A Bishop's Tale: Mathias Hovius among His Flock in Seventeenth-Century Flanders

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This absorbing book takes us back to the busy, colorful world of a Netherlandish Catholic bishop and his flock during the age of Reformation. It is drawn from a rare journal, one of many kept by Mathias Hovius from 1596 to 1620 while he was Archbishop of Mechelen (part of modern Belgium). Elegantly written, the book focuses not only on the life of Mathias Hovius but also on key events and characters of his time; it portrays "lived religion," so that we see people from all sides getting involved in the constant negotiation of what it meant to be a good Catholic.

Craig Harline and Eddy Put recreate the eventful life and times of Mathias Hovius—a world in which other-believers were outright heretics, the nagging fevers of old age were the result of unbalanced bodily humors, and a corruptible earth rested motionless at the center of the universe while God sat exalted on a throne just beyond the fixed stars. The authors also tell the stories of monks, nuns, priests, millers, pilgrims, peasant women, saints, town and village councils, and ordinary parishioners; each story, fascinating in its own right, illustrates a major theme in the history of the Catholic Reformation. In the end Harline and Put have painted a picture teeming with life and energy.

About the Authors:
Craig Harline, professor of history at Brigham Young University, is also the author of The Burdens of Sister Margaret.

Eddy Put is senior assistant at the Belgian National Archives.

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Editorial Reviews

Carlos M. N. Eire
Truly remarkable. . . . A daring attempt to bring history alive. . . . [E]legantly written and absorbing. . . . [R]eads very much like a good novel.
Catholic Herald
The characters alone . . . make this book an absolute delight . . . elegantly written . . . engrossing.
Catholic Herald
The characters alone ... make this book an absolute delight ... elegantly written ... engrossing.
Riviting . . . on the level of Natalie Davis,Steven Ozment,and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
Riviting ... on the level of Natalie Davis, Steven Ozment, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
Expository Times
It reads like a novel . . . an absolute delight.
Expository Times
It reads like a novel ... an absolute delight.
Library Journal
This is the result of 13 years of diligent research and superb writing by Harline (history, Brigham Young Univ.) and Put (senior assistant, the Belgian National Archives). Having exhausted the extant writings of Archbishop Mathias Hovius (1542-1620) and tapping some of Europe's finest religious and secular archives, the authors offer this splendid historical biography of, and cultural commentary on, late 16th- and early 17th-century life in the Diocese of Mechelen. Skillfully piecing together rare journal entries, Vatican documents, and preserved correspondence, they re-create the real circumstances facing the Catholic community, including the impact of Martin Luther and the Council of Trent. The book consists of 16 stories that detail events in the lives of ecclesiastical princes, deliberations of secular town councils, and the plight of poor peasants, all intricately woven into one seamless narrative. A truly captivating and lively tale for today's religious adherents, Harline and Put's work is also fully documented with 55 pages of precise endnotes, a glossary, a list of historical sources, and an index. Recommended for university libraries.--John Leonard Berg, Univ. of Wisconsin Lib., Platteville Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300094053
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.04 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Read an Excerpt

A Bishop's Tale

Mathias Hovius Among His Flock in Seventeenth-Century Flanders
By Craig E. Harline

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Craig E. Harline
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300094051

Chapter One

The Canon's New Clothes


The eighth of April, 1580, Mechelen, the Cathedral of St. Rombout.

At the end of morning Mass the thirteen canons of the cathedral chapter filed deliberately from their heavy wooden stalls in the choir. Because it was Friday, they continued in two lines to the cathedral's chapter room, just north of the choir, for their weekly meeting.

Behind a stout wooden door, surrounded by familiar painted arches, wrapped in customary robes of black, white, and red, and seated as usual according to seniority, the canons proceeded quite as always. They invoked the aid of the Holy Spirit. They listened as a brother canon read the minutes of their last uneventful meeting. They chose for discussion, from a typical and limited supply of chapterly concerns, an item discussed at least a dozen times before.

When it was over, the canons rose and departed. While crossing the cathedral's tiled floors they had no cause to glance twice at the choir, where 160 coats of arms of the Knights of the Golden Fleece still hung proudly, and where murals of favorite saints embellished gray stone walls that soared a hundred feet high. They had no need to strain necks to study lavish stained windows, which featured dead heroes and benefactors who grew ever more illustrious with time. They had no reason to stop and ponder the luxury of the cathedral's exquisite music, paid for dearly by their long-absent bishop, who now lived in Spain.

Instead all canons could take quite for granted the forty-three resplendent altars that filled every empty space along the cathedral's massive walls and pillars, and that burst with pious triptychs, painted statuary, luxuriant tapestries, the pleasant odors of incense, and legions of burning candles. All could practically ignore the intricately carved stone rood screen that separated the clergy's choir from the people's nave, or the large mural of St. Christopher above the cathedral's high front doors, or the painted banners and lamps that brightened the interior, or the dark palls that still shrouded memorial tombs of the newly deceased.

It wasn't that the canons were indifferent toward their church - to the contrary. Each lamented deeply the current shortage of priests at its altars, the recent difficulties encountered in acquiring sufficient numbers of candles, and the makeshift wooden reliquary now holding the bones of the church's patron saint, Rombout. It was rather that the cathedral's very immensity and self-assured activity, its glorious sights, sounds, and smells, conveyed such an illusion of permanence that almost nothing about the place required a second thought at all. Here, despite momentary deficiencies, was still a magnificent edifice of worship. Confidence, not indifference, would have explained why any of the canons failed to linger one last time in St. Rombout's before leaving, each to his own concerns.

On his way out the door, Mathias Hovius, one of the junior canons, removed his precious choral robes and handed them to a servant boy: first came a waist-length mantle of black-and-white-striped ermine, then a long black velvet cloak lined in red and worn open in the front, and finally a white lace surplice that reached past the waist. These the boy carried home, holding them safely above the dirty streets of Mechelen while walking behind his master. Once outside the cathedral, Canon Hovius wore only his everyday black cassock, which buttoned to his neck and reached to his ankles. He avoided any French-styled ruffles on sleeves or collars. He maintained on top of his head the distinguishing clerical ton-sure, or shaved crown, which proclaimed as much as his clothing his priestly status. And he kept his beard properly trimmed: no fussy waxing and twisting, lest he appear vain, and no protruding hairs over his upper lip, lest while celebrating Mass he obstruct the blood of Christ.

Thus did the canon clothe himself the rest of the day, which went quite like many others. He attended to matters in the parish of St. Peter and Paul, where he was still pastor. He endured several meager meals brought on by these lean times. He sang Vespers and evening prayers. And when all was accomplished, he removed his cassock and pulled on his nightgown. Though aware of recent threats to the city, he never would have imagined while snuffing his candles and retiring to bed, or even while waking during the night to fill his pisspot, that this world he knew so well, this order so familiar, would by morning be gone forever.


The bells of Rombout's sounded the alarm in the darkness of early morning, around four, but too late. After conquering the disorientation that attends all rude awakenings, Mathias Hovius hurried to his feet and understood: it was an invasion of rebel troops.

The surprise was nearly complete. True, everyone knew that neighboring towns had recently capitulated to the rebels, but until today there had been no amassing of rebel troops near Mechelen's walls, no suspicious movements around its fields, and little doubt that the city was still overwhelmingly Catholic and royalist, loyal to its overlord the King of Spain. What then could have happened? At the moment there was no time for the canon to sort things out. For now he could do only two things: hope that Mechelen would hold, and decide where to hide or escape should it not. Surely he, like other clergy in these times, considered clothing himself in something that would obscure his identity as a priest - but where to find it? Outside, the growing cries of panic and resistance blended with gunfire and clanging to form a single, loud rumble across the five parishes of the city. Inside, Canon Hovius prepared to plunge into the night.

If at that moment his vantage point had been not the confusion of his modest home but instead one hundred yards high, atop the enormous stone tower of St. Rombout's, the canon could have seen the battle's progress more clearly. More than twelve hundred rebel troops, filled with drink and Protestant zeal, unpaid since December, and intent on booty and conquest, were pouring over the southwest wall near the Brussels gate, abandoned just moments before, according to prearranged plan, by treacherous guards. Nicolas Vanderlaan, captain of the watch and belated discoverer of the treachery, was doing his best to ignore various wounds earned in previous service to the King of Spain and rallying what was left of his small cohort to counter the invaders. But soon after engaging his foe, the overmatched captain turned in retreat and won his latest reward: pieces of shot in the buttocks. Comrades carried him to a safe house, where he lay for days in peril of his life.

Now rebel troops were scaling the northwest wall as well, near the equally abandoned Cow gate. Startled members of the local civic militia, still loyal to the king, quickly assembled in the Grand Market, the cobblestoned and gabled heart of the town, and began brawling. But other Mechelaars, betting on the rebels, joined in the treachery and ran to open the guard-forsaken Brussels and Cow gates, so that invaders would not have to bother using ladders. Now the intimidating force of 150 rebel knights on horse poured inside, like water through a burst dike, to support the rebel infantry. In the face of overwhelming numbers and modern weaponry, tenacity alone was insufficient, and dozens of royalist militiamen began to fall.

While the official, strategic fighting continued, the more traditional side of war began: most rebel troops now threw their energies into rounding up persons and items of greatest monetary value, proving once more their unswerving loyalty to the old soldier's creed that looting was preferable to fighting. Some of these mercenaries were Scottish, most were English, nearly all were Protestant, but every last one believed in plunder.

Now all Mechelaars, not just militiamen, were at risk, for even the poor had some heirloom stashed away, and would be threatened or tortured until they produced it. Wealthier burghers feared not only robbery but being held for fortune-depleting ransoms. And members of the clergy could expect, in addition to these unpleasantries, the wrath that accompanied religious war. Rebel troops ransacked everything with practiced efficiency, but they went after churches and monasteries with emotion as well. To please weapon-hungry captains, they knocked bells, lead, and iron from towers. To please their purses they stuffed valuable chalices and other liturgical ornaments into just-emptied mattresses. But to please their preachers and religious sensibilities they smashed altars and statues inside Rombout's, as well as the pathetic wooden reliquary holding the saint's remains - and they accosted any priest or nun they could find. They wounded a canon of St. Rombout's, who died days later. They abused, or held for ransom, dozens of monks and nuns. They captured near the Grand Market a Franciscan named Suetens, whom they dragged to a nearby house and hanged by the cords of his own habit. They murdered the sub-prior of the local Carmelites, who lay ill and defenseless in his cell. And they would capture or slay Mathias Hovius as well, if they found him.

On the bending street that ran past the rectory of St. Peter's and Paul's, where he resided, the canon could not see every assault on terrified burghers, or every purge of churches, but he could guess them. He could also see the growing crowd of people running his way, and soon learned the reason why: they were heading toward the Nekkerspoel gate, a short block or two beyond the rectory, and just opened by a handful of royalist cavalry. Here at least was one gate not yet controlled by rebels: those many Mechelaars who preferred escape to confrontation recognized that for the moment this was the only way out of town.

Leading the flight to the Nekkerspoel were fearful magistrates and merchants, who in the early light of day hastened through the gate and beyond, in the direction of nearby Leuven and Aarschot, towns still true to the king. Close behind were hundreds of monks, nuns, beguines, and pastors. At least one monk, however, an old classmate of Canon Hovius at university, halted in his tracks. This was the Carmelite Peter De Wolf, a popular but troublemaking thunder-preacher, defender of all things Catholic and nemesis of all things Protestant. In recent crowd-pleasing sermons, everyone had heard Father De Wolf's stirring exhortations to defend city and faith to the death, and so when several in the crowd saw him fleeing they uncharitably reminded him of his own words - much as Jesus asked a Rome-fleeing Peter, "Where goest thou?" Like the apostle himself, a chastened Peter De Wolf instantly turned about to face his martyrdom: putting on helmet and mail, he dashed back to the Grand Market and fought with inexperienced clerical hands to his last breath.

Mathias Hovius, like most of the clergy, at last chose discretion rather than arms, and now hastened toward the Nekkerspoel gate as well. At thirty-eight he ran better than he would in his corpulent years, but still too slow: for before he could get out the gate, rebels took control of it, too, just as they had the other six of the city. And they were not about to let any priests pass through. Had something besides indecision delayed the canon? Had he paused to conceal the treasures of St. Peter's and Paul's? Had he rousted the caretaker to ring the church's bells, thus spreading the general alarm? Had he stopped to see the corpse of his brother, already slaughtered by rebels? Hesitated and considered taking the same reckless path as Peter De Wolf? Sought a disguise? Whatever slowed him, with every gate in rebel hands, the canon's only choice now was to hide.

Just inside the Nekkerspoel gate stood the imposing palace of Hoogstraten, of the noble Lalaing family, occupied in recent times by the countess Lalaing herself. Though she was royalist and Catholic, not even the most hardened rebels were likely to molest an unresisting noblewoman - plunder did have a few rules after all. Here, therefore, was a convenient place for the canon to hide. Still it was hardly foolproof. during a previous invasion, Protestant troops had dared to enter the countess's bedroom to ask whether she was sheltering any priests.

Perhaps Canon Hovius entered through a secondary door of the palace, prearranged in the event of troubles. Certainly he was quickly led inside by hosts who knew the secrets of their own dwelling place, and then shoved inside a wooden wardrobe. Over the next three days, as the palace was searched, as the sacking showed little sign of abatement, and as English troops particularly distinguished themselves in plunder and cruelty so that this whole bloody "Fury" came to be called after them, the canon crouched in apprehension.

Years later he told the story of the wardrobe to friends, who repeated it to others. Willfully or otherwise he may have embellished it, prodded in his imagination by recent tales of fellow clergy who had likewise suffered the horrors of religious war. He may even have distorted his length of time in confinement, to fit the favorite Christian motif of three - including Jonah's three dark days in the belly of the whale. But there was no question at all that his terror was absolutely real.

There must have been little sleep, much anxiety, and whispered communications in and around that wardrobe. There must have been temptation to compose clever, incomplete recantations of his faith, which might save his life should soldiers find him inside. Yet this temptation must have alternated with braver reflections on how to steel himself for death. And certainly while he waited there were a thousand images and memories - some rushing to the surface but most embedded in his soul - of a past that had gone so terribly wrong.


When Mathias Hovius was born, in 1542, Mechelen still glittered.

Its prince, Charles V, was still greatest of all: emperor of Germany, King of Spain, so forth and so forth, not to mention overlord of the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands.

Its cultural glory, though seriously challenged by Brussels, still shone, evident in such monuments as the majestic Renaissance-styled palace where Charles spent much of his boyhood, and from where for years Charles chose to rule his Netherlandish domains.

Its robust trade was by 1540 subordinate to Antwerp's, but leather, copper, and cannon industries still prospered, and a highly urban population of thirty thousand still impressed. (In all the Netherlands were nineteen towns with populations greater than ten thousand; the British Isles contained only four.)



Excerpted from A Bishop's Tale by Craig E. Harline Copyright © 2002 by Craig E. Harline. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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