"A Wonderfull Tryumfe, for the Wynnyng of a Pryse": Guilds, Ritual, Theater, and the Urban Network in the Southern Low Countries, Ca. 1450-1650*

By Van Bruaene, Anne-Laure | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

"A Wonderfull Tryumfe, for the Wynnyng of a Pryse": Guilds, Ritual, Theater, and the Urban Network in the Southern Low Countries, Ca. 1450-1650*


Van Bruaene, Anne-Laure, Renaissance Quarterly


1. INTRODUCTION

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. …

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