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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 324-325
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Constraint on Trial:
Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom
Constraint on Trial: Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom. By Gerrit Voogt. [Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, Vol. LII.] (Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press. 2000. Pp. vi, 268. $30.00 paperback.)
Learned, opinionated, prolific, and sharp-tongued, the Dutch humanist and controversialist Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert (1522-1590) challenged virtually all of the religious orthodoxies of the late sixteenth century, espoused an astonishingly modern philosophy of personal liberty and religious toleration, traded printed barbs with the likes of John Calvin and Justus Lipsius, and still found time to work as a notary, printer, engraver, town secretary, poet, and translator. Such an unconventional spirit has long deserved a broader public than the scholars of Dutch humanism to which he has been largely confined, and happily Gerrit Voogt has provided English-speaking audiences with this lucid and thorough account of one of the central themes in Coornhert's writings, his concept of religious freedom. [End Page 324]
In the Spiritualist tradition of Franck, Castellio, and Schwenkfeld, Coornhert advocated an absolute freedom of conscience and throughout his career consistently rejected all forms of religious constraint or coercion, whether exercised by churches or by states. This attitude was probably encouraged by his involvement in the tumultuous and protracted Dutch Revolt, the one sixteenth-century war where the meaning and consequences of "reformation" were most hotly debated. Like the humanists Coornhert set a premium on knowledge as the foundation of genuine Christian faith, and like them he argued that human beings were capable of leading godly lives on the basis of that knowledge and understanding. Though he remained a nominal Catholic throughout his life, he seems not to have allied himself with any particular religious group, no doubt one of the reasons why Dutch Calvinist divines found him so irritating.
Voogt clearly and adeptly lays out the sources of Coornhert's ideas and his articulation of them in his various books and pamphlets. In particular he does a brilliant job analyzing Coornhert's polemical battles with notable Calvinist preachers such as Arent Cornelisz, Lambert Danaeus, and Adrianus Saravia. In the Dutch Calvinist church's claims to dominance and autonomy he saw the specter of a new religious tyranny and vigorously denounced it, both on the printed page and in public disputations. His opinions and the gusto with which he expressed them (he was clearly unable to suffer what he saw as intellectual fools gladly) won him permanent enemies in the Reformed church establishment. During the last decade of his life he engaged in polemics with the leading intellectual of his day, the neo-Stoic scholar Justus Lipsius, the faculty star of the recently founded University of Leiden. The specific issue under debate was the right of the state to impose religious conformity, but Voogt rightly detects a larger conflict at work, between two very different heirs of Renaissance humanism: one which exalted the individual's virtue and spiritual autonomy, and the other which upheld the political community as the principal means for rationalizing society. One might wish that the author had drawn out the wider implications of this conflict more explicitly and offered a few more assessments of Coornhert's place and influence in the larger European toleration discussion, but on the whole Voogt's study is a worthy contribution to the growing body of scholarship on this important topic. Constraint on Trial should be required reading for all students of early modern intellectual and religious history.
Louisiana State University