Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Vigils 'n' Sigils: Whither Protest?

The internet is frustratingly short on answers and predictably high on speculation when it comes to my naaktlooper ancestors -- so, hey: why not contribute a little speculation of my own?*

I've read a couple of accounts that describe the run as "an act of protest." If you'll pardon the pun, I tend to chafe at this interpretation.
Exactly.
I initially viewed the run as a fit of religious ecstasy (or hysteria). The group's leader, Heynrick Heynricx, was a self-proclaimed prophet prone to fits and visions. On this particular Wednesday night he tore off all his clothes and threw them into the fire, then urged his followers to do likewise -- the better to "proclaim the naked truth" to all of Amsterdam.

Eleven people followed suit, including four women, and out they went into the February night air, padding over Amsterdam's cobblestones and shouting "Woe! Woe over the world and the godless!"
"Also: free tuition!"
I figured a person had to be deeply in the throes to take on Amsterdam's winter air in the buff. And there's little doubt this bunch had whipped up quite the passion. But this was no regrettable act of sudden impulse -- apparently the participants eschewed clothing for their trials as well, which seem to have occurred within a week or two after arrest.

Barend Dierksz's The Naked Runners Of Amsterdam (above) portrays the participants in the lush manner of the Renaissance masters he was emulating, but given their modest social standing it's unlikely these 12 were anywhere near this well-nourished. In most etchings of executions the Anabaptist martyrs look like rag dolls. By the time this dozen was led into court, one nude winter sprint followed by a few nights in jail had rendered them all susceptible to respiratory infections. They "behaved bizarrely."

The judge was as merciful as the times allowed. He ruled out demon possession, thus sparing them the further indignities and discomforts that "witches" and the like were subject to prior to execution. And although execution was inevitable, they were all beheaded -- another relative mercy. There's no mention of the convicted professing any expression of gratitude on these matters.

So a protest it was indeed.

How angry and fed up with the status quo did these folk have to be to behave this way, in a sustained manner right to the end? For that matter, how about the thousands of others that followed -- some of whom behaved with pronounced civility and even compassion in the face of barbaric cruelty?

A recent biographer of Martin Luther went to some pains to suggest that, in fact, by the time he posted his 95 Theses the Holy Roman Church was keen if not desperate to initiate substantial reform -- but Luther was having none of it. "Reform" wasn't really Luther's intention -- revolution was. Good ol' Martin Luther (stubborn, arrogant prick that he was) just had to keep pushing the argument right to the limit, effectually condemning thousands of sincere innocents to horrific martyrdom.**

Eyeeeah -- maybe, maybe not. I have to think if thousands of people are willing to commit themselves (to say nothing of their loved ones) to the near-likelihood of a terrible death all for the sake of a fledgling alternative to the Magisterium as it currently exists, then that Magisterium has evidently morphed into an oppressive tyranny of the imagination.

And yet, and yet -- there's no denying it: Martin Luther truly was a stubborn, arrogant prick.
"You say that like it's a bad thing!"
A fact that definitely colours my perception of the revolution that followed. To be continued . . .

*Relying on what appears to me the most authoritative account on the web: Gary K. Waite's summary of Albert Mellink's historical documents.

**Okay, I'm actually riffing off a review, and not the work proper. To wit: "Without Luther, many of us wouldn’t be standing here unable to do other than lament his violent language and its tragic consequences, and learn from it the utter necessity of civility and of embracing the humanistic alternatives represented by Erasmus and Thomas More" -- T.F. Rigelhof; also: "In effect, [Luther biographer Richard Marius] sees the Protestant Reformation as a counter-Renaissance, aborting the gentler tempering of Christiandom that the revival of classical learning and classical moral philosophy had begun in Italy" -- Jack Miles.

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