The Medieval Review 12.09.29

Levelt, Sjoerd. Jan van Naaldwijk's Chronicles of Holland: Continuity and Transformation in the Historical Tradition of Holland during the Early Sixteenth Century. Hilversum: Uitgever Verloren, 2011. Pp. 280. 35 EUR. ISBN: 9789087042219. . .

Reviewed by:

Antheun Janse
Leiden University

This study, a PhD-thesis defended in London in 2011, is to be regarded as a passionate plea for taking medieval historiographical compilations seriously. Levelt scrupulously analysed two Dutch chronicles, both written by Jan van Naaldwijk, son of a nobleman from Holland, between 1514 and 1524. The first was an exceptionally lengthy compilation, based on a whole range of elder chronicles, some of which had been printed recently. It covers the history of the county of Holland from the fall of Troy to the author's times. The second chronicle was meant as a supplement to the first. Both texts have remained nearly totally unstudied for centuries. In the early 17th century, the autographs were given to the English bibliophile Robert Cotton, whose collection was subsequently incorporated into the British Library. Although both of the manuscripts were damaged by fire in 1771, most of the text (92%) is still readable. Yet no one seemed to be interested. Dutch scholars visiting London around 1900 reported to their colleagues in Holland that the chronicles were "mere compilations" and, therefore, were not worth a trip to London. Levelt's study shows that they were wrong. Even if he only corroborates the idea of a compilatory work, written by a not very gifted amateur, Levelt argues that it nevertheless deserves attention as a perfect illustration of the truism that "small changes can make a big difference, and the accumulation of many small changes can create a new historiography" (5).

After giving a concise but useful summary of the historiographical tradition of Holland before Jan van Naaldwijk (Chap. 1), Levelt discusses the textual sources of the first chronicle. These comprise the entire historical canon of the Low Countries, including several printed chronicles (1478 in Gouda, 1480 in Utrecht, 1497 in Antwerp), chronicles of France, Froissart's Chroniques, as well as more recent texts such as Robert Gaguin's Compendium de origine et gestis Francorum and several universal chronicles (i.e. Harmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle), itinerates and collections of anecdotes. Archival sources have not been used, with only one exception: a privilege granted by Empress Margaret to her subjects in Holland in 1346. A rather unusual element in the chronicles is the personal information he added to his sources, "which at times makes the work read like an autobiographically inspired document" (137). This information includes a genealogy of his family and some stories from the Montfoort family, under whose wing he may have been taken after the death of his father in 1482. A few years after the completion of his first chronicle, Jan started to write a supplement that apparently was prompted by the publication of the so-called Divisiekroniek in 1517, a work which is to be considered as the apotheoses of medieval chronicling in Holland. As a rule, Jan just copied the text of the Divisiekroniek and some other sources, but in some cases, he manipulated details. Levelt shows that many of these alterations can be explained by Jan's adherence to one of the parties which had dominated the political arena in Holland for more than a century. The Naaldwijk and Montfoort families traditionally supported the Hoek party, whereas the Divisiekroniek tended to place the Kabeljauw party in a more positive light. Towards the end of his chronicle, the opportunities for this kind of "political" alterations became scarcer, which may have been the main reason for him losing interest and, finally, breaking off his project mid-sentence. The last chapter of Levelt's book is devoted to the use of medieval chronicles in early modern historiography. He points out that the medieval chronicle tradition did not come to an end after Jan van Naaldwijk, but was continued in new experiments as well as in the ongoing dissemination and adaptation of late-medieval examples like the Divisiekroniek.

Apart from a useful survey of the late medieval chronicle tradition of Holland from the middle of the 14th century up to the early 16th century, including some sharp observations concerning the authorship of the Divisiekroniek (was it really Cornelius Aurelius?) and the supposed centrality of the Batavian myth in this text (which was, in any case, not noticed by Jan), the importance of Levelt's study lies mainly in his views on the "overlap of continuities and transformations" which characterized the form and contents of Jan's chronicles. Whereas Jan's political views on the past were still determined by the seemingly ineradicable party struggle between Hoeken and Kabeljauwen, the availability of new sources and the changed geopolitical situation of the county of Holland led to significant adjustments in the stock narrative of the historiographical tradition. Humanist concepts and ideals, however, had only a modest impact on his attitude towards the past. In this respect, I can only endorse Levelt's conclusion, that "Jan van Naaldwijk's works are typical and illustrative of the continuous vibrancy of experimentation based on convention which characterizes late medieval and early modern historical writing" (239).

This focus on the historiographical tradition has almost inevitably led to a rather superficial treatment of the information derived from Jan's personal knowledge and experience. It is striking, in this respect, that the details on the author's biography are found scattered over the chapters, both in the main text and in the footnotes. One would have expected Levelt to have these data integrated into a consistent picture of the author's life, profession and social status, but such a picture is lacking. Levelt's suggestion that Jan might have been "a tutor at the Horne court" (140) is as conjectural as earlier surmises concerning his illegitimate birth or his activities as a priest in Loosduinen. The genealogical information, in fact, points in another direction. Jan was the eldest son of a knight, he married a noblewoman, his eldest son married a (noble) jonkvrouwe, and his grand-daughter married an important supporter of William of Orange during the Dutch Revolt. In other words, there is no reason to suppose that Jan had to earn his money by teaching children at a noble court. Moreover, many details in the chronicle which are unique and do not feature in other surviving chronicles of Holland, are left undiscussed. It particularly struck me that the lively eyewitness accounts of some actions of the leading nobleman Jan van Montfoort, one of the main adversaries of the Burgundian-Habsburg government in the northern Low Countries, have been totally neglected.

In this regard, it is only to be welcomed that Levelt decided to deliver full transcriptions of both Jan's chronicles on an accompanying CD-ROM. This enables other researchers to continue the study of the chronicle's "autobiographical" character. I am firmly convinced that such a study, if it is accompanied by archival research, will provide some interesting new results on the chronicler and his work.