10. H edge Services at Ghendt, June and July 1566

Explanatory Comment : The patrician Marcus van Vaernewijck (1518-69) belonged to the intellectual and political elite of Ghent. His strong antiquarian interests prompted him to record, for posterity’s sake, the sensational events then occurring in Flanders. He was a loyal, if moderate, Catholic. His political stance was in conformity with his motto ‘Leave off Jealousy’ and he painted a grim picture of life in Ghent under the Spanish garrison. His curiosity, insight and eye for telling detail make his journal especially memorable. Though van Vaernewijck had no sympathy for the Calvinist cause and disparaged the sermons, he recognized the failings of the Catholic clergy and acknowledged the fervour of their Calvinist opponents. As a result his journal is remarkably dispassionate and historians regard his journal as thoroughly reliable, for he was an eye-witness of much that he reported, whilst he showed a healthy critical sense with regard to some of the wilder stories that then circulated.

Text :
[Sunday 30 June 1566] … then someone preached, dressed like the other [preacher] in lay attire, with an ermine-trimmed gown and a fine felt hat. [He was] short of stature and aged about thirty, and seemed, to judge from his speech, to hail from Kortrijk. Close to the chapel outside St. Lievenspoort, [he preached] bare-headed and with great modesty, on a small hill surrounded by copses and plantations. He sat on some hoods and cloaks, lent him by those who had come to listen, and he had in front of him a book, from which he read from time to time, before closing it again and continuing with his sermon. Before he preached, he knelt folding his hands together very devoutly. To avoid being arrested or surprised, he was led into the enclosure in a group of six people in such a way that no one knew who out of the six was the preacher until he made ready to speak. He expounded the gospel of the day, reproved sins and prayed for the magistrates, the King and the Pope that God might enlighten their minds so that the Word of God (as they called their doctrine) might go forward peacefully. He had promised to preach at three o’clock in the afternoon, but he began at two o’clock.

Those present sat in three separate, closely-packed small companies made up of men, women and young girls; each of these had about as many members as the preacher had years. Each company had its teacher and the members had small books in their hands and from time to time sang the psalms; you could buy books there in which the psalms were printed in metrical form for a stiver. Many onlookers stood around; they had come to see what was going on there because it was for everyone a strange, unheard of event, especially for those who lived in Flanders. I was told this by my washerwoman with whom I strongly remonstrated. I said to her that we were threatened by a great evil and danger, if it were not quickly stopped, but, like many simple folk, she thought it was quite innocent and even edifying….

On Sunday 7 July [1566] they preached again, in defiance of the authorities, at Stallendriesche1 at high noon. Thousands of people attended from the town and from the surrounding countryside, including many of the common people, who were not very well versed in the holy scriptures and the church fathers. They [the Calvinists] gave these the impression that now for the first time the truth had been revealed and the gospel preached aright because the preachers especially cited the scriptures most valiantly and stoutly. They let the people check each passage in their Testaments to see whether or not they preached faithfully, [for they said that] the New Testament contained the Word which the Lord had commanded all men to proclaim; not the human inventions and institutions, with which the papists (as they call them) had busied themselves; having raised these above God’s Word or allowed these to obscure God’s Word, it could not advance as it should and must [instead] be bent and give ground in order to accommodate human invention and contrivance; that it was much more proper that human laws should yield and make way for the sacred and blessed Word of God, for this, not rosaries, pilgrimages, voyages, and many suchlike superstitions, will prevail at the Last Judgement; that we are also under a far greater obligation (as the Apostles tell us) to obey the Word of God than men or magistrates, even though we are forbidden to hear this on pain of death, for the Lord says that we should not be afraid of those who would take the body captive, but only those who would cast the body and the soul into the everlasting fires of Hell; and that He shall be ashamed to confess before His heavenly Father and the angels of God those who are ashamed to confess Him in this world; that also Christ (who cannot lie) has prophesied that those who preach and hear His Word in its naked purity shall be oppressed and persecuted for as long as the world exists.

With these and other similar arguments they struck such a marvellous chord in the hearts of good and uneducated people that many of them declared that they were ready to forfeit both their property and their lives for the Word of God and Christ’s name. This sprang, alas, more from a naive fervour than from any judicious circumspection, for if they had heeded and properly understood the counter arguments, they would have come to the opposite conclusion. Not everything that claims to be the Word of God is in fact the Word of God. You must search out what has been the judgement of the Holy Spirit of God, which lies hidden under the letter of God’s Word. It was not without good cause that St. Paul said that the letter kills but the Spirit brings life.

Source : Marcus van Vaernewijck, Van die beroerlicke tijden in de Nederlanden en voornamelijk in Ghendt 1566-1568 I, ed. F. Vanderhaeghen (Gent, 1872) 2-3; 13-14.

1 Stallendries or Vroonstallendries was situated at the centre of the former village of Wondelgem, near Ghent. (I am indebted to Dr. J. Decavele town archivist of Ghent for this information.)