Controversy

Thus far, I have spoken only of the harmonious ties between Chamber, Church and City. However, as the unflattering portrait of the lecherous priest of Cluijte van Plaijerwater hints, these relationships were not always mutually supportive or controversy-free. Chambers, like any contemporary form of popular media, had the potential to reify the status quo or critique the establishment and agitate for change.

One of the most explosive social issues of the era of the Rederijkers was the Reformation. The weakening of the Catholic Church and emergence of the new Protestant sects was a phenomenon that had far reaching socio-cultural, legal, and economic consequences for the people of the Low Counties in addition to the philosophical and religious issues it raised.

Although the creative work of the Rederijkers was centered on the discussion of moral and philosophical issues, it was not inevitable the Chambers should deal with the questions raised by the Reformation head on in a forthright and sometimes even radical way.

The typical Chamber member was a "solid citizen" heavily invested in the status quo. The city often provided financial support for Chambers. Members of the nobility frequently served as honored guests or nominal members of Chambers. Although the Chambers grew away from their early ties to the Church, connections lingered. Some Chambers' charters contained specific responsibilities for particular church masses, altars, or processions.

Despite all these factors that would seem to predispose Chambers to conservatism, there were still incidents of radicalism. Researcher Gary Waite has extensively documented the connections between the Chambers and early Protestant activists (see bibliography). It is important to bear in mind, however, that in addition to the officially sanctioned Chambers, cities usually had several small unofficial chambers. Many of the incidents of the most controversial behavior was associated with these un sanctioned orders. Incidents such as:

Amsterdam, 1525 -- The Court at the Hague investigates Amsterdam Rederijkers for "certain plays which were performed in front of the city hall and inside certain houses by some rhetoricians; to the confusion, derision, and blaspheming of the sacraments of the holy church and other good institutions." City records make no mention city support of Rederijker activities until 1559.

Amsterdam, Dec. 28 1533 -- nine rederijkers were arrested for creating an illegal chamber and performing an unsanctioned play that was alleged to be highly critical of the religious estate. The actors were sent on a pilgrimage to Rome as punishment.

Amsterdam, October 1534 -- Stadholder Count van Hoogstraten lodges an official complaint that a basketmaker, Adriaen Jacobsz, had allowed a scandalous performance to take place at his house. It seems the basketmaker hired the artist Peter Rippenz to paint a work which stood outside his home. This painting depicted devils dressed in monks' caps fishing for money. The painting served as a backdrop to a rederijker performance in which the actors dressed in costumes identical to those in the painting performed an anti-clerical satire.

Amsterdam, Feb. 11, 1535 -- Hendrk Hendrikszoon, a tailor and one of the actors who had been sent on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1533, leads the "naaktloopers" a group of eleven Anabaptist who ran naked through the streets of Amsterdam proclaiming "the naked truth" to the city's unrepentant residents.

Amsterdam, May 1535 -- Flags, drums, and props from one of Amsterdam's chambers are used in the attempted Anabaptist take-over of the city hall in May of the same year.

Ghent May 1539 -- A tax rebellion occurs in the city. Contemporaries blame the spelen van zinne competition for encouraging the uprising. English merchant Richard Clough writes, "those plays was one of the prynsypall occasyons of the dystrouccyon of the towne of Gannt."

Ghent June 1539 -- The question "What is the dying man's greatest consolation?" is set for that year's landjuweel. The topic that makes it hard to avoid the religious controversies of that day.

1540 -- Emperor Charles V issues an edict prohibiting all the works of Luther, Wyclif, and Huss adding in the same breath "und die Comedien so newlich gespilt sein worden in unser Statt Ghent durch die neuznzehn Camern der Rhetoricker." The censors of the University of Leuven place the published edition of the nineteen plays from the 1539 Ghent festival on the list of forbidden books.

Antwerp, 1546 -- Jacob van Middeldonck is ordered to complete a pilgrimage to Russemadouwe for having written a play "smacking of heresy" in 1542.

Antwerp, 1547 -- schoolmaster Peter Schuddematte, member of Violieren Chamber, was executed in 1547 on account of a scandalous play he composed which made disparaging remarks about the Franciscans.

Antwerp, 1555 -- Playwright Frans Fraet is beheaded for heresy.

1560 -- Sir Thomas Gresham writes, "But ther was at thatt tyme syche plays played, that hath cost many a thousand lyves: for in those plays was the worde of God fyrst openyned in thys contrey. Weche plays were and ar forbeden, moche more strettly than any of the boks of Martyn Luter." A Catholic vistor, Renon of France, wrote (at sometime during this period) "Numbers of comedians, corrupt in morals and religion, whom they call rhetoricians, in whom the people delight, and always some poor monk or nun has a place in the comedy. It seems that men are unable to have a good time unless they are mocking God or the church."

Leonard Verden points out that the earliest Reformed churches were referred to by their members by fictitious names such as "Le Bouton" "La Rose" or "La Vigne". These pseudonyms often coincided with the name of a local Chamber of Rhetoric.

An anonymous play entitled Play of the Sick City (Amsterdam, circa 1535) illustrates the form that dramatic protest of the suppression of the Reformation took in the hands of Rederijker/activists. In this allegorical presentation, a woman named "Amsterdam" is quite ill. The character "Tyranny" takes credit for her condition and brags:

The officer is very valuable, burdened with an oath that he arrest all suspects and throw them in chains. Hear my motive. And if he does not end the lives of such ones, do they remain? Certainly not, but they must flee. He also wants to take possession of their property. This we are glad to see, for in this way the city will have the least peace.

Tyranny's confederate "Hypocrisy" joins him to gloat over their defeat of "Scriptural Preacher" and his followers, "More than One" (an artisan) and "The Community" (a common burgher). Tyranny is supported by "So Many" (a rich burgher) and "Finances." The play includes the suppression of Rederijker activity as one of the causes of Lady Amsterdam's illness.

I mention the involvement of the Chambers of Rhetoric in the controversy surrounding the spread of the Reformation in the Low Countries to illustrate that the creative endeavours of the Rederijkers were not merely escapist entertainments for their creators or auditors. The format of the landjuweel provided an opportunity to publicly explore and debate perspectives on the most significant socio-cultural issues of the day. Although finical, legal, and social ties to the institutions of Church and State often limited debate, Rederijkers, as in the case of those who used the format to express their views on the Reformation, demonstrated they knew how to exploit the landjuweel's potential as a forum for radical social self-reflection.

 



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Copyright 1997 Kelly S. Taylor