished authority:

They cut off Bassoe’s head, and carried it into the Church, and fixed it upon a pole in the pulpit where before time he was wont to preach, saving with all disgrace and scorne, Come downe Basso, thou hast preached long enough already. (Anon 1641: 101).

It is plausible that the mutilation of pitiful Bassano was based on accounts disseminated in the early 1620s, for example, in Everard’s inclusion of the persecution of Grisons into his preternatural narrative; ‘the rebellious and seditious Papists’ decapitate Bassano, mount the head on the pulpit and ‘cryed vnto him, Cala a basso, Basso, cala a basso, c’hai predicato assai, &c. that is, Come downe, Basso, come downe, thou hast preached long enough’ (1622: 19-20).

5. Cultural Afterlives

​[38]​ The events of the Holy Slaughter and the subsequent crisis had, over the subsequent decades, transitioned into an enduring cultural memory for those who only witnessed the violence through the medium of print. When compared to the vast corpus of literal, visual and oral responses to the horrors and atrocities of the Thirty Years War, the sheer endurance of the Valtellina crisis within English language polemic is remarkable. The massacres of the early 1620s were employed to warn of the horrors of sectarian violence on the continent, and to propel Caroline foreign policy against the Spanish perpetrators. Later, in 1632 and 1641, the massacres served as a stark exemplar of the danger of fifth columnists, and of civil war instigated by Catholic neighbours in league with foreign powers.

​[39]​ The massacres in the Valtellina inspired enduring cultural memories, which, to echo Jan Assmann, ‘preserves the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its perceived unity and peculiarity’ (1995: 130). Cultural reminders that Protestant brothers and sisters in the Alps and across Europe were being persecuted for their shared faith. Warnings that Caroline Protestants might suffer the same terrible fates if recusants aided by Spain put plot into action. It contributed to confessional identity through a polemical binary juxtaposition between Grison victim and Spanish soldier, persecuted and persecutor, Protestant and Catholic. As Philip Benedict notes, ‘confessional identity and confessional rivalry were powerful antidotes to historical amnesia’, the recollection of violent events committed by a hostile group ‘reminded members of the community of the importance of continued vigilance’ (2013: 113).

​[40]​ Memory, especially the memory of persecution, was never neutral. To Stuart Protestants who had lately witnessed the Bishops Wars and heard the wild, amplified rumours of the massacres of the Irish Rebellion, the warnings of the Valtellina would have been further evidence of the potential for Catholic insurrection, aided by the Spanish monarchy, to set the world aflame. Just as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was commemorated, the Valtellina massacres were transformed and remembered, fed by fledgling news-books and fantastical preternatural reports. Such was its significance that foreign reasons of state were translated into English to shed light on the crisis, and it was appropriated to apply pressure upon respective Jacobean and Caroline foreign policy to resist suing for peace with Spain. Its inclusion in an updated Acts and Monuments, alongside the Gunpowder Plot and the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, attests to its transition into a semi-canonical event which evidenced the sufferings of God’s true church. The fashioning of the Grison Protestants into martyrs necessarily also fashioned them into confessional brethren, knowable by their names, professions and the torments they suffered: members of a spiritual community that transcended physical flesh and spatial distance, reinforcing a Protestantism pan-European in its scope.

​[41]​ Through translation and print polemic, the events of this distant alpine pass continued to be evoked almost twenty years after the onset of bloodshed in its valleys. Remarkably, Catholic polemicists such as Fancan and Sarpi had contributed to this process, in a curious by-product of their anti-Spanish reasons of state. Through translation and re-appropriation, their words transcended mountain ranges and linguistic and confessional boundaries. The cultural afterlife of the violence in the Valtellina is not only evidence that early Stuart subjects avidly followed the Thirty Years War even within theatres where few of their compatriots fought, but that even Swiss-Italian Protestants from a distant alpine valley would be remembered by generations of Stuart Protestants alongside the hallowed echelons of the Marian martyrs.

University of Edinburgh



I would like to thank Patrick Hart, Lynsey MacCulloch and this special issue’s editors for their insightful support in revising this article. I would also like to thank Ilaria Grando and James Loxley for their structural suggestions, as well Henri Hannula and Simon Mølholm Olesen, brilliant sounding boards for this article with whom I shared an office at the University of Leiden. I also acknowledge the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities for funding my PhD.

[1] The Canton of the Grisons, or Graubünden, was formed by a federation of the three Swiss leagues, located to the south-east of what is now Switzerland. In other contemporary sources, they are referred to as Rhetians on account of the name of the Roman provinces. In the early seventeenth century, the majority of Grisons were Calvinists, and had jurisdiction of the Valtellina valley to the south of their canton, which connected their lands to the Italian peninsula below. The crisis this article explores can be located in the broader context of the conflict of the Bündner Wirren (1618-1639), which is examined in greater detail in Randolph Head’s Diplomacy in the Grisons: Social Order and Political Language in a Swiss Mountain Canton 1470-1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). [back to text]


Primary Sources

Anon. 1619. The Proceedings of the Grisons, in the Yeere 1618 (London: G. Purslowe for E. Blount)

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Anon. 1641. A Continvation of the histories of forreine martyrs from the happy reign of the most renowned Queen Elizabeth (London: Richard Hearn for the Company of Stationers)

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The Displacement of Violence: Measure for Measure, Legal Discourse and Violent Imagery

The Displacement of Violence:
Measure for Measure, Legal Discourse and Violent Imagery

Klaas Tindemans


[1] Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure premiered, probably, during the summer season of 1604. On 26 December 1604, it was performed by the King’s Men at the Palace of Whitehall: this was the first time, under James I’s reign, that a new Shakespeare play had been performed at the King’s Court. The play itself adapts the plot of an earlier romance, Promos and Cassandra by George Whetstone – a play with a clear message about the sanctity of law and order – to deconstruct certitudes underlying any legal order or any concept of sovereignty: the comedy is turned into a ‘problem play’. Duke Vincentio of (an imaginary) Vienna leaves his town and appoints Angelo as a temporary replacement. But Vincentio disguises himself as a friar and watches closely how Angelo governs the city. The real reason for his departure is his own assessment of himself as a weak ruler, frustrated at not being able to enforce the severe laws of the city. He knows that Angelo is a strict administrator of the law – and proud to be so. Angelo immediately enforces rules against sexual license, particularly against sex out of wedlock, even if for decades these rules had fallen into complete disuse, thanks to Vincentio’s laxity (as he himself suggests). Claudio and Juliet love each other passionately, and Juliet has become pregnant. This is indeed physical proof of an infringement of the law, and in Angelo’s eyes it leads linea recta to the death penalty for Claudio.

[2] With his first appearance on stage, Angelo, the deputy Duke, reveals his personal concept of law. He embraces a ‘legalist’ notion of the law, seen as a command to strict adherence to the rules – a warning for lenient judges – and an unqualified belief in the efficiency of legal deterrence. The reply by his counsellor, the old Lord Escalus, is subtle but ineffective, at least at this point in the story.

Angelo: We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey
And let it keep one shape till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Escalus:              Ay, but yet
Let us be keen, and rather cut a little,
than fall, and bruise to death.  (2.1.1-7)

From a dramaturgical point of view, Angelo’s statement about legality confirms his reputation as a political and moral ‘hard-liner’, all too eager to avoid (or to suppress) any possible mistakes, in the administration of justice, during his replacement of the Duke of Vienna. The Duke, incognito, observes that Angelo acts true to his reputation. A couple of observations can be made when closely reading these lines. Firstly, Angelo’s severity and Escalus’s reply are formulated in rather violent terms – ‘birds of prey’, ‘terror’, and Escalus’s reaction repeats this imagery – ‘cut a little’, ‘fall’ (in the transitive sense, as in ‘felling a tree’), ‘bruise to death’. Secondly, the conversation takes place in a courtroom, so a link could be established between (theatrical) space and the weight of the words/images. The law is thus confirmed, by the administrator of the law himself, as a violent and protean instrument of sovereign power. But the wording of their legal-theoretical convictions might not be convincing proof of the violent nature of their ideas. However, the discussion touches a much more fundamental problem, which will be at stake until the end of the play: the identity of two political personae, i.e. the sovereign, who establishes and embodies the law, and the judge, who interprets and applies the law. This identity will result, both for Angelo, in his proposal to Isabella, and for the Duke, when he finally unveils himself, in the (plausibly) excessive use of (non-)pardoning. The legal figure of sovereign pardon is structurally exceptional to any rule of law, as it suspends both the abstract rule and the concrete, actual judgment (Meyler 2019: 15).[1]

[3] Measure for Measure is a play about the law, or more precisely, about the forensic-rhetorical embedding of the law and, most importantly, about the inherent and actual violence of the law. As the play develops, this problematic comedy becomes a theatricalized status quaestionis about the intertwinement of law and violence in the early 17th century, in England and elsewhere. It might be meaningful to try to dissect this relationship between law as a set of orderly principles and the violence, repressed or not, implied in its enforcement – and to acknowledge the role theatre and drama could have played in this ambiguous relation. That is the ambition of this article.


A dramatic issue of legal theory

[4] As Jody Enders asserts, the ‘outbreak’ of violent imagery in the early modern era went hand in hand with important developments in forensic rhetoric. Procedural and discursive tools became more prominent, at the expense of proof by physical means, such as torture. In her study of the Medieval theatre of cruelty, Enders claims that classical rhetoric – closely following the manuals of Quintilian, on the one hand, and torture, on the other, reached a point of contradiction: as strange as it may seem today, a rhetorical legal argument had to be corroborated by a statement obtained by torture – as a divine confirmation. This untenable ambiguity could only be solved by the ‘theatricality’ of legal procedure: law re-enacts theatrically, one could say, the violent societal breach caused by a crime, with non-violent means and devices, i.e. with the ‘dramaturgy’ of procedure (Enders 1999: 38-62). Lorna Hutson, in her study of law and mimesis in Renaissance drama (Hutson 2007), develops further the dramaturgical techniques the theatre experimented with. She claims that several experimental dramaturgical devices actually contributed to the ‘discursive turn’ in legal matters and specifically in forensic rhetoric. The ‘tricks’ of early modern legal rhetoric, as used in actual legal procedures, were supposedly coined in the theatre and tested, on stage, for their efficiency. A more specific analysis of Shakespeare’s dialogues by Quentin Skinner confirms this, on the level of the dramatic text itself (Skinner 2014). Late Medieval and Renaissance theatre thus provided a testing ground for ‘cleaning’ the courtroom of overly violent experiences and images, in favour of a new regime of truth. Or, more precisely: theatre juxtaposed a slowly secularizing (rational) idea(l) of the law, on the one hand, and a legal-political system based upon theatrical violence (torture, public execution), on the other, in order to prove, deliberately or not, their logical incompatibility.

[5] These observations imply a significant shift in jurisprudence. They are, of course, related to the Foucauldian understanding of secularisation and transformation of Western society according to a biopolitical paradigm. The aforementioned developments in criminal justice are part of a larger movement, of a gradual displacement of violence in legal – and especially jurisdictional – contexts. Control of the body becomes a matter of political economy; bodies are perceived as workforce and have to be protected as such: productivity and accumulation will prevail, during the centuries to come (Foucault 2001a: 210). But the very open and perceivable contrast between the abundant imagery of physical violence, in performance and elsewhere, and the parallel and gradual evacuation of actual violence from the forensic stage – courtroom, execution place, etc. – deserves special attention, as an aspect of this larger process. Could we speak indeed of a ‘theatrical turn’ in early modern legal discourse, and how does it relate to the representation of violence, in the early 17th century, in general? The sheer existence and the dramaturgy of Measure for Measure as a ‘courtroom drama’ might already be an indication. The question is whether this shift redefines the relationship between violence (as a physical reality) and law (as an official monopoly on violence) as they are present in the public domain. But there is also an underlying issue, regarding the foundation of legal-political authority in the age of biopolitics. In his courses of 1978 at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault explains how political authority shifts from souveraineté to gouvernementalité – his terminology. Souveraineté has a very precise meaning for Foucault: it characterises an authority that is nothing more and nothing less than an end in itself. The sovereign’s goal is the maintenance of power over his territory, on the sole condition that his subjects respect the laws and, more generally, the order of things God imposed on mankind (Foucault 2001b: 645). Gouvernementalité, in contrast, aims at the subjects of authority, and creates an institutional framework, an apparatus and eventually a bureaucracy to deal with their ‘common wealth’ (Foucault 2001b: 655). This shift affects deeply the ‘self-fashioning’ of the prince, as the character of Duke Vincentio indicates, and, consequently, the degree (and the nature) of violence used in exercising his self-fashioned authority. Or, as Jürgen Pieters suggests, the incapacity of both rulers (Angelo and Vincentio) to shift from one notion of authority to another, from souveraineté to gouvernementalité, frustrates them. Shakespeare’s imaginary Vienna figures then as a ‘transit zone’ for the validation of power relations (Pieters 2003: 202). Is this frustration expressed symptomatically in an eruption of (symbolic) violence, new and different from Medieval forensics? A violence inherent in this ‘biopolitical’ transformation of the notion of legality?

[6] Measure for Measure offers some answers to these questions, by exemplifying if not exposing this violent theatricality of the law itself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented, in marginalia on the title page of his own copy of the play, that Measure for Measure was ‘the most painful – say rather, the only painful – part of [Shakespeare’s] genuine works. The comic and tragic parts equally border on the [. . .] disgusting [and] the horrible.’ (Coleridge 1961: 102) The play offended both his sense of justice and his image of women (Geckle 1967: 71-73). Measure for Measure deals, as plenty of Shakespeare’s comedies do, with surreptitious or repressed sexual violence, but it is remarkable that it frames the unwanted consequences of this behaviour, implicitly or openly, in a forensic or legal discourse, thus transforming physical aggression into a discursive battlefield. A legal discourse operates as a surrogate for actual images of violent debauchery. The contrast with the explicit violence in some of Shakespeare’s history plays and, most of all, his tragedies, is obvious. It begins with the outrageous bloodthirstiness (rape, mutilation and cannibalism) and spectacular nihilism of Titus Andronicus, and culminates in the complete existential destruction of King Lear and Macbeth. In Measure for Measure, however, the protection of the patriarchal order, supposedly the motive for (political) violence as imitated in these tragedies (Cohen 1993: 1-9), motivates the protagonists as strongly as their belligerent and murderous counterparts.


Shifts in Renaissance legal discourse

[7] Jody Enders suggests that during the Renaissance Western European jurisprudence was faced with a profound ‘epistemological crisis’, both in theory and in practice (Enders 1999: 36). The resurgence of classical rhetoric, from Aristotle to Quintilian, could be seen as an effort to overcome this impasse. Five elements are distinguished in rhetoric, in judging its effectiveness: inventio (discovery or invention), dispositio (arrangement), elocutio (style), memoria (memory), and pronunciatio (speech). The teaching of classical rhetoric was a pillar of a higher education in the Renaissance. Handbooks concentrated on inventio and dispositio, with inventio most extensively discussed (Skinner 2014: 4). From Aristotle onwards, rhetoric dealt primarily with forensic issues. This is not surprising, since the unfolding of arguments and the assessment of their credibility and veracity steer the process of determining the legal outcome of a conflict. The term ‘evidence’ itself has its origin in rhetoric: the Latin evidentia denotes the brilliance, the clarity of an argument, but its (English) meaning has shifted to (preferably written) legal proof (Hutson 2007: 25). In Medieval law, evidence in criminal law was based on torture: even voluntary confessions had to be confirmed by torture because authorities believed that only physical humiliation produced reliable truth. But the observation, reappearing during the (early) Renaissance, that the classics were interested in the specifics of forensic rhetoric had put this assumption under pressure. The facts underlying a trial had to be represented in a different way, in order to know them and, more crucially, to qualify them within a framework of authoritative rules, within a legal framework. Physical extraction – in its most literal sense – of the truth by testing the resilience of the tortured was warranted by the infinite mercy of God. But humanist scholars, apart from their moral repulsion from deliberate affliction of pain, wanted to discover the legally relevant truth represented in court, through mimetic devices. The theatre, says Enders, provided the literal stage to make this transition from actual pain to mimesis (Enders 1999, 156-157). And this mimesis, in the form of theatrical narrative, becomes the essence of inventio. Several ‘mystery plays’ of the late Middle Ages had already tried to represent, albeit more in an allegorical than in a mimetic way, the theme of ‘justice and mercy’, which can be seen as the final objective of the improved inventio of sixteenth-century forensic rhetoric. In plays about the repentance of the biblical Mary Magdalene, for example, the mercy of Christ – and the confirmation of his supreme sovereignty – is shown as an exemplum of the ‘new law’, the merciful law, overruling the ‘old law’, the Mosaic law of implacable revenge (Cox 1989: 162-63).

[8] It is clear that torture, as a theologically sound device to find forensic truth, raised rational doubts, and these doubts contributed to a profound discursive shift in jurisprudence and thus in the representation of violence in early modern Europe and in England in particular. However, historical contingencies also played their part. The Reformation in England caused radical transformations in the administration of law, both in its institutions and in its application. One decisive example of this shift was the changed rationale of punishment itself. The rejection of purgatory by the reformed Church of England obliged judges and juries to change their dogmatic legal attitudes, since the provisional character of even capital punishment disappeared. A human judgment was conclusive now; it became impossible to postpone a final judgment, based upon divine providence, until the afterlife. Without purgatory, human authorities had to assess the exact relationship between guilt and punishment, intentionality had to be judged, and the perspective of the final reckoning had to be evaluated by (human) peers. In other words, legal procedures were radically secularised, and all remnants of divine intervention, such as the holiness of oaths or the forensic value of ordeals gradually disappeared (Hutson 2007: 268-75). On an institutional level, concerning the division of competence between common law jurisdiction and ecclesiastical courts, the Reformation had even more far-reaching consequences. Theological disputes were transferred to debates over the division of legal competences, such as family law, property law and penal law. In most cases this resulted in a secularisation of law, in a generalisation of trial by lay jurors, and in a new balance, mainly in private law, between common law – based on custom, parliamentary statute, and the case law of the King’s Bench – and equity – based on the case law of the (independent) Court of Chancery (Burrows 2002). To put it in general terms: jurisdiction could not rely any longer on a divine judgment, in the afterlife – not because it would not be valid any longer, but because it had become ‘unknowable’, by lack of an authoritative theological instance. The vicar of Christ, the Pope, had vanished from the scene.

[9] As opposed to the centralizing tendencies on the continent, especially in France, early modern England seemed to refuse a centripetal dynamic of jurisdiction grounded in a unified sovereignty as embodied in kingship. English society developed a relatively mild system of ‘participatory justice’ at grassroots level, notwithstanding the theoretical strictness of common law visible in an extensive variety of capital crimes and modes of capital punishment. This choice was also inspired by loss of confidence in the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Hutson argues that Foucault’s thesis about the theatricalized distance between monarch and subjects, embodied in the infamous ‘spectacle of the scaffold’ (Foucault 1975: 36-72), has to be adapted here to a different, less ‘Catholic’ dynamic in England. The English judicial system, probably mirroring the fragmentation of Protestant communities, congregations and denominations, preserved its decentralised and ‘multipolar’ character (Higgins 2012: 274). Bernadette Meyler, however, nuances Hutson’s account of a ‘francocentric’ Foucault (Meyler 2019: 55-57). She mentions Foucault’s comment on the writings of Sir Edward Coke, who served as James I’s Attorney-General and member of the Privy Council, but was openly critical of the King’s absolutist self-image. Foucault subtly demonstrates how the (continental) ‘natural right’ idea of a modest king, not deified, not absolutist, and counterbalanced by his people, is historically constructed by Coke. The fragmented character of English law might then be in line with Coke’s (anti-French) apology for a more egalitarian legal and political regime, as it was supposed to have existed before the Norman conquest of 1066 (Foucault 1997: 91-92). Moreover, Meyler says, Coke’s construction of a pre-Norman genealogy of ‘common law’ was intended to curtail James I’s desire to occupy the judicial arena. This trope, Meyler notes, appears in Measure for Measure (Meyler 2019: 63).

[10] On the other hand, Hutson rightly argues that the subsequent transfer of this spectacle from the public scaffold to new genres of dramatic theatre (revenge tragedy, city tragedy, romance/comedy, and even some court masques), is not, or not in the first place, a visual mimesis, as Foucault suggests, but primarily an imitation of forensic rhetoric, in which plots are constructed as inventio and dispositio, and the audience is put in the position of lay judges. Many spectators did indeed participate in popular jurisdiction, in that jurisdictional quality. Early modern playwrights were often well trained in jurisprudence or even professionally active in the judiciary, so they were aware of the audience’s familiarity with forensic proceedings and that knowledge influenced their narrative constructions. This consciousness had a clear impact on (the complexity of) their dramaturgy (Hutson 2007: 68-69), and Measure for Measure demonstrates exactly this. The use of forensic rhetoric in Elizabethan comedy was also embedded in plot structures and figures of speech borrowed from Roman classical comedians, such as Plautus and Terentius (Hutson 2007: 213). Intellectually, this was an excellent exercise for playwrights, since the sheer improbability of most comic plots had to be resolved by ingenious rhetorical devices. These classical examples thus functioned as a framework for the discursive working through of profound societal changes. They were also helpful to overcome an epistemological crisis deepened by the urgent need to redefine the connection between secular and spiritual authorities, almost from scratch.


Improbable plot and ambiguous closure

[11] James’s succession, in 1603, to Queen Elizabeth I, who had consolidated the Reformation in the Church of England, happened at a crucial moment during a far-reaching societal transformation. Christened a Catholic, James converted easily to Protestantism, but his political position remained unstable, as a number of conspiracies, such as the Bye and Main Plots (1603) and the Gunpowder plot (1605) show (Croft 2003: 51, 64). With a view to his ascension to the English throne, in 1599, James reprinted his essay Basilikon Doron, a warning to his infant son Henry about the dangers threatening the divine right of kings. He advises him to seek a middle ground between the strictness of authority and well-tempered mercy: ‘for justice (by the law) giueth euery man his owne : and equitie in things arbitrall, giueth every one that which is meetest for him’ (Craigie 1944: 166). In 1604 Shakespeare writes and produces Measure for Measure, with the new King as one of the spectators. A hybrid comedy about justice and mercy, and about the societal and political system that creates a provisional balance between them, the play might be qualified as an experiment in forensic rhetoric. And the outcome, in the disenchanting final scene, is a major display of discursive violence.

[12] The last act shows the release of the sinner Claudio, the exposure of Angelo as a sexual predator, and the forgiveness of his victim, Isabella. The multiple marriages cross many lines of class and morality, bringing together citizens and social misfits, puritans and libertines, true lovers and forced partnerships. But this final scene deviates nevertheless from any conventional closure in Jacobean comedy, not in its anecdotal improbabilities (four simultaneous marriages, recovered virginity, a general atmosphere of reconciliation and (apparently) unqualified joy) – similar improbabilities occur in As You Like It and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but in its utter lack of enjoyment or conviviality (Higgins 2012: 290).

[13] The concluding words of the Duke are symptomatic in their ambiguity: ‘So bring us to our palace, where we’ll show | What’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know’ (5.1.535-36). ‘Behind’ has, in Shakespearean usage, two opposite temporal meanings: to come, thus pointing to the future, or to leave, referring to a definite past. This single ambiguous word is reinforced by another use of ‘behind’, ten lines earlier, when the Duke says to Escalus, his loyal counsel who tried to tame Angelo’s rigour: ‘Thanks, good friend Escalus, for thy much goodness | There’s more behind that is more gratulate’ (5.1.525-26). At least three interpretations are possible here. When ‘behind’ points to the future, it remains highly uncertain whether this will be a hopeful future, where mercy and equity – not in the English legal sense but as principled moral justice – are able to reform and redeem a society with all too rigorous rules, or whether this future means the instalment of a different, ‘biopolitical’ regime of truth based upon uncontrolled access to information (‘that’s meet you all should know’). But if ‘behind’ refers to a past – a recent past, under Angelo’s regime – then the Duke’s congratulation of Escalus could suggest some regret about the failure to repress sexual license or, more generally, an awareness of the ‘epistemological crisis’ in the legal qualification of certain social practices (Funk 2012). These last two interpretations could reveal the ambiguity of the Duke’s disguise to make an almost ‘totalitarian’ point. If the ruler can watch his subjects incognito, control over behaviour is limitless. The Duke’s position is comparable to the performance of the king in Henry V, who, likewise incognito, discusses with a simple soldier the meaning(lessness) of war, thus exposing the private’s candour to his royal mercy. The inherent violence of this position is quite obvious (Cohen 1993: 68).

[14] The legal point crucial to Shakespeare’s plot is the value of betrothal, of the promise to marry before the actual wedding rites take place. As over 30 % of the brides in England around 1600 were pregnant on their wedding day (Hayne 1993: 5), it is clear that Claudio and Juliet made no exceptional case by English standards. Although this was a capital crime, ecclesiastical courts judged leniently, and simply asked for a swift wedding to formalize the family. Shakespeare, however, constructs different narratives about these betrothals. Measure for Measure tells one story (actually more than one), in contrast to the betrothal in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, where the audience witnesses the love affair with its own eyes (Hayne 1993: 4-5). Dubious testimonies confirm betrothals, or are simply invented, such as Lucio’s, and the normative tightening of common social practice – just as premarital sex was common, so was prostitution, which was even tolerated by the Church from the late Middle Ages (Mazo Karras 1989: 403) – thus points to more theoretical problems of jurisdiction and justice. Two of these issues require more substantial reflection: the question of undecidability, or the inherent impossibility of reaching a ‘just’ decision; and the political meaning of mercy, taking into account the aforementioned ‘short circuit’ in the validation of sovereign authority (Pieters 2003, 202), embodied in the act of pardoning. This analysis might reveal the structurally violent nature of the law in early modernity (or, for that matter, at any time), and the reasons a discursive representation is preferred over horrid spectacle, at least in this case.



[15] When the Provost in Measure for Measure says to the hangman Abhorson – a fine Shakespearean compounding of ‘abhor’ and ‘whoreson’ – that the whoremonger and petty criminal Pompey will help him, the executioner protests: ‘A bawd, sir? Fie upon him, he will discredit our mystery’ (4.2.26). While in early modern English ‘mystery’ also has a less ‘mystic’ connotation – it can also mean ‘skilled trade’, it refers too to a property of the law that escapes mere rationality. Pompey’s reacts ad rem:

Painting, sir, I have heard say, is a mystery; and
your whores sir, being members of my occupation,
using painting, do prove my occupation a mystery.
But what mystery there should be in hanging, if I
should be hanged, I cannot imagine. (4.2.34-38)

Pompey, one imagines, considers the commodification of lust, the ‘business model’ of prostitution, a mystery as big – and as doubtful – as the execution of prisoners. The painted faces of his whores contribute to the erotic theatricality they should embody, just as the public scaffold should create the certainty that justice is not only done, but also seen to have been done. But for the hangman, who is acting here as the popular representative of a legal system, this mystery might go deeper. In Force de Loi, Jacques Derrida compares the ideal judge with a calculator, but in the real world he is never such a mechanical device and he never will be (or should be). Legal language guarantees, of course, a certain iterability in this discourse – similar causes are adjudicated according to similar rules, but between rule, qualification and adjudication, between abstract norms and actual facticity, unbridgeable gaps appear all the time, making every decision unique. A decision in an individual case can never guarantee justice, either in particular or in general, because the ‘spectre of undecidability’ haunts the action of judges and jurors: they cannot not decide once and for all, the sense of contingency is overwhelming. Every single judgment oscillates between this paralysing ‘spectrality’ and the prohibition of denial of justice or non liquet, which has a long legal history (Rabello 1974). Justice and legality cannot coincide, and their detachment should remain a mystery (Derrida 1994: 51-52), as a promise of justice, eventually (Laclau 1995: 90). Angelo, in his jurisdictional capacity, prefers to deny these gaps in the most direct way, after Isabella’s logically remarkable supplication and rhetorically surprising inventio, as she gives a strong example of the constructivist argument:

Isabella: I have a brother is condemn’d to die;
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.
Angelo: Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function
To fine the faults, whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor. (2.2.34-41)

[16] ‘Every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done’: this phrase captures the quintessence of Angelo’s concept of law, which comes down to a pleonasm. The law is the law is the law, to echo Gertrude Stein, meaning here that the contingencies of a social practice – legally qualified as sexual license – are annihilated in favour of a pure reference to the rule, as if this social practice is itself intrinsically motivated by its (non-)conformity to the rule. The letter of the law functions as a criterion of truth, and legal discourse is founded on an autonomous regime of truth: the law knows what ‘really’ happens, and the truth-value of this knowledge is beyond dispute (Defoort 1994: 54-55). In a certain sense, this idea of the law also has a theological undertone: every sin, every trespassing of the law is already known by God, and human law is but a mere recognition of divine justice (Meyler 2019: 49). But to put it again in more secular terms, the unconditional substantive rule – the prohibition of premarital intercourse, in this case – resists a (pragmatic) tendency to be embedded in conditional rules of application (Derrida 1994: 81-82). Derrida refers here to Walter Benjamin, who distinguished between two forms of legal violence, ‘law making violence’ (rechtsetzende Gewalt) and ‘law preserving violence’ (rechtserhaltende Gewalt) (Benjamin 1965: 43-46). Angelo demonstrates throughout the play how the merger of the two forms of legal violence leads to a blatant contradiction. Or worse: for Benjamin the lack of distinction comes down to the denial of the rule of law itself (Benjamin 1965: 45). If a rule based upon so-called natural law or natural morality is treated as a positivistic proscription – which means that its denotative meaning (‘the letter of the law’) is absolute and that no connotation or contextualisation of the rule is accepted – then the ‘foundational violence’ of that so-called natural rule erupts in all its enormity. The last act of Measure for Measure appears a futile effort to contain that violence through a typically comic device: a plurality of marriages, most of them likely to be unhappy, as the lack of enjoyment announces.


The performance of mercy

[17] Apart from satisfying the dramaturgical necessity of solving the Duke’s intrigues, the strange dénouement in the last act has a remarkable mimetic significance. As a performance text, it imitates and, at the same time, displaces an important event at the beginning of James I’s reign: the public mercy shown to certain well-known courtiers accused of involvement in a conspiracy against the king. But as a staging of public confessions, the improvised courtroom in ‘a public space near the city’, as the stage direction says, refers to the same jurisprudential shift, with its quest for redefined roles for secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as mentioned above. In late 1603, four lords, including the notorious political maverick Sir Walter Raleigh, were arrested for treason in the so-called Main and Bye plots. Although evidence was scarce, they were condemned to death by beheading. The process turned the despised Raleigh into a popular hero, due to his struggle with Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke, known as an unscrupulous prosecutor. When the outcome of the process became clear, James I mounted his own spectacle, as actor, director and playwright (Bernthal 1992: 250). He appeared to be unmoved by interventions on Raleigh’s behalf, by the Privy Council and by Raleigh’s wife, although he had already decided for himself to pardon three lords – but not Raleigh. He even signed the death warrants and sent them to the sheriff, but at the hour of execution sent a messenger to delay the beheading, because the condemned were ‘ill prepared’. He changed the order of executions, thus making one of the lords believe that his fellows were already killed. James I finally granted the three lords pardon, and, most theatrically, he delayed Raleigh’s execution indefinitely, raising the possibility of a full pardon (Bernthal 1992: 252-53). For the contemporary audience, the similarities between Duke Vincentio’s intervention in Measure for Measure – he organizes some kind of mock trial – and the behaviour of King James I, a few months earlier, must have been self-evident. But the analogy goes further. During this scene, the delicate balance between strict legality and generous fairness (equity) is completely overthrown by a demonstration of power by the Duke. To achieve his goals, that is, to restore his sovereignty – or more precisely, sovereignty as he conceives it, – he has to use the law in an almost ridiculous way, and he does so by using this typical device of comedy: multiple marriages. It is hardly believable that such a performance would be convincing for a learned audience, most of them with training in rhetoric, most of them actual witnesses to the anticlimax on the scaffold involving four lords narrowly escaping beheading.

[18] Shakespeare situates Measure for Measure in a vaguely Catholic setting, in an imaginary Vienna where the presiding figure is a Duke disguised as a friar. This allows him to cast doubt on the true intentions of all the characters, but particularly the Duke, who eventually uses his frock to gain access to the chaste lady, Isabella. His figure is hardly compatible with justice and mercy (Burks 2003: 75-77). But while his tricks are hardly convincing from a moralistic point of view, something else happens. Renaissance drama differs from the mystery plays most importantly in its mimesis of individual characters, rather than allegorical figures. In the longue durée, this points in the direction of a growing interest in individualisation, psychology and gradual embourgeoisement of the gentry. And it also marks the shift, as mentioned by Enders, from a legal focus on actual physical pain – as a device that provides forensic evidence – to mimesis or forensic narrativity (Enders 1999: 156-57). But here the reference to the Raleigh trial allows Shakespeare to turn individual confessions – relatively weak legal evidence, but an occasion for rhetorical brilliance or evidentia – into (the imitation of) a publicly relevant event, with ritualistic connotation and even magnificence. During the rearrangement of secular and ecclesiastical jurisdictions with the Reformation, final verdicts – high treason to begin with, but spreading over local jurisdictions – were often accompanied by public confessions, the ‘last dying speeches’, which became almost autobiographies (Sharpe 1985: 150-51). Angelo confesses at the end of the final scene, in a concise fashion, but the whole last act – or even the whole play – could be seen as a ‘last dying speech’ of perverted authority, a confession of political and more specifically forensic impotence. Or, as Steven Mullaney suggests, Measure for Measure, seen as a comprehensive performance, establishes and criticizes simultaneously the order of things, by its imitation of the provisionally suspended unhappy outcomes for several characters – Angelo, the embodiment of ‘naturalistic positivism’ in the law, in the first place (Mullaney 1988: 108). But what goal does this performance, staged by the Duke, as he unveils himself, actually serve? In a short, explicatory scene with Friar Thomas, Duke Vincentio offers the reasons for his strange scheme involving authority and the law. He confesses that he is torn between two ideas of law enforcement, and he uses very different metaphors: the cruelty of the lion, the predator, and the carefulness of the family man:

We have strict statues and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip:
Even like an o’er-grown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up to the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d: so our decrees
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead.    (1.3.19-29)

[19] While the lion might refer to Foucault’s paradigm of souveraineté – violent power for its own sake – or Machiavellian self-preservation, the ‘fond fathers’ are pedagogues: for them violence is restrained, a mere deterrent, and as rulers they belong to the paradigm of gouvernementalité (Pieters 2003: 202-03). After the ‘experiment’ with Angelo, Duke Vincentio might have realised the untenability of his mixed metaphor of a biting lion and a fond father, but he adds one last gratuitous demonstration of unchecked sovereignty, in letting Isabella believe her brother has actually been executed, before making a ‘governmental turn’ by arranging the marriages:

Isabella:     O, give me pardon,
That I, your vassal, have employ’d and pain’d
Your unknown sovereignty.

Duke:           You are pardon’d, Isabel,
And now, dear maid, be you as free to us.
Your brother’s death, I know, sits at your heart:
And you may marvel why I obscur’d myself,
Laboring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost.   (5.1.383-91)

The shift of the Duke from a ‘sovereign’ to a ‘governor’ might perhaps not be too convincing, at first sight, but the multiple marriages reveal more than just a comedy cliché. Duke Vincentio reclaims his authority by creating – in the microcosm of the play – a ‘conjugal society’. This is the term John Locke uses, at the end of the seventeenth century, to define marriage and to criticize the analogy between a divine right of kings and marital patriarchy on biblical grounds (Lupton 2014: 147).[2] But the method he has used to enforce the ‘most biting laws’ of Vienna has unleashed unexpected energies. Julia Reinhard Lupton compares this outcome to a tragedy that, in a completely different historical context, also interrogates the foundations of the political community: ‘[T]he marriage rituals that had solemnised Antigone’s symbolic reintegration into the city, but only through death, will here take centre stage in the play’s final act, with its invitation to four weddings and no funeral. In both plays, defiance as wilful de-affiliation is the cut or interval around which a new modality of the political can emerge’ (Lupton 2014: 143).[3]


Conclusion: rhetoric as symbolic violence

[20] Measure for Measure eventually shows the disintegration of authority in a society that in its own structures deals ambiguously with the threat of disorder, and the concluding restoration of the Duke as supreme ruler and merciful judge translates this development into a performative discourse (Dollymore 1994: 75-76). His strategy of disguises and tricks does not result in a firmer establishment or justification of authority. It results in an exposing of discursive violence, and it does so thanks to a complex inventio and, in the final act, dispositio. During the Duke’s ‘absence’, Isabella, the chastest character of all, devises with the Duke an elaborate rhetorical scheme, by feigning her surrender to Angelo’s lust: a deceitful plan, only to be matched by the hypocrisy and mendacity of Angelo himself (Skinner 2014: 89-91). From Angelo and Isabella’s first confrontation, she perceives the authority of the deputy as a harsh reality. Indeed, when Isabella threatens to reveal his indecent proposal to others, his reply is simple:

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil’d name, th’austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state
Will so you accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report,
And smell of calumny. (2.4.153-58)

Isabella’s reaction (‘To whom should I complain? Did I tell this | Who would believe me?’ (2.4.170-71)) is truly desperate at this point, but in the next act, immediately after this outcry, the scheme to confront Angelo with his paradoxical lusts – sexual perversion and legalist authoritarianism – is set up by the Duke.[4] The rejection, by a disgusted Isabella, of Claudio’s suggestion that she should give in to Angelo’s blackmail, can be seen as a misleading interruption of a narrative inventio, of an ingenious construction of evidence. In fact, the plot blurs the Aristotelian distinction between ‘inartificial proof’ – bare facts – and ‘artificial proof’ – persuasion by speech (see Aristotle 1926: I.2.2). The facts take place, Angelo sleeps with Mariana, thus confirming the betrothal, but a shrewd rhetorical bypass leads this inartificial proof to artificial (rhetorical) evidence: Angelo thinks he has slept with Isabella, and she uses his ignorance to accuse him before the Duke, with all the pathos – a form of artificial proof, says Aristotle (Aristotle 1926: I.2.5) – needed (Skinner 2014: 94-95):

O worthy Prince, dishonour not your eye
By throwing it on any other object,
Till you have heard me in my true complaint,
And given me justice! Justice! Justice! Justice! (5.1.23-26)

The Duke, who set up the trick in his disguise, can now openly play his role as the final judge. And the informed audience is witnessing this forensic-rhetorical construction from within: the transition from torture, as a device warranting factual (inartificial) proof through physical violence, to carefully staged ruse, warranting persuasive (artificial) proof through indefensible delusion – or symbolic violence.

[21] In 1546, the poet Anne Askew was tortured and burned for heresy. According to Calvinist historiography, she was the first English woman to ask for a divorce on explicit religious grounds (d’Aubigné 1879: 274-83) and, in a certain way, she symbolised the fear of transgression that went along with the Reformation, but the event had its antecedents in centuries of witch-burning. As the submission of women to men was first and foremost a patrimonial relation – woman as a possession of man – any assertiveness on her part threatened the ‘natural’ order, especially when it was vocal: ‘Silence, the closed mouth, is made a sign of chastity. And silence and chastity are, in turn, homologous to woman’s enclosure within the house’ (Stallybrass 1986: 127). The nuclear family – Anne Askew had left her husband – became more and more the ideal of a social system in general. This pattern is recognisable and will indeed be confirmed, philosophically, by Locke’s line of thought about the ‘conjugal society’ (Locke 1993: 153-63). Consequently, sexual deviance was a threat to this idealised family and had to be disciplined. Individual acts of sexual license could release divine vengeance and result in the destruction of the societal order, which also explains why sexual and marital discipline were repressed so severely with the increasing influence of Puritanism. Sexuality as such was not dangerous, but the societal instability caused by deviance was an obvious threat. The uncanny sensitivity about the presumed risks of sexual deviance in this society – consistent with the household culture of the gentry – is translated, in Shakespeare’s time, into a different legal regime and into a gradual removal of legal violence from the public domain, but as an actual threat it continues to exist. Angelo’s mistake might be that he doesn’t understand this shift from providential authority to biopolitics, or, in the words of Richard Wilson, ‘political techniques [swinging] away from the ritual of death towards the administration of life’ (Wilson 1993: 122). But the Duke figures it out, and his extraordinary masquerade illustrates the ‘theatrical shift’ – a combination of shrewd rhetoric, visual sophistication and situational surprises – towards a regime of ‘soft’ legal violence, neatly covering up the foundational impasse of his sovereignty, which was too openly illustrated in Angelo’s behaviour.

[22] So, with three out of four marriages being enforced, the Duke’s concluding construction of new households might mirror a (rather uneasy) model for an authoritarian state, based upon surveillance of its citizens. The Duke acts like a spy, trying to inform himself about the workings of deviance, hardly attempting, as a prince, to reconcile social and moral differences. The hypocritical severity of Angelo is not repressed or rejected; it is treated as a reactionary fantasy, an interpretation which, in a milder but more effectively disciplined form, is confirmed by the Duke. His temporary abstinence from the administration of the law results in a society that pretends to be no longer doubtful about its truth regime and the sources of its sovereignty. ‘What’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know’, as the Duke concludes, not exactly knowing the nature of justice in his regime. At least for the time being, adds Shakespeare, silently.

Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) & RITCS School of Arts



[1] Meyler refers to Jacques Derrida’s analysis of the theatrical character of pardoning, especially after collective, societal trauma (Shoah, Apartheid), as having ‘the traits of a grand convulsion – dare we say a frenetic compulsion?’ (Derrida 2000: 105)[back to text]

[2] Lupton refers to John Locke’s anti-patriarchal position regarding the relationship between husband and wife (Locke 1993: 153-60).[back to text]

[3] The ‘de-affiliation’ Lupton refers to is Isabella’s sustained refusal to give up her chastity for the life of her brother, exactly the opposite of Antigone’s decision to die for her deceased brother Polynices. But Antigone has also ‘de-affiliated’ herself from the rest of her family.[back to text]

[4] A paradox indeed, and not a contradiction: Angelo’s duplicity is the kind of ‘perversion’ Jacques Lacan hints at in his essay ‘Kant avec Sade’, in which he analyses the difficulties Immanuel Kant has in reconciling a ‘pleasure principle’ with an ethical system (and attitude) based upon pure reason (Lacan 1966: 765-90).[back to text]



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Stoned, Slain, Sawn Asunder: Violence, Consolation and the Meanings of Martyrdom in Early Modern England

Stoned, Slain, Sawn Asunder: Violence, Consolation and the Meanings of Martyrdom in Early Modern England

Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen


[1] The Book of Martyrs (1563), compiled by John Foxe, was one of the most important books published in early modern England, second in significance only to the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer for the religious culture of the period – although it was also four times as long as the Bible (King 2006: 1).[1] It was widely read – or rather, read from – in public places such as schools, libraries, cathedrals and parish churches. Frequently reprinted during the late sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, the Book of Martyrs offered a hugely influential narrative of collective, Protestant English identity as having been forged in the experience of persecution and martyrdom during the reign of Mary I (1553­-1558) and as grounded ultimately in the sufferings of the early Christians.[2] Its readers were invited to see themselves, and their communal history, in the tales and images of the gruesome violence visited on the Marian martyrs of the 1550s – to feel that these tales and images told them who they were.

[2] The Book of Martyrs is obviously centred around the extreme physical violence inflicted on martyrs, represented both textually and in a large number of vivid woodcuts (see figures 1 and 2, below). Well known examples are the graphic accounts of the executions of William Gardiner and John Hooper, bishop of Gloucester and Worcester, both martyred in 1555. As one of the torments endured by Gardiner, his torturers forced a linen ball with an attached string ‘unto the bottome of his stomacke,’ which they then pulled up, ‘pluckyng it to and fro through the meate pipe’ (Foxe 1570: 1543). When Gardiner is finally executed, he is tortured in a similar manner, being lowered into the fire and pulled up again: ‘Then was ther a great pile of woode set on fire underneath him, into the which hee was by little and little let downe, not with the whole body, but so that his feete onely felt the fire. Then was he hoysted up, and so let downe agayne into the fyre, and thus oftentymes pulled uppe and downe’ (Foxe 1570: 1544). The account of John Hooper’s execution culminates in the following description of his dying moments: ‘he knocked hys brest with hys handes untill one of his armes fell of, and then knocked still with the other, what tyme the fat, water, and bloud dropped out at his fingers endes, untill by renewyng of the fire, his strength was gone, and his hand did cleave fast in knockyng, to the yron upon his brest’ (Foxe 1570: 1684).[3]

Figure 1. The torture of Cuthbert Simpson. John Foxe, Actes and monuments of these latter and perillous dayes touching matters of the Church (London, 1576), p. 1952 [1925]. Leiden University Library, 1368 C4–5.

Figure 2. Bishop Bonner scourging a prisoner. Actes and monuments (1576), p. 1963 [1936]. Leiden University Library, 1368 C4–5.

[3] In its preoccupation with martyrdom, then, early modern England placed the experience of violence at the heart of Protestant identity, with the representation of that experience occupying a central place in its textual and visual culture. As Cynthia Marshall has observed,

the Acts and Monuments can be understood as itself a monument to […] a moment when developments in technology, literacy, and religious politics made it possible for a massive textual detailing of physical suffering to occupy the imaginative screen of English readers. (Marshall 2002: 90)

Yet martyrdom in early modern English culture was also a remarkably elastic concept, that referred not only to martyrdom of blood – being persecuted and physically tortured, and eventually dying for one’s faith – but that was also applied to various forms of affliction and suffering. This becomes especially clear if we examine the confluence between discourses of martyrdom on the one hand and discourses of consolation on the other. One important feature of early modern, and especially seventeenth-century English Protestant culture was the emergence of a substantial and widely read body of consolation literature, in which members of the Protestant clergy instructed their flock in the art of suffering, offering them a set of narratives for attaching meaning to and dealing with affliction.[4] Protestant consolation writers took a capacious approach to affliction, addressing a wide gamut of suffering that ran from persecution to physical illness, financial setbacks and spiritual doubt. This last form of affliction presents an especially dominant topic in consolation discourses, with consolation writers casting their readers as burdened by a sense of sinfulness and as suffering from profound doubts about their own salvation, and as therefore in need of pastoral consolation.

[4] This preoccupation with consolation can be traced back to the very beginnings of Protestantism.[5] Martin Luther saw late medieval theology as failing to console Christians in their sense of sinfulness – and therefore as falling short of its pastoral responsibilities – in that it burdened them with the impossible task of contributing to their own salvation. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone, he wrote in On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), offers a form of consolation superior to that offered by Roman Catholic theology: ‘whose heart hearing these things will not melt for very joy, and waxe ravished in love of Christ, having received so great a consolation? to the which love hee can never possibly attaine by any lawes or workes at all’ (Luther 1579: 37). Luther, in other words, defined Christians as sufferers in need of consolation. This consolation revolved around a relinquishing of soteriological agency: those burdened by an awareness of sin can take consolation from the idea that their salvation is effected solely by Christ.

[5] Early modern English culture saw an enmeshing between the concepts of consolation and martyrdom. First, consolation became central to notions of martyrdom, with martyrs being defined by the consolation which they find in God and in each other. While divine and interpersonal consolation are also touched upon in the Book of Martyrs itself, it is especially prominent, as I will show below, in an important spin-off of Foxe, Clement Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs (1613). Second, consolation writers urged readers to construe their own various afflictions in martyrological terms — with an acute sense of sin, for example, presented as a kind of mini-martyrdom. Such a correspondence between martyrdom and doubts about one’s salvation was facilitated by the fact that in Cotton, martyrs themselves are presented as suffering from spiritual anxiety, finding divine consolation only at the very last – often when they have been tied to the stake already, the fire that will kill them already lit. In this way, different notions of Christian suffering – centred on the experience of persecution and violence or, for example, on the sense of sin – converged into a single narrative in which the most private, inward and the most public forms of affliction became intertwined, and in which consolation served as a pivotal term. For Cotton, what unites his readers with the Marian martyrs whose suffering he recounts is that both suffer spiritually and that both ultimately find consolation in God.

[6] On the one hand, this led to a downplaying of the importance of physical violence in definitions of Protestant identity, and to a less prominent representational role – both visually and textually – for violence. As we will see, physical violence plays only a limited role in Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, in which martyrdom revolves more centrally around the experience of spiritual anxiety and consolation. At the same time, however, consolation writers – including Cotton – drew on the language of martyrological violence in their meditations on other forms of affliction, such as illness or spiritual despair. The intertwined discourses of martyrdom and consolation, therefore, present an intriguing form of imagineering violence, evoking physical violence in relation to a wide gamut of Christian suffering. In this way, the violence inflicted on martyrs came to serve as a template for understanding Christian suffering more widely. Consolation literature suggests that to read about the violence inflicted on martyrs, and to gaze at images of that violence, was simultaneously to read about and to gaze at one’s own inner turmoil, or one’s own physical ailments, as well as to find consolation amid that turmoil and amid those ailments. The spectacle of religious violence was translated, in other words, to the most inward spiritual experiences, turning the inner life itself into a scene of violence and persecution. While the violence of literal, physical martyrdom diminished in representational prominence, therefore, the language of violence continued to play a crucial role in early modern understandings of what it meant to be a Protestant.

[7] This, I argue, also helps us understand why the idea of martyrdom possessed such cultural longevity in early modern English culture. In an important sense, what Alfred Rush terms ‘martyrdom unto blood’ had already ceased to be a reality for Protestants by the time it came to occupy a central place in concepts of national Protestant identity. With Elizabeth I’s succession, Protestantism had become the state religion, and it now fell to the Elizabethan regime to persecute religious others – most notably Catholic clergy (see Knott 1993: 88-126, and Jenkins 1986: 52, 56). As Protestantism became the majority faith in the early seventeenth century, Protestant martyrdom became increasingly remote. Yet martyrdom’s expiration date could be deferred indefinitely by turning martyrdom into a flexible, adaptable concept – by reimagining the violence inflicted on martyrs as present in all forms of Christian affliction.

[8] Such a reimagining of the meaning of martyrdom was not an early modern Protestant invention. As Alfred Rush explains, ‘actual martyrdom’ or ‘martyrdom unto blood’ diminished in importance when the age of persecution came to an end, with monks, for example, coming to be seen as the spiritual counterparts of the early Christian martyrs (1962: 574; see also Malone 1950). St Augustine insisted that martyrdom consisted not in the first instance around the undergoing of physical violence, but in bearing witness to Christian truth, stating, in a well known dictum, that ‘martyrem non facit poena sed causa’ [‘it is not the suffering but the cause that makes a martyr’] (Rush 1962: 574). In a sermon on martyrdom, he defines martyrdom in strongly spiritual terms similar to what we find in Cotton:

Sed nemo dicat: Non possum martyr esse quia non est modo persecutio. Non cessant temptationes. Pugna et corona parata est. […] [T]entatur anima christiana et propitio Deo vincit et facit magnam victoriam, nemine vidente, in corpore inclusa; pugnat corde, coronatur in corde sed ab illo qui videt in corde.

[Let no one say: I cannot be a martyr, because there is now no persecution. Trials are never lacking. The battle and the crown is prepared. […] The Christian soul is tried and, with the help of God, it conquers and wins a great victory; this it does enclosed in the body, with no one as its witness. It fights in its heart, it is crowned in its heart, but by Him who sees into the heart.][6]

[9] Yet even if seventeenth-century English Protestants were not the first to re-imagine martyrdom in spiritual terms, their idea of spiritual martyrdom acquired a new urgency and resonance for them as a fledgling religious majority whose historical connection to martyrdom of blood became ever more tenuous. Indeed, the Book of Martyrs itself evinces an awareness of its own belatedness, while at the same time offering a solution to this problem. Foxe realizes that physical martyrdom is no longer available to his readers, yet encourages them to understand martyrdom in more capacious terms: ‘if we can not willingly put of this lyfe, yet let us not bee slow to amend and correct this same: and though we can not dye with them in lyke martyrdome, yet let us mortify the worldly and prophane affections of the flesh which strive against the spirit’ (Foxe 1570: 1542). Approximately a century later, Richard Allestree found himself facing a similar problem. In a sermon on James 4.7 (‘Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you’), preached on 17 November 1667 before Charles II, he contrasts the ‘Persecutions […] of the primitive times of Christianity’ with his own martyrdom-free, late seventeenth-century present: ”tis not death to be a Christian now’ (Allestree 1684: 172). He even fears that the Christians of his own time would not stand the test of martyrdom ‘if God should raise a Dioclesian, come to tempt us with the fiery trial’. Only a degraded form of martyrdom is open to them, in which they fall victim not to prosecution but to their own sinful inclinations: they are ‘Martyrs […] to nothing but [their] Passions and [their] lusts‘ (1684: 172), or, as he puts it in his highly popular devotional work The whole duty of man (1657), ‘the Devil’s Martyrs’ (1657: 153). Yet in the same sermon, he also redefines the ‘fiery trial’ of martyrdom in broader terms, reading the ‘fiery darts of the wicked’ of which St Paul speaks in Ephesians 6:16 not only as ‘Persecutions‘, but as referring to ‘Calamities of any kind’ (1684: 171). In a 1665 sermon on Luke 2:34, he characterises the early Christians as ‘Apprentises of Martyrdom’ who were ‘call’d for sufferings’ in a broad sense that incorporates not only persecution but also ‘Poverty and Scorn’, as well as a renouncing of the ‘Pomps and Vanities of the World’ (1669: 203, 205, 203).

[10] In what follows, I will examine how such a broadening of martyrdom was made possible in part by linking martyrdom to the idea of consolation. In addition to Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, I will draw on the following works of religious consolation: the popular The sick mans salve by Thomas Becon (1511-1567), first published in 1560 and reprinted eleven times, in various editions, before 1600; the much obscurer The oyle of gladnesse (1631) by the Sussex rector Robert Allwyn; Sips of Sweetness (1649) by the Independent minister John Durant (1620-1689), an example of Durant’s broader consolatory oeuvre that went through three editions during the mid-seventeenth century (Burns 2004); and Balm of Gilead by Joseph Hall (1574-1656), first published in 1646 and reprinted four times between 1650 and 1660. Naturally, these form only a small selection from the large body of consolation literature published in the period, but they do shed light on an important strand in early modern English conceptions of martyrdom, suffering and consolation that can be discerned throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, and across a broad spectrum of Protestant writers, from conformist to Independent.


Martyrdom and Consolation in the Mirror of Martyrs

[11] We find a useful starting point for understanding the malleable meanings of martyrdom in early modern England in one of the most important spin-offs of Foxe: Clement Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, a drastically reduced, affordable pocket edition – ‘Reader’s Digest style’, in Patrick Collinson’s words – of the Book of Martyrs, first published in 1613 and reprinted eight times throughout the seventeenth century (Collinson 2002: 384). It does without woodcuts, and offers condensed martyrs’ narratives that largely omit, for example, the interrogations recounted in Foxe, focusing instead on the martyrs’ last moments. Thus, while Foxe offers a lengthy and vivid account of the various stages of John Hooper’s martyrdom, Cotton’s abridged version – the very first tale in the Mirror – opens with Hooper ‘being brought unto the place where he should suffer’ and moves on swiftly to ‘the day before his Martyrdome’ (Cotton 1615: 1-2).

[12] The Mirror of Martyrs contains an appendix that consists of two consolatory letters by the martyr John Bradford (c. 1510-1555), prominently advertised on the title page as ‘full of sweet consolation for all such as are afflicted in conscience’. Rather than focusing on physical martyrdom per se, these letters address the ‘godly sorrow which the feeling and sense of sinne worketh in Gods children’ (Cotton 1615: 389). The second letter is advertised as ‘most comfortable for all to read that are afflicted or broken hearted for their sinnes’ (Cotton 1615: 409). Since Cotton, in his epistle to the reader, presents his entire ‘Mirrour’ of Foxe as offering ‘sound comfort’ (Cotton 1615: sig. A8v) to its readership, Bradford’s letters of consolation provide an important key to the reworking of martyrdom in the Mirror of Martyrs more broadly. In linking martyrdom — on its very title page and in its paratextual matter — to the suffering caused by contrition (the sorrow over one’s sins to which Cotton refers), the Mirror suggests that the meaning of martyrdom can extend beyond ‘dying for one’s faith’. Spiritual anxiety, too, can make one a martyr, potentially serving as an entry ticket into the community of the afflicted to which martyrs also belong.

[13] Indeed, this link between martyrdom and spiritual anxiety is one important reason why Cotton sees his martyrs’ tales as a source of consolation for those afflicted by spiritual doubts. As he writes in the Epistle Dedicatorie, it is

very behoofefull for the afflicted, carefully to observe, what distresses, the particuler members of [the Church], hath been brought to; thereby to know and discerne, that they suffer not alone, but that in their suffrings they have had, and have, many companions, suffring with them. (Cotton 1615: sig. A4v-A5r)

Cotton casts his readership as ‘afflicted’ in a generalized sense, without specifying the precise ways in which they are afflicted. In this way, he hails his readers as belonging to a broad, transhistorical and diverse community of sufferers, inviting them to map their own suffering on to the agonies undergone by Protestant martyrs, and to read whatever suffering they themselves are experiencing as part of the larger history of affliction which Cotton evokes. Indeed, Cotton admonishes his readers to see even St John the Baptist as their ‘Brother and Companion in tribulation’ (Cotton 1615: sig. A5r), eliding in this way any temporal distinction between the reader’s own present, the more or less recent Marian persecutions, and the very earliest Christian martyrdoms: all co-inhabit a perpetual present, defined by the ever-recurring experience of Christian suffering. It is also in this sense that the Mirror of Martyrs can be seen as a devotional work: it offers its readers an interpretative framework for experiencing spiritual anxiety in an appropriate manner – by construing it as a species of martyrdom, and therefore as a form of suffering in which God always offers comfort.

[14] The importance of consolation in the Mirror of Martyrs is underscored by the martyrs’ narratives themselves, many of which hinge on the idea of consolation. This consolation follows certain recurring patterns: martyrs console themselves through the sheer strength of their faith, but they also console each other, comfort other fellow-Christians, or write consolatory letters to their family. Alternatively, they are consoled in their suffering by the Holy Spirit. Shortly before his martyrdom, John Hooper consoles a blind boy, insisting that God ‘hath given thee another sight much more precious; for he hath endued thy soul with the eye of knowledge & faith’ (Cotton 1615: 2). The martyr Lawrence Saunders (d. 1555) is described as experiencing intense consolation, both spiritually and physically, during the ordeal of his first interrogation. Consolation comes to him as an intensely physical experience that involves his entire body, arguably counteracting the physical violence inflicted on him: ‘he was so wonderfully comforted, that not only in his spirit, but also in body he received a certaine tast of that holy communion of Saints; whilst a most plesant refreshing issued from every part & member of his body unto the seat of the heart, & from thence did eb and flow too and fro unto all the parts againe’ (Cotton 1615: 19-20).

[15] In many cases, the martyrs need consolation because, faced with an imminent, violent death, they are in spiritual despair, thinking themselves incapable of bearing their suffering, or fearing about their fate in the afterlife. This, indeed, is what they have in common with Cotton’s spiritually anxious reader. For example, Robert Glover (d. 1555) harbours intense doubts about his salvation and seeks comfort from his friend Augustine Bernher (d. 1565), a reformed preacher born in Switzerland who comforted many Marian martyrs in their final hours (Wabuda 2004). Glover is described as suffering from ‘dullnesse of Spirit’, a condition dreaded by many early modern Protestants:[7] he ‘felt his heart […] lumpish and heavy’, which rendered him ‘full of much discomfort to beare the bitter Crosse of Martyrdome’ and afraid that ‘the Lord had utterly withdrawen his wonted favour from him’ (Cotton 1615: 23). Bernher reassures him that ‘the Lord in due season would satisfie his desire with plentie of Consolation, whereof hee sayd hee was right certaine and sure’ (Cotton 1615: 24). Bernher’s words of consolation are initially ineffective, the comfort which Glover longs for postponed until the very last moment, ‘as we was going to the stake’. Yet the consolation which he eventually experiences is all the more spectacular: ‘sodainely hee was so mightily replenished with the comfort of Gods holy Spirit and heavenly joyes, that hee cryed out clapping his hands to Austen saying these wordes, hee is come Austen, he is come, hee is come’ (Cotton 1615: 25; ‘Austen’ is Augustine Bernher). Thomas Hudson undergoes a similar spiritual crisis when he is bound to the stake. His fellow-martyrs attempt to console him, but to no avail: ‘he was compassed […] with great dolour and griefe of mind, not for his death, but for lacke of feeling the comfort of the holy Ghost, the comforter’ (Cotton 1615: 84). After Hudson prays intensely, God ‘at length according to his mercies old sent comfort, and then rose hee with great joy, as a man new changed even from death to life’ (Cotton 1615: 84). In a narrative pattern also present in other tales in the Mirror, consolation is initially deferred but ultimately offered — spectacularly and exhilaratingly.

[16] The martyrological tales in the Mirror of Martyrs offer exemplary tales of suffering and consolation. Cotton’s pocket martyrology defines Protestants both by their suffering and by the consolation which they seek and find, both in God and in each other. In consoling each other, moreover, Cotton’s martyrs serve as figures of the Mirror itself, geared as it is towards consoling its readers. Just as the martyrs figuring in the Mirror of Martyrs need and receive consolation in their torment, the reader is consoled in her spiritual trials. Protestant identity is not located exclusively in the experience of physical martyrdom per se but rather in the spiritual torments and soteriological doubts felt by Cotton’s readers.

[17] In Cotton, this broadening of the meaning of martyrdom, and the related centrality of spiritual consolation, produces a diminished emphasis on physical violence. Visual representations of violence are altogether absent from the Mirror, while verbal descriptions of violence are generally terse and generic, and shorn of details. Alice Binden’s death at the stake is summarized as follows: ‘she was bereaved of life by the terrible fier’ (Cotton 1615: 117). The account of John Lambart’s violent death is slightly more elaborate but nevertheless concise and restrained compared to what we find in Foxe: ‘John Lambart having his nether parts consumed with fire, lifting uppe such hands as hee had, and his fingers ends flaming with fire, cryed to the people, None but Christ, None but Christ’ (Cotton 1615: 26). Cotton’s focus is more strongly on the spiritual trajectory which his martyrs go through: the spiritual anxiety which they feel eventually lifted by a consolation that enables them to die joyfully. The death of James Baynam is a case in point:

as hee stood at the stake in the midst of the flaming fire, which fire had halfe consumed his armes and his legges, he was heard to speaker these words, O ye Papists. Behold ye looke for Miracles, and heere ye may see a Miracle, for in this fire I feele no more paine then if I were in a bed of down; but it is to me as sweet as a bed of Roses. (Cotton 1615: 31-32)

As we have seen, ‘sweet’ is a term strongly associated in Cotton (but also in numerous other devotional works of the period) with the effects of consolation: God’s spiritual comfort renders even the most extreme physical torment pleasurable.

[18] Yet while the language of physical violence is far from dominant in Cotton’s martyrology, it is not, of course, entirely absent, and in fact insinuates itself into unexpected and revealing contexts. For example, in the second of his two consolation letters appended to the Mirror of Martyrs, John Bradford informs the ‘faithfull woman in her heavines and troble of mind’ (Cotton 1615: 409) to whom he is writing that she is ‘of Gods corne’ and that she should therefore not ‘feare […] the flayle, the fanne, millstone, nor oven. You are one of Christs Lambs: looke therefore to be fleeced, halled at, and even slaine’ (Cotton 1615: 418). Bradford’s initial metaphor of grain-winnowing and bread-baking, in which violence is implied, morphs into an explicit vocabulary of physical violence in ‘halled at, and even slaine’. The primary meaning of ‘to hall’ [i.e. ‘haul’ or ‘hale’] listed by the OED is ‘to pull or draw with force or violence; to drag, tug’ (OED, s.v. ‘haul, v.’, 1a.), and the term was frequently evoked in relation to the Passion of Christ (as it is in Cotton), as well as persecution and martyrdom more broadly. A 1614 translation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s De interiori domo seu de conscientia aedificanda describes Christ as ‘haled to the slaughter’, while in a 1610 translation of St Augustine’s City of God, Christian bishops are ‘haled unto martyrdome’ (Clairvaux 1614: 149; Augustine 1610: 16). Robert Barclay’s An apology for the true Christian divinity (1678) describes Quakers as being ‘beaten, whipped, bruised, haled, and imprisoned’ (Barclay 1678: 363). As we have seen, Cotton’s martyrology evinces only limited interest in the physical torments inflicted on martyrs, foregrounding instead their spiritual pain and subsequent consolation. Yet this moment suggests something subtly different: Bradford here invites his addressee to read the spiritual pain from which she suffers as synonymous with the physical violence of martyrdom. What Bradford understands to be Satan’s spiritual assaults – ‘Let Satan rage against you’ (Cotton 1615: 419) – come to be understood in physical terms. Martyrdom, on such a reading, is no longer an experience one reads about or gazes at (for example, by reading and gazing at the narratives and woodcuts in Foxe), but which takes place inside the turmoil of one’s own inner, spiritual life.


Affliction and Martyrological Violence in Protestant Consolation Literature

[19] We also encounter this dynamic in other early modern devotional works, and especially in the large body of consolation literature of the period. Thomas Becon’s popular Sick man’s salve is a case in point. Written in dialogue form, it can be usefully seen as a Protestant reimagining of the medieval ars moriendi tradition, with a strong emphasis on the promise of redemption through Christ as a source of solace in the hour of our death (Baker House 2004). Becon sees the spiritual agonies from which his readers might suffer on their deathbed as a ‘trial of your faith’; a form of ‘agony’ from which God will ‘deliver’ them: ‘for the nature and property of God is to wound, before he healeth: to throw down before he lifteth up: to kil before he quickneth’ (Becon 1631: 242). The reader’s spiritual trials, as well as the physical ailments that precede death, are bracketed in this way with the more general suffering which all Christians must undergo. In an illuminating passage, Becon initially presents the reader’s affliction as a far cry from the pains of martyrdom, cataloguing the physical tortures visited on the early Christian martyrs as the gold standard of all human pain:

some were devoured with wilde beastes, some burnt with fire unto ashes, some broiled unto death upon hote coles, some slaine with the sword, some hanged upon gibbets, some pierced to death with arrows, some beaten to death with stones, some boiled, some rent in peeces with hot burning iron hookes, some racked, some drowned, som cruelly murthered in prison &c. Who is able to declar the moste bitter pains, and grievous torments which they gladly & willingly suffered on their bodies for the glory of God, and the fruition of his majesty? If yee consider of these thinges wel, you shall easly finde, that the paines which you now suffer, are nothing to be compared unto the most bitter and intolerable tormentes, which the men of god suffred. (Becon 1631: 208-209)

Yet Becon adds that ‘not withstanding if you abide these light paines joyfully, patiently & thankefully, you shall moste certainly enioy and possesse that heavenly kingdome, which they have already obtained’ (Becon 1631: 209). Paradoxically, therefore, the passage ends by drawing the reader’s suffering once again into the orbit of martyrdom: while the pains of illness and deathbed despair are much lighter than the pains of martyrdom, their soteriological efficacy is identical. Martyrdom is at once remote and within reach. Illness ultimately does function as a scaled-down form of martyrdom, the pains it brings echoing the greater violence inflicted on martyrs.

[20] A similar dynamic is at work in Robert Allwyn’s The oyle of gladnesse (1631), a collection of three sermons written to offer consolation to all those who are ‘swallowed up with over much heavinesse’ – that is to say, who suffer from the spiritual anxieties that form a recurrent concern in the consolation literature of the period (Allwyn 1631: 3). Allwyn urges his readers to ‘take pleasure […] in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in Persecutions, and anguish’ (Allwyn 1631: 33), and to trust in ‘the Spirit, who is most copious of his consolation in the fierie tryall’ (Allwyn 1631: 34). Allwyn’s readers, in other words, are to embrace suffering as an integral part of Christian identity, and Allwyn seems to make no hard-and-fast distinctions between persecution and other forms of affliction. The phrase ‘fierie tryall’, employed by Allwyn to encapsulate the meaning of affliction, has strongly martyrological overtones, as becomes clear from the Richard Allestree sermon discussed earlier in this article, and as is underscored by the title of the anonymous The fierie tryall of Gods saints (1611), a kind of pocket version of the Book of Martyrs similar to the Mirror of Martyrs. The link with martyrdom is further underlined when Allwyn writes, in a context that addresses affliction in general, that God ‘remembreth our soules in trouble, he compasseth us about with songs in the prison, hee administreth matter of joy’ (Allwyn 1631: 34, italics added). Again, martyrdom and religious persecution provide a template for understanding the nature of Christian affliction more broadly, including spiritual turmoil.

[21] We encounter such broadening of martyrdom throughout the first half of the seventeenth century. The consolatory treatise Sips of Sweetness (1649) by the Independent minister John Durant (1620-1689) is a pastoral work that aims to offer consolation to ‘weak Beleever[s]’ (Durant 1662: sig. A3) – that is to say, to those who are having trouble believing in the promise of salvation. For Durant, suffering and consolation are the pillars of Christian identity. He rapturously describes Christ as a ‘Sea of love to comfort all those that cordially obey the gospel’ (Durant 1662: 4), while also seeing the Christian life as marked by suffering, informing his readers that ‘Because you fear to sin, You are not of the world, and you are therefore hated by the world. Christ hath freed you from the evil of the worlds pollution, and therefore it follows you with the evil of its persecution‘ (Durant 1662: 146). As this quote suggests, Durant sees all Christian suffering, including the suffering caused by a weak faith, as somehow touched by persecution. As a result, he employs the language of martyrological violence to understand the meaning of Christian affliction in general:

Christ is the supervisor of all your sufferings; whether thy sufferings are, or shall bee cruel mockings, bonds, stoning, sawing asunder, &c. what kinde soever, Christ is to order it, not thy foes. And he will see what suffering will best suit thee, and thy strength. Some (saith the Martyrologie, Heb. 11) were stoned, others sawn asunder, some slain with the sword, others wandred, &c. Christ orders all your sufferings. Hee tels Peter by what death he should glorifie him, Joh. 20.19. And so for quantity Christ orders all; Thou tellst my wanderings, &c. Psal. 56.8. He means his wandrings while persecuted […] not a step more, than Christ would, did David wander. Beleevers, you shall not weep a tear, nor bleed a drop, nor bear a stripe more than Christ will number out. (Durant 1662: 165)

The passage contains various references to Hebrews 11:29–40 – referred to here as ‘the Martyrologie’ – which celebrates the power of faith and lists the torments which the faithful have suffered throughout history, and which, Durant suggests, they will continue to endure in the future: ‘They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented’ (Hebrews 11:37).[8] Even the problem of weak belief by which his readers are burdened, Durant maintains here, can be understood as a tailor-made form of violent martyrdom, adapted by Christ himself to their specific needs and abilities. The notion that Christ manages all human suffering in this way is a key ingredient of Durant’s consolatory message.

[22] The languages of consolation and martyrological violence also converge in Joseph Hall’s consolatory tract The balme of Gilead (1646). Like Clement Cotton, Hall sees martyrdom as revolving around the consolation which God offers martyrs even in the most extreme suffering. It is also this consolation which makes martyrs into role models for all suffering Christians:

How many with the blessed Martyr Theodorus, have upon racks and gibbets found their consolations stronger then their paines? Whiles therefore the goodnesse of thy God sustaines, and supplies thee with abundance of spirituall vigour and refreshment answerable to the worst of thine assaults, what cause hast thou to complaine of suffering? (Hall 1646: 108)

This passage occurs in a section on ‘Comfort against Temptations’ (101), and for Hall, temptation constitutes a spiritual assault readily understood in terms of physical violence. Indeed, like other Protestant consolation writers of the period, he captures the suffering that forms the hallmark of the Christian life in images of physical wounding and scarring:

A wound received doth but whet the edge of true fortitude: Many a one had never been victorious if hee had not seene himselfe bleed first; Look where thou wilt, upon all the Saints of God, mark if thou canst see any one of them without his scarres: Oh the fearfull gashes that we have seen in the noblest of Gods Champions upon earth […]! (Hall 1646: 115)



[23] I have attempted to demonstrate the conceptual inter-traffic between the lexicons of martyrological violence and consolation in early modern English Protestant culture. In Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, the experience of consolation – often deferred but ultimately offered in abundance – is the hallmark of the true martyr, while consolation writers drew on the language of martyrological violence as a template for understanding a broad range of Christian suffering, with spiritual anxiety playing an especially dominant role. On the one hand, this convergence of consolation and martyrdom meant that notions of martyrdom came to revolve less strongly around physical violence and its graphic representation, and more centrally around the experience of spiritual consolation. We have seen such a mechanism at work in the Mirror of Martyrs. On the other hand, consolation writers came to understand other forms of afflictions, such as spiritual anxiety, physical illness or the temptation to sin, in terms of the literal, physical violence of martyrdom. In this way, the Christian’s troubled inner life became a theatre of violence and persecution, with for example the ‘temptations’ of which Joseph Hall speaks in the Balm of Gilead figuring as ‘fearfull gashes’. According to consolation writers, what all Christians – literal martyrs or not – have in common is that they eventually find divine consolation in their pain.

[24] The language of violence in Protestant consolation literature also possessed an additional resonance. Consolation discourses framed the sweetness of consolation as the prerogative of true Protestants, and cast religious others as marked by disconsolation – consolation being actively withheld from them by God. Consolation writers evoke, for example, ‘the ungodly’ who ‘pine away in their iniquitie’, while the ‘true of heart’ experience ‘joyful gladnesse’ ‘even in the most disconsolate time’ (Allwyn 1631: 25). Joseph Hall refers to ‘heathen soules’ (Hall 1646: 23) who are deprived of divine consolation. ‘What joy and comfort can there be in poperie?’, Thomas Stoughton wondered in 1598 (Stoughton 1598: 71). In 1603, George Downame, writing on the occasion of James I’s accession to the English throne, equated the ‘consolation of all true Christians’ with the ‘confusion [i.e. the overthrow and destruction] of Popery’ (Downame 1603: sig. A4r). ‘[I]ts no solid comfort, that the Catholik amuses himself with, in believing his Church that guides him to be infallible, if really she be not so: for if it proves in effect to be otherwise, he will come short of his imaginary comfort,’ wrote the anonymous author of The unerring and unerrable church in 1675 (I. S. 1675: 73).

[25] This also meant that consolation writers saw the suffering of religious others as pure, never-ending and unrelieved, a state of affairs evoked in vividly physical terms by the clergyman Nicholas Lockyer (1611–1685) in his description of the spiritual agonies felt by ‘ungodly men’:

Christ will not know thy soule in adversity, which art a disobeyer of him. As hee would not let Dives [the rich man in the parable of Lazarus; Luke 16:19-31] have a drop of water to coole his tongue, though in unutterable torments, where many Oceans would not in the least measure have quenched the flames; so neither will he afford thee the least drop of consolation in thy greatest extremity; though thou cry Lord, Lord, and cut thy flesh in the fervency of thy spirit like Baals Priests, to prevaile; yet shalt thou be sent empty away. Nay Christ will be so farre from being a Comforter to ungodly men when in misery; that Hee will adde to their outward misery, inward misery. When thy body is in distresse, Christ will awaken thy soule, that now lies asleep, and set thy conscience gnawing within thee, which will be greater torture then if thou wert rackt in every limbe. (Lockyer 1644: 30-31)

The torments and disconsolateness suffered by ungodly men are here equated with extreme and unremitting physical violence. This is not the violence of martyrdom but rather the violence rightfully visited on the wicked. If martyrs are tormented by other human beings but consoled by Christ, the wicked are tormented by Christ and therefore remain unconsoled. While consolation writers invited their readers to imagine martyrological violence as their own, and as taking place inside their own, non-martyred selves, they imagined the violence inflicted on abject religious others as taking place in an alien realm.

Leiden University



[1] For an authoritative recent study of Foxe’s martyrology, see Evenden & Freeman 2011. [back to text]

[2] For an influential analysis of the nationalist significance of the Book of Martyrs, see Haller 1963. In presenting martyrdom as a core ingredient of Protestant identity, the Book of Martyrs both took part in and helped to shape a much wider, European martyrological discourse (for an insightful overview, see Gregory 2001). Notable examples are the six-volume Historien der Heyligen Ausserwölten Gottes Zeugen, Bekennern und Martyrern (1555-1557), compiled by the Lutheran minister Ludwig Rabus (1523-1592), and Jean Crespin’s Livre des Martyrs, printed in Geneva in seven editions and under a variety of titles, between 1554 and 1570 (see also Tucker 2017). In the Low Countries, De historien der vromer Martelaren (1552) by the Dutch Reformed minister Adriaan van Haemstede (c. 1525-1562) became a canonical Protestant martyrology, reprinted numerous times until well into the eighteenth century.[back to text]

[3] Both accounts are discussed in Marshall 2002: 85-87 and 97.[back to text]

[4] For a number of the central tropes in early modern Protestant consolation discourses, see Dijkhuizen, van 2018.[back to text]

[5] For consolation as a defining aspect of early modern Protestantism, see also Rittgers 2017.[back to text]

[6] St Augustine, Sermo 328.9 (‘In natali martyrum’),
https://www.augustinus.it/latino/discorsi/ discorso_468_testo.htm>. The translation is from Rush 1962: 575-76.[back to text]

[7] See for example Ryrie 2013, who sees early modern British Protestant culture as revolving around a quest for intense, deeply felt spiritual experiences and a related dread of spiritual apathy or indifference.[back to text]

[8] For a useful analysis of martyrdom in Hebrews 11, see Henten, van 2010: 359–377.[back to text]



Allestree, Richard. 1657. The whole duty of man (London)

_____. 1669. Eighteen sermons whereof fifteen preached the King, the rest upon publick occasions (London)

_____. 1684. Forty sermons whereof twenty one are now first publish’d, the greatest part preach’d before the King and on solemn occasions (Oxford & London)

Allwyn, Robert. 1631. The oyle of gladnesse: or, Musicke at the house of mourning (London)

Augustine, St. 1610. Of the citie of God, trans. by I. H. (London)

_____. n.d. Opera Omnia. <https://www.augustinus.it/latino/index.htm>

Baker House, Seymour. 2004. ‘Becon, Thomas (1512/13–1567)’. Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press), https://doi-org.ezproxy.leidenuniv.nl:2443/10.1093/ref:odnb/1918

Barclay, Robert. 1678. An apology for the true Christian divinity (Aberdeen [?])

Becon, Thomas. 1631. The sicke mans salve (London)

Bernard of Clairvaux. 1614. Saint Bernard his Meditations: or Sighes, sobbes, and teares, upon our saviours passion in memoriall of his death (London)

Burns, William E. 2004. ‘Durant [Durance], John (bap. 1620, d. 1689)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press), <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/8308>

Clement, Cotton. The mirror of martyrs. In a short view lively expressing the force of their faith, the fervency of their love, the wisedome of their sayings, the patience of their suffrings, &c. (London)

Collinson, Patrick. 2002. ‘Literature and the Church’, The Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature, ed. by David Loewenstein and Janel Mueller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 374-398

Dijkhuizen, Jan Frans van. 2018. ‘”Never Better”: Affliction, Consolation and the Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern England’, Journal of Early Modern Christianity, 5.1: 1-34

Downame, George. 1603. A treatise concerning Antichrist divided into two bookes (London)

Durant, John. 1662. Sips of Sweetnesse, or, Consolation for Weak Beleevers (London)

Evenden, Elizabeth, and Thomas S. Freeman. 2011. Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Foxe, John 1570. The first volume of the ecclesiasticall history contaynyng the actes and monumentes of … the sufferyng of martyrs (London)

_____. 1576. Actes and monuments of these latter and perillous dayes touching matters of the Church (London)

Gregory, Brad. 2001. Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Hall, Joseph. 1646. The balme of Gilead (London)

Haller, William. 1963. Foxe’s Books of Martyrs and the Elect Nation (London: Jonathan Cape)

Henten, Jan Willem van. 2010. ‘The Reception of Daniel 3 and 6 and the Maccabean Martyrdoms in Hebrews 11:33-38’, in Myths, Martyrs, and Modernity: Studies in the History of Religions in Honour of Jan N. Bremmer, ed. by J. Dijkstra, J. Kroesen and Y. Kuiper (Leiden: Brill), pp. 359-377

I. S. 1675. The unerring and unerrable church, or, An answer to a sermon preached by Mr. Andrew Sall formerly a Iesuit, and now a minister of the Protestant church (n.p.)

Jenkins, Philip. 1986. ‘From Gallows to Prison: The Execution Rate in Early Modern England’, Criminal Justice History, 7: 51-71

King, John N. 2006. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Early Modern Print Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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Lockyer, Nicholas. 1644. Christs communion with his church militant (London)

Luther, Martin. 1579. A treatise, touching the libertie of a Christian. Written in Latin by Doctor Martine Luther, trans. by James Bell (London)

Malone, Edward. 1950. The Monk and the Martyr: The Monk as the Successor of the Martyr (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press)

Marshall, Cynthia. 2002. The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press)

Rittgers, Ronald K. 2017. ‘The Age of Reform as an Age of Consolation,’ Church History, 86.3: 607-642

Rush, Alfred. 1962. ‘Spiritual Martyrdom in St. Gregory the Great’, Theological Studies, 23.4: 569-589

Ryrie, Alec. 2013. Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Stoughton, Thomas. 1598. A generall treatise against poperie and in defence of the religion by publike authoritie professed in England and other churches reformed (Cambridge)

Tucker, Jameson. 2017. The Construction of Reformed Identity in Jean Crespin’s ‘Livre des Martyrs’ (London: Routledge)

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‘The very best history book, decorated with 1,191 curious copper plates’: Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as an inventory of execution prints

‘The very best history book,
decorated with 1,191 curious copper plates’:
Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as an inventory of execution prints

Michel van Duijnen


[1] In 1626, some companions of the French nobleman Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, count of Chalais, made a decision that would have grave unintended consequences. For conspiracy against the French crown, Talleyrand-Périgord had been sentenced to death by beheading. His companions, however, hoped to turn the tide by intimidating the headsman. Surely enough, the executioner failed to show up on the day of justice. Unfortunately, rather than dodging his fate, the nobleman was now subjected to the nerves of an unexperienced stand-in. From amongst the prisoners in the city of Nantes, a simple shoemaker was selected to fulfil a task that required a skilled executioner. The first blow of the Swiss sword failed to behead Talleyrand-Périgord. Four blows followed, all to no conclusive effect, except for prompting a harrowing ‘Jesus Mary!’ from the count. Dropping the sword, the shoemaker took up a butcher’s cleaver and took another 29 blows to finally sever the count’s head.

[2] This ‘very rare and horrible’ (seer seldsaem en ellendigh) story was recounted in the 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck, extended, edited, and translated from German by the Dutch polymath Simon de Vries (De Vries 1698: vol. 1, 1115-16). However, it is not so much the gruesome story itself — barely half a page long — that stands out. Rather, it is the accompanying print of the botched beheading (figure 1). The etching by Jan Luyken shows the agony in the count’s face and his gruesomely maimed neck, as well as the shoemaker’s panicked stare. All around the scaffold onlookers react in shock, treated to a form of violence that goes far beyond the accepted ‘clean’ single-stroke beheading that was the privilege of the highborn.

Figure 1: Jan Luyken, Beheading of Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord by an inexperienced executioner, 1626 (no title), 1698, etching 10,9 x 15,3 cm., in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1115. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1409.

[3] The print of Talleyrand-Périgord is exceedingly rare in showing in very explicit terms a botched execution, a theme not readily portrayed in the early modern period (van Duijnen 2018: 185). To my knowledge, it is also the only surviving early modern image that claims to portray this specific historical event. These unique qualities raise a number of questions concerning the production of the image. Why, for instance, did a printmaker from Amsterdam make a unique rendering of this gruesome beheading — some 70 years after the execution in question? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the nature of the Dutch print industry at the turn of the seventeenth century; for while the image of Talleyrand-Périgord was very much unique, it did not exist or function within a vacuum. Instead, the print spoke to a broad horizon of violent images produced in the Dutch Republic at this time. Already within the chronicle itself, one could find dozens of images that showed all manner of executions — providing the reader with a veritable inventory of judicial violence. In turn, the explicit prints found in the chronicle related to all kinds of other execution prints readily found in all manner of books produced in the Dutch Republic, ranging from martyrologies to histoires tragiques and exotica, as well as profane and sacred histories (Schmidt 2015, van Duijnen 2018).

[4] Within this essay, I want to address just one of the many questions raised by the aforementioned execution print: that of the place of printed images of judicial violence within the book market of the Dutch Republic. In doing so, I wish to contextualize the explicit execution prints found in Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as the exponents of a commercial infrastructure, specifically the booming market for expensive illustrated books in the late seventeenth-century Dutch Republic (Kolfin 2011: 31; Rasterhoff 2017: 159-160). Here, the combined efforts of Dutch publishers, writers, and printmakers to create attractive illustrated books provide a striking example of what Michael Hutter has described within the context of the creative industries as ‘familiar surprises’: thematic variations that combine the ‘thrill’ of the new with the ‘comfort’ of the familiar (Hutter 2011: 4). As I will argue here, the diverse nature of the execution prints newly added to the 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck allowed for violence to be presented as a theme in and of itself: one not solely bound by political or religious polemics, but aimed also at the production of spectacular and marketable illustrations for expensive folio books.[1] Through this particular lens, I will try to shine some light on the question of how the execution of a French nobleman in 1626 ended up as subject matter for an Amsterdam printmaker some 70 years later.


The 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck

[5] The 1698 edition of Gottfried’s chronicle was the result of 70 years of somewhat erratic accumulation, going back to the first volume of the first German edition of the book published in 1630. Though the chronicle is named after its writer, Johann Ludwig Gottfried, it has been suggested that the author’s name served as a pseudonym for Johann Philipp Abelin (Hoftijzer 1999: 40). Already in its earliest incarnation, the work stood out for its high quality illustrations; printed in Frankfurt am Main, the work included no fewer than 329 prints produced by the famous Mattheus Merian the Elder. It is thus not surprising that an artist like Rembrandt is said to have had a copy in his possession, identified in this case as a ‘High German book of war scenes’ (Golahny 2003: 77). The chronicle would go through a number of German reruns, before being translated and published in Dutch in 1660 by Jacob van Meurs, who added a number of low quality prints to this extended translation (van Meurs 1660). According to Paul Hoftijzer, the Amsterdam publisher Janssonius van Waesberge received a privilege for a new Dutch edition on 15 December 1672, yet no publication ever came out of this venture (1999: 40).

[6] In 1698, a new and extended Dutch edition of Gottfried’s chronicle in three parts (one part from the creation of earth up until the year 1576, and two parts covering the continuation of the chronicle by De Vries from 1576 to 1697) was published by the Leiden-based Pieter van der Aa. The polymath Simon de Vries had extended the chronicle to run up to the Peace of Rijswijk of 1697, and gave to the book his own typical flair by filling it with endless successions of wondrous anecdotes, strange accidents, violent shakeups, natural disasters, and monstrous births (Baggerman 1993: 129-133). For this extended section, Van der Aa commissioned Jan Luyken and his son, Casper Luyken — some of the most productive and famous book illustrators at the time — to produce 227 new illustrations (van Eeghen and Van der Kellen 1905: vol. 1, 356-382).[2] The work now included an impressive series of prints, ranging from the early seventeenth-century Merian works, to the simple Dutch etchings added mid-century, and ending with the impressive addition of the 1698 Luyken prints (which were all in-text images). As a result of this archaeology of images, Pieter van der Aa could boast that his publication included no fewer than 1,191 ‘curious copper plates’.[3]

[7] Apparently, the first run of the extended chronicle had been a great success (Hoftijzer 1994: 40), and for a second publication round in 1702 he took out a number of advertisements in Dutch newspapers that played on both the extensively illustrated nature of the chronicle and his clientele’s ‘fear of missing out’. The chronicle, the advertisement stated, was an enormous success, ‘the very best history book in Dutch’, and reprinted on popular demand. All who would now ‘subscribe’ (intekenen) for a copy of the chronicle would get it for the ‘old’ price of the first run, the considerable sum of 35 guilders and 5 stuivers — a full month’s wages for most artisans (Kuijpers 2015: 406). Yet supply was limited, and everyone who missed the boat would have to cough up the high new price of 45 guilders.[4] In another advertisement, Van der Aa warned that 156 books had already been sold, and only 160 pieces left at the old ‘low’ price.[5] Even this second print run must have sold well, as Van der Aa published a thorough French reworking of the book in 1703, which included 171 of the newly made Luyken prints (van Eeghen and Van der Kellen 1905: vol. I 356).

[8] The number of images purportedly included in the book shifts somewhat throughout the different advertisements of 1702. In one case, Van der Aa claimed a total of 1,191 printed images. Another advertisement for Van der Aa’s publication counted 1,091 prints, advertising the book as including ‘503 curious brown copper plates of the most prominent histories and 588 imagining the illustrious men etc [i.e. portraits]’ (503 curieuse bruyne kopere Platen der voornaamste Historien, en 588 de Doorlugtige Mannen enz. verbeeldende).[6] Regardless, the number of illustrations was impressive, and the publication included at least 500 images ‘of the most prominent histories’ — which were often simply very violent histories.

[9] Van der Aa primarily marketed the chronicle in terms of the number of images that were included in the book — trying to pull in prospective buyers through the sheer abundance of illustrations. Yet the illustrations themselves show that variety was an equally important characteristic of the large corpus of images, especially when it came to the portrayal of judicial violence. To further explore this aspect of variety, I will examine a number of executions included among the 227 images produced by Jan and Casper Luyken, and show how the subjects for these illustrations were largely based on internal variety rather than on the political, religious, or historical relevance of the executions themselves.[7] Depicting a diverse collection of victims, perpetrators, and execution methods, these images connected to one another first and foremost through their portrayal of a varied repertoire of explicit judicial violence and their place within an expensive and thoroughly marketed ‘coffee table book’ avant la lettre.[8]


The execution prints in Gottfried’s chronicle

[10] While the prints in question provide enormously rich material that can be approached from a number of angles, the focus here is primarily on the variety of subjects addressed within the category of judicial violence. This section discusses 16 prints that can broadly be classified as execution prints — images foreshadowing an execution, showing an execution in process, or portraying the concrete results of capital punishment. For the purpose of this essay, I have categorized these prints into four sets that each highlight a different aspect of the visual diversity portrayed by Jan and Casper. Together, these images exemplify the conscious effort that has been invested in making each of these execution prints a unique illustration in its own right. In this way, each print offers the ‘thrill’ of something new, while simultaneously falling in line with the broader ‘expected’ theme of judicial violence.

Figure 2: Jan Luyken, Persecution of Protestants in the Low Countries, 1574 (no title), 1698, etching 11.3 x 15.8 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 425. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1375.

[11] The first selection of prints concern (in)famous executions from recent history: illustrations that are first and foremost related to the importance or iconic nature of the victims in question. Such images could connect to historical episodes central to Dutch history writing, such as the popular theme of the persecution of Protestants by the Spanish Crown in the Low Countries (figure 2), and the contested execution of the Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt in 1619 (figure 3).

Figure 3: Jan Luyken, Beheading of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, 1619 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.2 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 863. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1394.

Other execution prints related to foreign political events well known in the Dutch Republic. One such case is the beheading of the Naples revolutionary Masaniello (figure 4), whose short-lived reign was widely used as an example of the dangers of mob rule (Meijer-Drees, 1993).

‘Figure 4: Casper Luyken, The head of Masaniello carried around on a pike, 1647 (no title), 1698, etching, 11 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 203. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1458.

A more recent victim of political strife is found in the form of the hanged English Jesuit William Ireland (figure 5) — a victim of anti-Catholic fervour in neighbouring England. Essentially, these are all images that one might more or less expect in a work that claims to provide an extensive world history up to the year of 1697, and they are often clearly placed within a political or (Reformed) religious context by the accompanying text by De Vries.

Figure 5: Jan Luyken, William Ireland and John Grove hanged and quartered in London, 1679 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.5 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1133. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1527.

[12] Other images, however, are far harder to reduce to the iconic, religious, or political. In the second set of images, all cases deal with some form of beheading. When it came to the removal of heads, Jan and Casper portrayed an uncanny amount of detailed diversity. The images here range from a more common composition such as is found in the execution of two French duelists (figure 6), to the unique print of a convicted Holy Roman Imperial officer who refuses to sit still during his execution (figure 7).

Figure 6: Casper Luyken, French duelists François de Montmorency-Bouteville and François de Rosmadec beheaded, 1627 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.3 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1151. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1413

Figure 7: Jan Luyken, Imperial officer Cronsbruck executed in Mainz, 1691 (no title), 1698, etching 11 x 15,6 cm., in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1403. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1566.

The aforementioned print of Talleyrand-Périgord shows the explicit unfolding of a botched beheading, whereas the final image of two Spanish noblemen portrays a beheading by knife — advertised in the accompanying text as a ‘rare [form of] beheading’ (figure 8) (De Vries 1698: vol. II 228). In these cases, I would argue, the specificities and explicit nature of the violence portrayed already overshadow both the identities of the victims (foreign and often noble) and their crimes (which are never depicted); instead, it is the potential for varied imagery that underlies the choice of these particular subjects as illustrations.

Figure 8: Casper Luyken, Beheading of Don Pedro de Silva and Don Carlo di Padiglia in Madrid, 1648 (no title) 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 229. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1460.

[13] The third set further plays on the category of rare or unorthodox execution methods, taking the theme to the very extremes. One such image concerns the story of a man executed by sending him bound on a stag into the wilderness to die (figure 9). According to De Vries, the man must certainly have committed a heinous crime to deserve such a severe and cruel punishment, a punishment which, we are told, was supposedly not uncommon in Germany (1698: vol. II 923). Another image shows the execution of a number of anonymous arsonists in Prague who are made to suffer a ‘most gruesome punishment’: forced to run around poles surrounded by small fires, with hot oil thrown on them the very moment they stop moving (figure 10) (De Vries 1698: vol. I 532-533).

Figure 9: Casper Luyken, Man bound on a stag sent into the wilderness, 1666 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.1 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 923. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1504.

Figure 10: Jan Luyken, Arsonists burned in Prague in 1583 by a slow burning fire (no title), 1698, etching 11.3 x 15.6 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 533. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1379.

Even more explicit is the print illustrating execution by dismemberment of two men in the Ottoman Empire (figure 11), whilst yet another print shows the French consul in Algeria turned into a human cannonball (figure 12). All of these images focus almost exclusively on the unorthodox execution methods described. For instance, the only thing to be said about the stag-bound man is that his crime is probably very grave, yet the man remains anonymous and his crimes unknown. Very little text is dedicated to the Prague arsonists, with most of the words describing the workings and the gruesome nature of their punishment, whereas in the case of the Ottoman men, the extreme violence inflicted is presented as just one example of the many cruelties purportedly practiced in the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to the cases from the first set, the victims and their crimes are now secondary to the execution methods themselves, and their potential for spectacular and varied imagery.

Figure 11: Jan Luyken, Sultan Murat IV has two men dismembered for buying and selling tabaco, 1630 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.1 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1057. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1405.

Figure 12: Jan Luyken, During the French bombardment of Algiers, the French consul is loaded into a cannon, 1683 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.8 x 15.8 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1089. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1522.

[14] The final group of images continue along the lines set in the previous three sets. It includes a recent political criminal in the form of the Cossack rebel Stenka Razin, bound on a cart and paraded around just before his execution (figure 13). A massacre of Protestant making is shown in Swedish forces hanging German farmers during the Thirty Years’ War (figure 14).

Figure 13: Jan Luyken, Stenka Razin and his brother brought into Moskow for their execution, 1671 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.8 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1700, vol. II, p. 667. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1482.

Figure 14: Jan Luyken, Farmers executed by the Swedish army in Häsingen (Hésingue), 1633 (no title), 1698, etching , 10.9 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1015. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1404.

Further playing upon the theme of the Orientalist despot is found in the print of Safi of Persia, portrayed here as showing his sister the heads of her executed children (figure 15). Finally, there is the ubiquitous foreign minor nobleman, now in the form of the Swedish baron-pirate Gustav Skyte — unorthodoxly executed with an arquebus (figure 16).

Figure 15: Jan Luyken, Shah Safi of Persia shows his sister the heads of her executed children, 1632 (no title), 1698, etching, 11 x 15.3 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1065. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1406.

Figure 16: Jan Luyken, Gustav Skyte executed by arquebus in Jönköping for piracy, 1663 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.5 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 785. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1490.

[15] While each of the images discussed here connects to themes of religion and politics in one way or another, their place in the book in relation to one another seems to rest partly on the need for a varied repertoire of violent images. In a way, the diversity of the images even turns judicial violence into a theme of its own. The prints portray a wide variety of victims and perpetrators: Catholic, Protestant, French, Turkish, noblemen, commoners (all, however, are male). Yet more importantly, they also visualize a wide variety of execution methods, ranging from firing squads to elaborate stag-powered punishment. Even within the most prominent category, that of beheadings, no image is quite like the other, with botched executions and unorthodox beheadings providing unique visual interpretations of early modern judicial violence. In this respect, these images cannot be reduced only to their political or religious significance. Rather they should equally be understood as attractive book illustrations that were an essential part of the expensive book series published by Van der Aa: as marketable images of violence. This thematic approach to judicial violence partly explains why so much effort has been invested in the unique portrayal of the different executions present in the book — regardless of the fact that many of the victims were either obscure noblemen or anonymous criminals. It is their unique and violent deaths that warranted their selection for illustration, rather than their crime, motive, or victimhood. Within this context, a Holy Roman Imperial officer who refuses to sit still during his execution becomes a far more interesting topic than any visualisation of the workings of high politics. De Vries himself underlined this approach by stressing the ‘rare’ nature of many of the executions in the accompanying text, implying that only those cases sufficiently strange or wondrous, rather than historically significant, were included in his magnum opus.

[16] Through the examples given here, I hope to have shown how the diverse array of images of judicial violence in Gottfried’s historical chronicle can be approached from the angle of the work’s production and marketing. Those executions selected for illustration primarily shared one aspect, namely their relation to one another as thematically similar, yet visually distinct. In this sense, the combined efforts of publisher, writer, and printmaker to produce a marketable illustrated book reduced the legacy of Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord to the horrific unfolding of his execution: as one impression amongst a series of unique images of judicial violence.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam



[1] For an approach that favours a political reading of images of executions, see Carrabine 2011; for a religious approach, see Puppi 1991. [back to text]

[2] For concise overviews of Jan Luyken’s career and personal life, see van Eeghen 1992 and Veld 2000. [back to text]

[3] Amsterdamse courant (Amsterdam: Otto Barentsz Smient), 16 February 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:010707707:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[4] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 4 March 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011111002:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[5] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 12 January 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011110894:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[6] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 4 March 1702,
<https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011111002:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[7] For the role of visual variety from the perspective of Dutch seventeenth-century art theory, see Weststeijn 2002: 199-200. [back to text]

[8] Such expensive and extensively illustrated books were a niche particular to the late seventeenth-century Dutch Republic print market: see van Nierop 2018: 71. [back to text]



Baggerman, Arianne. 1993. Een drukkend gewicht: leven en werk van de zeventiende-eeuwse veelschrijver Simon de Vries (Amsterdam: Rodopi)

Carrabine, Eamonn. 2011. ‘The Iconography of Punishment: Execution Prints and the Death Penalty’, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 50: 452-464

Golahny, Amy. 2003. ‘Rembrandt’s World History illustrated by Merian’, in History in Dutch Studies, 14, ed. by Robert B. Howell and Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor (Lanham: University Press of America), pp. 73-84

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Vries, Simon de. 1698. Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […], 2 vols. (Leiden: Pieter van der Aa)

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Cornelius Hazart and a connected history of executed Christian Japanese children

Cornelius Hazart and a connected history of executed Christian Japanese children

 Johan Verberckmoes


Introduction: exemplary children

[1] ‘Watching the many Christian children of Europe who sadden their parents or leave them in need, is it not a disgrace that a nation of the furthest corners of the world, previously barbaric, has to teach the Christians of our countries what affection they should show to their parents?’ (Hazart 1667: 107). In a history book on the persecution of Christianity in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan, the Antwerp-based Jesuit Cornelius Hazart (1617-1690) considered Christian Japanese children to be an illuminating example for their peers in Europe.[1] Explicitly comparing Christian proselytizing and a duty of parental obedience to moralizing interpretations of the emotional effects of children’s actions, Hazart also connected Japan and Europe as cultural entities. The Jesuit considered both as classrooms within which children were prominent teachers of dutiful Christian behaviour.

[2] For Sanjay Subrahmanyam, connected history is a method for finding similar actions and symbols in cultures without a priori choosing a dominating referent (Subrahmanyam 1997). I apply this concept here to examine the role Japanese and European children played as the focus for a contested Catholic religion. That contestation was violent and gruesome in Japan. In Catholic Europe, on the other hand, the Catholic religion triumphed, yet Jesuit apologists worried about the persistent danger of families being lured into impiety, or worse, Dutch Calvinism. In what follows I first sketch the contours of the persecution of Christians in early modern Japan and its textual and visual news coverage in Europe, including in relation to Japanese child martyrs. Then I analyse how the ‘making of emotions’ (pathopoeia) impacted European representations of Christian martyrs in Japan, and in particular the ways in which children were instrumental in this management of emotions. In the third section I demonstrate that in his Church History of the World, and specifically with relation to Japan, Cornelius Hazart created a connected history of Antwerp and Japan as two regions under siege of a common enemy. In the case of Japan, Dutch (and, to a lesser extent, English) Calvinists, enhanced, according to Hazart, the persecution manoeuvres by the shogun, while in northern Europe the Catholic religion was surrounded by Calvinist states. According to Hazart’s apologetic interpretation of history, children were perceptive observers of this transoceanic struggle. The last section of this essay covers two exceptional engravings in Hazart’s history of Japanese children being killed and martyred. The conclusion reflects on the limitations of our knowledge from the Japanese side of the role of children as transmitters of a lived religion to subsequent generations, a role in which, according to Hazart, many European children failed miserably and Japanese children excelled.

[3] By the latter half of the sixteenth century, Christianity had spread extensively among the native Japanese population, including among local leaders (the daimyo), mainly but not exclusively in northern and western Kyûshû (Vu Thanh 2016). Although the establishment of the Tenshō embassy to the Christian Pope and kings in Europe in 1582 received much international attention (Hazart 1667: 63-73), the persecution of Japanese Christianity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Boxer 1951: 308-361; Higashibaba 2001: 141-160) generated an endless stream of broadsheets, books, engravings, paintings and theatre performances in early modern Europe (Cordier 1912). In 1587 and again in 1596-7, regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, while unifying the country, prohibited Christianity. In February 1597 in the Jesuit stronghold of Nagasaki, an international incident sparked by rivalry between Portuguese Jesuits and Spanish Franciscans forced Hideyoshi to act (Hall 1994: 364). Twenty-six Catholics, most of whom were Japanese laymen, were executed by crucifixion and pierced through with spears. This spectacular execution produced an immediate response in Catholic Europe, prompting martyr narratives referring to the death of Christ at Golgotha (Lach 1965: 708, 717; Laures 1957: 68). From 1614 the shoguns introduced new edicts against Christians, forcing them to renounce their religion or emigrate. Prosecutions led to the torture and executions of a documented four thousand Christians (Mullins 2015: 6). Only a few dozen of these were European missionaries. News about fresh Japanese martyrs enthralled Catholic Europe and frightened Dutch and English traders keen on establishing relations but unsure about Japanese intentions (Rietbergen 2003: 80). From 1633 on, and even more rigorously from 1641, the bakufu central government closed off the country from foreign trade, except via the small Dutch settlement on Deshima, but local Christianity continued underground (Mullins 2015; Nogueira Ramos 2019).

[4] After the 1597 Nagasaki incident, the violence engulfing Japanese Christianity was conveyed to European readers in graphic detail in Jesuit annual letters, increasingly illustrated with engravings of the martyred. This myopic propaganda focused almost exclusively on the European missionaries, although exemplary Japanese Christians were from the start added as additional arguments to prove the success of Christianity on the islands. However, these very same persecutions were not given any attention in Japan itself, notwithstanding the country’s vibrant print and visual culture (Berry 2006). After all, although crucial to Christian Portugal and Spain and despite its relative success on Kyûshû, Christianity was a marginal phenomenon in a newly reorganized Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (Omata Rappo 2016). The situation was totally different in Europe, where Catholicism was struggling to reinvent itself after a prolonged struggle with Protestantism. In the course of the seventeenth century Japanese martyr stories increasingly mattered in Europe as proof of a global Catholic religion (Hsia 2018). The work of the missionary to China Nicolas Trigault (1577-1628) signalled a decisive shift in the European Catholic imaginary. Trigault documented a huge compendium of Japanese martyrdom, first edited in Latin in Munich in 1623 and the following year translated into French, gaining a wide audience (Trigault 1624). Although outright propaganda for the Christian Church at home and elsewhere, Trigault’s work slightly but significantly shifted the emphasis from European missionaries as martyrs in Japan to include Japanese converts as victims of their persecuting government. Moreover, Trigault helped to forge European visual perceptions of the violence of persecution against Japanese Christians by having an engraving inserted at the beginning of each of his five books. On one of these, during a group execution of Christians an eleven-year-old Japanese boy christened James (‘Jacques’), summoned by his mother to look to the sky, runs to her in the flames and dies (see Figure 1). This visual and narrative representation stirred affections, and the reworking of these emotions epitomized the connection between the European propaganda of Christian martyrs and the agency of Japanese Christians.


Figure 1. Nicolas Trigault, Histoire des martyrs du Japon depuis l’an 1612 jusques à 1620, composée en latin par le R. P. Nicolas Trigaut,… et traduite en françois par le P. Pierre Morin (Paris, 1624), p. 146: courtesy of @Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

[5] However, an expansive European iconography on Japanese executions emerged only after 26 September 1627, when Pope Urban VIII beatified the twenty-six Christians crucified in Nagasaki thirty years earlier (Omata Rappo 2017). Jacques Callot, Raphael Sadeler II and other engravers produced full-page engravings showing the victims suffering on their crosses, praying spectators, and determined hangmen thrusting spears into the martyrs’ sides. The humiliation of the Christians and their bodily mutilation at the hands of their torturers was answered by the devotional admiration of their followers, who directed their eyes to heaven where the newly martyred were supposed to join God in his glory very soon. This iconography reproduced the eikastic representation of European martyrs over many centuries, who had died persecuted by either the Romans, heathen rulers, or sixteenth-century Calvinist authorities (Gregroy 1999; Lestringant 2004). Children were unusual but not absent in this imaginary of eternal martyrs (Lynch 2016).

[6] Moving beyond the apologetic reading on torture and execution, historiography on the early modern circulation of knowledge has integrated these stories about martyred Japanese into broader views on Japanese culture (Schmidt 2015). On the one hand, in religious propaganda Japanese victims were represented with identical physical features to the missionaries (Omata Rappo 2017). Indeed, even when lavish attention was given to Japanese victims, the references were usually exotic and made little reference to specific Japanese customs and attitudes. While the number of publications on Japan in Europe continued to rise in the course of the seventeenth century, Japan’s distinctiveness was blurred by homogenizing European cultural circuits that created a ‘pleasingly exotic’ world (Schmidt 2015: 14-16). The workshop of the Dutch Republic was instrumental in bringing about this universal exotic, and in that context it needs to be emphasized that Dutch knowledge of Japan extended far beyond missionary propaganda. The Antwerp Jesuit Cornelius Hazart was sharply aware of this.

[7] It was no coincidence that Hazart started the first volume of his four folios Church History of the World with an extensive chapter on Japan, lavishly illustrated with a dozen high-quality engravings (Hazart 1667; Sommervogel 1912: 185-186; Cordier 1912: 379). Besides producing a voluminous history book, Hazart had also preached in the Antwerp Ignatius church on the topics he explored in his book (Hazart 1667: a4r). The finest printers of the day in Antwerp, including Adriaen Lommelin, Hendrik Herregouts, Justus van Egmont, Abraham van Diepenbeeck, and Gaspar Bouttats visualized the horror scenes of the martyred that were the ultimate goal of Hazart’s Japan chapter.[2] For the Antwerp Jesuit, Japan’s Christianity was not mere history but living actuality, and the Japanese martyred, including a number of small children, were proof of that. Copying the engraving from Trigault’s work of the small ‘Jacques’ running into the flames to die alongside his mother, the engraver Bouttats hugely enhanced the dramatic effect of the scene (analysed in more detail in the section ‘Performative child martyrs’ below). In this way, through its multimediality, Hazart’s Church History of Japan of 1667 did more than contribute to a homogenizing exotic view on Japan: it gave its martyrs, including the children, active roles in shaping the Christianity of his day and in the future.

[8] As for its content, Hazart’s history was not very different from what his polemical nemesis, the Dutch Reformed preacher Arnoldus Montanus (1625-1683), did when discussing the persecution of Christianity in Japan in his book, first published in 1669 (Montanus 1670; Schmidt 2015: 210-213). Their explanations vary, but the substance is the same: a pile of individual stories of Japanese families, including small children happily meeting their death as good Christians (Montanus 1670: 212-13, 222-24, 253-73; Hazart 1667: 84-87, 93-184). Both graphically portrayed the atrocities committed against families, including children, in a country far away. Whether the intended effects on European audiences in the latter half of the seventeenth century differed from those on Japanese audiences (more difficult to reach out to), needs further scrutiny. My hypothesis is that Cornelius Hazart unwittingly explored the transcultural margins of collective acts of violence committed in Japan, in particular with respect to children, whom he also in the European context considered in positions of (moral) risk. Hazart borrowed his method from his numerous sources, the martyrologies that crafted the stimulating of emotions through horrific stories of persecution.


Constancy or apostasy

[9] The executions of Japanese children and their families were inscribed in a pedagogic and catechetic logic that greatly mattered to Hazart as a Jesuit. Since the late sixteenth century, Jesuit authors inspired by Justus Lipsius had applied the latter’s neo-stoic thinking to the plight of persecuted missionaries. The European textual and visual representations of martyred Christians, wherever on the globe, were embedded in narratives with spectacular features and enthralling acts of violence. However, not one victim was represented as going to his violent death without showing deep joy and intense satisfaction in his possible resurrection as a good Christian. The formula had been honoured by Christian tradition since late Antiquity and assumed that every Christian dying at the hands of a persecutor proved his right to be among the righteous on the day of salvation, and far surpassed in spirituality his opponent, who acted from revenge, self-interest or envious pettiness (Gregory 1999). Qualifying the end result as ‘constancy’ (‘standtvastigheyt’) and ‘steadfastness’ (‘kloeckmoedigheyt’), Hazart explicitly subscribed to the stoic working of the mind. This was an emotional process that symbolically tied together victims and audiences. Obviously, in seventeenth-century Tokugawa Japan, sticking to your Christian faith was dangerous, but so was apostasy because that could generate further inquiries from the authorities about the potential presence of other Christians among your family or friends. For Hazart, Japan was a special case of transcultural significance as relentless persecution there was matched by the persistence of the Catholic religion. This caused an emotional dynamic among European Christians that was slightly different from a homogenizing exotic. Moreover, as Japan’s martyrs were popular themes on the Jesuit stage, the different rules of the theatrical performance of constancy enhanced the variations of that specificity (Omata Rappo 2019).

[10] The emotions at work in the early modern Christian martyr stories more generally can be understood as pathopoeia, a crafting of emotions, as practised by the painter Rembrandt, for instance (Dickey & Roodenburg 2010, 309-311). Features of this were a kinetic sense of the body (‘Jacques’ running into the flames), the possibilities of posturing (his mother alerting him to direct his eyes to heaven), and empathy (the supporting Christian audience around the consuming fire). I argue that the active components of pathopoeia gave specific possibilities to the representation of the violence against Christians as it was practised in early modern Japan. Clearly, this pathopoeia was modeled with a stoic intention in mind, namely the peacefulness of the Christian dying for his faith, as little ‘Jacques’ convincingly demonstrated. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that the horror of persecution as a succession of emotional stages ending in stoic resolve was a European viewpoint. Perceptions of the violence perpetrated on persecuted Christians were different in Japan (Elison 1973), but will not be discussed here.

[11] First of all, historically as well as in Christian propaganda writing such as Hazart’s, the violence committed against those legally persecuted because of their Christian religion affected the entire Japanese society from daimyo to sex worker. Christian martyrdom in Japan produced heroes such as daimyo Takayama Ukon (1552-1615), Christianized as Justus Ucondonus (Mullins 2015: 41; Vu Thanh 2016: 375-79). His portrait engraving (see Figure 2) shows turbulent military fighting in the background, while the calm leader peacefully embraces the Christian cross (Hazart 1667: 51 facing). In this way the artist skillfully avoided the huge paradox that every Christian writer on gruesome persecution faced: how to reconcile shocking details of bodily torture and execution with the desired stoic happy ending? Not by coincidence, Ukon was in that respect an icon of Japanese Christianity in seventeenth-century Europe, because he was not executed but went into exile for his religion. This was a straightforward solution to the paradox of representing anti-Christian state violence. The regent confronted Ukon with a clear choice: commit apostasy or go in exile. He chose the latter and died peacefully as a Christian in Manila. This avoided representations of bloodshed and killing. This may be a major reason why the narrative of the steadfast Christian Justus Ucondonus was extremely popular in the seventeenth century, and the subject of theatre plays (Franck 1663; Laures 1957), including in the Habsburg Netherlands (Proot & Verberckmoes 2002).

Figure 2. Cornelis Hazart, Kerckelycke historie (1667), vol. 1, p. 51: courtesy of the Laures Kirishitan database, Sophia University, Tokyo

[12] Nevertheless, although not a victim of physical violence, Ucondonus was still a pathopoios, a crafter of emotions. His story of exile for his religion in 1587 involved anger and pressure from regent Hideyoshi’s court and Buddhist priests, on the one hand, and sympathetic advice from his saddened friends, on the other (Proot & Verberckmoes 2002: 32-33). Indeed, the elaborate narrative of daimyo Ukon, as Hazart also wrote it down (Hazart 1667: 51-56), hinged on an emotional performance of laughter, tears and sighs by Ukon, his officers and his kin, and outrageous reactions by his opponents (Verberckmoes 2005: 921-923). When hearing about his exile, the children in his family reacted as joyfully as all the other family members when they heard that he had been constant in his faith (Hazart 1667: 54).  Analytically, heavenly bliss is presented as the right reward for Ukon, because he practised pathopoeia ending in stoic resolve not to give up Christianity. Seneca and Lipsius described how stoic peace of mind was achieved in successive emotional stages, and their ideas were integrated as central commonplaces into Jesuit education (Büttner & Heinen 2004: 32-33, 59-60, 207, 224; Dickey & Roodenburg 2015: 151-76). First came the ictus or primus motus, the unavoidable first emotional blow. For Ukon this happened when he learned from regent Hideyoshi that he had to give up his Christian religion, so very dear to him. The narrative split up the emotions and assigned the chaotic response of the primus motus to Ukon’s opponents. The regent was drunk and full of rage after having received false accusations against Ukon from treacherous Buddhist monks. At the same time, Ukon immediately showed himself in full command of his reason. He did not give in to the chaos of the ictus as could be expected. This suggests a stoic reworking of the passions on behalf of the hero. But the narrative includes a second split in characters to suggest that Ukon was nevertheless emotionally deeply affected by the regent’s decision. When he had assembled his loyal army officers (who were also Christians) to explain to them his decision to choose exile, he was interrupted by ‘the many tears and sighs’ of his officers (Hazart 1667: 54). To prove their sadness, they cut off their ponytails (at the time an exotic marker of Japanese custom). Ukon quieted them and assured them that those who wanted could keep their position and hide their faith and that those who wanted like Ukon himself to be known as Christians could join him in exile. In that sense, Ukon practised through the behaviour of his officers what Seneca and Lipsius had labeled a praemeditatio or mental evaluation of the instance of the ictus with the goal of mastering its impact. With the restrictive Japanese circumstances in mind, Ukon used the two options of professing the faith or keeping such profession secret to protect their communities and families as alternatives for his officers. Throughout his ordeal, Ukon is represented as manifesting the last stage of the stoic pathopoeia, in which the hero lives according to his natural condition, as Seneca had phrased it. For a Christian this came down to the unquestionable conviction that the only choice was following God. But the other actors in the story, his superiors as well as his army officers and his family members, including small children, represented the successive stages from the ictus of possible conviction through praemeditatio of the different options to the firm conclusion of steadfastness as Ukon’s natural condition as a Christian.

[13] The distribution of the consecutive emotions over different protagonists was a practical solution to the problem of representing violent persecution. The unnatural rage of the regent was followed by the ictus also affecting and saddening his friends, but in the final analysis and reworking of these passions Ukon is shown as resorting to stoic acceptance of the test that God had made him undergo. On the stage this allowed for credible scripts. For example, reciting the lines of ‘barbaric frenzy’ (‘barbarische raesernije’; Hazart 1667: 147) of those persecuting Christians across the globe was advisable to stir emotions among the audience, as were tears of departure and theologically motivated tears of redemption. All of these were good solutions to avoid representing physical violence.

[14] As argued, rather than being static and merely moralizing and proselytizing, the stoic reworking of the passions fully depended on a skillful pathopoeia, a crafting of the emotions necessary to create the steadfastness of the believer (Heinen 2009). Crucial to understanding the position of the Japanese martyred in the great scheme of Christian resolve is recognizing that martyrdom in Japan extended across the entire social spectrum and affected all age categories. Take lower-class Japanese women performing stoic steadfastness, of which Hazart also provides examples. Incidentally and without explicitly acknowledging it, Hazart implicitly endorsed the large presence of active women among Japanese converts through his choice of these examples (Ward 2009). For instance, an eighteen-year-old Catholic woman in Osaka, forced by a ‘heathen’ to be a sex worker, defended herself ‘with her fists and teeth’ against possible clients (Hazart 1667: 59). This was the ictus stage, and the unrestrained, ferocious bodily action of the woman was in this case commensurate with her low social position. No one expected civilized moderation of behaviour from a sex worker. But, she was a stoic Catholic in heart and soul, which made the contrast between the ictus and the mindful stages even more dramatic than in the case of Ukon: when ‘her owner’ dragged her to the gallows ‘on a shameful and stinking place’ and threatened to kill her with a sword, she did not give in and refused to renounce her faith (Hazart 1667: 59). The outcome, problematic in terms of the story’s theatrical possibilities, was that the next day she presented ‘her tender neck’, and her head was cut off with one blow (Hazart 1667: 59-60). Indeed, martyred women such as these never made it to the Jesuit stage.

[15] It is useful at this point to compare the stoic pathopoeia of European making with the Japanese view on the position of Christian religion in the seventeenth century. The key issue in Japan was apostasy. That is what the shogun pressed for and adjusted his persecution policy towards. When Ukon and little ‘Jacques’ refused to commit apostasy, their credentials as good Christians were transculturally confirmed. Among local communities in Japan, when someone renounced their faith, suspicions arose among the authorities that others in the village and the family must be Christians too. When looking for Christian families, local government investigated seven generations for men and four generations for women (Higashibaba 2001: 158). So, villages collectively denied being Christians (Nogueira Ramos 2019: 17). Presumably unaware of these actual practices, but significantly for the characterization of Japanese martyrdom, Hazart picked up on this theme to explore further the emotional dimensions of pathopoeia among the martyred. For instance, in 1619 in Nagasaki, a Christian woman was distressed that her husband had renounced his Christian faith while in prison. ‘With godly zeal’ she went to the prison and blamed her husband for his weakness (Hazart 1667: 60-61). With anger (‘cholere’) he pushed her and declared he would not eat what she had brought him. As an answer, she told him she no longer respected him as her husband. At home she took the furniture and told her little son that she wanted to live with Christ rather than with a perjured man. With tears in his eyes the little one followed her. When the man was released from prison, he found that nobody respected him any more, neither Christians nor others, and in the streets mud and stones were thrown at him. When he rented a room from a non-Christian, that person changed his mind and ‘with his feet pushed him out of the house’. The house owner then offered to support the wife, but also added that had she renounced Christianity as her husband had done, he would have treated her worse than he had him. This extended ictus of incomprehension full of expressive emotions led to the right stoic conclusion that the husband had misjudged his own situation and turned himself into a pariah.

[16] In short, for a connected history of pathopoeia among Japanese Christians in the seventeenth century, apostasy was a key feature. Apostasy only led to unwanted violence, as the historical context in the latter half of the seventeenth century confirmed when entire villages turned to an underground Christianity that hid itself from the authorities. When apostasy was rejected, the kinetic use of the body was a major technique in representing the atrocities connected to refusals to renounce the faith. This is where Japanese children as actors of pathopoeia proved most effective. Hazart tells how Augustus, a Japanese military officer and Christian who did not commit apostasy, was beheaded, as was his twelve-year-old son a few days later, for the same reason. Both died with peace of mind, Hazart recounts, but when the head of the young boy was placed in front of his body to please the attending shogun who had ordered the execution, the dignitary was actually distressed (1667: 59). In this distress the shogun showed that he possessed no stoic mind, unlike his victims. This and many similar testimonies suggest a deep, transformative exploration of the emotional impact of torture and executions among the Christian communities and missionaries in Japan on European audiences. Hazart linked this pathopoeia of the martyred to a current political issue of Dutch threats against Catholic interests worldwide and thus gave the martyred children a context beyond notions of exotic otherness in Japan. This is exactly the next step in my argument.


A connected history of persecution in Antwerp and Japan

[17] In the course of writing his apologetic global history of Catholic religion, and alert to history as well as recent news, Cornelius Hazart read the signs of the times in the most recent version of the annual Jesuit Japan letters available to him, reporting on the years 1658 to 1661 (Hazart 1667: 182). Yet again, many Christians had been tortured and killed, and this proved to Hazart that the Catholic religion was still alive on the Japanese islands. For the Jesuit such news fostered hope of a relaxation of the edicts against the Christians. In the meantime Jesuit missionaries waited in nearby Tonkin and Cochinchina (Vietnam) to return to Japan and ‘give it as many thousand Christians as there were inhabitants’ (Hazart 1667: 182). That intention would never be realized, yet Hazart was already sure whom to blame: Dutch Calvinists. In the previous section I argued that the presentation of Japanese martyrs, including children, to European audiences involved elaborate stimuli of emotional transformation for proselytizing purposes. This was part of a trans-European Jesuit strategy of performing emotions to win hearts for the global Catholic cause (Haskell & Garrod 2019). The globalizing world was an intricate part of that strategy, and in this section I explore how closely connected Antwerp and Japan were in this respect. The aim is to show that for Cornelius Hazart Catholics in both places faced very similar threats against their religion. Hazart pursued this strategy in the context in Catholic Europe of the increasing significance of Japan as an exemplary Christian country in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

[18] For Hazart, Dutch Calvinists were the trait d’union between Antwerp and Japan. The Jesuit ended his chapter on Japan with several ordinances from the Dutch East India Company (VOC), illustrating their tactics of complying with Japanese policies to safeguard their economic interests and trade relations. According to these ordinances, the safest way to stay alive was by showing inward piety and not displaying any outward signs of Christianity, such as psalm books, meetings or prayers (Hazart 1667: 182-83). This suggests that Dutch observers were quite well informed about the actual practices of hidden Christians in Japan, who disguised any symbols of their faith (Higashibaba 2001: 159-60). But, in not openly professing their Christian religion in public, Hazart alleged, the Dutch had actually raised more suspicions about Japanese Christians among Japanese authorities. From this I hypothesize that Hazart opened up a transcultural dimension to his readers (and listeners below the pulpit). Seeing the Dutch at work as pragmatic traders who were not keen on demonstrating their Christian faith created for Hazart a direct link between Japan and his city of Antwerp. That is what this section will explore, while it also aims to substantiate the specific role of children in crafting emotions.

[19] For Dutch traders in Japan, as well as for Japanese people suspected of being Christians, the litmus test under the Tokugawa regime was apostasy. As the VOC ordinance implied, any Dutch trader ought to be careful when asked if he was a Christian. Hazart used this ordinance to denounce what was for him Dutch deviousness at work in Japan.  From Mandelslo’s famous account of travel to the East, Hazart quoted a traveller to Japan on a Dutch ship in 1646, who when asked if he was a Christian had answered: ‘no, but a true Dutchman’ (‘rechte Hollander’) (Hazart 1667: 183; Mandelslo 2008: 36). The traveller had done this in accordance with the rulings by the VOC on how to safeguard uncertain trade relations with Japan (Cullen 2003: 36-39). Theologically, ‘true’ here has the connotation of the right religion, which was for the traveller Calvinism. However, in Hazart’s reading, the ‘no’ was an answer of apostasy, and in the logic of Tokugawa persecutions of Christianity, where apostasy generated investigations, such apostasy threatened local Christian communities the Dutch might have been in contact with. Moreover, Hazart accused the East India Company of preferring pragmatism over Christianity. Ordinances such as these were proof to the Jesuit that Holland’s Calvinists used all possible means to keep their trade privileges with Japan. According to Hazart, by negating Christian religion, the Dutch simply complied with the edicts of Japan’s rulers and thus contributed to further persecutions of Christians. Unsurprisingly, Hazart’s interpretations of these East India Company regulations differed greatly from those of his nemesis, the Dutch Calvinist Arnoldus Montanus, who emphasized their caution in a volatile political environment (Montanus 1670: 222-24).

[20] In a characteristically powerful metaphor that gave his history’s prose momentum, Hazart compared the cruelty of Dutch Calvinists to ‘a foaming sea that had broken the dykes’ and pushed the raging shogun and his daimyo to extend the persecution of Catholics to all their territories (Hazart 1667: 143). Several times Hazart returned to this argument throughout his chapter on Japan. In this, he recycled sixteenth-century debates over intolerable Calvinist practices against Catholics and vice versa, and built on a century of suspicion and vicious hatred among Christians (Crouzet 1990). In that respect Hazart was the unfruitful polemicist and memory forger who clung to ancient rivalries (van der Steen 2015: 266-68; Van Gennip 2014). On the other hand, in doing so, Hazart put Catholic Antwerp’s interests first and created an implicit bond between two distinct parts of the globe where Dutch Calvinists, motivated by economic gain, infringed on the interests and convictions of local Catholics. Until the centennial remembrance festivities in 1685 of the reconquest of Antwerp by Alexander Farnese, and even beyond, Antwerp Jesuits denounced Dutch Calvinism as a threat to the Habsburg state and Catholic religion (Begheyn 2009).

[21] Having preached in its Jesuit church for several decades and been active among the city’s sodalities, Cornelius Hazart dedicated the first volume of his Church history to the Antwerp civil government, eliciting their continued support for the Catholic religion. The representation of the ordeal of his fellow citizens of Antwerp as protagonists in his book encouraged them to persevere, Hazart explained. For instance, the Dominican friar Ludovicus Flores (c. 1570-1622), born in Antwerp and dying a martyr by fire, had not only overcome ‘inhuman Japanese tyrants’, but in his martyrdom had also triumphed over the cruelty of Dutch Calvinists, who ‘to the ends of the world had tormented [him] more than beastly’ (Hazart 1667: A4r). This phrasing explicitly compared the exotic cruelty of the Japanese to the even more malicious cruelty of the Dutch that Antwerp audiences were supposedly familiar with. Thus Hazart made Dutch Calvinists akin to the authors of atrocities in the Far East. This suggests a transcultural reading of the emotional narratives of Japanese martyrs for Hazart’s Antwerp audience.

[22] Born in Antwerp around 1570 as Lodewijk Frarin or Frorijn, Ludovicus Flores accompanied his merchant parents to Spain and to Mexico. There he became a Dominican. He went to the Philippines in 1602 and on 5 June 1620 travelled from there to Japan on a ship of the Japanese captain Joachim Hirayama-Diz. A Dutch vessel intercepted the ship and took Flores and his companions to the Dutch factory at Hirado (Firando). There he became a prisoner of the Dutch from 4 August 1620 to 5 March 1622, the day on which he was handed over to the daimyo of Hirado. On 19 August 1622 Ludovicus Flores was burnt at the stake in Nagasaki (Boxer 1951: 342-45). Hazart compared his martyrdom to that of another Antwerp-born citizen, captain Louys Pieterssen, who had suffered ‘the same cruel torment’ [as Florin] in Japan in 1623. They withstood their tribulation as courageously as the proverbial Roman Scaevola, who held his hand in a fire until his flesh was consumed (Büttner & Heinen 2004: 59-60). Hazart presented the martyrdom of the Dominican Flores in Japan in 1622 as an enlightening patriotic vignette on the deviousness of Dutch Calvinists and English Puritans. Flores literally means flowers or roses and refers to the rosary of Dominican spirituality. In the 1660s this was an emblem of global importance to Catholicism, exemplified in the beatification of the Dominican of the Third Order, Rose of Lima, in 1667, and her sanctification in 1671. Such spiritual examples fired the policy of the Spanish empire to sustain its global ambitions amidst increasing competition from the Dutch and the English in the Americas and Asia. Antwerp was still the natural extension of the Spanish Habsburg strategy, and Ludovicus Flores was yet another pawn in this power game.

[23] Time and again in his narrative Cornelius Hazart denounced Calvinist violence, which in his view topped Japanese cruelty. Persecution at the hands of heathens was somewhat tolerable, Hazart contended, but Calvinists who pretended to be Christians enhancing barbaric cruelty in Japan was absolutely intolerable (1667: 116). For the Jesuit, the Dutch had betrayed Flores and his fellow travellers to the shogun and therefore were betrayers of their own compatriots. For the shogun the Dutch and English distrust of Catholics was very welcome, as it suited his own ends, Hazart explained. Moreover, while Catholics openly won souls in the far corners of the world, the Dutch called themselves Hollanders in Japan and never Christians, Hazart alleged, referring to the VOC regulations. While in the Netherlands the Calvinists showed off and boasted (‘stoeffen’) of being Christians, in Japan they dared not. In the long section detailing the martyrdom of Ludovicus Flores, Hazart added torture to his accusation of Dutch treason. A letter that Flores had written from Japan to Manila in May 1622 detailed how Dutch traders had made him suffer. Flores mentioned hiding below deck under leather hides for a day and a night and nearly suffocating, in order not to be seen by the Dutch sailors entering his ship. In Hirado the Dutch threw him into a dark pit under the earth without daylight for thirteen days. Finally, because he never wanted to reveal to the Dutch that he was a Catholic friar, they tortured him on the rack and left him half-dead (Hazart 1667: 142). In comparison, Hazart’s source, Orfanel’s Historia ecclesiastica (1633), lists even more Dutch torture, for instance, when Flores was forced to drink so much water that he nearly fainted and suffered cardiac and intestinal troubles for an entire month (1633: 148r). Cut and pasted from Orfanel, Hazart’s account also kept the format of Flores’s letter as a first-person narrative that described his despair, fear and cold. The Jesuit used the rhetorical device to enhance the historical authenticity of his accusation of Dutch treason.

[24] However, in Hazart’s view, children were the most effective witnesses of unjustified Dutch betrayal in the tense context of Christianity in seventeenth-century Japan. He used the story of an Italian killed in Nagasaki for his faith to demonstrate once again the exemplary value of children. Camillus de Constanzo, Hazart recounts, was a nobleman and soldier from Calabria, who found himself in 1622 in Nagasaki awaiting execution in the presence of a substantial crowd on land as well as on boats on the nearby sea. When he saw many Dutch and English among the audience, Constanzo, who had learned Dutch when serving in the Spanish army in the Netherlands, blamed them in Dutch for their errors and their ‘small courage’ for not admitting they were also Christians although legally obliged to do so by the Japanese authorities. Constanzo added that they should rather follow the example not only of European Catholics, but also of Japanese Christians whose own children behaved more courageously than did the Calvinists (Hazart 1667: 153).

[25] Hazart’s last argument for the Dutch as akin to co-authors of the gruesome persecutions that took place in Japan pointed to the performative details of the torture and executions of Christians. Strikingly, Hazart selected some of the most graphic acts of violence in his history from two Dutch chronicles on Japan authorized by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), François Caron’s Description of Japan and Reyer Gysbrechts’s History of Martyrs (Rietbergen 2003: 20-21, 90, 164). The catalogue of horrors was impressive and located excessive violence in an exotic Japan: pouring boiling water over bodies that were stuck in dry peat, branding a cross on the forehead, hanging bodies upside-down in a pit with a cross cut in the head to make the blood flow (ana-tsurushi), elaborate piles of wood to make sure that bodies were suffocated and roasted rather than burnt, young women thrown naked into large tubs full of snakes ‘that intruded into their bodies in all secret places and filled them’ (Hazart 1667: 147-52; compare Montanus 1670: 268). These were the kind of details Hazart refrained from when quoting Jesuit letters. Yet, when relying on Calvinist authors Caron and Gysbrechts, he included the most disturbing documentation of torture. And although Hazart was usually reticent about nudity (Schmidt 2015: 210-211), when borrowing from Caron’s and Gysbrechts’s descriptions of unwanted intrusions into female bodies, Hazart suggested that Calvinists indulged in such horrific detail to a much greater extent than his Catholic sources did.

[26] Hazart’s reading of cultural difference resulted in a remarkable resemblance between the ‘inhuman’ Japanese and the ‘beastly’ Dutch Calvinists. Both terms denoted a perceived moral deficiency, but in practice the rules and actions of the Dutch in the later seventeenth century seemed to imply that they were crucially involved in heightening tensions for the remaining Catholics in Japan. Detailed torture added to that accusation. In contrast to Dutch untrustworthiness Hazart posited heroic faithfulness among Japanese Christians, the main actors among whom were young children.


Performative child martyrs

[27] For Hazart Catholic children functioned as the most exemplary martyrs. Their stoic presence of mind in the most frightful circumstances was arguably one of the most effective features of his propaganda when propagating a pathopoeia of those who did not renounce their faith. His approach was not original, though, and was embedded in a baroque culture exploring the dramatic effects of grave bodily harm done to children (Haskell 2013). From a global missionary perspective, children were a preferred target audience for the catechism because they, in turn, taught their own parents more effectively than any missionary (Clossey 2008). So too did the Japanese child martyrs, but as that happened in a context of horrendous persecution, the pathopoeia was more performative (Mochizuki 2014). Although less fit for dramatic presentation on the stage, the child martyrs were given a prominent place in two engravings that Hazart or his publisher Cnobbaert commissioned to illustrate the chapter on Japan. These are exceptional visual testimonies. I place these two engravings alongside further textual evidence in Hazart about the actions of Christian Japanese children during persecution.

[28] Overall and unsurprisingly, Japanese children were represented by Hazart as being as joyful in meeting their death as any other Christian. An illustrious example is the appropriately named six-year-old Ignatius, dressed in a golden cloth and with a lovely face, who drew everybody’s attention when walking around a huge pyre of burning Christians. Even when five or six chopped-off heads fell flat before his feet, his colour didn’t change, nor did it when his mother was executed before his eyes. In the end Ignatius uncovered his neck, fell to his knees and stretched his tender little neck to receive the final blow (Hazart 1667: 146). The shock and awe of such performance modeled the child as a hero possibly out of touch with this world.

[29] Thus, while never forgetting his catechetic and pedagogic approach, Hazart also conveyed through the stories the doubts that befell Japanese Christian families during persecution. In some cases, children did not want to become martyrs and ran away. For the Jesuit, these cases allowed him to illustrate the parental guidance and authority deemed necessary for naïve children. In the case of Catholic children running away, their own parents brought them back to the fire and the sword, pleaded eternal joy, and they died together (Hazart 1667: 148). Stones were hung around the necks and bodies of a family of five in preparation for their being thrown into the water, but the youngest, six years old, resisted the ordeal. The executioners asked the parents if they wanted to save their child, but they answered that they wanted him with them and so he was also thrown into the water (Hazart 1667: 151, compare Montanus 1670: 262). Remarkably, Hazart used only his Calvinist sources, Caron and Gysbrechts, to quote such hesitations by children. Hazart implied with this that Calvinists were not easily convinced that children would stick to their Catholic faith and were unduly worried about the strictness of Japanese parents towards their own children.

Figure 3. Cornelis Hazart, Kerckelycke historie (1667), vol. 1, p. 151: courtesy of the Laures Kirishitan database, Sophia University, Tokyo

[30] Dutch hesitations about the constancy in their faith of Christian Japanese children were further discredited by a dramatic and original engraving inserted into Hazart’s book (Figure 3; Hazart 1667: 151). The caption of the engraving refers to the drowning of seventeen Japanese Christians in Nagasaki in 1627. At least three children are seen being taken by executioners on board a ship to be dumped into the sea. The head of one child is already under water. The print does not explicitly indicate in image or text whether or not this happened against the will of the children, although the struggle seems to suggest so. At any rate, dramatic posturing and performative action take centre stage in the engraving and represent stoic pathopoeia as a real struggle.

Figure 4. Cornelis Hazart, Kerckelycke historie (1667), vol. 1, p.134: courtesy of the Laures Kirishitan database, Sophia University, Tokyo

[31] Arguably the most self-assured Japanese child martyr was the little ‘Jacques’ already mentioned, splendidly portrayed in another finely executed engraving (Figure 4; Hazart 1667: 134). The scene is copied from Trigault, but the dramatic action is enormously enlivened and the supportive Christians have disappeared. Instead, Jacques’ kinetic movement dominates the picture. The caption describes ‘eight worldly Japanese Christians burnt alive on 8 October 1613’ including ‘a small child running by his own will into the flames to his mother’. In a dramatic staging, the fiery flames encircle the legs of the child as well as the mother. A Japanese man wearing a tress fans the flames with a bellows. The engraving faithfully follows the details of the accompanying text. The public burning took place in a temporary house, built for the occasion in a valley outside the city of Arima, on wooden pillars and with a roof of straw and reed, and surrounded by a palisade of wooden stakes. Thus the victims were only half burnt before the roof and the entire building began to burn. When the cords detaining her were consumed by the fire, Magdalena, one of the victims, took a pile of glowing coals with both hands and put these on her head as a crown. And when the cords tying him had been burnt, the child, Jacobus, ran through the flames to his mother (Hazart 1667: 136). Filial love, love of God, and the desired stoic peace of mind to die a martyr were all visually assured and exemplified by a particularly strong-willed young child. For the educated Antwerp audience for whom Cornelius Hazart wrote this history, the pedagogic message was that Japanese Christian parents taught their children how to die as good Christians without fear (Hazart 1667: 158-9). This connected an imagined dramatic performance directly to the family values that Catholics supposedly upheld and for which Japan was a shining example.

[32] Throughout his history book, Hazart accumulated examples of Christian Japanese children committed to their Christian religion, suffering graphically and bodily for it. A child of five bared his neck, fell on his knees and told the executioner to kill him, but not to take away his rosary (106). Children were beheaded and their dead bodies cut to pieces (131-34), they had their throats slit in bed (134), they were cut into small pieces while carrying their dolls (158), had their heads split together with their parents (159-60), and were put into pits dark as graves together with their mothers as torture (163-64). On 9 December 1603, Joanna, Agnes, Magdalena and her son, seven-year-old Ludovicus, died nailed to crosses and were pierced with a lance; ‘first Ludovicus was pierced and while the lance was still warm and wet with his blood his mother was pierced with the same lance’ (129). On 3 March 1614, in Meaco, an under-commissioner took seventeen women and children and put each in a sack, with only their heads outside the sacks. The sacks were closed tightly so that they could not move. He put the sacks on top of one another so that those at the bottom suffocated. The sacks stayed out all night under the sky in the biting cold among the roaring winds and under the snow that fell in large flakes. Another night the men experienced the same fate and this continued five days, but all to no avail; nobody gave up their Christianity (113). Voluntary child suffering was thus a prominent rhetorical tool for Hazart and one that distinguished the Japan mission from many others.


Conclusion: a connected history of persecuted Japanese children

[33] The phenomenon of children voluntarily enduring torture and death, such as documented in Hazart, has been interpreted as exotic violence perpetrated by Japanese tormentors (Schmidt 2015: 211). I would rather suggest that the representations of child martyrs hint at a transcultural sensitivity for the pedagogic virtues of children as effective guardians of Christian constancy. We lack precise information about contemporary Japanese opinion on Christian children dying under persecution. However, the persistence of underground Christian communities, in which apostasy was taboo because it generated further investigations by the authorities, suggests that Japanese children were forced to remain silent about their Christian convictions (Harrington 1993). Nonetheless, they followed their parents to their death, as many testimonies confirmed. Moreover, in early modern Japan families increasingly structured society (Berry & Yonemoto 2019). So there are some reasons to assume that when Hazart compared the constancy of Japanese Christian children to the unreliability of seventeenth-century European children, Japan was not chosen accidentally.

[34] Subrahmanyam’s concept of connected history enables us to identify analytic resemblances between cultures. The specific case of a Catholic child and its education in an uncertain context preventing it from openly practising the faith allowed the Jesuit Cornelius Hazart to present his readers with three transcultural forms of exemplary behaviour on behalf of children. First, the pathopoeia of an ictus because of threat and torture followed by a reworking in the mind to undergo suffering created successful stoic martyrs. Although ‘previously barbaric’, Christian Japan was for Hazart the proof that this emotional dynamic was universal. Moreover, as many Christian Japanese children suffered heroically, Japanese Christianity was exemplary to the rest of the world.  Japanese children showed affection for their parents by voluntarily finding their death in a burning fire (Ruiz de Medina 1993).

[35] Second, in comparing Japan to Antwerp as two regions in which Calvinists stirred public opinion against Catholic religion, Hazart explicitly connected children’s pedagogy to societal change. He did so because his history book on the global Christian church was also a plea for the immediate future. The 1660s were a time of heightened power shifts in the Far East. Until the 1670s, Portuguese was still the working language for external contacts in Japan (Cullen 2003: 61). Dutch supremacy in the Deshima factory was established, yet Castile and Portugal had not given up hope entirely of restoring their former influence, or establishing new ones (Valladares 2001: 82-91). Moreover, Japan feared Chinese intrusion (Cullen 2003: 40). At the time, the Jesuit Chinese mission at the emperor’s court was becoming highly successful (Golvers 2017), stimulating hope that Japan might also be reentered by Catholic missionaries. This volatile political context prompted Hazart to end his first volume with a sarcastic note of encouragement to the Dutch traders ‘to fill their ships to the board with profit, on the interest of the many souls that Catholic teachers had won, while you will not utter one word on Christian religion’ (Hazart 1667: 482; compare 92). This was, in a nutshell, his main argument about the threat of violence in the Far East that might prevent new conversions in Japan.

[36] Third and not least, the unusual and spectacular iconography of several martyr engravings prominently featuring children turned Hazart into a protagonist in a culture of spectacle and representation promoting Catholicism. The performative acts of child martyrs kept Japan in the news as a territory where new struggles were fought for dominance within Christianity. For Hazart Dutch Calvinists only added fuel to the fire by remaining active in Japan, where persecution of Christians by the authorities persisted. Child victims like little ‘Jacques’ were in Japan presumably cherished in the silence of the family household, whereas in Europe their spiritual stoicism was the subject of stunning visual and oral propaganda. This difference shows that there are indeed clear limits to the connected history of geographically divergent audiences dealing with child killings.

KU Leuven



[1] I consulted an exceptional copy of Hazart’s Kerckelycke historie (vol. 1), with coloured engravings: a digital facsimile can be found in the digital archive of Sophia University, Tokyo, at https://digital-archives.sophia.ac.jp/laures-kirishitan-bunko/view/kirishitan_bunko/JL-1667-KB3-492 (last consulted 27 November 2020). I thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors of this issue for constructive comments that helped shape the final version, and all members of my early modern history research group at KU Leuven for critical comments on an earlier version. [back to text]

[2] ‘Short Title Catalogus Vlaanderen’ (STCV), 3112644. The STCV is a bibliographic resource of the Flemish Heritage Libraries that lists books printed in Flanders before 1801, with an emphasis on the seventeenth century: see ‘STCV. De bibliografie van het handgedrukte boek’ (Bibliography of the Hand Press Book), <stcv.be>. [back to text]



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