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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 328-329
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A Bishop's Tale:
Mathias Hovius Among His Flock in Seventeenth-Century Flanders
A Bishop's Tale: Mathias Hovius Among His Flock in Seventeenth-Century Flanders. By Craig Harline and Eddy Put. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2000. Pp. x, 387. $27.95.)
Chancing upon a journal in the rich collections of the Archive of the Archdiocese of Mechelen, Craig Harline, an American historian, and Eddy Put, his Belgian colleague, decided to conjure Archbishop Hovius back to life. Fortunately for their enterprise, Harline and Put are not magician's apprentices, but seasoned historians who know well the archival wealth and historical complexity of modern Belgium, yesterday's Spanish Netherlands. The result is a lively book, bursting with memorable characters reminiscent of a Brueghel painting, and solidly grounded in the archival and published scholarship that has regrettably attracted little attention outside of Belgium.
Archbishop of Mechelen from 1596 to 1620, Mathias Hovius, pious and studious son of a local burgher family, recorded the numerous duties and encounters of his long tenure. Although only the last of the multi-volume journal seems to have survived, it contains a treasure of historical information now expertly mined by this Belgo-American team. The sixteen chapters of the book focus each on one episode of the archbishop's life, in order to illustrate some larger aspect of the religious life of the southern Netherlands in the beginning decades of the Catholic renewal.
The book opens dramatically with the sack of Mechelen in 1580 by Protestant English troops and the flight of young Hovius, still only a canon in the cathedral chapter, and closes with the death of Hovius while on visitation in the western parts of his archdiocese. In between the reader is treated to a rich tableau painted with exquisite skill. Passing before one's eyes are the archdukes Ernest and Isabella, rulers of the Spanish Netherlands who restored a measure of peace and prosperity to the war-torn provinces still loyal to Spain, as well as abbots, monks, nuns, priests, schoolboys, and even heretics. The majority of historical characters were clerics, many of whom were troublemakers for the reform-minded archbishop: the wealthy Benedictine monks of Affligem who resisted incorporation, the Benedictine nuns of Grand Bigard who fought enclosure and strict discipline, the canons of St. Sulpitius in Diest who preferred fishing, gaming, and drinking to their liturgical duties, and Jan Berchman, the brilliant schoolboy from Diest, who left the Latin School in Mechelen and the archbishop's patronage for the more exciting career promised by the Jesuits are just some of the many vivid historical personae who trotted across the bishop's journals and the pages of this book. [End Page 328]
Throughout it all we gradually gain a sense of the character of Mathias Hovius: a devout, pious, deliberate, and persistent man, intent upon improving the finances of his archdiocese, bettering the morale of his clergy, and disciplining the beliefs and behavior of his flock. We come to understand Hovius's motto, "Patience conquers the mighty," and perhaps to respect him, as his contemporaries did, but not to love him. For Hovius was also the instigator behind the last execution of heretics in the Spanish Netherlands, the 1597 killing of Anna Utenhove, an Anabaptist maid who stuck fast to her faith and was buried alive. It is a tribute to the authors, who did not suppress this episode in their choice of themes in this book, for they try to represent Bishop Hovius in all his humanity. As we close the book, we too bid fond farewell to the crusty archbishop, every inch a Fleming in his stubborn persistence, and marvel at the richness of the historical experience of the southern Netherlands, whose history and historiography are unjustly neglected.
R. Po-chia Hsia
New York University