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I read the Legend of Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak and Their Adventures Heroical, Joyous and Glorious in the Land of Flanders and Elsewhere by Charles De Coster on recommendation from lamadude. It is quite an interesting book for anyone who wants to read about the history of Flanders, being set in the 1500s (from the perspective of the 1800s). The hero of the story, Ulenspiegel ("your mirror") is sort of like the folk lore image of Ned Kelly in Australia, a rascally outlaw who is cheered for defying power even though he never actually helps the common folk (cf Robin Hood). He travels around Flanders showing up the nasty aspect that people hid, sometimes in a humourous manner, sometimes unnecessarily nasty or even violent. Or perhaps Ned Kelly with perhaps a dash of Forrest Gump, as Ulenspiegel happens to wind up as an onlooker in every event of significance in Flanders that the author could fit into the story and time-frame.

What I found interesting was the historic perspective this story gives on the 1800s. Charles De Coster writes with contempt about the Emperor Phillipe and the Catholic Church for the atrocities that lead to the reformation and the even greater atrocities that took place during the counter reformation. Burning of the feet of innocent women accused of witchcraft, torturing widows and children on the rack, cutting off tongues and the like are all presented as evil violence revealing an evil occupation. Possibly more revealing though is the casual backdrop of violence that De Coster uses for his setting in the 1500s that doesn't warrent any commentary from the 1800s perspective. The father of Ulenspiegal is universally presented as a good, solid Flemish man, with the occasional beating of his wife and son being just part of the narrative and not presented in a negative light. For example, from the perspective of De Coster in 1800s Flanders, Claes beating his son was a loving parental gesture:

Being weaned, Ulenspiegel grew like a young poplar. Claes now did not kiss him often, but loved him with a surly air so as not to spoil him. When Ulenspiegel would come home, complaining of being beaten in some fray, Claes would beat him because he had not beaten the others, and thus educated Ulenspiegel became valiant as a young lion. (Book I. IX).

Or when Soetkin (Claes's wife) and her friend Katheline were thinking of a plot to keep Katheline and her infant unharmed - being unmarried Katheline would either have to strangle her child to hide living a "loose life" or be whipped at the marketplace. Their plot was to pass off Katheline's child as Soetkin's, who was concurrently pregnant. Soetkin approached this plan to her husband Claes circumspectly:

"If instead of one child I had two, would you beat me, husband?"
"I don't know that," replied Claes (Book I. XV).

as if a husband beating his wife for having twins instead of a single child would justify a beating!

Another interesting part of Ulenspiegel was seeing my university mentioned:

Claes heard that it was thenceforward straightly forbidden, to all men in general and in particular, to print, read, have, or maintain the writings, books, or doctrine of Martin Luther, Johannes Wycliff, Johannes Huss, Marcilius de Padua, AEcolampadius, Ulricus Zwinglius, Philippus Melancthon, Franciscus Lambertus, Joannes Pomeranus, Otto Brunselsius, Justus Jonas, Johannes Puperis et Gorcianus, the New Testaments printed by Adrien de Berghes, Christopher de Remonda, and Joannes Zel, full of Lutheran and other heresies, banned and condemned by the Theological Faculty of the University of Louvain

.... "Furthermore," said the proclamation, "no man, of whatever station, shall put himself forward to discuss or dispute upon Holy Writ, even upon matters that are held in doubt, if he is not a theologian renowned and approved by a great university." (Book I, X).

So strange by modern standards to consider a university being directly involved in banned the spread of knowledge, on the penalty of being burnt alive. As an aside, the resulting exodus of freethinkers and Protestants from Belgium during the counter-reformation was so crippling to Belgium that it became known as the "Spanish lobotomy". One could wonder why it wasn't called the "Catholic lobotomy", given the central role of the Church in the process.
lamadude says:
The counter-reformation is a period in the history of the university of which you rarely read in the brochures. They go on and on about the humanist period of the university. (With Erasmus, Vesalius, Mercartor etc) and then are suspiciously quiet about the counter reformation,and picking back up with the university in "Belgian times" (starting 1830, with Georges LemaƮtre etc)

The Catholic, or Spanish Lobotomy really was a huge blow to the Southern Netherlands (Belgium). A complete exodus of pretty much all scientists and wealthy families, (the population of Amsterdam and Leiden doubled in a couple of years time, and the 17th century was at the same time a big decline for flanders and also the "Dutch Golden Age")
Another problem was the demise of Antwerp since the Dutch closed down the Scheldt for over 200 years (from 1585, after the "Spanish Fury" all the way untill 1815 when Belgium and the Netherlands were reunited) actually the access from Antwerp through the Netherlands was in the news a lot this week as well, with the flemish minister president speaking to the dutch PM about it, history doesn't go away that easily it seems :-)

Posted on: Aug 27, 2009
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