On 4 August 1561 Richard Clough wrote one of his many letters from Antwerp to London to inform his master Sir Thomas Gresham, financial agent of and advisor to the English Crown, on local affairs. Clough notes that nothing had happened worthy of writing "savying that, as yesterday, (being the 3rd of August,) here hathe beene in thys towne of Andwarpe a wonderfull tryumfe, for the wynnyng of a pryse, weche ys callyd the Lande Juell." (1) Clough is referring to the entry of the Chambers of Rhetoric that participated in the Landjuweel, a large Brabantine theater competition that (in theory) was held every three years. However, due to the wars with France and the growing distrust of the central authorities towards theater practices in general--and the rhetorician guilds in particular--twenty years had passed since the previous Landjuweel had taken place in the town of Diest in 1541. Although negotiations with the court of the governess Margaret of Parma (1522-86) had been long and difficult, both the city council of Antwerp and the city's principal Chamber De Violieren (The Stockflowers) were determined to turn the competition into an unparalleled celebration of the city, its wealth, and its relations within the Brabantine urban network. (2)
These efforts and their effects did not escape Clough's keen eye. First of all, he notes that the ten-day festival would probably cost 100,000 marks. Because he was not sure his master had witnessed a similar competition during his own time in Antwerp, he offers Gresham a short introduction into the basics of rhetorician culture, where he notes that "every towne in thys lande hathe one company or 2 of Reteryke, so well as thys towne." He points out that the principal prize was awarded to the best play, but that there were also prizes for the best entry, the funniest fool, the most solemn church attendance and the most solemn mass, for the most impressive fireworks, and for many other categories. He continues with a lengthy description of the pageants of the participating Chambers, paying special attention to the costumes and the adornment of the wagons. Clough is particularly impressed with the entry of the Brussels Chamber, "weche methinks was a dreme." He estimates that the total number of horsemen and men and children on wagons equaled a thousand. (3) Finally, Clough concludes his description with a mixture of marvel and concern. He favorably compares the entry of the Brussels rhetorician guild in 1561 with the entry of Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and his son--then the future lord of the Netherlands and future King of Spain Philip II (1527-98)--into the same city in 1549, an entry that had been heavily sponsored by the foreign nations: "Thys was the strangyst matter that ever I sawe, or I thynke that ever I shall see; for the coming of King Fylyppe to Andwarpe, with the cost of all the nasyons together in apparel, was not to be comparyd to thys done by the towne of Brussells. And they shall wyn no more with all, but a skalle of syllver weying 6 ownsys!--I wolde to God that some of owre gentyllmen and nobellmen of England had sene thys,--(I mene them that think the world is made of ottemell) and then it wold make them to thynke that ther ar other as wee ar, and so provide for the tyme to come; for they that can do thys, can do more." (4)
Richard Clough's remarkable letter, with all its invaluable observations and inevitable exaggerations, illustrates that the Chambers of Rhetoric occupied a central place in the vibrant urban life of the sixteenth-century Low Countries. These guilds or confraternities of laymen devoted to the practice of vernacular theater and poetry--or what they called the Dutch Art of Rhetoric (Const van Rhetoriken)--were a remarkable variant on the merchant and artisan guilds, religious confraternities, and shooting guilds that existed all around Western Europe. The Chambers of Rhetoric trained their members in the writing and reciting of versed texts and in the performance of plays. They also participated in civic festivities such as processions, princely entries, and peace celebrations and, at the same time, organized their own theater and poetry festivals both in the public sphere and in the semiprivate sphere of their meeting-places. The Chambers of Rhetoric were founded by local inhabitants not only in large metropolitan centers such as Antwerp and Brussels, but also in small towns and even, in some regions, in villages.
This essay aims to establish the role of the Chambers of Rhetoric--and, in particular, the competitions they organized--in the construction of an urban culture in the Low Countries that resembled, and at the same time differed considerably from, those in other regions such as northern Italy and England. However, in order to do this, it is necessary first to define the concept of urban culture further. Therefore, in line with recent scholarship on urban society, the importance of public space and of urban association in the creation of a civic identity is discussed. Second, it is argued that the Chambers of Rhetoric offer an excellent tool for the analysis of urban culture in the early modern Southern Low Countries. Finally, the public regional and interregional theater contests the Chambers of Rhetoric organized are examined in greater detail to demonstrate the role of the Chambers of Rhetoric--alongside other festive groups--in what can be labeled, in the terms of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, as an economy of symbolic exchanges. (5) It is the central argument of this essay that urban culture in the Southern Low Countries was open, flexible, and multilayered and that it drew its meaning not only from social relations within the city, but also, and significantly, from the complex relations within the urban network.
2. URBAN CULTURE IN THE LOW COUNTRIES
Since the attention in Low Countries historiography has turned from social structures and quantitative methods to social representation and qualitative methods, a growing number of scholars has argued that the development of a dense network of cities and towns in the core regions of the Netherlands generated not only complex economic structures, new social settings, and sophisticated political institutions, but also a distinct urban culture. (6) In addition, the notion of urban culture has brought social historians, literary historians, and art historians together in interdisciplinary debates that focus on communication, ritual, and social representation in art and literature. (7) However, a definition of the concept of urban culture, applicable to the geographical and social context of the Low Countries, is lacking, and is usually not even discussed in studies that claim urban culture as a central theme. Yet only by a better understanding of the essence of Low Countries urban culture can we engage in meaningful comparisons with other highly urbanized regions. The recent work of Edward Muir on the sources of civil society and social trust in Renaissance Italy demonstrates the relevance of such questions, not only from a purely historical point of view but also in view of contemporary debates on social capital and civic culture. (8) The case of the Low Countries is especially relevant, because while the humanist rhetoric on the values of civil society was certainly less developed when compared with Northern Italy, its urbanites seem to have been marked by (at least) an equally strong civic identity. (9) Thus, the study of Low Countries urban cultural practices can give us better insight into the workings and varieties of Renaissance culture.
Muir makes an important point in one of his essays: to measure the effectiveness of Renaissance civil society we have to look beyond the city walls to assess whether communal institutions and civic practices allowed for the integration of large groups of Italian society. (10) Likewise, Low Countries urban society cannot be understood without taking into account the relations with the countryside and within the urban network. In fact, in socioeconomic studies more and more attention is given to the role of a city as a central place within its rural settings or within a larger urban network. (11) Most students of urban culture, however, continue to focus on the construction of social relations within the city and to make an abstraction of the city's role in a broader system. (12)
When we define cities as central places, the question is whether it is possible to discern practices and values that can be labeled urban culture. In line with recent scholarship, I argue that public space was one crucial binding force of early modern urban society and urban culture. (13) The concept of public space evokes the dialectical relationship between, on the one hand, the material reality of cities and, on the other, the symbolic practices that infuse this material reality with meaning. Moreover, the concept of public space can also inform the relations of a city or town with the outside world. The most evident example is that of the marketplace. While the marketplace was often situated literally in the heart of the city, it drew its meaning primarily from the interaction of city-dwellers with merchants of other cities and regions and with inhabitants of smaller towns and the countryside. (14)
Often the same marketplace was also the scene, or at least one of the principal stages, in the enactment of civic ritual. The importance of civic ritual in the creation of late medieval and early modern urban identity has, of course, been stressed by many scholars. (15) Developing the framework proposed by Mervyn James, an impressive amount of research has been done, for example, on the organization of Corpus Christi processions, and also for the region of the Low Countries. Yet in this line of research the emphasis lies almost exclusively on the relations within the city walls. (16) The study of another remarkable form of civic ritual has brought one type of relation between the city and the outside world to the foreground of Low Countries studies. The princely entry--in which the feudal contract between city and prince was enacted by the handing over of the city's keys, the processional entry, and the public exchange of oaths--has gained special attention in recent years. (17) Borrowing from older work that stressed the constant struggle over economic and political power in a long fifteenth century between the large metropolitan centers such as Ghent and Bruges, on the one hand, and the Burgundian dukes, on the other, recent studies have emphasized the crucial importance of civic ritual in the political communication between the prince and his main cities. The public sphere, with the marketplace, the town hall, and the belfry at its heart, provided the scene for what could arguably be called the Burgundian theater state. (18)
While civic ritual turned the urban public sphere temporarily into a theater where every actor, from prince to artisan, had to take up his part, the medium of drama itself played an increasingly important role in the public communication in towns and cities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. From the late fourteenth century onwards the inherent dramatic character of religious processions and princely entries was developed by the introduction of tableaux vivants along the pageant routes or on wagons. After the conclusion of the ceremonial part morality plays and farces were staged, often in the marketplace or in the graveyard. Farces were also performed, to give another notable example, in the context of Shrove Tuesday celebrations, when the world was turned upside down. (19)
The striking connections between civic ritual and urban theater have brought social and literary historians much closer together. Both now focus on context and performance. (20) This approach has led to one of the most provocative and stimulating theses in early modern Low Countries historiography. In his studies on urban theater and on urban literature in general, Herman Pleij has argued that from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth century an autonomous bourgeois culture was formed in the cities of the core regions of the Low Countries. Urban elites borrowed heavily from court culture and popular culture--the latter understood here primarily as rural culture--to develop a whole new value system that fitted their own social concerns and which centered on labor, self-preservation, and wisdom. According to Pleij, urban theater provided not only an instrument for the communication of these values to different social groups, but also a clever tool for the appropriation of older practices of reversal. (21)
Pleij's work has fueled the debates on subjects related to the theme of urban culture, but at the same time critical notes have been sounded, especially by social historians who question his model of social structures and social relations. (22) This issue brings us to the social implications of the concept of urban culture. In many studies the (often vaguely defined) urban elites are considered to be the primary actors in the efforts to create an urban identity. (23) Yet in recent years it has been increasingly stressed that the social middle class also played a crucial role in the …