Elisabeth's Manly Courage: Testimonials and Songs of Martyred Anabaptist Women in the Low Countries

By Hermina Joldersma; Louis Grijp | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

ANABAPTISM IN THE LOW COUNTRIES

To describe the Reformation in the Low Countries, writes historian Johan Decavele, is, much more than elsewhere in Europe, necessarily to describe the persecution of heretics, for in this part of the Habsburg Empire all Protestant beliefs were combated more thoroughly and systematically than in any other.1 Such persecution was constituted by an often complex interaction between the persecuted beliefs and believers on the one hand, and the various machineries set up by church and state to persecute them on the other. One must therefore keep in mind that the documents available to us, including those contained here, were born in the crucible of that interaction. There is much in the documents from both sides that is partisan and formulaic; at the same time each believer, and to some extent each persecutor, shaped the record individually through the uniqueness of personality and lived experience. This is also and perhaps especially true for women (and we are reminded that none of the official persecutors were women): while their beliefs were common to the group to which they belonged, women's lived lives included aspects unique to their gender.2

Though initially all reformist believers within the Low Countries were treated harshly, Anabaptists (in Dutch called Wederdoopers [rebaptizers], Anabaptisten [Anabaptists], Mennisten [Mennonites], or today Doopsgezinden [“the baptism minded,” no English equivalent]) soon were more severely persecuted.3 Insistence on adult baptism instead of the existing practice of infant baptism emerged in various parts of Europe almost simultaneously, and Anabaptism became an identifiable stream within the Reformation very early, in the mid-1520s. Efforts have been made to establish precedent and lead

____________________
1
Johan Decavele, De dageraad van de reformatie in Vlaanderen (1520–1565), 2 vols., (Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1975), 6.
2
The coexistence of group similarities with gender differences is Merry Wiesner's central thesis in her still classic essay, “Beyond Women and the Family: Towards a Gender Analysis of the Reformation,” Sixteenth Century Journal 18 (1987): 311–321.
3
They were also more harshly treated: in the wave of persecution of Protestants in Antwerp during the 1550s and 1560s, proportionately more Calvinists were banned, more Anabaptists were executed (Marnef, Antwerp, 123; cf. Decavele, Dageraad, 609–610).

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