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Prophecy as a religious language in the Radical Reformation. The prophetic role and authorial voice of HN and his Family of Love

La prophétie comme langage religieux dans la Réforme radicale. Le rôle prophétique et la voix auctoriale de HN et la Family of Love
Andreas Pietsch

Résumés

Le lien entre prophétie et dissidence est clairement identifié et l’objet de travaux importants. L’exemple du charismatique Hendrick Niclaes, auteur au XVIe siècle de textes prophétiques sous le cryptonyme HN, peut apparaître comme un cas de plus. On verra que l’analyse de son langage met au contraire au jour une certaine ambivalence. Tandis que Niclaes utilise la voix prophétique comme cela apparaît dans quantité de pratiques d’auctorialité pour affirmer une autorité dissidente, il manifeste également des idées très conventionnelles à propos de la sainteté et de la sagesse biblique. Cette ambiguïté ne relève pas de mesures prudentielles pour échapper à la persécution. Cela constitue plutôt une part tout à fait assumée de la voix prophétique qui exalte en même temps qu’elle minimise HN comme auteur. Cette contribution a pour but d’appuyer l’hypothèse faite en 1989 par Nigel Smith, pour lequel la prophétie est un “langage religieux” pour les dissidents, et Niclaes un virtuose de ce type de pratique langagière. Paradoxalement, l’évidence et l’ambiguïté de ces textes cryptonymiques ont contribué à leur très large diffusion.

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Prophecy as a “religious language”?

  • 1 Classicale Acta 1573-1620, vol. 2, ed. Johannes Roelevink, The Hague, Nijhoff, 1991, p. 88, 95.
  • 2 Caspar Grevinchoven, Ontdeckinge vande monstreuse dwalingen des Libertijnschen vergodeden Vrijgeest (...)
  • 3 Ibid., p. 17v.

1Around 1600, some Reformed communities in the southern part of the province of Holland were troubled by a false prophet. Several disciplinary inquiries found that local believers were reading books written by this false prophet – and even worse, they considered these books to be as important as Holy Scripture itself.1 The expert hastily consulted to evaluate these writings on behalf of the Reformed synod, the theologian Caspar Grevinchoven, indeed found them to be “monstrous errors” emanating from a “libertine” and “free-spirit”.2 To discredit this deceiver, Grevinchoven associated him with a long line of false prophets, culminating in the enthusiasts Nikolaus Storch and Thomas Muentzer as well as the Anabaptists Melchior Hoffman and David Joris. As Grevinchoven asserted, this false prophet ultimately followed in the footsteps of Muhammad.3 To “warn the simple souls”, as the full title of his treatise ran, Grevinchoven thus borrowed from a long tradition of theological delegitimation of religious innovators.

  • 4 Cf. Alastair Duke, Reformation and Revolt in the Low Countries, London, Hambledon Press, 1990; Arie (...)
  • 5 Among the many works on prophecy, see esp. Nigel Morgan (ed.), Prophecy, Apocalypse and the Day of (...)

2Seen from a modern perspective, this instance of religious conflict illustrates several aspects of the continuing transformations affecting religious identities in north-western Europe. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries not only witnessed the rise and consolidation of new confessional churches, but also continued innovations beyond these new orthodoxies, especially in the religiously quite diverse Netherlands.4 Various smaller groups, such as the one causing Grevinchoven such dismay, experimented with religious expression. Prophecy was an especially popular concept during this time of transition, and the self-image of prophetic authors would have diverged widely from Grevinchoven’s rigidly condemnatory view.5

  • 6 Cf. Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love, Cambridge, James Clarke, 1981; Jean Dietz Moss, “‘Godded (...)
  • 7 The term was coined by Williams in the 1950s and has established itself, especially in the anglopho (...)
  • 8 Cf. Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie, Tübingen, Mohr, 1 (...)

3But while this popularity has recently led to renewed attention among researchers, it has not been enough to bring the groups in question out of a firmly marginalized position. The spiritualist group causing Grevinchoven such concern, the “Family of Love” or “Huis der Liefden”, inspired by the prophetic layman Hendrik Niclaes (d. c. 1580), is a good example.6 It is typically seen as a sect. Research has long classed it within the so-called Radical Reformation – a term which in and by itself implies that groups outside its opposite, the Magisterial Reformation, should be seen as consisting of small-scale gatherings advocating extreme or radical dissent.7 Prophecy is, moreover, still typically associated with religious enthusiasm and millenarian or eschatological warnings, even though the pre-modern understanding was rather broader. Finally, the Weberian scheme opposing the ideal type of the charismatic, oppositional “prophet” to the established, conservative “priest” has contributed towards an understanding of prophecy that views it as extreme, revolutionary and anti-institutional.8 These associations have persisted even though we know that accusations of extreme beliefs and descriptions of groups as sects are often primarily indebted to the polemical writing of their contemporary ecclesiastical opponents.

  • 9 Cf. Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love II: Hiël (Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt), Baden-Baden and (...)
  • 10 The argument for long-term continuities from the late fourteenth to the seventeenth century has rec (...)

4But as it happens, many of our typical assumptions about small-scale prophetical religious actors fit the case of Hendrik Niclaes and his disciples and readers only partly. There appears to have been a close, sect-like community around Niclaes as a founding figure, and soon also around his renegade disciple Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt, who wrote further prophetical religious texts under the name Hiël.9 Both authors draw on concepts of authority and authorship that are rooted in the broad tradition of prophecy. Yet their writings do not centre on predictions of the future or apocalyptic expectations but use other aspects of the complex and heterogeneous prophetical tradition, which (as will be discussed in more detail below) contained many different strategies of claiming, legitimizing and questioning authority. The two authors mainly exhorted readers to engage in an interiorized and highly individualized spirituality. Although their own roles appear irreconcilable with the ecclesiastical structures of authority of the time, the religious beliefs and practices they advocated were to a great extent fairly conventional. The practices they recommended – religious reading in domestic settings, meditation, spiritual pilgrimages and other forms of individualized religious engagement – resemble nothing so much as the traditional piety of the late medieval Netherlands, shaped by mysticism, the Devotio Moderna, and other forms of lay religious engagement.10

  • 11 For the following, cf. Andreas Pietsch, Messbesuch für Anfänger und Fortgeschrittene. Zur konfessi (...)

5While their religious practice thus situated them closer to Catholicism, both authors’ attitudes towards the established churches were characterized by a neutrality verging on indifference. Especially in the writings of Niclaes, this is not merely a result of isolationism attributable to the sect-like character of his group. Rather, we also observe a conscious and focused attempt to overcome the confessional boundaries and conflicts of the sixteenth century. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere, Niclaes established a strategy of confessional ambiguity which undermined the contemporary churches’ attempts to separate true from false believers.11 He mostly achieved this by devaluing their typical markers of identity and by privatizing and interiorizing religion instead. As Niclaes insisted, ceremonies and rituals such as Mass had little importance in themselves, even though it was perfectly acceptable to participate in them, especially for beginners who found them helpful on their way towards deeper understanding. But strife and squabbles about such things were to be avoided by true Christians. Rather than outward belonging, Niclaes focused on an inward attitude; rather than a dichotomical division between in and out, separating the faithful from adherents of heresy, he envisioned a gradual scale of believers who were more or less advanced in virtue and charity. As will be discussed in more detail below, Niclaes actually drew on both the established Catholicism and more typically Protestant concepts and traditions in his writings.

  • 12 This has been the tendency of most work on co-existence, see e.g. Thierry Wanegffelen, Ni Rome ni G (...)
  • 13 This view has recently drawn renewed attention and controversy, especially within German research w (...)

6This attitude underlines the problems inherent in the concept of a “Radical Reformation”, understood as an outlying extreme wing of the Reformation or “left wing” of Christianity. As long as we see the emerging new orthodoxies as big churches with a moderate tendency framed by small-scale outliers on the fringes, we will always allot a marginal role to dissent and heterodoxy – even in areas like the Netherlands, where the supposedly big churches could very well find themselves in minority positions.12 Instead of perpetuating an opposition of “big churches” and “small sects”, which ultimately derives from the religiously charged writings of the contemporaries themselves, we might take a different perspective: many smaller religious groupings and networks can be imagined as an intermediate zone of confessional ambiguity, of mixed and ambivalent practices, situated between the diverging poles of confessionalized churches intent on institutional control and dogmatic purity.13

7Such a view would also be able to accommodate the fact that the confessional churches were very diverse in themselves. As the grouping led by Niclaes illustrates perfectly, the large numbers of churchgoers might actually comprise very heterogeneous groups with a broad variety of religious persuasions and practices. In the case of Catholicism, these might range from the interiorized and individualized spirituality like the one advocated by Niclaes and his followers (who would, in all probability, have been counted as Catholic) to the highly institution-oriented, group-based practices visible in civic processions and public Masses. For the Protestant side, which is traditionally extended to encompass anything not clearly identifiable as Catholic, the spectrum would be even broader.

  • 14 Besides the literature cited in the next note, this approach is indebted to Nigel Smith’s observati (...)

8From this perspective, the prophetical tradition takes on a slightly different light, and ultimately demands a new approach. If we continue to view the ongoing recourses to prophecy during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century one-sidedly as markers of radicalized oppositional status and organization as a sect, we remain trapped within the dichotomies offered by contemporary polemical authors such as Grevinchoven. To be able to study the innovations introduced by groups like the Familists, more nuance is needed. As I would like to suggest, one way to re-frame prophecy is to understand it as a “religious language” able to establish such nuances.14

  • 15 Cf. John Pocock, “The Concept of a Language and the métier d’historien: some considerations on prac (...)
  • 16 In discussing the language and literature of Puritanism in the seventeenth century, N. Smith, op. c (...)
  • 17 Cf. Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, “Les frontières de l’inacceptable. Pour un réexamen de l’histoire de l’in (...)

9As the example of the Family of Love shows, religious texts of our period could make use of an emerging tradition of vernacular theology which quite literally used the vernacular language of the laypeople. As a layman and merchant by training, the prophet Hendrik Niclaes expressed himself in the Low German vernacular common to the Netherlands and the north-west areas of the Empire. More importantly, however, the Familist texts also show that prophecy could be utilized – and can therefore also be studied – as a “religious language”, similar to the political languages postulated by the Cambridge School, having their “own vocabulary, rules, preconditions and implications, tone and style” used by “a single though multiplex community of discourse”.15 In the writings of Hendrik Niclaes and his associates and followers, we can often trace how well-known concepts and recognizable elements of religious communication were adapted and reconfigured to convey a mix of old and new religious norms.16 Seeing the Familist prophetical writings as instances of a religious language allows us to explore both sides of this mix – not only the innovative content, but also the framework within which this innovation could be expressed, or to use Jean-Pierre Cavaillé’s phrase the way it moved within established “espaces d’acceptabilité”.17

  • 18 The exegetical and admonitory aspects of prophecy are also emphasised by Smith, see N. Smith, op. c (...)

10Prophecy must, of course, be seen as a prime example of such a religious language anyway, and has particular ties to religious dissent. As one of the oldest distinct modes of religious expression, it almost constitutes a proto-language of religious innovation, and went through a period of particular popularity during the later Middle Ages. At the same time, it has a certain inbuilt immunity to criticism. Prophets and seers are known to proclaim or interpret the word and the will of God in situations of crisis, but often from a precarious or marginalized position.18 Prophecy is thus typically controversial, and criticism of allegedly false prophets is as traditional as prophecy itself. But because the Bible itself contains models of prophets being persecuted, prophets also tend to appropriate external persecution as a hallmark of their identity and authority, at times even using it to claim a heightened inherent plausibility. Given the multiple divisions within the religious landscape of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the acrid antagonisms of religious controversies, this quality of prophecy appears to have contributed to its popularity.

11Yet in the case of Hendrik Niclaes and his readers, prophecy is not only used as a well-established vehicle of expression. He also makes use of a broad range of different idioms and themes which had become associated with the prophetical tradition over time. Far from focusing on eschatological warnings alone, his writings show a nuanced use of various other elements of prophecy – besides visionary authority, Niclaes also claims the authority of an inspired interpreter of the Bible and positions himself as a source of exhortation in times of crisis. In the following, these aspects are discussed separately before brief conclusions are drawn.

Naming the prophet: the construction of HN among close followers of the group

  • 19 For the catalogue of his works, cf. Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love I: Hendrik Niclaes, Baden (...)
  • 20 Cf. Lesley Monfils, “Family and Friends. Hendrik Niclaes’s ‘Low German’ Writings Printed in England (...)
  • 21 Departing from most research, which has tended to assume that all writings by HN were read in the c (...)

12The discussion of a first important element of prophetic authority claimed by Hendrik Niclaes can be tied to a problematiation of the sources. Notoriously, Niclaes did not publish his works under his full name, but used only his initials, HN. But this cryptonym could and would have been understood and encountered in different ways by different readers of his texts. On the one hand, we possess three manuscripts apparently produced among Niclaes’ immediate followers, who indeed appear to have formed a sect-like, close-knit group during his later years. On the other hand, we possess a large number of printed works – during Niclaes’ lifetime, thirty-two separate printed texts appeared, often going into second editions.19 Later reprints and translations, at times connected to Quaker circles and some pietist groups, range in date from the later sixteenth to the early eighteenth century.20 Besides (presumably) being read by Niclaes’ followers during his lifetime, the printed works mainly appear to have been received and adapted by readers and editors who had no connections to the sect-like grouping. To reconstruct the way such diverging audiences may have read texts, two examples will be discussed separately.21

  • 22 The manuscripts are edited in Cronica. Ordo Sacerdotis. Acta HN. Three Texts on the Family of Love, (...)

13Among the three manuscripts, the so-called Ordo sacerdotis offers an idealized view of the group structure, which has drawn much attention in research.22 The other two manuscripts, the Cronica and Acta HN, both contain a hagiographical biography of Niclaes, which clearly aims to set out and legitimize his authority as a religious leader. Unfortunately, these strongly partisan texts – and the equally distorting polemical views of opponents like Caspar Grevinchoven – are our only sources for Niclaes’ life. They must be read with caution, and understood as vehicles for establishing his authority among a specific group of followers rather than as documentary evidence.

14One of the most striking characteristics of the description of Niclaes’ life in the biographical texts is that they present an authorizing narrative of private revelations, resistance and eventual surrender to a prophetic calling, but mix this with elements strongly associated with hagiography: Niclaes is not only presented as a prophet, but almost as a living saint.

  • 23 Ibid., p. 9.

15The construction of exceptional charisma begins with the description of his birth in the Cronica. As is usual with hagiographical vitae, the child is described as extraordinary from the beginning. Immediately after the birth, his father, apparently prompted by God, announces that a “holy nature” has been given to the world: “As the father, Nicolaus, was overjoyed about the child, he thanked God in heaven for his grace and said: The Lord has had mercy with me, and given me a holy nature on this earth. And he named him HN.”23 The text actually leaves open whether Niclaes’ father or God himself are the source of the epitheton of “holy nature” (“hillige nature”/HN), which becomes a touchstone for the authorial figure HN.

  • 24 For a reconstruction of Niclaes’ biography beyond the Cronica, cf. Irmgard Simon, “Hendrik Niclaes. (...)
  • 25 C. Grevinchoven, op. cit., p. Aiiij.
  • 26 Cf. Gary K. Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism 1524-1543, Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University (...)
  • 27 For his first prints, Niclaes also used Dirk van der Borne, who had printed for Joris. Cf. Paul Val (...)

16Where and when this birth took place remains vague, and later attributions may be coloured by polemics. Niclaes must have been born around 1500.24 Although Münster is mentioned as one possible place of birth, for example by the polemicist Grevinchoven, this may be an attempt to insinuate that Niclaes was close to the Münster Anabaptists.25 Grevinchoven also draws parallels between Niclaes and another heresiarch, David Joris (1501?-1556), whose works may indeed have exerted some influence.26 Both men were merchants who felt called to prophecy and gained followers, advocating a message of peace. Both also came from the same geographical area around today’s German-Dutch border and used the vernacular of this region. Niclaes’ central work, the Glass of Righteousness (Spegel der Gherechticheit, c. 1555) indeed seems to imitate David Joris’s Wonderbook in its diction and typographical presentation.27

  • 28 On hagiographical texts and their influence, cf. Dieter R. Bauer and Klaus Herbers (eds.), Hagiogra (...)

17The Cronica then adds a history of visionary experiences, beginning in childhood. Although young Hendrik did not dare to tell his parents about his visions, they eventually noted strange behaviour and sought help. They consulted a cleric, who was astonished at the child’s enormous knowledge, but still recommended giving the boy nothing but the Bible and saints’ lives to read. Although this is a hagiographical topos, these two textual types were actually formative for both Niclaes’ own writings and the Cronica itself and appear to have shaped his literary language.28 Niclaes’ further life is described as blameless – after a brief stint at a Latin school he becomes a cloth merchant, moves to Amsterdam in about 1530 and marries. Although he came in contact with reforming groups in Amsterdam and heard about Luther’s writings early on, the text insists that he rejected their teachings. Nevertheless, he apparently suffered persecution because of his prophetical activity. As the Cronica describes, he could only avoid capture because of a night-time vision, in which God commanded him to move east to a land called “Piety to found the Family of Love.

18Around 1540, Niclaes did indeed move to Emden, where he expanded his cloth business and intensified his religious activities. His first writings, which partly appeared in print, fall into this period. For almost twenty years, Niclaes then remained in Emden, but eventually again encountered hostility and was forced to flee. His miraculous escape, which caused him to leave his family behind and eventually resulted in the death of his wife, is painted in the most vivid hagiographical colours. Even though the pursuers managed to catch up with him, God helped Niclaes to escape by making them blind. The same thing happened to his writings. During a second persecution, his books were open on the table, but the pursuers could not see them. Fully confident in his calling, Niclaes apparently fled to Kampen and then to Rotterdam. In his last years, from about 1568 to 1580, he seems to have lived an untroubled life in Cologne.

  • 29 See Meier’s seminal discussion of Hildegard of Bingen, Rupert of Deutz and others in Christel Meier (...)
  • 30 For medieval versions, see the further references in C. Meier, art. cit.

19Altogether, this biographical construction makes use of several established strategies of authorization. Besides elements of the miraculous more commonly found in hagiography, the authors of the Cronica apparently draw on medieval concepts of religious authorship associated with a type of authority and authorship that is visionary, but not always and not necessarily prophetic. As Christel Meier has shown, such constructions of “existential authorship” go back to the twelfth century.29 Typically, they relate an author’s expertise and authority to individual religious experiences rather than scholarly knowledge. Narratives of authorization establishing the credentials of these figures almost always present a biography meant to authenticate a series of extraordinary religious experiences, typically following a pattern of uncertainty, resistance and final acceptance of a divine command to write or speak their religious truth. In an adaptation of such older patterns, which typically ascribed visionary authority to members of religious orders or ascetics, Niclaes’ biography in the Cronica translates this older, well-established concept of authorization to the new context of lay religious expression.30

20In a marked contrast from established traditions, however, the cryptonym HN occupies a central place in Niclaes’ saintly and prophetic life, serving as a focal point for the religious identity and authority Niclaes sought to build in his exchanges with his followers. Its implications are first made clear in an early passage describing Niclaes’ acceptance of his calling, which triggers a series of visions establishing his role as a prophet. In the third of these revelations, Niclaes is not only described as a visionary in the medieval tradition, but described as a new, Christ-like being sharing the divine essence. This is tied closely to the interpretation of the letters HN:

  • 31 Cronica, ed. cit., p. 41.

From this time of the third revelation of the Lord onwards, the Lord began […] to speak to HN as if face to face: For God the Lord was wholly with him. […] 3. And the Word of the Lord went to HN and said: this mighty being, with whom you are of one essence, is my great prophecy, Helie Nazarenus, which I have promised to send to earth. And through this my great prophecy, which I have set into your heart, thought and mind, you shall spread the obedience to my gracious word and my holy spirit of charity everywhere on earth.31

21As the text continues, HN and his prophecy were to serve as a divine exhortation to the people, saving them from perdition during the Last Judgement.

22These passages are central to the establishment of HN’s writing as prophetical and his status as Christ-like. The initials HN, which are variously resolved as “holy nature, “homo novus or “Helie Nazarenus, describe a new prophet whose very name links the Old (Eli) and New Testaments (Nazarenus). At the same time, the passage underlines that Niclaes’ message has to be spread.

  • 32 Cf. Cristina Andenna, “Heiligenviten als stabilisierende Gedächtnisspeicher in Zeiten religiösen Wa (...)

23It is obvious that the Cronica’s careful legitimation of a prophetical authorial role was meant to explicate the authority of the cryptonymic texts by “HN”. We can probably assume that personal disciples of Niclaes and members of his group would have been primed to understand and accept his writings in the way the Cronica intended, i.e. as divine prophecy – and as mentioned above, there were at least some readers who put Niclaes’ writings on a level with Scripture. In this sense, the Cronica can be understood as a kind of paratext explaining the other texts (and like some cases of medieval hagiography, also serving as a “stabilization of memory” in times of crisis32). Yet to other readers, whose ties to the group were more tenuous, or who did not know about it at all and encountered only the texts, the cryptonym HN would have remained fairly innocuous. Although they would have encountered HN’s prophetic way of speaking, this mostly consisted of exhortation (to be discussed next). Readers would thus not always have been able to link HN’s writings to the visionary and even Christ-like authority constructed in the manuscripts. Rather, the contrary may have been the case – encountering a text authored anonymously would not necessarily suggest a dissident author. In medieval literature of religious devotion, especially of a compilatory character, anonymous authorship was also associated with humility. In engaging with these texts, this ambiguous status of the authorship of HN should be kept in mind.

Listen, my children. Biblical language and speaker role

  • 33 On the other exhortations, especially the First Exhortation of HN, printed in 1561 presumably in Ka (...)

24If we view Niclaes’ printed works separately, they display a very different authorial role. Although also drawing on elements of the prophetic tradition, the authorial self-representation in the printed works largely relies on other elements of authentication and legitimation. On the one hand, Niclaes eschewed openly visionary or eschatological formats, mostly in favour of different forms of exhortation, which are presented both in his large-scale Glass of Righteousness and his epistles of exhortation (Vormaninge). On the other hand, he draws on additional elements of legitimation, which are located on a material, aesthetic and textual level alongside the conceptual. This is especially visible in his second epistle, The Second Exhortation of HN to his Children and Family of Love (D’Anderde Vormaninge HN. to syne Kinderen unde Hůsgesinne der Lieften), printed in Kampen in 1565.33

  • 34 A case in point is Luther’s Sendschreiben an die Christen in Antwerpen from the year 1525, cf. D. M (...)
  • 35 Cf. A. Hamilton, The Family of Love I, op. cit., p. 170-177 (with a plate of the title page, p. 173 (...)

25At first glance, Niclaes’ Second Exhortation looks very similar to sixteenth-century Reformist writings. The genre of epistle was used by Protestant writers, not least by Martin Luther.34 The more than 300 pages of Niclaes’ text are accompanied by plentiful references to the Bible, whereas any reference to tradition, canon law or hagiography is lacking. Following the conventions of contemporary printers, the Bible references are marked in the volume’s margins, and thus easily visible to any reader. In accordance with another contemporary convention, the title page contained not only a title and short description of contents, but also two Bible verses serving as a kind of motto for the text.35

26A closer look at the contents quickly shows that Niclaes was, in fact, rather far removed from typical Protestant stances and renounced them openly; especially where the sacraments were concerned, he remained much closer to pre-Reformation thought. A closer look at his use of biblical references shows that this ambivalence towards both sides appears to be intended, and constitutes an essential part of a construction of prophetical authority on a formal level. The two Bible verses from the title page can be used as examples.

27The first of these two verses is Proverbs 4:1-2 (“Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching”), the second is Psalm 32:8 (I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you”). Of course, the work’s title, Niclaes’ Exhortation to his children and the biblical “Listen, children” voiced by King Solomon form a marked parallel. Only the precise formulation, which abstracts from the first-person voice of Solomon, separates the two. This echo effect is typical for Niclaes’ literary language, which remains extremely close to biblical expressions throughout.

28Within the first sentences of the treatise, for example, the technique is used even more extensively. Again, the author addresses the children:

  • 36 D’anderde Vormaninge HN, Kampen, Warnersen, 1565, p. 1.

O all you my dear children and family of love, listen closely to my speech of God-blessed wisdom (Proverbs 1; 4; 5) and pay most serious attention to my teaching of the holy understanding. 2. Keep my exhortation and instruction well (Proverbs 3; 4; 7) and put them in your heart for eternal memory. 3. Love them more than all gold and silver (Proverbs 8; 1; 6) and more than all treasure and beauty. 4. For if you take them to your heart (Proverbs 2; 4), they shall bring you a quiet and peaceful heart, and much honour and treasure (Proverbs 8; 9) and also a long life, which shall lead to a perfect old age and eternal life (Sirach 37). This is true.36

  • 37 Yet on the title page, where he quotes directly, Niclaes added references to the part of the chapte (...)

29The Bible references, which are placed in the margins and have been transposed into the text here, leave no doubt that this fairly short passage largely consists of biblical words. As a close analysis shows, however, they are allusions more than references, and cannot be understood as verbatim quotations. Mostly, Niclaes uses loose allusions and only references whole chapters. As the verse numbering of the Bible only established itself during the course of the sixteenth century, this is not in itself unusual.37 Read closely, however, Niclaes’ references to the Bible constitute whole clusters of verbal association, often linking several Bible verses in different chapters.

30One example suffices to show this. The second reference of the passage translated above refers to chapters three, four and seven of the book of Proverbs. The specific verses alluded to appear to be Proverbs 3:1 (“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments”), Proverbs 4:4 (“He taught me, and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live’”), and Proverbs 7:1-3 (“My child, keep my words and store up my commandments with you; keep my commandments and live, keep my teachings as the apple of your eye; bind them on your fingers, write them on the tablet of your heart”).

31Other reference clusters contain chains of association rather than parallels of this type, for example in the references in the last sentence of the passage translated above (Proverbs 8; 9 and Sirach 37). Proverbs 8:18 (“Riches and honour are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity”) already introduces the notion of honour, which is developed in Sirach 37:26 (“One who is wise among his people will inherit honour, and his name will live forever”). The concept of eternal life is also present in the third of the referenced chapters, namely Proverbs 9:11 (“For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life”).

  • 38 Niclaes’ sources – including, unfortunately, the Bibles he may have used – have as yet been little (...)
  • 39 Cf. Matthew Goff, “Wisdom and Apocalypticism”, in John Collins (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Apocal (...)
  • 40 All works by HN end with an affirmative “Take it to your heart”.

32We can only speculate whether this chain of quotations was based on individual readings of the Bible or on older reference works offering collections of related quotations.38 But the extreme number of references and quotations – with five references to Proverbs and one to Sirach in the four translated sentences alone – also speaks for itself. It does not appear to be an accident that most references concern the sapiential books of the Bible with their appellative character and dialogic structures.39 Like Niclaes’ sentences, which exhort his readers to listen, the opening verses of Proverbs happen to show the same quality of associatively grouped, often rather redundant expression. Altogether, the authorial voice presenting itself to readers is thus strongly stylized throughout the text as a fatherly voice offering wise instructions meant to be “taken to heart”.40 Numerous repetitions reinforce this core message, which was already largely conveyed by the biblical motti on the title page.

33If we compare Niclaes’ use of the Bible with that current in sixteenth-century Protestant writings, there are more differences than similarities. The restriction to the Bible as a source of authority (sola scriptura) is, of course, a striking departure from Catholic writing of the time or from pre-Reformation usage. But Niclaes’ references to the Bible cannot be understood as quotations or biblical arguments which were then explained, in the fashion of either Catholic or Protestant exegesis. Strictly speaking, Niclaes’ argumentation in the Second Exhortation cannot be called biblical argumentation at all. His technique appears to be more like a kind of biblical bricolage.

  • 41 As a linguistic study of prophetic speech, cf. Alicja Sakaguchi, Sprechakte der mystischen Erfahrun (...)

34The primary effect of this bricolage is to negate any boundary between the authorial voice of HN’s texts and the authority of the divinely inspired words of Scripture. This technique, which oscillates between a daring appropriation of the biblical text and a humble self-elimination of the author’s own voice, can be linked to both of the two possible reader groups and attendant understandings of prophecy discussed so far. For members of Niclaes’ group, who would have read his texts through the lens of the divine calling described by the Cronica, the use of biblical language would be most appropriate: the words of Helie Nazarenus, who bridged the Old and New Testament at God’s command, would fit seamlessly with the Scriptures and were in fact much more than the writings of a simple merchant. HN’s appropriation of Scripture on a linguistic rather than merely conceptual level also provides additional context for the fact that some followers equated his writings with Scripture.41

  • 42 Cf. the theoretical discussion and case studies in Wulf Oesterreicher et al. (eds.), Autorität der (...)

35For readers who were not familiar with the identity of HN, the technique of bricolage would presumably have worked on a different level. Readers who did not engage with the biblical references in the margins in detail would mainly have understood a passage like the one translated above as an address to the reader. They may simply have perceived HN as a devout religious author offering a fatherly voice of exhortation. Even for readers who could follow up on the biblical references, the biblical quotations served neither as evidence for arguments nor as the basis for exegetical explanations in the traditional sense. That the text was nevertheless very close to biblical language – a fact that was highlighted by the marginal references – would presumably simply have underlined the relevance of the exhortations. For unlearned readers, the formal set-up and aesthetic of the text would also have suggested learned expertise.42 Finally, an additional effect may have been realized for readers unaware of HN’s self-understanding, but wondering about the text’s orthodoxy – as HN’s other writings did, at times, advocate self-deification and had a history of being hereticised. As prophecy could only be distinguished from false prophecy by its adherence to biblical precepts, HN’s closeness to biblical language may have served as a marker of orthodoxy to unsure readers.

Conclusions: Prophecy and its ambivalence

36Summarizing the aspects discussed so far, we can say that the authority and authorial voice presented in Niclaes’ writings show several distinct facets, which partly serve to explain one another. In strong contrast to the role of visionary and prophet constructed by the Cronica, the Second Exhortation shows a much more moderate authorial voice, which presents itself as a father and teacher. Yet studied closely, this fatherly voice also takes up elements of the prophetical tradition, as exhortation and interpretation of the Bible were also understood as a prophetical task, particularly in times of crisis. Still, knowledge of the prophetical identity transmitted in manuscripts and personal contacts surrounding Niclaes would have thrown a different light on the authority of the texts by HN. As we must conclude, different audiences would have perceived and understood a different message, depending on their possession of the printed books and/or of the manuscripts and personal access to the group.

37But there can be little doubt that Niclaes and his close collaborators consciously developed these different facets of prophetical authorship, instrumentalising and adapting extant traditions associated with prophecy. The discrepancies opened up by this strategy are at times considerable, and generate the impression of a certain eclecticism. But this impression may be deceptive. The fact that the Second Exhortation offers an apparently devout and harmless and even ostentatiously orthodox self-representation should in all probability be linked to the fact that Niclaes’ orthodoxy had been questioned before its publication. The text’s legitimating strategies, most importantly its amalgamation of an authorial and Scriptural voice on a formal, linguistic and conceptual level, play into this. Yet they would also have made sense to readers familiar with different aspects of the prophetical tradition.

  • 43 See illustrations in A. Hamilton, The Family of Love I, op. cit., p. 125, 169.

38The impression of a conscious appeal to different facets of the concept of prophecy is also borne out by the use of images in HN’s later prints.43 Although these prints date from the same years, largely the 1570s, two different types of images are presented. In the Institutio puerorum (1575), an instruction for prayer addressed to younger people, we encounter a father figure and teacher of children, depicted once in a school scene and once in a domestic scene of evening prayer. In the Lieder edder Gesangen HN (1575) and again in the Paraeneses Tres (1580), we are instead shown a figure that is much closer to the traditional understanding of prophecy. In this image, the protagonist at the centre-left of the image contemplates a tetragrammaton. He is surrounded by a community, presumably of disciples, and together they are enclosed by a layer of clouds which separates them from warlike figures to the right, which appear to threaten them. This image type seems to represent the unavoidable persecution of the prophet, a theme that is made explicit in the accompanying Bible verse, in which Christ promises salvation to those suffering persecution (Mt 5:10-11; Luc 6:22-23).

39One of the most remarkable aspects of the use of prophecy by HN and his followers is the dexterous mixture of innovation and traditionalism. Altogether, Niclaes genuinely managed to transcend the boundaries of existing confessions and to claim an extraordinary and highly unusual role for himself – yet he and his followers did this with extremely conventional means. Both the concepts and patterns that are drawn upon and the way they are presented on a linguistic and material level locate themselves carefully within a space of acceptability, thus making use of a pre-established “religious language” and expanding this language at the same time.

40The issues of acceptability and legitimacy indeed penetrate most other aspects of Niclaes’ authorial presentations and self-representations. The conceptual vocabulary and authorial voices of the prophetical tradition offered extremely apt strategies for this task. Contrary to the usual interpretations of these strategies as part of a “Radical Reformation”, however, Niclaes’ prophecy was not openly confrontational towards the established church. With its contemplative, interiorizing tendencies and its closeness to mysticism, Niclaes instead subverted ecclesiastical structures from within, as it were. It is notable that his recommended religious practices appear extremely close to pre-Reformation piety, which must have been well-known and well-established among specific pious lay networks in north-western Europe. People belonging to this tradition – among them religiously interested urban elites like merchants, artists and scholars – would have been particularly fluent in the “religious language” that Niclaes supplied.

41Ironically, Niclaes’ oscillation between an exposed, visionary position and an almost self-effacing biblicism also appears to have produced a greatly reduced authorial persona as a curious side effect. It seems as if those groups of readers who were not part of the small group of followers missed his more extravagant claims. They may simply have taken his exhortations as anonymous writings of pious intent, and used them as devotional reading without special affiliation. As the works by HN continued to be reprinted and adapted far into the seventeenth and even early eighteenth centuries, well beyond the last traces of organized groups affiliated with the original Family of Love, we must assume that they continued to speak to readers who did not know the group. If this theory holds, it might even turn out that the self-contained conventionality of HN’s prophetical writings may in fact have been one of the secrets behind his continued success.

I would like to thank Sita Steckel and Theo Riches for the English translation work.

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Notes

1 Classicale Acta 1573-1620, vol. 2, ed. Johannes Roelevink, The Hague, Nijhoff, 1991, p. 88, 95.

2 Caspar Grevinchoven, Ontdeckinge vande monstreuse dwalingen des Libertijnschen vergodeden Vrijgeestes Hendric Niclaesson tot waerschouwinghe allen eenvoudighen christenen, Rotterdam, Waesberghe, 1604, sign. Aiiij. This translation, and all the others in this paper, are by the author. Biblical quotations are from the NRSV.

3 Ibid., p. 17v.

4 Cf. Alastair Duke, Reformation and Revolt in the Low Countries, London, Hambledon Press, 1990; Arie Jan Gelderblom et al. (eds.), The Low Countries as a Crossroads of Religious Beliefs, Leiden, Brill, 2004; Jesse Spohnholz, “Confessional coexistence in the early modern Low Countries”, in Thomas Max Safley (ed.), A Companion to Multiconfessionalism in the Early Modern World, Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2011, p. 47-73.

5 Among the many works on prophecy, see esp. Nigel Morgan (ed.), Prophecy, Apocalypse and the Day of Doom, Donington, Shaun Tyas, 2004; André Vauchez (ed.), Prophètes et prophétisme, Paris, Éd. du Seuil, 2012; Christel Meier and Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (eds.), Prophetie und Autorschaft. Charisma, Heilsversprechen und Gefährdung, Berlin, De Gruyter, 2014.

6 Cf. Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love, Cambridge, James Clarke, 1981; Jean Dietz Moss, “‘Godded with God’. Hendrik Niclaes and his Family of Love”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 71.8, 1981, p. 1-89 and also the pioneering study by Heinrich Nippold, “Heinrich Niclaes und das Haus der Liebe. Ein monographischer Versuch aus der Secten-Geschichte der Reformationszeit”, Zeitschrift für historische Theologie, 32, 1862, p. 323-402, 473-563.

7 The term was coined by Williams in the 1950s and has established itself, especially in the anglophone world, in spite of much criticism. Cf. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd revised edition, Kirksville, Truman State University Press, 2000. See also Neal Blough (ed.), Jésus-Christ aux marges de la Réforme, Paris, Desclée, 1992.

8 Cf. Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie, Tübingen, Mohr, 1922, p. 250-257. Weber’s ideal types have undergone important adaptations in the French sociology of religion, cf. esp. Pierre Bourdieu, “Genèse et structure du champ religieux”, Revue française de sociologie, 12.3, 1971, p. 295-334.

9 Cf. Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love II: Hiël (Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt), Baden-Baden and Bouxwiller, Koerner, 2013.

10 The argument for long-term continuities from the late fourteenth to the seventeenth century has recently been made, see esp. Sabrina Corbellini et al., “Challenging the Paradigms. Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe”, Church History and Religious Culture, 93.2, 2013, p. 171-188; and the approaches in S. Corbellini (ed.), Cultures of Religious Reading in the Late Middle Ages. Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion, Turnhout, Brepols, 2013.

11 For the following, cf. Andreas Pietsch, Messbesuch für Anfänger und Fortgeschrittene. Zur konfessionellen Ambiguität der konfessionellen Zugehörigkeit, in Andreas Pietsch and Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (eds.), Konfessionelle Ambiguität. Uneindeutigkeit und Verstellung als religiöse Praxis in der Frühen Neuzeit, Gütersloh, Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2013, p. 238-266.

12 This has been the tendency of most work on co-existence, see e.g. Thierry Wanegffelen, Ni Rome ni Genève. Des fidèles entre deux chaires en France au XVIe siècle, Paris, Champion, 1997. In the Netherlands, the Reformed church remained a minority even around 1600, see Joke Spaans, Haarlem na de reformatie. Stedelijke cultuur en kerkelijk leven, 1577-1620, The Hague, Stichting Hollandse Historische Reeks, 1989, p. 71-108.

13 This view has recently drawn renewed attention and controversy, especially within German research with its traditional focus on the churches, cf. Kaspar von Greyerz et al. (eds.), Interkonfessionalität – Transkonfessionalität – binnenkonfessionelle Pluralität. Neue Forschungen zur Konfessionalisierungsthese, Gütersloh, Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2003; Andreas Pietsch and Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (eds.), op. cit.

14 Besides the literature cited in the next note, this approach is indebted to Nigel Smith’s observations on the use of language and literature in dissenting groups, which uses the example of the Puritans. Cf. Nigel Smith, Perfection Proclaimed. Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989.

15 Cf. John Pocock, “The Concept of a Language and the métier d’historien: some considerations on practice”, in Anthony Pagden (ed.), The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 19-40, here p. 21, 25. On the later Cambridge School, cf. Annabel Brett and James Tully (eds.), Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006. On the understanding of biblical language as a political language in the sense of the Cambridge School see Kai Trampedach and Andreas Pecar (eds.), Bibel als politisches Argument. Voraussetzungen und Folgen biblizistischer Herrschaftslegitimation in der Vormoderne, Munich, Oldenbourg, 2007.

16 In discussing the language and literature of Puritanism in the seventeenth century, N. Smith, op. cit., p. 144-184, engages with prophecy and with the English translations of Niclaes’ writings, emphasising the “hitherto unnoticed sophistication of Niclaes’ use of genres and the complexity of his allegorical and affective strategies”, p. 145.

17 Cf. Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, “Les frontières de l’inacceptable. Pour un réexamen de l’histoire de l’incrédulité”, Les Dossiers du Grihl, URL: http://dossiersgrihl.revues.org/4746 (consulté le 28/8/2016).

18 The exegetical and admonitory aspects of prophecy are also emphasised by Smith, see N. Smith, op. cit., p. 26. For late medieval prophecy, see the references in Courtney Kneupper, The Empire at the End of Time. Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016.

19 For the catalogue of his works, cf. Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love I: Hendrik Niclaes, Baden-Baden and Bouxwiller, Koerner, 2003.

20 Cf. Lesley Monfils, “Family and Friends. Hendrik Niclaes’s ‘Low German’ Writings Printed in England during the Rise of the Quakers”, Quaerendo, 32, 2002, p. 257-283; Alastair Hamilton, “From Familism to Pietism. The Fortune of Pieter van der Borcht’s Biblical Illustrations and Hiël’s Commentaries from 1584 to 1717”, Quaerendo, 11, 1981, p. 271-301; idem., “Hiël in England 1657-1819”, Quaerendo, 15, 1986, p. 282-304; Christopher W. Marsh, The Family of Love in English Society. 1550-1630, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

21 Departing from most research, which has tended to assume that all writings by HN were read in the context of close, sect-like groups of followers, I would like to divide Niclaes’ readership into a group of close followers and other, less knowledgeable or even completely uninitiated reader networks. I am currently preparing a study of the reception of the relevant works which will discuss this hypothesis in greater detail.

22 The manuscripts are edited in Cronica. Ordo Sacerdotis. Acta HN. Three Texts on the Family of Love, ed. Alastair Hamilton, Leiden and Boston, Brill, 1988.

23 Ibid., p. 9.

24 For a reconstruction of Niclaes’ biography beyond the Cronica, cf. Irmgard Simon, “Hendrik Niclaes. Biographische und bibliographische Notizen”, Niederdeutsches Wort, 13, 1973, p. 63-77.

25 C. Grevinchoven, op. cit., p. Aiiij.

26 Cf. Gary K. Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism 1524-1543, Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990.

27 For his first prints, Niclaes also used Dirk van der Borne, who had printed for Joris. Cf. Paul Valkema Blouw, “Printers to Hendrik Niclaes: Plantin and Augustijn van Hasselt”, Quaerendo, 14, 1984, p. 247-272.

28 On hagiographical texts and their influence, cf. Dieter R. Bauer and Klaus Herbers (eds.), Hagiographie im Kontext. Wirkungsweisen und Möglichkeiten historischer Auswertung, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2000. Of relevance beyond the medieval period also Peter Strohschneider, “Textheiligung. Geltungsstrategien legendarischen Erzählens im Mittelalter am Beispiel Konrads von Würzburg ‘Alexius’”, in Gert Melville and Hans Vorländer (eds.), Geltungsgeschichten. Über Stabilisierung und Legitimierung institutioneller Ordnungen, Cologne, Böhlau, 2002, p. 109-147.

29 See Meier’s seminal discussion of Hildegard of Bingen, Rupert of Deutz and others in Christel Meier, “Autorschaft im 12. Jahrhundert. Persönliche Identität und Rollenkonstrukt”, in Peter von Moos (ed.), Unverwechselbarkeit. Persönliche Identität und Identifikation in der vormodernen Gesellschaft, Cologne, Böhlau, 2004, p. 207-266.

30 For medieval versions, see the further references in C. Meier, art. cit.

31 Cronica, ed. cit., p. 41.

32 Cf. Cristina Andenna, “Heiligenviten als stabilisierende Gedächtnisspeicher in Zeiten religiösen Wandels”, in Peter Strohschneider (ed.), Literarische und religiöse Kommunikation in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, Berlin and New York, De Gruyter, 2009, p. 526-573, here p. 534-536.

33 On the other exhortations, especially the First Exhortation of HN, printed in 1561 presumably in Kampen, see A. Hamilton, The Family of Love I, op. cit., p. 26-29, 155-159.

34 A case in point is Luther’s Sendschreiben an die Christen in Antwerpen from the year 1525, cf. D. Martin Luthers Werke, vol. 18, ed. Joachim Knaake (Weimarer Ausgabe), Weimar, Böhlau, 1908, p. 541-550.

35 Cf. A. Hamilton, The Family of Love I, op. cit., p. 170-177 (with a plate of the title page, p. 173).

36 D’anderde Vormaninge HN, Kampen, Warnersen, 1565, p. 1.

37 Yet on the title page, where he quotes directly, Niclaes added references to the part of the chapter using letters (“Prou.4.a” and “Psal.32.a”). This early form of more precise referencing can be encountered in both Latin and vernacular Bibles of the time.

38 Niclaes’ sources – including, unfortunately, the Bibles he may have used – have as yet been little studied, so that no clear identifications are possible at the moment. On the reception of Ezra, see Alastair Hamilton, “The Apocryphal Apocalypse. 2 Ezra and the Anabaptist Movement”, Nederlands archief voor kerkgeschiedenis, 68, 1988, p. 1-16; idem., The Apocryphal Apocalypse. The Reception of the Second Book of Esdra (4 Ezra) from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999. A relevant case study concerning different readings of Ezechiel is provided by Piet Visser, “In the Sign of Thau. The Bible and the Dutch Radical Reformation”, in Mathijs Lamberigts and August A. den Hollander (eds.), Lay Bibles in Europe 1400-1800, Leuven, Brepols, 2006, p. 97-118.

39 Cf. Matthew Goff, “Wisdom and Apocalypticism”, in John Collins (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 52-68, here p. 54: “Wisdom comprises specific literary forms, including exhortations, proverbs, and admonitions that serve the overarching pedagogical goal of the material – the instruction of students by teachers”.

40 All works by HN end with an affirmative “Take it to your heart”.

41 As a linguistic study of prophetic speech, cf. Alicja Sakaguchi, Sprechakte der mystischen Erfahrung. Eine komparative Studie zum sprachlichen Ausdruck von Offenbarung und Prophetie, Freiburg and Munich, Alber, 2015.

42 Cf. the theoretical discussion and case studies in Wulf Oesterreicher et al. (eds.), Autorität der Form – Autorisierung – Institutionelle Autorität, Münster, Lit, 2003.

43 See illustrations in A. Hamilton, The Family of Love I, op. cit., p. 125, 169.

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Andreas Pietsch, « Prophecy as a religious language in the Radical Reformation. The prophetic role and authorial voice of HN and his Family of Love », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 31 | 2017, mis en ligne le 06 octobre 2017, consulté le 10 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/1713 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.1713

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Andreas Pietsch

Andreas Pietsch is Research Fellow in Early Modern History and Member of the Exzellenzcluster "Religion and Politics in pre-Modern and Modern Cultures" at the University of Muenster. His research explores the cultural history of religion in Early Modern Europe. He published his first monograph: Isaac La Peyrère. Bibelkritik, Philosemitismus und Patronage in der Gelehrtenrepublik des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, De Gruyter, 2012). He is preparing a study about Christianity beyond the churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, focussing on the widespread reception and adaptation of spiritualistic texts of the so-called Family of Love.

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