The Medieval Review 11.12.03

Roobol, Marianne. Disputation by Decree: The Public Disputations between Reformed Ministers and Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert as Instruments of Religious Policy during the Dutch Revolt (1577-1583). Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. xiv, 308. $141. ISBN 978-90-04-18661-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Gary Waite
University of New Brunswick
waite@unb.ca

This learned and detailed analysis of two religious disputations held in Holland during the early Dutch Revolt provides an important corrective to the tendency to lionize the debates' central actor, Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522-1590), an illustrious advocate of freedom of conscience. His warnings about the danger of returning to a coercive religious scheme under zealous Calvinist preachers have long inspired admiration. Yet even sympathetic historical actors have feet of clay, and Coornhert had to be a crafty and cantankerous opponent to make his voice heard. That his opponents in these debates--Reformed ministers Arent Cornelisz, Reginaldus Donteclock, and especially Adrianus Saravia--proved at times equal to the task of dulling Coornherts formidable, and popular, critique of the Reformed Church is merely one of Roobol's services to scholarship.

Another is her contextualizing of these meetings in the history of late medieval and Reformation era scholastic debates. Organizing and conducting such disputes was extraordinarily complex. Roobol sets the stage for the debates in Chapters One and Two, beginning with a survey of the available sources, noting that scholars have tended to sympathize with Coornhert largely because he penned most of those that have survived. Roobol adds to Coornhert's biased accounts government records and compositions by his opponents. She then reminds us that the meetings were determined by the prosaic interests of the States of Holland, which sought peace and stability for the new realm and broad public acceptance for the national Reformed Church when most citizens were not Calvinist.

While most Coornhert scholars have emphasized his spiritualism, Roobol instead highlights his Catholic identity. Coornhert, however, was not an uncritical Catholic, since he viewed this institution as corrupted, even though it was the true church. Roobol ponders if Coornhert was a thorough-going spiritualist, why did he not follow other spiritualists in outwardly conforming to the ruling church? Why debate over a 'visible church' at all? Good questions, yet since Roobol admits Coornhert no longer attended Mass out of his spiritualistic disregard for religious externals, could one not also ask just how principled was his defence of the visible church? Perhaps instead his arguments were intended primarily to reveal to the Dutch public the dangers inherent in a Reformed state church? Regardless, Roobol presents Coornhert as a polarizing rabble-rouser whose claims that his opponents were new "Genevan inquisitors" merely infused the public discussion with an excess of bluster and fear mongering.

Roobol turns next to a careful explication of the format of a medieval disputatio, which was based either on a quaestio or propositio (thesis), both of which had precisely circumscribed and complex ground rules. By the mid-sixteenth century, most debates followed the thesis format in which the respondens was typically responsible for maintaining the thesis, while the opponens aimed to win the debate by leading the respondens into self-contradiction. Roobol notes that the Leiden disputation (1578) followed the more open quaestio model, while The Hague dispute of 1583 was a more narrowly defined thesis debate. In both, determining who was to play which role absorbed a great deal of energy. The result was great confusion and results that satisfied no one.

Roobol's Chapter Three explains how the Leiden debate got off the ground, beginning with the complex religious scene in Coornhert's home city of Haarlem. In 1577 this largely Catholic city was guaranteed the right of public Catholic worship, a right that Coornhert, just returned from his exile, promoted vigorously. Between May 1577 and February 1578 Coornhert traded published barbs with Haarlem's Reformed minister Thomas Tilius, and Roobol blames Coornhert for most of the invective, describing his tone as irritated and violent (96). The major issue was the identity of the true church, with Coornhert promoting the Roman Church, although its many flaws disqualified it as the "true visible church." Challenged to debate this issue in Delft with Reformed ministers Cornelisz and Donteclock, Coornhert agreed, and the discussions began on February 24, 1578. The next day the Court of Holland ordered an immediate end to the event as a potential danger to public peace, since the States General intended to stage manage any such meeting.

The result was the Leiden disputation of 1578, and in Chapter Four Roobol deftly reveals just how the States hoped to restore internal peace by offering an open debate that would reveal the deficiencies in Coornhert's popular opinions. During the preliminary discussions, from April 7 to 14, the States' commissioners tried to rein in Coornhert and restrict the range of debate, although the ministers disliked this too since they hoped to reveal Coornhert's errors on a wide array of points. Coornhert, Roobol admits, justifiably felt hemmed in and sought to turn the debate to his advantage. As they hammered out what was to be the status quaestionis, Coornhert infuriated the commissioners by demanding the topic of the killing of heretics. When he then sought to make Calvins dogma the central focus, the ministers argued that they were there to defend universal Christian doctrine. Coornhert kept referring to a new Genevan inquisition, and Roobol admits that his concern over this seems to have been sincere, if "out of proportion to its actuality" (135). On the debate's second day (April 15), Coornhert "pulled out all the stops," ignored all agreements, and regaled the large audience with a diatribe against the Reformed Church that referred explicitly to Calvin and Beza. When reprimanded, he threatened to leave unless permitted to continue. The commissioners ended the debate, and Roobol lays the blame again on Coornhert's shoulders, against his self depiction as a David battling Goliath. Soon after, in the fall of 1578, the States prohibited Coornhert from publishing anything further on religious issues without their approval.

In Chapter Five, Roobol explores how the "Coornhert affair" developed after the failure of Leiden, and why the States General surprisingly allowed another debate a few years later. The leading figure in this development was the Reformed theologian Adrianus Saravia who sought to undercut Coornhert's growing appeal by reducing the distance between their positions. Saravia thus appears far more tolerant than Coornhert himself. As a "catholic Calvinst," Saravia saw great potential for agreement on the subject of Coornhert's 'perfectism,' that the redeemed Christian could indeed obey God's law; Saravia had in fact succeeded in a similar case with the controversial Reformed preacher Hieronymus Hortensius. Saravia eventually convinced the States to appoint a committee to arrange another dispute; Coornhert was, as ever, eager.

In 1582 Coornhert and the Leiden professor Lambertus Danaeus began a controversy in print that contravened the States' abovementioned gag order, and Coornhert's Proeve vande Nederlantsche Catechismo attacking the Reformed catechism nearly resulted in legal action, but the book's popularity made the Regents reluctant to act precipitously. The ministers advised them that another religious disputation would resolve the matter. On September 16, 1583, the States voted on the question, and Roobol's detailed analysis of the voting records provides an important window into how the States worked. Thanks largely to Saravia, the Regents finally agreed to another disputation, the subject of Roobol's long final chapter.

The religious debate began on October 27, 1583, in The Hague's Binnenhof, the center for government and the Supreme Court, hence several court members were appointed to the dispute's committee. Coornhert's Proeve was to be the focus of the debate, and Coornhert surprisingly agreed to act as respondent as Saravia and the ministers attacked it. Once again the initial discussions were obsessed with the proper order of the discussions, with Coornhert, fearing that the outcome had already been predetermined, frequently resisting the commissioners' goals. After a preliminary agreement was finally concluded, Saravia took the lead, seeking to neutralize the conflict by finding as many points of conciliation as possible. Because Coornhert continued, however, to sidestep the debate's rules and because the theological differences between the two sides were more considerable than Saravia implied, this debate quickly devolved into another exercise in mutual irritation. Twice the commissioners intervened to restore order, each time redirecting the deliberations. The second time, on November 2, after five days of fruitless interaction circling around the question of whether or not justified believers can ever be perfect, the commissioners limited each party to one more final statement on Coornhert's Proeve, to be supported only by the bible. This intervention advantaged the ministers, so Coornhert now sought to win over the audience, rather than on his opponents. When he finished his statement on the morning of November 3, Coornhert was told that his wife was critically ill and the debate adjourned. Coornhert declared victory. Three weeks later Saravia resumed the debate and Coornhert was summoned to return. On November 28 Saravia began a four day long excursus in which he presented himself as the learned theologian and Coornhert as a rank amateur. The commissioners then declared that the debate would conclude in writing. Coornhert's submission arrived on December 9, that of the ministers not until the following April. Despite Coornhert's efforts to revive it, the oral debate was cancelled, and the parties returned to print polemics.

Roobol's account makes several important contributions, not the least of which is a necessary corrective to the Coornhert myth; Coornhert was clearly not as prominent within the inner circle of government as many have assumed. Even so, the Reformed ministers were similarly not happy with the States' handling of religious dissent; the Regents supported the national church but refused to relinquish ultimate control over religion to its ministers. As Roobol concludes, the first debate was held in a positive climate after Amsterdam had joined the revolt, and the ministers thought that Coornhert was "a danger they could handle" (285). The States accordingly sought to use the debate to legitimize the public status of the Reformed Church. The circumstances, however, were very different in 1582, as the Dutch continued to lose territory to Spain and anxiety grew over the allegiance of Dutch Catholics. Hence when Coornhert wrote against the growing censorship of Catholic works, the Regents reacted mildly, not wishing to heighten religious tensions, and were reluctant to permit a second debate. Roobol convincingly argues that these debates were not the State's effort to promote freedom of religion, but an attempt to silence the Reformed Church's most trenchant critic in a quest for religious unity. She justifiably corrects an anachronistic reading of the historical record that has favored a heroic figure, but to achieve her goal, Roobol may have at times overcorrected, applying far more negative adjectives to Coornhert than his opponents. Her depreciation of Coornhert's fear that freedom of conscience was endangered by Reformed ministers may also be anachronistic; modern historians know that the Regents had no intention of allowing the Reformed the same kind of power as in Geneva, but was that as clear in the 1570s when the Dutch Republic had just given up heresy prosecution and its survival hung in the balance? That said, Roobol's book contributes in various ways to our understanding of these religious debates and their key actors, as well as to our comprehension of the complexity of religious tolerance in the sixteenth century.