- The Miracle of Amsterdam: Biography of a Contested Devotion by Charles Caspers and Peter Jan Margry
This lavishly illustrated translation of a 2017 book by two Dutch Catholic scholars who have been investigating Amsterdam’s Stille Omgang or “Silent Walk” for more than thirty years argues that this annual Catholic march, which began in 1881 (in a country that prohibited formal religious processions) and still continues under rules that have been considerably modified during the past half-century, constitutes “the largest collective expression of individual religiosity” in the Netherlands and Western Europe (vii).1 The book’s arrangement stresses the direct links between the march and the annual celebrations of Amsterdam’s Eucharistic miracle of 1345 under greatly different circumstances before the Reformation’s triumph. Not only do too many interruptions—there is an “almost complete lack of sources” about annual observances far into the nineteenth century (98)—mar assumptions about its continuous commemoration, but the medieval processions also involved much less walking around and near a central shrine, which, not so incidentally, was entirely demolished in 1624 (an event noted on p. 294 but omitted from the third chapter). [End Page 153]
As such details suggest, the book’s early chapters between the original Amsterdam miracle and the French Revolution are bizarrely organized. Commemorations of fireproof (and fungible) hosts in 1345 and 1452 in Holland’s largest city and final Catholic bastion are profoundly divided by an event unmentioned in the book’s index and buried in the middle of a chapter (57-62)—Amsterdam’s famous “Alteration” of May 26, 1578, which immediately expelled all its Catholic clergy and prohibited public Catholic ceremonies.
Another flaw of these early chapters is their failure to emphasize the indispensable role of Amsterdam’s Catholic laywomen both in preserving the city’s sacred relics before the Alteration and subsequently in preserving the processional itinerary of its annual celebrations. During the Reformation era, they defended its miraculous Eucharists twice, first during the city’s Anabaptist coup in 1535 and a generation later against the invading iconoclasts in 1566 (54–55), each time with little help from men (47–48). Almost a century later, a ninety-one-year-old woman dictated the procession route celebrating the miracle that she had followed as an adolescent (82); after her account was printed in 1737, a wealthy Catholic woman, whose pious foundation is still operating, followed it (90). These achievements contrast vividly with women’s long exclusion from participation in the Silent Walk, built from information that they provided.
The most profitable way to approach this book is to begin with its brief final chapter (276–285), its detailed map of the Walk (286–287), and its timeline (288-299) before selecting whatever seems interesting to peruse. Its authors become far more sure-footed in the book’s three longer chapters centered around the richly documented, longer, and modern nocturnal successor to the simpler annual medieval procession. By the late 1950s, the Silent Walk reached a peak of about 90,000 men spread over three days (227), but it declined rapidly. In 1965, an abrupt change in its official archives is marked by a confrontation with Amsterdam provocateurs, whose “happening” (a tern coined for gatherings during the 1960s) mocked them during their Walk with a magical fire (239–240). The Silent Walk survived after 1966 by permitting women to take it in the daytime and, since the 1990s, through reciprocal ecumenical gestures with some local Protestants. Ultimately, the most authentic Amsterdam miracle is the city’s unique modern confessional record: Nearly two-dozen officially illegal Catholic congregations flourished there in Baruch Spinoza’s time (88); Amsterdam was the only place in Europe where a Protestant and Catholic could have a double religious marriage performed in the mid-1960s. Amsterdam has persistently accommodated Christian pluralism with far less friction than the rest of the European Union, let alone less civilized places. [End Page 154]
1. See Margry, Amsterdam in het mirakel...