Church, Censorship and Reform in the Early Modern Hapsburg Netherlands

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Violet Soen, Dries Vanysacker, Wim François
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Brepols Publishers
    , October
     239 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Specialists in the Catholic Reformation have long focused on measuring the ability of church officials to implement the norms decreed at the Council of Trent (1545–1549, 1551–1552, 1562–1563). As a result, narratives of the Catholic Reformation mostly treat change as a top-down process whose “success” and “failure” can be measured using case studies. The twelve essays presented here, though, ask readers to think not about what defines “success” as much as about what constitutes a “top-down” process. When we look at the variety of actors and the varied motivations described in this new book, one might conclude that the adjective “top-down,” when used to describe Catholic reform, obscures as much as it reveals. 

The essays deal with areas of the Low Countries under Habsburg (and thus Catholic) rule between the late 15th to the mid-18th centuries. In the late 16th century, this region was deeply destabilized by the Revolt of the Netherlands. The Dutch Republic emerged in the north starting in the 1570s. In the south, Habsburg authorities secured political authority by the mid-1580s. It took decades to rebuild the war-torn region, though. Historians have traced substantive success by the early 17th century not just in state building, but also in promoting Baroque and Tridentine Catholicism. However, look closer, as these authors ask us to do, and the story becomes more complex and multidirectional. 

The first half of the book includes essays looking at censorship. This focus allows readers to see the effects of policies and actors and to trace the spread of ideas—dangerous ones and orthodox ones—through the material objects that carried them. Renaud Adam shows how the central government did not start regulating the earliest print industry, but got involved only gradually and relatively late. Instead, guilds and university officials (depending on the city) took up the first governance of printers. Grantley McDonald shows that the weaknesses of censorship in the 1520s resulted in part from strategies used by printers to avoid attracting attention to questionable works and the foot-dragging of officials who sympathized with ideas they were charged with preventing. Arjan van Dixhoorn’s essay complements the first two by identifying competing claims to the authority to regulate the spread of religious ideas from the 1520s to the 1560s. It’s not that surprising that government officials debated with university theologians about censorship authority. More remarkably, members of Chambers of Rhetoric claimed to have the expertise about which religious ideas were dangerous. Els Agten looks at the role of the first papal nuncio of Flanders (a position established in 1596) in censorship. She shows that the pope’s representative in Brussels preferred a 1564 edition of the Index of Prohibited Books over more recent versions because it gave more autonomy to regional and local clergy to make judgments, particularly regarding the reading of vernacular bibles. César Manrique Figueroa looks at the strategies of two 16th-century Antwerp printers to export books to Spain. Being well informed about opportunities and limitations of the Spanish market, however, did not prove sufficient to get around the intensified censorship emerging by the late 1550s. 

The second half of the volume looks at Catholic reform more generally. Violet Soen and Autelie Van de Meulenbroucke look at Robert de Croÿ, bishop of Cambrai from 1528 to 1556. In many ways, De Croÿ fits the caricature of corrupt clergy who many felt made church reform necessary. Yet, he was also an early advocate of Tridentine reforms. The authors thus complicate the distinction between targets of and agents of reform. Michal Bauwens’s study complements this approach. She agrees that when historians rely primarily on sources that record the efforts of ecclesiastical leaders, they find that reforms came slow and late. But sources offering expressions of parishioners’ piety—in her case donations in wills and funerary expenses found in Ghent’s St. James Paris—reveal a more active and earlier religious revival. The essays by Annelies Somers and Nicolas Simon complement each other as well. They argue that different actors—the secular chapter of St. Pharahildis (1584–1614) and King Philip II (1580–98), respectively—used the proclamations and rhetoric of the Council of Trent when it served their purposes, but ignored them when it did not. Tom Bervoets shows show how some late medieval ecclesiastical court structures survived the reordering of the Catholic Church in the Habsburg Netherlands. Resulting jurisdictional tensions only ended in the 18th century, when royal courts eroded the authority of church courts altogether. 

Specialists in early modern Catholicism and the history of the Low Countries will be well rewarded with the rich detail in these essays. The quality of the English prose and copyediting varies, though most authors are not native-English writers and most readers will be thankful that their work is available in English at all. I do offer a warning, however: in most cases, a statement of the argument does not come until the conclusion. As a result, I would recommend that readers skip to the end first. The essays become much easier to read this way. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jesse Spohnholz is Director of the Roots of Contemporary Issues Program and Associate Professor of History at Washington State University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Violet Soen is professor of early modern history at the Catholic University of Leuven.

Dries Vanysacker is professors of history of the church and theology at the Catholic University of Leuven.

Wim François is professors of history of the church and theology at the Catholic University of Leuven.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.