In August of 1561, the leading guild of rederijkers (i.e. rhetoricians) in Antwerp, De Violieren, played host to a Landjuweel (literally “land jewel,” named after the silver prizes awarded on such occasions). It was the seventh and crowning literary competition organized by the Brabant rederijkers in a cycle that began at Malines in 1515; the immediately previous Landjuweel had occurred at Diest in 1541. Fifteen chambers competed for prizes awarded for the best productions on themes set by De Violieren for the various rhetorical categories, of which the major ones were the tableaux vivants displayed by the visiting chambers during their ceremonial entry into Antwerp, the “poetical” pageants that followed, and finally the main event, the spelen van sinne (or sinnespelen, i.e. allegorical plays). Four other chambers participated in the Haagspel, a separate competition open to chambers too small or too poor to participate in the main event. Altogether, as Vandommele tells us, “it was the largest and most attended rhetorician contest of the sixteenth century.”
The pageantry and music that accompanied this long-ago event can only be imagined, but fortunately in the very next year, 1562, the Antwerp publisher Willem Silvius issued a sumptuous two-volume edition of the plays and pageants of both the Landjuweel and Haagspel, enriched with woodcuts of the coats-of-arms of the participating chambers and of the pageants displayed in the Poetical Points. This provides the basis for Jeroen Vandommele’s detailed study of the Antwerp Landjuweel, the very first to do so. Vandommele has already published a number of valuable articles on the Antwerp Landjuweel, and in this new study, presented as his doctoral dissertation to the University of Nijmegen, he offers us a detailed and insightful analysis of the imagery and texts presented by Silvius, demonstrating that with all their classical deities and allegorical personifications, the Landjuweel participants indulged in no mere rhetorical exercises, but addressed major social and economic concerns of sixteenth-century Brabant. Similar concerns, moreover, were equally expressed in the visual arts of the period, as the author demonstrates in his ample illustrations.
Vandommele’s main arguments are conveniently presented in the English summary with which he ends his book (pp. 365-370), but a few brief remarks here will convey some idea, I hope, of his remarkable achievement. In general, the various topics treated by the rederijkers in 1561 fell into three main categories: Peace, Knowledge, and Community. Peace was celebrated in pageants displayed by the chambers as they entered Antwerp, as well as in the Violieren’s welcoming play and the Poetical Pageants that followed. A protracted war between Spain and France had devastated the economy of the Netherlands, especially that of Antwerp, then a commercial center of European importance. The termination of hostilities with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 inaugurated a period of comparative prosperity, in which the rederijkers defined their own role, to use Vandommele’s words, as “messengers of peace and protectors of urban harmony.”
Knowledge was the subject of the sinnespelen, a part of any Landjuweel that typically called forth the best literary efforts of the participants. In this case, the topic for competition had been chosen by the Council of Brabant from a list of twenty that De Violieren had submitted for approval. Perhaps understandably, Margaret of Parma and Cardinal Granvelle had passed over such provocative subjects as “Why does a rich man covet more wealth?” and “How can the usurer best be extirpated?” to select the relatively innocuous “What best spurs man to the pursuit of knowledge?” In response to this question, the rederijkersexplored various aspects of knowledge, which Vandommele identifies as: to know, to classify, and to edify. Responding to the first category, the rederijkers addressed, among other issues, the origin of knowledge, its role in understanding divine truth and achieving a virtuous life, and the love of learning for its own sake. The classification of knowledge concerns its practical application in life and its organization, the latter exemplified by the Seven Liberal Arts, a subject, as Vandommele notes, that also occurs in the visual arts of the period, including the print series of the Seven Liberal Arts, after designs by Frans Floris. As for the third category, the rederijkers had traditionally sought to edify their audiences, but on this occasion, they also specifically addressed the issues of self-improvement and the education of the young.
The final topic addresses the characteristics of the ideal community. While occasionally discussed in the Poetical Points and sinnespelen, it received its fullest treatment in the Prologues and in the separate theatrical competition presented by the four chambers in the Haagspel. The community discussed is, of course, the urban one (like Antwerp), more specifically its economic aspect. The community’s lifeblood, we learn, is commerce, a divine calling nevertheless threatened by the dishonest merchant and the usurer, both concerned only with profit, at the expense of the community as a whole. The rederijkers thus addressed some of the economic topics rejected by the Council of Brabant. These were topics also treated in such contemporary paintings as Quentin Massy’s Moneychanger and His Wife and more bitingly in Pieter Bruegel’s Battle of Savings Pots and Money Banks. The ethical merchant and the diligent manual laborer best serve the community; but the greatest esteem is reserved for the farmer, and the rederijkersgive an idyllic picture of life on the land that surely appealed, as the author notes, to any wealthy urbanite with a country estate not far from the city. Vandommele goes far beyond description and social context to plumb the medieval and especially classical literary sources mined by the rederijkers, who thus, as he felicitously terms them, were the exponents of a “vernacular humanism.”
Attentive readers may note that an occasional abbreviated reference lacks a full citation in the copious bibliography. But this hardly dims the luster of Vandommele’s monumental achievement. It is a most welcome addition to our knowledge of the sixteenth-century Netherlandish rederijkers and the times to which they responded.