A Bishop's Tale
by Craig Harline and Eddy Put
Yale University Press, 387 pp., $ 27.95
In 1987 Craig Harline and Eddy Put discovered, in an archive in Belgium, the daybook of Mathias Hovius, Catholic primate of the Low Countries from 1596 to 1620. In an era of European history replete with great saints and scoundrels, scholars and polemicists, explorers and artists, there is no special reason anyone should remember Archbishop Hovius. Neither the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church nor the Catholic Encyclopedia deems him worthy of an entry.
But as Harline and Put read Hovius's day-book they began to see that the bishop's life, like a Brueghel painting, illuminated an exotic, cluttered, and unfinished world of religion and politics in the Netherlands, which was, in so many ways, the seedbed of modernity for Catholics and Protestants alike. In reconstructing the story of Bishop Hovius, the authors have given us a book of actual history that reads like the very best historical fiction. Harline and Put's A Bishop's Life is the history book of the year -- and perhaps simply the book of the year.
Mathias Hovius was born in 1542 in the Spanish Netherlands (which included what is today Belgium, north-western France, and the southern part of Holland). Rich in commerce, schools, and the arts, the Netherlands as a whole had nineteen cities with more than ten thousand inhabitants (Britain at the time had four). Hovius's town of Mechelen was at the geographical center of the religious wars that had devastated the Low Countries, dividing them into a Protestant republic in the north and Catholic provinces, ruled by Spain, in the south. As a young man, Hovius had seen his city sacked by English, Dutch, and Spanish armies. A semblance of order was restored in 1598 when Philip II made his daughter Isabella and her cousin Albert the archduchess and archduke of the Catholic provinces.
Restoration of political order, however, did not solve the problem that consumed Hovius's episcopal career, which was reform of the Church. In twenty-six sessions, drawn out over eighteen years, the Council of Trent (1545-63) initiated quite detailed disciplinary reforms. Although that council is usually described as creating Vatican centralization, it in fact made the local bishops chiefly responsible for enforcing its decrees: Rome produced the paperwork, but the bishops had to accomplish the reform. And they had to do so in the face of a bewildering array of entrenched rights, customs, privileges, and overlapping jurisdictions having the pedigree of centuries. At issue for Hovius was not whether the Low Countries would yield to Rome, but whether the archdiocese of Mechelen would yield to its own bishop.
By telling this tale from the bishop's point of view, Harline and Put take us into the vicinity of the real story of the counter-reformation, which proves to have had less to do with theological doctrines and polemics than with reform of daily religious practices. Unlike Italy, Spain, and most of France, the Netherlands was a place where Catholicism had to compete with Protestant churches. Though Archbishop Hovius gave his episcopal blessing to the execution of Anna Utenhove (who in 1597 was buried alive in a field outside Brussels for refusing to recant her membership in an Anabaptist fellowship, the "Family of Love"), it was the last public execution for heresy in the Netherlands. Hovius recognized that religious reform could no longer rely on this armature of the state. Catholicism would have to win by providing a better product in the religious market-place.
A Bishop's Tale is organized around sixteen dates, beginning in April 1580, when Hovius hid in a wooden wardrobe while the city of Mechelen was plundered by Calvinists, and ending in May 1620 with his death at the age of seventy-eight. Each chapter begins with a discrete event -- usually a crisis -- and then opens like the panels of a triptych, letting us see the circumambient life of the bishop in his diocese.