During the early modern period the medieval history of Delft and its religious identity were the focal point of interest for a heterogeneous group of chroniclers, writers of Catholic saints’ lives and (amateur) historians. The confessional and ideological background of these authors determined the choices they made in the process of reconstructing and reinterpreting the events of the past. Prominent among them was Dirck van Bleyswijck (1639–1681), author of the first large seventeenth-century vernacular chorography on the subject of the city’s medieval and contemporary history, the Beschrijvinge der stadt Delft.1

Dirck van Bleyswijck adopted an ambivalent posture with regard to the medieval identity of his native town. On the one hand, he phrased his discourse of the Middle Ages, especially when it concerned persons, places, institutions and events associated with the Catholic religion, in negative terms. On the other hand Van Bleyswijck could not, as a historian, avoid delving into these Catholic aspects of Delft’s history. On the contrary, almost against his own will, as it were, Van Bleyswijck proved to his readers that the medieval (and, by extension, Catholic) identities of Delft necessarily had to be an inherent part of any well-documented investigation concerning the town history and topography. Indeed, Van Bleyswijck’s chorography incorporates many quotations from religious sources identifiable with the Catholic Church. Yet although Van Bleyswijck did not leave out or rewrite those parts of the quoted sources that brought to mind a Catholic identity with which he obviously disagreed, he embedded these texts in a ‘master-narrative’ intended to undermine their validity as social practices or beliefs. This paper aims at exploring the nature of this tension and the textual strategies involved. The author’s ambivalence with regard to manifestations of the medieval Catholic past, will be put in the context of humanism and Early Enlightenment thought.

Up to this date not much systematic critical research has been done on the intellectual formation of Dirck van Bleyswijck or the historiographic theory and practice underlying his work. Some attempts, however, have been made to assess the strategies by which Van Bleyswijck redefined the identity of Delft through a reconstruction of its pre-Reformation history.2 Recently, the American historian Charles C. Parker offered this concise re-appraisal of the attitude of the Delft chronicler:

In no way sympathetic to the Roman faith, Van Bleyswijck nonetheless described in laborious detail the outward manifestations of Catholic piety throughout the middle ages. While he occasionally reminded readers that the observances were ‘popish superstitions’, his chronicle exhibited a profound sense of civic pride in the city’s rich religious legacy.3

This observation accurately reflects the tension between, on the one hand, Van Bleyswijck’s image of medieval history, its spiritual dimension infused by Roman Catholic religious practice, and on the other hand, his ideologically-founded conceptualization of history which tended to downplay this aspect of the past.

Dirck van Bleyswijck’s position as narrator of the Beschryvinge der stadt Delft was ambiguous and problematic. The issue of authorial subjectivity is a recurring theme in his work.4 It is precisely owing to this ambivalence (and Van Bleyswijck’s awareness of this problem) that the Beschryvinge der stadt Delft may be of interest for scholars exploring the image of the Middle Ages in the Renaissance. That such studies can be intellectually fruitful has already been shown by historians inquiring into how the concept of the Middle Ages functioned in the work of Renaissance humanists. As Istvan Bejczy wrote in Erasmus and the Middle Ages:

By studying the Renaissance view of the Middle Ages, medievalists may come to understand the earliest conceptualisation of their own period of interest. Also, and perhaps more important, such a study offers Renaissance scholars a chance to grasp the identity of the Renaissance movement.5

The argument of this paper will concentrate, likewise, on the salient features of Van Bleyswijck’s attitude towards the Middle Ages (all the while remembering that he actually never called the Middle Ages by this name or used any related adjective).6 Because historical examples of social manifestations of the Roman Catholic religious tradition were the object of this representation, the analysis of Van Bleyswijck’s performance as a historian will take the form of a ‘case study’ of a sub-narrative from the Beschryvinge about the life of the medieval Delft beguine Geertruyd van Oosten.

The problematic medievalism of Dirck van Bleyswijck may be situated within the larger scope of what Raingard Esser researched as the ‘cultures of memory’ in early modern Dutch historiography and chorography.7 Strategies of presenting medieval history (including religious history) in early modern Dutch chorographies are classified in recent scholarship, including Esser’s, as belonging to the domain of ‘political memory’ with its mechanisms of constructing and conserving ‘a desired memory of past events’.8 The question raised with regard to Van Bleyswijck’s Beschryvinge, however, is why the author, and other chroniclers or chorographers, considered specific narrative re-inventions of memory more desirable than others. And what extraneous intellectual or cultural factors informed their choices in this regard? In the case of Van Bleyswijck, his own position as member of an elite social category, the regenten, was a possible, though not exclusive, factor of influence in his manipulation of memory to fit within that group’s religious-political frame of reference.

If the construction of memory is one possible theoretical approach to the subject, a different set of concepts has been offered by Coen Maas, who interpreted the medievalist themes of Renaissance historiography (especially the theme of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages) as the material of narrative rhetoric. Humanist authors such as Janus Dousa exploited, according to this view, a negative view of the Middle Ages as an instrument of rhetorical persuasion.9 Textual links between Van Bleyswijck’s Beschryvinge and the chronicle of Dousa (as well as possibly other historians whose work was covered by Maas) and commonalities in humanist-rhetorical training provide a possible reason why the former resorted to negatively-charged representations of the Middle Ages. However, other explanations, apart from the widespread practice of imitatio (to which Van Bleyswijck, like any other Renaissance author, was no stranger), should be sought as well in order to account for why these particular rhetorical loci were so frequently chosen in a process of rhetorical inventio (the stage of selecting the material of a rhetorical utterance) leading to the composition of a rhetorical narrative.10

Defining the Middle Ages: the humanist and proto-Enlightenment conceptualization

The notion of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages accepted by van Bleyswijck imposed ideological constraints on the representations of the past in Beschryvinge van Delft. Not surprisingly, therefore, van Bleyswijck distanced himself from some of the consequences brought about by an excessively negative image of the Middle Ages, even while perpetuating, in his authorial glosses and comments, the concept of the times preceding the Reformation as a saeculum obscurum. Van Bleyswijck confessed to his readers that it had been an arduous task

to retrieve from all corners such an obscure, dark, unknown and lost history, and to collect all that had been dispersed; and once all bits and pieces of so many extracts, records and old texts had been gathered and distilled from all kinds of old chronicles and from various authors, to fashion them, as it were, into a single body […]11

The words that stand out in this longish passage are the adjectives used to describe the past: ‘obscure’, ‘dark’, ‘unknown’ and ‘lost’. Especially the two former adjectives appear more than once in his Beschryvinge der stadt Delft.12 Sometimes these words connote merely the inability of entirely knowing the past. In one passage, Van Bleyswijck complained that the origins of the Holland cities were regrettably ‘cloaked in thick darkness’ (‘met […] dikke duysternisse bewolkt’).13 Elsewhere Van Bleyswijck wrote that the events of the past had been drowned in ‘a dark pool of forgetfulness’ (‘’t Verloop der tijden heeft veele notabile saecken en aenmerckens-waerdigheden in een duysteren poel van vergetenheyt wegh-ghesleept’).14 These were the same qualifications that the humanists of the Renaissance, starting with Petrarch, had applied to the long interval between Roman antiquity and the historical present that they considered to be a time of ‘darkness’ (tenebrae) corresponding to a decline of the arts, culture and learning.15 We may also discern in Van Bleyswijck’s qualifications an echo of the Catholic historian Caesar Baronius’ description of the saeculum obscurum, the ‘Dark Ages’, the period around the year 900 as a time incomprehensible to historians owing to a dearth of historical records.16 A model for this ‘dark’ representation of the Middle Ages can be found in the historiography of Italian Renaissance ‘civic humanism’. In the History of the Florentine People, for instance, Leonardo Bruni offered a well-known example of a paradigm of history in which the Middle Ages, represented as a ‘thousand-year lapse into darkness’, were contrasted with the era of greater civic liberty heralded by the Renaissance rebirth of the republican city-state.17

The enduring legacy of Renaissance historiography (and of its by-product, ‘Renaissance medievalism’) is that it articulated a discourse that even today is associated with the historical conceptualization of the Renaissance. Van Bleyswijck’s complaints about the ‘darkness’ of the Middle Ages are essentially in alignment with the discourse in Italian Renaissance historiography. The intermediate link in the transmission of a negative image of the Middle Ages can be found in the historical writing of Dutch humanists like Reynier Snoy, Adrianus Barlandus, Petrus Divaeus, and Janus Dousa.18 The latter’s Annales rerum a priscis Hollandiae comitibus per CCCXLVI annos (1599) was, in fact, one of the sources of Van Bleyswijck.19 The negative medievalism should be situated, however, within the scope of a wider problem of medievalism as such, namely, the invention of a negative image of the Middle Ages in various epochs (and wider still, the use of any historical image to prove a point in a dialectic argument).20 The question still remains why this particular subject-matter was so insistently re-cycled by Dutch humanists and historians? Was it effective as a means of persuasion, and if so, was its effectiveness merely a matter of convention, convenience, or were other factors involved?

The humanist and proto-rational critique of ‘superstition’

The ‘darkness’ attributed to the past carries different connotations in other passages of Van Bleyswijck’s Beschryvinge. When giving an account of the miracles at the Old Church Van Bleyswijck spoke of ‘dark ages’ (‘duystere tijden’) when men and women had been ‘blindfolded’.21 Reporting on the popular narrative of the miraculous founding of the New Church in the fifteenth century, he qualified it by references to a ‘darkened age’ (‘verduysterde eeuwe’).22 An important characteristic of the medieval past (often appearing in conjunction with ‘darkness’) was for Van Bleyswijck its ‘superstition’. Speaking of the Middle Ages, Van Bleyswijck claimed that ‘[…] credulity and superstition reigned in those times, when people allowed themselves to be deceived, and took for infallible truth what reasonable people in their right minds today […] would consider to be frivolous and idle fantasies forged on the anvil of frenetic or diseased minds’.23 If we were to treat these instances as negative examples intended to achieve a specific effect on the reader, that is, as the subject-matter of rhetoric, we still need to ask why such specific arguments were selected in the rhetorical domain of inventio and what may be their origins.

Van Bleyswijck’s derogation of the Middle Ages (and specifically of discourses and practices associated with medieval Catholicism) can be plausibly tied in with, for instance, the impact of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly (1510, Dutch translation 1560), the Colloquies (1518), the Antibarbari (1520, written c. 1500) and so many more of his pronouncements on the subject of ‘superstition’. This was, indeed, one of the strongest accusations that the humanist scholar raised against later-medieval devotions.24 Erasmus was an author well-known to Van Bleyswijck who not only cited copiously from his writings but also approvingly presented his religious philosophy as a model of the ‘correct’ way of implementing the Reformation in the Netherlands.25

The Erasmian concept of ‘superstition’ was later adopted by the Reformation in its critique of the Catholic Church. All that was not based on a literal reading of the Scripture was, by extension, labeled a form of ‘superstition’. Such argumentation was already quite common in Dutch political writing and pamphleteering around 1600. In the anti-Remonstrant pamphlet ‘Gulden legende van den nieuwen St. Jan’ the chief polemist of the orthodox Calvinist faction, François van Aerssen, claimed that Johan van Oldenbarnevelt ‘had shown himself to be an enemy of the true Religion, to which we, having emerged out of the papist darkness into the light, and purified of superstition, rightly give the name of Reformed’.26 This form of linking ‘superstition’ to Catholic forms of devotion, especially those involving sacred imagery, is a commonplace in Van Bleyswijck’s Beschryvinge der stadt Delft. The miraculous vision that led to the founding of the New Church in Delft was called, for instance, ‘a strange history […] (that the Jews, much less we, should believe)’.27 Elsewhere Van Bleyswijck compared the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of pilgrimages to Marian shrines such as the one in Delft, in negative terms, to ‘the heathen going to the Temple of Delphi’.28 A similar negative proof was devised in order to interpret the historical past when medieval miracles recorded in the chronicles of the New Church in Delft were compared to idolatry, and therefore, using a theological argumentation, deemed inadmissible as opposed to Christ’s miracles recorded in the Gospels.29

In Van Bleyswijck’s days, the proto-rationalist critique of the belief that a metaphysical reality could be involved with, or intervene in, the human world in historical times was growing. Three years after the first volume of the Beschryvinge was published in Delft, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) proposed to ‘[…] liberate the individual, and society, from “superstition” fostered by fear and, by freeing society from superstition, liberate the individual from intellectual servitude’.30 The Dutch followers of René Descartes and Spinoza expressed a powerful critique of the belief in manifestations of the supernatural in the immanent world. The writers of the Dutch Early Enlightenment, Lodewijk Meijer, Adriaen Koerbagh, Anthonie van Dale, Pierre Bayle – and perhaps most of all Balthasar Bekker, who in his De Betooverde Weereld (1691) rejected the possibility that metaphysical evil might manifest itself in human affairs – are, notwithstanding all differences, the key figures of this movement.31 These intellectual trends, antagonistically disposed against revealed religion, provide another angle from which one can interpret Van Bleyswijck’s formation as a historian.32

Van Bleyswijck and the early Enlightenment

Van Bleyswijck presented himself as an author whose ‘best friend is the truth’ (‘de waerheydt myn beste vriendt is’).33 He invested his authorial voice with such values as neutrality and impartiality – or so at least he claimed. The narrator’s position was explicitly constructed as the voice of a scholarly humanist. In the epilogue to the first part of Beschryvinge der stadt Delft, Van Bleyswijck established his humanist credentials by citing from the classics (e.g. Cicero, Ovid, Horace, Martial), the Bible (especially the Gospels and Proverbs), modern humanists (especially Erasmus) and a plethora of sixteenth to seventeenth century historians,34 but – tellingly – not so much from the work of the theologians of the Reformation.35 Protected by these ‘authorities’, Van Bleyswijck adopted the position of an observer who supposedly ‘[…] gave the members of the Roman Church credit, where credit was due’, and at the same time did not hesitate at points to criticize the Calvinists.36

But in practice, the negative, biased opinion on Roman Catholic religious beliefs and traditions – inseparable as it was from the image of the Middle Ages – contradicted any pretense of neutrality. One finds few signs of impartiality, in any case, in the conclusion of the narrative about Geertruyd van Oosten, where Van Bleyswijck once again launched a typical tirade against the Middle Ages (‘dark and blind centuries’) and, in the same breath, against the Catholic religious tradition (‘a powerful superstitious zeal and impulse’).37

To the modern reader Van Bleyswijck’s ‘medievalist’ discourse may evoke, at best, a stereotypical representation of that era of history as one that is not only ‘dark’ or ‘obscure’ in the sense of being unknown, but also ‘barbarous’, ‘irrational’, ‘backward’ and ‘ignorant’. In the modern conceptualization of this dichotomy the Middle Ages are placed in opposition to the ‘light’ of the Renaissance, where that ‘light’ automatically connotes values such as ‘civilized’, ‘rational’, ‘progressive’, ‘lucid’ and ‘scientific’. It is an image of the Middle Ages that we know all too well from schoolbooks and it is perpetuated, even today, by the media and in political discourse.38

This dichotomy is manifest in Van Bleyswijck’s chorography not only in frequent references to ‘darkness’ but also – on the opposite pole – to ‘reason’. Its expression is found in the narrative practice of equating religious belief with partiality, and religious skepticism with objectivity. Similarly to other Dutch proto-Enlightenment writers, most notably Van Dale and Bekker, Van Bleyswijck anticipated, in many ways, the dynamics of late-seventeenth century French histoire raisonnée, and Enlightenment historiography in general, where the emphasis would be to situate the past, described in a strongly anti-religious manner, in a narrative of historical evolution towards a somehow better, more ‘rational’ and ‘enlightened’ future.39

One finds evidence of this new intellectual trend in the dialectic that Van Bleyswijck engages in with the reader. The reader is asked to accept as the narrator’s chief intellectual credentials his secular notions of skepticism and disbelief in the intervention of the divine supernatural. In this way – embodied in the figure of the ‘reasonable reader’ (‘den verstandigen Leser’) who may test all information on the touch-stone of ‘discernment and reason’ (‘op den toet-steen van syne bescheydentheydt en raisonnement’) – a community of like-minded ‘rational’ individuals was invented on the pages of the chorography.40

The Reformation, in Van Bleyswijck’s view, is the outcome of such historical evolution in recent events, considering it quite simply a victory over the human belief in divine intervention through miracles!41 But, even when he praised God for having ‘enlightened’ mankind by taking away a ‘cloak of darkness’ covering its eyes,42 Van Bleyswijck’s attitude towards organized religion was on the whole negative. If his religious beliefs may be called Christian, it was a Christianity of some strongly idiosyncratic and, arguably, deistic variety.43 The key concept that Van Bleyswijck employed in his dialectic with the reader was ‘reason’. As a matter of fact, ‘human reason’ was extolled as ‘the finest and most divine of all (human qualities)’.44 These references to ‘reason’ in a text published in 1667 are interesting since they stem from approximately the same period as the crucial publications of Spinoza, Meijer and others. They indicate how rapidly, in Van Bleyswijck’s day, the new intellectual trend of questioning the possibility of supernatural intervention in the immanent world was making inroads among the intellectual elites of Holland.

Van Bleyswijck’s narrative about the life of Geertruyd van Oosten

If Van Bleyswijck considered the Middle Ages, along with the humanists of the Renaissance, to be a ‘dark’ terra incognita, this darkness was nonetheless worth exploring. The methodology that he devised for the Beschryvinge der stadt Delft involved using hard evidence in the form of attested written sources.45 Van Bleyswijck testified to his methodological awareness when he stated in the epilogue to the first part of the Beschryvinge:

What I write, I generally prove, and the proof that I have supplied here is not derived from far-away or strange places, nor is it the product of a fantastic imagination, but it represents what our forefathers experienced and what the best and finest chroniclers of that time left to us; they based what they wrote on their special knowledge, writing either on the orders or with the approval of high authorities. And to make this work more convincing and more impregnable to critique, in various places I resort not only to using the words of the authors, all respectable men of great renown, but also, oftentimes, of the governing authorities themselves.46

It may seem paradoxical that even though Van Bleyswijck condemned the Middle Ages, he stopped well short of undermining the reliability of the historical documents produced in this period. Quite on the contrary, the readers were invited to accept these documents as trustworthy, even though the age that produced them was defined as a time of darkness, superstition and delusion. Van Bleyswijck was not the only one to follow this strategy. A somewhat similar course of justifying an argument by calling on the legitimacy of historical documents from the Middle Ages was pursued in the Dutch Republic by the advocates of the theory of States sovereignty, whose leading exponent was Hugo Grotius. For Grotius, the laws of the Dutch Republic, and in fact its entire ‘constitutional’ framework, rested on the interpretation of legal acts dating back to the Burgundian and Habsburg period.47 If such documents retained their legal force, then the authorities that had once provided these documents with their seal of approval were similarly beyond reproach. Legal scholars and historians were therefore at liberty to examine such documents and to cite from them according to their own good judgment. The strategy used by Van Bleyswijck thus guaranteed, in practice, that the sources related to Delft’s medieval history (and to events concerning social manifestations of Catholic religious beliefs) were not entirely suppressed, even though the authorial voice of the historian consistently downplayed their contents as the products of a ‘superstitious age’.48

Van Bleyswijck implemented a strategy of building upon source documents in the narrative of the life of the Delft beguine Geertruyd van Oosten (fig. 1). After a stereotypical reference to this narrative being an ‘incredible and ludicrous tale’ the author nevertheless opined that one should not ‘yield to the detrimental and commonplace error of prejudice’. Adopting a somewhat legalistic tone Van Bleyswijck opted, therefore, to ‘hear the principal points of the case, instead of condemning things that were once considered holy without having examined them’.49 Meanwhile, the readers who had ‘tender ears’ were invited to skip this part, for they could find it just as well, ‘collected and described for the sake of remembrance’, in the work of other history-writers.50

This passage, in which the historian explicitly evoked the metaphor of a court hearing, emphasizes the essentially rhetorical character of Van Bleyswijck’s historiography. In this proceedings the authorial voice of the narrator had a twofold role, that of a prosecutor and judge. The defendant was identified with the historical belief in religious miracles, and the reader was invited to be the spectator of the proceedings. The metaphor of a legal hearing functioned in all this as a genre-marker, alerting the reader to the fact that he was going to hear an oration (oratio iudicialis), in other words, an enunciation belonging to the judicial sort (genus iudiciale) of seventeenth century rhetoric.51 This genus entailed accusation or defense and related to ‘things past’ (‘Versatur hoc genus circa praeterita’) which made it applicable to history as well.52 The argumentation addressed the state (status) of the case, a dubious problem arising from a divergence of opinion. Here the argument concerned the status of historical miracles, a thing as to which, Van Bleyswijck admitted, a different opinion existed in the past.

So, who represented the defendant in this case? One answer is the Roman Catholic historiography of the Low Countries. The passages dealing with the life of Geertruyd van Oosten are a cento of quotations from authors ranging from late-medieval chroniclers Jan Gerbrandszoon van Leiden and Cornelius Aurelius,53 to the hagiographers of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Petrus Ribadineira, Heribertus Rosweydus,54 and Dionysius Mudtsaerts.55 In a marginal note (p. 311) Laurentius Surius and Jacobus Mosander are also mentioned. These Catholic sources were part of an extensive textual ‘network’ of hagiographies of Geertruyd van Oosten.56 Conspicuously missing from Van Bleyswijck’s sources is a small booklet published at Louvain in 1589 and recently attributed, tentatively, to the Catholic vicar apostolic of the Northern Netherlands, Sasbout Vosmeer.57 We can safely assume however, in the light of what has been said previously, that if a source was lacking, it was not omitted for any ideological reason but most probably simply because Van Bleyswijck did not have it in his possession.

The process of ‘reconstructing’ the past for the present did not stop for Van Bleyswijck at the point of collecting and citing at length from source documents. The personal experience of the historian was also brought to bear upon this ‘reconstruction’ that involved inseparably the Middle Ages and the Catholic religious tradition. Sometimes this method led to unexpected results. When Van Bleyswijck ventured into the Delft beguinage (Bagijnhof), he tried to locate the cell where (on his information) Geertruyd van Oosten had lived and where she had received the stigmata. This cell, Van Bleyswijck maintained, was the site of a contemporary, authentic cultus of Geertruyd van Oosten.58 However, when he asked to see this cell, the Catholic inhabitants of the beguinage politely but firmly refused, for reason (as Van Bleyswijck believed) of ‘their extreme suspicion’.59 The inhabitants of the beguinage were most probably aware that their religious experience would not be treated fairly by someone like Van Bleyswijck.60

This was not the only instance in the Beschryvinge der stadt Delft when Van Bleyswijck gave an account of his personal search for historical evidence. On another occasion he was invited into the home of ‘a good family’ in Delft, where he saw, framed on the wall, a page with ‘some little refrains’ in fine gothic script about the construction of the tower of the New Church (‘Noch onlangs deser dagen sagh ick by seecker eerlijck huysgesin/die oude Refereyntjes van ’t opbouwen des Nieuwe-Kercks-Toorn […] met een kunstigh handt-geschrift in een Bortetje te pronck hangen’).61 Somewhat disappointingly, however, that discovery turned out to be an item that van Bleyswijck already had in his possession.

On the subject of the Delft beguinage Van Bleyswijck told a similar story of tangibly inspecting source documents. There, however, the letters and papers in question ‘had been buried in the ground during the war and the troubles’, as a result of which they had disintegrated or become illegible.62 Was it a true statement? Just a few decades later two other chroniclers, but this time Catholics, Hugo Franciscus van Heussen and Hendrik van Rijn, did actually quote from these historical documents in their Oudheden en gestichten van Delft en Delfland (1720).63 So maybe there had been two sets of documents, one of which had indeed suffered the fate reported by Van Bleyswijck, or perhaps the story was invented by the Roman Catholic inhabitants of the beguinage for the sake of protecting a valuable historical artifact from being appropriated by the historian?64 Assuming Van Bleyswijck’s assertion about the documents on the beguinage was truthful, more research is required to determine what might have been the reason why he had been unable to inspect these documents.

Justifying his course of action as a historian writing about the Middle Ages, Van Bleyswijck had to acknowledge that monuments such as churches and cloisters, although no longer in use for Catholic religious worship or turned to a different use, were nevertheless a living reminder of the pre-Reformation chapter of Delft’s history. This information, therefore, could not be omitted in a history of the town. To come to this conclusion Van Bleyswijck went through a process of (re-)discovering the past, of (re-)inventing the Middle Ages, taking his information ‘from many hundred books, and from dirty, dusty and mouldy age-old papers, written in a no-longer legible hand, here and there smothered and packed in worm-eaten boxes and chests of drawers’.65 This information could not be suppressed, if only for the reason that ‘a vast number of events happened [in Delft] concerning the Church and clergy’ and ‘in no other town in this country [Holland] were there more persons belonging to the priesthood’.66 In so many words Van Bleyswijck acknowledged that the history of the Middle Ages was inextricably connected to events concerning the Catholic Church and its religious traditions. Together, these constituted the cornerstones of the historical identity of Delft that could not be simply removed or glossed over.

We may discern, therefore, in Van Bleyswijck’s epilogue (‘Na-reden en aenhangsel’) placed at the end of the first volume of the Beschryvinge, a sense of a certain respect towards the Catholic religious tradition that manifested itself in the history of Delft. In that authorial ‘master-narrative’, however, such sub-narratives as the life of Geertruyd van Oosten were no longer acknowledged as referring to the present, as a living religious tradition. Instead these narratives were situated in a historical past that those living in the present might perhaps find useful to understand:

[...] however, because they contain and describe the state and condition of the times in which our forefathers lived, and from there we derive [our knowledge of] the things they valued most highly, so we cannot (letting history, as Cicero did, be the life of memory and a messenger of antiquity) pass next to these [accounts] in silence.67

Besides, as the Delft regent opined, it is always better to have knowledge of the past than to live in ignorance of it, especially when this past concerned one’s own country. This extended, in particular, to discerning the ‘foundations’ (‘grondt-slagh’) of present-day reality.68 The point of historiography, therefore, was in its ability to help those living in the here-and-now attain an understanding of how the events of the past are causally linked to present-day situations.

This overt definition of the historian’s intentions could point at the search for historical truth (specifically historical mentality and causality) as being his most important concern. Was this aim subordinated to the rhetorical considerations of an oratio iudicialis? Van Bleyswijck compared the belief in miracles to chivalric romance but even though he rejected both as ‘fantastic inventions’ (‘fabuleuselijck verdicht’), he believed the former more worthwhile because the latter ‘did not concern us’.69 Yet at the same time the historian admitted that his work offered an opportunity for condemning the ‘origins’ of medieval religious institutions.70 If we follow Van Bleyswijck’s argumentation, therefore, it becomes clear that the reason why the narrative of Geertruid van Oosten was not suppressed or ‘silenced’ at all,71 did not arise exclusively from a love of tradition or a sense of well-considered civic pride. The other motive, a less obvious one, was to enact, in the guise of a historical narrative, a proceedings in which the discourse of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages (and subsumed into it, all references to historical examples of socially-manifested religious beliefs), would be rhetorically juxtaposed against – and subordinated to – a new understanding of ‘reason’ and ‘enlightenment’ that was antithetical to revealed religion. Finally, another explanation could point to the biographic context. The oratio against Roman religious institutions provided a rhetorical argumentation that would have been music to the ears of Johan van Bleyswijck (1618–1696), mayor of Delft and receiver-general of ecclesiastic property, to whom the historian dedicated his narrative.


In his Beschrijvinge van Delft Van Bleyswijck made ample use of transcribed documents to craft his early modern image of the medieval past. These sources did retrieve, in a way, the past for the present, although it always happened in a fraught and unlikely way. Does this imply that Van Bleyswijck’s historical writings were an exercise in seventeenth century Dutch tolerance? Partly, the answer should be yes. Within the scope of a literary text, the Delft regent revived, albeit grudgingly, a range of Catholic voices speaking on the subject of miracles, visions, devotion to the Virgin Mary and Catholic saints, liturgical customs, et cetera. It is to Van Bleyswijck’s credit as an historian, that those images of Catholic identity obtained a place of their own in his work. All considered, however, the position of these sub-narratives in Van Bleyswijck’s writing was still an ambiguous one. The Beschryvinge’s conglomerates of citations were always circumscribed by a framing ‘master-narrative’ which sought to invalidate any references to Catholic religious tradition that the cited passages may have contained. In the event of critique Van Bleyswijck strove to disassociate himself from any suspicion of being sympathetic to the Catholic religion or traditions, doing this partly to placate his (Protestant) readers.72 And yet the Catholic and pre-Reformation identity of Delft appeared to Van Bleyswijck as too powerful and profound to be ignored.