Cunegonde's Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment

Cunegonde's Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment

by Benjamin J. Kaplan
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Yale University Press


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Cunegonde's Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment

How a popular religious war erupted on the Dutch-German border, despite the ideals of religious tolerance proclaimed by the Enlightenment

In a remote village on the Dutch-German border, a young Catholic woman named Cunegonde tries to kidnap a baby to prevent it from being baptized in a Protestant church. When she is arrested, fellow Catholics stage an armed raid to free her from detention. These dramatic events of 1762 triggered a cycle of violence, starting a kind of religious war in the village and its surrounding region. Contradicting our current understanding, this war erupted at the height of the Age of Enlightenment, famous for its religious toleration.
Cunegonde’s Kidnapping tells in vivid detail the story of this hitherto unknown conflict. Drawing characters, scenes, and dialogue straight from a body of exceptional primary sources, it is the first microhistorical study of religious conflict and toleration in early modern Europe. In it, award-winning historian Benjamin J. Kaplan explores the dilemmas of interfaith marriage and the special character of religious life in a borderland, where religious dissenters enjoy unique freedoms. He also challenges assumptions about the impact of Enlightenment thought and suggests that, on a popular level, some parts of eighteenth-century Europe may not have witnessed a “rise of toleration.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300187366
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Series: Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History Series
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Benjamin J. Kaplan holds the chair in Dutch history at University College London. He is the author of several prize-winning books, including Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Cunegonde's Kidnapping

A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment

By Benjamin J. Kaplan


Copyright © 2014 Benjamin J. Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18997-1


Between Them Sleeps the Devil

In the chill hours before dawn on Tuesday, 13 April 1762, Sara Maria Erffens gave birth to a baby boy. Though a woman of true grit, she must have felt an edge of terror in the face of her perilous ordeal: the previous time she had borne a child, she had barely survived, been bedridden for three and a half months, and the infant had never seen its first birthday. It was a common story in eighteenth-century Europe, where, despite improving conditions, infant mortality rates remained high and many mothers died in childbirth. At least Sara had the reassurance of an experienced midwife. At seventy-six, Anna Olivier was a right old crone, illiterate and hard of hearing, but she was a skilled healer relied on by men as well as women in the Dutch village of Vaals. This time things turned out better for both mother and child. When the moment of supreme danger had passed, Sara's husband, Hendrick Mommers, entered the room. Anna asked the couple, "How shall the child be baptized?"

"None of your business," replied Sara sharply. "That's a matter for my husband; I have spoken with him, and he shall tell you."

"But I must know, since if the child is going to be baptized Roman Catholic, I'm supposed to make [the sign of] a cross over it."

"None of your business," repeated Sara. "Your job is to help bring the child into the world, clean and take care of it, and then take it [to church] to be baptized. Then I'll give you your money and you can go."

Anna did as told and busied herself. Approaching the bed where his wife lay, Hendrick asked more tentatively, "How do you want it done?" Sara answered sternly, "You know what we agreed." Hendrick made no reply, but as he escorted Anna out of the room and down the stairs of the house where the poor couple lodged, she heard him exclaim, "The devil take me before I let the child be baptized Calvinist!"

Scandalized by Hendrick's imprecation, Anna left the house and walked to the local Catholic church to hear early morning mass. On the way, she pondered Hendrick's and Sara's words. Sara apparently believed that she and her husband had agreed that their child would be baptized in her own Reformed church. But then why didn't she just say so—why had she left it to Hendrick to instruct Anna at a later time where she should bring the infant for baptism? Hendrick hadn't contradicted his wife to her face. Yet only three days earlier, he had assured the local Catholic pastor that the couple had agreed to baptize and raise their children in the Catholic faith. And now, out of his wife's earshot, he was swearing in the most offensive language that she would not get her way.

How was this baby, born to a Calvinist mother and a Catholic father, supposed to be baptized? Ambiguity and contradiction swirled around the issue. Like the winds of a tornado, they would soon blow away the tenuous religious peace of Vaals and its surrounding region. To understand how this vortex was generated, we need first to consider the attitudes and difficulties surrounding religiously mixed marriage in early modern Europe.

There is a saying in Dutch, Twee geloven op één kussen, daar slaapt de duivel tussen: two faiths in one bed (literally, on one pillow), between them sleeps the devil. It means that if a husband and wife are of different faiths, they will have an unhappy marriage. The saying itself is modern, but the warning it expresses was a commonplace going back at least as far as the sixteenth century. The sundering of western Christendom in that tumultuous age gave the issue of mixed marriage an unprecedented urgency, for across large parts of Europe, people for the first time adhered to rival Christian faiths. All the major churches that emerged from this epochal change vehemently condemned mixed marriage, calling it "improper," "offensive," and a "sin against God." All the major churches tried to dissuade their followers from marrying people of other faiths and disciplined those who failed to heed their admonitions, excluding them from the rite of communion and demanding that they show repentance. The Catholic Church, which counted marriage among its seven sacraments, considered mixed marriage a form of sacrilege. As late as 1741, Pope Benedict XIV denounced those who, "driven shamefully mad by an insane love, do not abhor in their souls ... these detestable unions, which Holy Mother Church has always damned and forbidden." Even in the Dutch Republic, where mixed marriage was relatively common, only one group, the Waterlander Mennonites, did not combat it.

In part, the churches opposed mixed marriage out of a concern for matrimony, which all deemed a sacred, divinely ordained institution. How, they asked, could pious Christians live in peace with spouses whose most fundamental beliefs differed from their own? How could they not combat falsehood and evil when it infected their home? Religious differences, they warned, would destroy marital harmony and undermine the bonds of affection that should join husband and wife. By the same token, they would lead wives to disobey their husbands and children their parents, threatening the God-given patriarchal order of society.

In part, the churches' opposition to mixed marriage also expressed a wider cultural prejudice—a sense that there was something unnatural and unsavory about mixing and mixedness per se. In early modern France, mixed marriages were sometimes called "motley," like the outfits worn by court jesters and other fools. More commonly, they were called "unequal," the same term used for matches between rich and poor, young and old. One might draw a parallel, though it is not exact, to the revulsion and fear some people felt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for what they called "miscegenation." To early modern church leaders, religious hybridity seemed as monstrous as did racial hybridity to modern racists. In their view, truth and falsehood, good and evil had as little in common with one another as did black and white; a person was either a member of Christ or a minion of the devil. But religiously mixed households created a murky gray zone; they blurred and obfuscated the clear, sharp boundaries that the churches strove to establish between themselves. At least a whiff of uncertainty hung over the orthodoxy and loyalty of all members of such households.

Above all, the churches opposed mixed marriage out of fear that through it they would lose members. Inevitably, they recognized, people in mixed marriages would be exposed to "error." Some would be perverted by it, lost to the church, and damned. Worse still, the children of such marriages would, as one Catholic author put it, "suck in heresy with [mother's] milk." They, and with them the family's future generations, were in danger of being lost as well. This was the ultimate, and oldest, argument against marrying nonbelievers: "For they will turn away thy sons from following me, that they may serve other Gods" (Deut. 7:4). So strong were these fears in Rome that for three centuries, the papal curia refused to approve dispensations for mixed marriage except in extraordinary circumstances. Only in 1858 did the curia issue a general instruction that dispensations could be granted under certain conditions: mixed couples had to promise that the Protestant would allow the Catholic spouse to practice their faith unhindered, that the Catholic would do their utmost to convert the Protestant spouse, and that all the couple's children would be raised "in the sanctity of the Catholic religion." Previously, the cardinals in Rome doubted—with good reason—whether such promises were enforceable and so preferred not to approve mixed marriages under any condition. In the absence of a general rule, Catholic bishops and synods were left to establish their own guidelines as to when priests might join mixed couples in matrimony. The result was variation and a good deal of confusion. In practice, Rome's mute hard line gave scope for others—clergy, secular rulers, and sometimes ordinary laypeople—to exercise their own judgment.

In a mirror image of Catholic fears, Europe's Protestant churches likewise regarded mixed marriage as a spiritual and institutional threat. Their concern did not diminish for a long time; to the contrary, at least in the Dutch Republic, it may even have increased in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Simultaneously, though, the concern narrowed, coming to focus almost exclusively on Protestant-Catholic unions. This important, twofold change has not been noticed by many historians, nor does it match the kind of change most expect to have occurred in an age that saw the dawn of the Enlightenment. Whereas previously the Dutch Reformed churches had taken a stand against all mixed marriages, now they began to move in the direction of approving marriages to other sorts of Protestants. The change reflected a growing ecumenical appreciation for the scope and depth of the beliefs and values which the Reformed shared with other Protestants. But it also reflected a new sense of solidarity against common enemies, foremost among which remained the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1708, the first book by a Dutch Protestant directed specifically against mixed marriage was published in Amsterdam. It was entitled Weighty Reasons Not to Enter into the State of Matrimony with Papists [Roomsgesind]. Presented as a Christian Instruction for All Protestants, Particularly Reformed, Lutherans, and Mennonites. The book's author claimed that the Catholic Church had launched a devious plot, seeking "to storm God's church ... with wives, and to entice our simple members through marriage to abandon our community and embrace their errors and idolatries." Other Protestants feared more the coercion, even violence, which Catholic husbands might direct against their wives. Never, claimed a group of Dutch ministers in 1716, had these threats been greater. With some reason, though not enough to justify their exaggerated claims, they and their colleagues were convinced that the Reformed churches were losing members to the Catholic foe, and in a prolonged campaign, they petitioned the various governing bodies of the Republic to take countermeasures.

The highest of these bodies was the Dutch States General, whose members will play a critical role in our story, especially at its end. The States General was an assembly of delegates representing the seven provinces of the Netherlands that had ended up, in the late sixteenth century, breaking away from their Habsburg rulers and forming a new country. Each province had one vote in the assembly, and the most important decisions required, at least in theory, unanimous consent. That was because, from the birth of the Republic to its demise in the 1790s, each province was considered a sovereign entity. Ruled by its own provincial States, every province was legally equal to every other one, and even Holland, by far the richest and most populous, enjoyed no constitutional superiority. In practice Holland wielded enormous clout, especially since it bankrolled over half the Republic's budget. It didn't hurt either that the seat of Holland's provincial government, the Binnenhof in The Hague, was also the seat of national government. Known as Their High and Mighty Lordships, the States General were charged with conducting the common business of the Republic, like waging war, and in this task they had the assistance of the Council of State, which functioned largely as their executive arm. In domestic affairs, though, the scope of common business was quite restricted, since the various provincial States, above all the States of Holland, jealously guarded their autonomy. They, not the States General, issued laws, set taxes, and appointed officials for their provinces. The only domestic territories over which the States General exercised direct sovereignty were the so-called Generality Lands. These were territories situated along the southern and eastern borders of the Republic that the Dutch had conquered by force of arms, mostly from the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648). They included States-Flanders, States-Brabant, States-Upper-Gelderland, and States-Lands of Overmaas, where Vaals was located (fig. 5).

Calvinist ministers from Overmaas, joined by colleagues from other Generality Lands, played a leading role in the campaign to convince the Dutch "regents"— the nobles and city magistrates who, through the various States, ruled the Republic—to combat mixed marriages. Their special engagement with the issue was no accident. Because the Generality Lands had remained under Catholic rulers longer than any of the seven provinces, these conquered territories had a unique religious profile: despite their belonging to an officially Calvinist state, across most of them Catholics always constituted the overwhelming majority of the population. This meant that local Calvinists found slim pickings when seeking suitable marriage partners among their coreligionists. Almost inevitably, some married Catholics. The large Catholic population also created a milieu in which, in some respects, Catholic social and cultural norms predominated, counterbalancing somewhat the Calvinist monopoly on political power. From the worried perspective of a Calvinist minister, this milieu made it dangerously likely that Calvinists who married Catholics would feel pressure to assimilate, to accommodate their spouse's preferences (for example, concerning how their children were raised), or even to convert.

The regents proved receptive to the ministers' pleas. Not as receptive as the ministers would have liked: they never obtained the laws they requested forbidding outright all marriages between Calvinists and Catholics (a measure that some Catholic prelates, too, hoped would pass). Such a prohibition was implemented in the 1730s, but only for military officers and some government officials. Starting in the late seventeenth century, though, the regents did place unprecedented restrictions on mixed couples. At the urging of ministers, they issued a series of placards, or edicts, requiring Catholics to promise not to hinder their partners from exercising their faith or from raising their children in it. Such placards were enacted in four of the Republic's seven provinces. The two most powerful governing bodies of the Republic took a different tack. In 1750, the States General issued for the Generality Lands a particularly important placard. Under its terms, no Calvinist male under the age of twenty-five or Calvinist female under twenty (the age of majority for the two sexes) could marry a Catholic. Promises of marriage between a Calvinist and a Catholic had no legal force, so that before the wedding itself either party could change his or her mind. And to encourage couples to reconsider, the marriage banns—the public announcements of a couple's intent to marry—could be proclaimed only at six-week rather than one-week intervals. This extended to twelve the number of weeks that had to pass from the date a couple registered to marry, either with a minister or magistrate, to their wedding day. In 1755, the States of Holland issued a placard that included the same provisions plus a few more. To the disappointment of ministers, though, neither the States General nor the States of Holland restricted the freedom of mixed couples to decide how to raise their children. This, counseled some jurists, would violate the "natural freedom" of parents, who "by all rights hold complete power and authority" over their children.

Consequently, in the Generality Lands, as in Holland, the law allowed parents to choose. In practice, mixed couples decided the issue in varied ways. In some cases, "patria potestas"—the patriarchal authority of the father—prevailed, and children were raised in their father's faith. In other cases—not as many, but still a significant proportion, at least in Holland, where we have good data—all the children were raised in their mother's religion. Some couples alternated, baptizing and raising their first child in one parent's faith, their second in the other parent's, and so on, continuing back and forth with subsequent progeny. In still other families, the sons "followed" the father, the daughters the mother: that is, boys were raised in their father's faith, girls in their mother's. This division by gender was, according to some contemporaries, the most common practice among mixed couples. Attested in other lands as well, it may have been the same across Europe as a whole. In the Duchy of Jülich, one of the German territories that neighbored the Lands of Overmaas, the practice was even prescribed by law.


Excerpted from Cunegonde's Kidnapping by Benjamin J. Kaplan. Copyright © 2014 Benjamin J. Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Cast of Main Characters xv

Introduction 1

1 Between Them Sleeps the Devil 19

2 Baptism Is Baptism 38

3 On This Soil 59

4 Flouting Authority 91

5 Beggar Dogs 116

6 Reprisals 146

7 A Moral Certainty? 172

8 Their High and Mighty Lordships 196

9 Afterlives 219

Conclusion 232

Notes 249

Index 275

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