Medieval people and their faith in the Northern Netherlands
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, countless stone churches arose in the rich Frisian North. They today represent a monumental Romano-Gothic legacy from the Middle Ages and are still patented. Now it is one thing to admire that tuff and brick legacy of more than seven hundred years ago and to preserve it in spite of earthquakes, it is another to understand in what atmosphere, in what faith, these churches could function and flourish.
In the recently published book ‘Lived faith – the religious life of farmers and citizens in Friesland and the Ommelanden in Groningen – 1200-1580’ a variety of writers answer that question. How did ordinary believers find ‘salvation’ in and near churches, relics, pilgrimages, processions, statuettes of saints, badges, psalters and books of hours? In twelve chapters, an afterword and with the help of many beautiful illustrations, they show how beautiful and valuable that legacy is. End point 1580 is again an inexorable border, because the authors have discussed the Reformation that puts a definitive end to Catholic flag display in this part of the Netherlands. It is not yet possible to discover the daily Roman Catholic folk belief of indulgences, figurines and cradle children! The authors more than live up to that claim.
Now take the indulgence. Perhaps one of the biggest annoyances of the reformatory sharpeners of 1500. But, to avoid Gerard, what an economic faith Catholicism was! Whoever said the right prayers could earn a super discount of no less than 20,000 years on the stay in purgatory! Other prayers offered only 11,000 years. The Benedictine sister Stine Dutmers who wrote this beneficial prayer lived and worked in the monastery Thesinge near Appingedam. She records her name in a prayer book on Saint Barbara’s evening in 1529. Barbara, on the other hand, was a holy martyr who you wanted to be around during thunderstorms: she protected against thunder and lightning.
Van take the arm of John the Baptist. The overzealous and Uber-believing monk Caesarius Heisterbach included it in his collection of ‘miracles’ around 1220, for use in education in Heisterbach. A merchant had secretly taken a relic to this peripheral part of the German Empire, the arm of John the Baptist. He became very rich, how could it be otherwise. When the city burned, the merchant sat unconcerned in the tavern, unable to receive anything. It was considered suspicious. Unfortunately, he told a recluse who told the Stadjers, who then took the arm from him. They placed the arm in a reliquary in the Martinikerk. The flesh and hair were still on the bones, Caesarius had seen it with his own eyes. The sacred arm would adorn the Martini for centuries to come. refers to a metal statue, attached to the St Jansbrug, still to this city church. If the drawbridge is up, his staff will point in the right direction.
The monk from Heisterbach also warned against devils and demons who play to deceive unsuspecting nuns. Fortunately, you could recognize them as they were forced to run away from behind – they had no rear end. Smoke also came out of their mouths, because they were ‘always burning inside’.
Clap and clap
Back to the beginning of the book. What is special is that the authors do not start their story with the sword blows that ended Boniface’s life in 754, but with the cheerful reception of missionary Liudger in Helwerd in 786. Helwerd was a saint in the still small village of Usquert. in – then – Oosterlauwers Friesland, which has long been North Groningen. There the Utrecht Frisian Liudger received shelter, food and drink from the noble lady Meinswith. There Liudger met the blind bard whom he healed. From then on, he sang the Frisian Homer psalms. This was ‘the beginning of the lived faith in the Frisian countries’, according to the authors. What Liudger and his achieved in that eighth century was at stake by the Viking attacks in the ninth. In the tenth century there was a rapid growth of the churches, in the eleventh and twelfth century it was possible to replace the churches everywhere by tuff and permanent replacements. In thirteenth-century Friesland, abbots often successfully mediated between the feuding elites; there was hardly any central authority, but there was a great deal of zeal for faith.
Everywhere in the thirteenth century monks and canons were building the way. in the famous Chronicle of Wittewierum tells about Menko how his parishioners, assisted by a Cologne master builder – not cheap, but quite drunk -, build a parish and monastery church in Wittewierum. First they bake bricks for three years, then they dig the foundation for the church. No fewer than eighty men work the soft soil with piles. They leave the bottom vibrated in such a way that the ‘milk splashed out of the pitchers and the goose eggs … scrambled’. The church can only be played one year later. The cemetery was located around the church. According to the Groningen archaeologist Annet Nieuwhof, this was in line with the pre-Christian tradition that bones and skulls of ancestors were given a place at or in the houses. Burial in or near the church was a permitted variation on the custom. Churches were also built on existing cemeteries, such as in the beautiful wierde Klein Maarslag, but also in the heart of Groningen in the early cemetery where the Martinikerk was built.
Society was stratified in the full Middle Ages, the nuclear family emerged, the writing culture advanced, studied there! Frederik van Hallum, founder of the Mariëngaarde monastery in that North Frisian town in 1163, was educated at the cathedral school in Münster in the mid-twelfth century. The young Emo and his brother Addo later that century in Oxford – and there were the first foreign students – Paris and Orleans. They also received education, albeit not at university. The experience of faith became individual, the suffering of man became central. Lay people prayed the Psalter, the 150 psalms, or bought themselves Books of Hours. Some believers ran their fingers over the sacred images.
‘The dirtier those books, the more intensively they were used…’
… the authors write. Pilgrim badges and pilgrimage ampoules actually functioned as Christian amulet. Badges on church bells protected those who heard the ringing.
For that enormous need for paraphernalia, the medieval person could go to the ‘santenkraam’, shops with a sacred assortment. Heiligenbakkers baked statues of a naked Christ child, sometimes with a bird (the Holy Spirit), sometimes with an orb (sign of his power). Maria and Anna figurines were painted and mass-produced in the Rhineland. Infants Jesus in the crib were also popular. You could hold them, hold them and cherish them. They…
‘…showed how God became man. The Christchildren became during Christmas and Epiphany while singing appropriate songs. It was about a sensuous, physical experience of faith that sought the presence of God in the figurines’.
Enough examples, I think, to show that this has become a wonderful book. Does it seem like there is a speck of melancholy attached to the lyrics? The old hands in the field, Anneke Mulder Bakker and Rolf Bremmer, have erected a beautiful monument to that lost past with their team of writers. It is striking and unfortunate that little attention is paid to the many demons, devils and heretics that haunted that popular belief. The chronicles from Frisia are full of them. Fear not, in this book there is not even a pusher to be seen.
~ Joost Eskes
Book: Lived faith – the faith life of farmers and citizens in Friesland and the Ommelanden of Groningen, 1200-1580
Also interesting: The whole santen stall – Meaning and origin