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Catholics were slow to respond to the Revolt in the Netherlands

Historians have long known that Catholics played a significant role in the Revolt of the Netherlands (1520-1635). But what did the Revolt mean to individual Catholics? Professor of Early Modern Dutch history Judith Pollman has published a book on the subject.


Professor Judith Pollmann: 'Everyone just had to go home and contemplate their sins.'
Professor Judith Pollmann: 'Everyone just had to go home and contemplate their sins.'

Professor Judith Pollman: ‘Everyone simply had to go home and contemplate their sins.’
In her recently published Catholic Identity and the Revolt of the Netherlands (1520-1635) Pollman attempts to understand the mind-set of individual sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Catholics. She has delved not just into the standard ecclesiastical sources, but has examined more original mines of information as well: diaries, memoirs, pamphlets and poetic expressions of faith from Catholics in every stratum of society, from beer porters to lawyers. She even examined women’s writing of the period.

New ardour

‘The question that intrigues me is: why is it that Catholics initially reacted so passively to the religious and political aggression of the Protestants, whereas only several decennia later, from around 1585, they began enthusiastically to support the revival of their own faith. Only then did churches and reliquaries begin to be founded, and Catholicism to be embraced with new ardour.’

A clerical problem

Pollman sees the key to this question in the relationship between the priesthood and the laity. ‘When Calvinism first made its appearance in the Netherlands, the priesthood saw it as a problem that concerned only their own kind. To be sure, the crisis was perceived in terms of Divine retribution, but everyone simply had to go home and contemplate their sins. They did not think in terms of collectively mobilising themselves to counter this new threat. Nor did the laity receive any instruction about the new theology.’


The Catholics were certainly aware deep down that their faith was being threatened. Marcus van Vaernewijck, a diarist from Ghent, described how after the Iconoclastic movement people lay in bed terrified, asking why God had not intervened. The established order did nothing; the king was far away; the church at her wits’ end. But individual Catholics had not the slightest idea what to do themselves. While people sat inside praying, the world around them was changing dramatically. The Revolt then took on a more radical form: around 1580 Calvinist city states began to develop and the Protestants became more aggressive still. Heresy was no longer a problem facing priests alone, but one that concerned the entire population.


‘The upshot was that many groups of refugees came into being,’ says Pollman. ‘Exiles from towns such as Antwerp and Brussels sought support in a new order of Catholics, the Jesuits. The Jesuits saw it as their mission to activate the laity. They founded gatherings in which the laity was instructed as to how to confront the heretics. One particular instruction read: “Tell your landlord to remove those heathen prints from his walls.”

No re-unification

‘Once it became clear after 1585 that the exiles could not return home, they began to gain considerable political influence. Their activism aligned itself with the politics of the Hapsburg Monarchy.  This conflict—at least according to received opinion—is a punishment from God that we can allay through devotion.’  The message made its mark. The Southern Netherlands, once a hotbed of heresy, eventually became a bulwark of the Counter-Reformation. This meant that the re-unification of the Netherlands would for a long while be inconceivable.

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