Flanders (Belgium)

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Flanders (Dutch, Vlaanderen), once a county ex­tending along the coast of the Low Countries, cov­ering the present Belgian provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders and (in the 16th century) the area of the French departement of Nord from Dunkirk to Lille (Rijssel) (now one of three regions in Belgium). In the southern part of Flanders the French language predominated; but in by far the larger area Dutch was spoken. It is strange that this part of Belgium is now strictly Catholic, whereas in the Middle Ages it was a cen­ter of all sorts of faiths and in the 16th century there were at first many Anabaptist congregations, followed by still more numerous Reformed congre­gations.

It may be that Bakhuizen van den Brink is right in saying that the origin of Anabaptism here is not to be found in Melchiorite influence as is the move­ment in Holland and Friesland, nor in the Swiss Brethren influence, but in the remnants of Waldensian groups which existed here in concealment. Bakhuizen may also be right in believing that about 1565 great numbers of Anabaptists joined the Re­formed Church. Fruin calls attention to the astonish­ing fact that in consequence of the hatred of the working classes against the immoral clergy and of the economic conditions of the populace, they were led into a very destructive iconoclasm, only to unite in droves under the banner of the suppressors of the Reformation. On the other hand, the courage of hundreds of martyrs shines gloriously, and there is no area in western Europe where the soil was so thoroughly watered by the blood of the heroes of faith and where execution stakes were so frequent­ly set up; and hundreds of Flemish fled to Holland, Friesland, Groningen, East Friesland, Twente, the Rhine Province, and England.

A number of these refugees apparently settled in the north in 1555-66, before the breaking of the images and the arrival of Alba. They were of great importance for the northern congregations. They produced a number of families of ministers, and were of great influence in introducing an element of trade into our churches of sailors and peasants. Van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror lists nearly 400 Ana­baptist martyrs from Flanders, and since that time research in the archives by Edouard de Coussemaker and especially A. L. E. Verheyden (Martyrologia of Brugge, Ghent, etc.) has brought many more to light. Not all the archives of Flanders have been investigat­ed, and some are no longer in existence, such as the important archives of Ieper, which were destroyed in World War I in 1916.

The beginning of Anabaptism in Flanders, espe­cially in the great trade centers of Ghent, Brugge, Kortrijk (Courtrai), Meenen, and Ieper, is best ex­plained as being slumbering remnants of former religious anti-Catholic movements and as the result of the cosmopolitan population of these cities, their extensive but dwindling industry and their interna­tional trade with the shipping connected with this trade, creating here a fertile soil for reformatory efforts and easy entry for new ideas.

It is, however, remarkable that among the Flem­ish weavers in the Middle Ages there were many adherents of religious brotherhoods, and that Anabaptism found its following chiefly among the workers in the textile industries; and also in the disinclination of the city authorities to persecute religious faiths, since it would be injurious to inter­national trade. It was actually the servants of the rulers that led the persecution, supported principally by the monasteries, whose members, however im­morally they might be living, were willing to fur­nish inquisitors, such as the abhorrent Brother Cornelis Adriaansz of Brugge. The adherents of the new ideas were very likely the descendants of the party of Klauwaarts, whose freedom-loving views conflicted with those of the party of Leliaart. Behind our heroes of faith rises the shadow of the great man of the people, Jacob van Artevelde.

Henri Pirenne in his history of Belgium (III, 404 ff.) has drawn a sad picture of the moral de­cline of the clergy of the time. Their education and scholarship was as slight as their sins were great. The tie with the church, which was actually hated by the populace, became so loose that it was quite easily broken by the reading of a reformatory writ­ing that was secretly printed in Antwerp. Here we have the center of religious enlightenment through literary means. But, above all, the new doctrine was propagated both openly and privately by itiner­ant preachers, who proclaimed the new faith in small gatherings held here and there in a granary or a basement, as well as in larger concourses in remote woods, and occasionally, like the martyr Gillis van Aken, preached on the street or the market place following the example of the preaching monks. From foreign countries came dealers and seamen and related in the inns what was believed in other lands.

The first Anabaptist victims in Flanders were Willem Mulaer, who was beheaded in Ghent on 15 July 1535, and Arendt de Jagher and Jan van Gentbrugge, who were beheaded four days later. The first proclamation against the Anabaptists was post­ed at Antwerp on 12 February 1535. This was the time of the disturbances in Münster. The authorities everywhere now saw in Anabaptism only a revolu­tionary movement dangerous to the security of the state. From now on, it was threatened with severe punishment, viz., the stakes for men and drowning for women, while those who sheltered its adherents or promoted their work were banished; the death penalty was set for holding meetings. Münsterite preachers such as Jan van Geelen and Jacob van Herwerden moved through Flanders preaching their doctrine. But it may be assumed that the number of their followers was rather small in comparison with that of the northern areas, and that there was little desire here to institute the New Jerusalem with the sword. But here too, as is seen in the accounts of Hans van Overdam , who died as a martyr at Ghent, they originally called themselves Bondgenooten. The notorious Jan van Batenburg was arrested at Artois in 1537; in his confession made in the castle of Vilvoorden, he betrayed a number of names, among them some from the south.

Presumably at about this same time the preacher Wouter van Stoelwijk was arrested and in 1541 after many years of imprisonment executed as a martyr. His writing, which is found in the Martyrs' Mirror, is both inspiring and dogmatically sound. But there had already been other similar movements in Flanders. The Davidjorists had a number of followers. There were also some follow­ers of Hendrik Nicolai (Familists), members of the "House of Love." The secrecy practiced by both groups blocks the inquiry into their numbers. Nevertheless it is certain that they were favored. The "sermons" of Brother Cornelis reveal that there were some in Brugge, and that the unitarian ideas of Adam Pastor, on account of which he was banned by Menno Simons and Dirk Philips, found an echo in Flanders, as, e.g., in the case of the martyr Herman van Vlekwijk. This has been proved by Hans Alenson (BRN VII, 196).

The doctrine of the Incarnation as adopted by Menno from Melchior Hofmann was not shared by all the Belgian Anabaptists. It is, for example, rather strange that the publishers of the Haarlem Oßerboek for this reason omitted a part of a letter by Claes de Praet. Also Jacob van de Wege, who was burned at the stake at Ghent in 1573, held a different view. He had a brother Hans, who had died at the stake three years before. They were nephews of Claes, the colleague of the notorious Inquisitor Pieter Titelman, deacon of Ronse (Renaix), their home.

Another characteristic doctrine found among the Anabaptists was the "sleep of the soul", i.e., the human soul is in a state of sleep until the final judgment. A surgeon of Rijssel (Lille) was drowned at Metz in 1538 on account of this heresy. Several other Flemish Anabaptists have been discussed by K. Vos in the Theologisch Tijdschrift of 1918, viz., Jacob de Rore or Keersgieter, a preacher at Brugge (d. 1569), Hans de Vette (Ghent) and Hans van der Maes at Warneton near Ieper (both d. 1559), and Hendrik Verstralen at Rupelmonde (d. 1571), who said, "That we may go to our chambers (graves) with peace and calm and await the coming of the Lord, who will awaken us below the ground." But most of the martyrs believed that they would at once inherit heaven.

Presumably most of the martyrs died without pos­sessions. Confiscation rarely produced any goods. Only rarely is there a statement regarding making property secure. It seems that those who had means succeeded in fleeing. Only in 1567 are five rich men of Rijssel (Lille) mentioned, who were sentenced at Antwerp. The nobility as well as the wealthy risked grave losses when they opposed the government. Nor should it be forgotten that this religious movement arose at a time of decreasing prosperity and declining industry, in which the coming of the kingdom of Christ upon a new earth was expected for half a century, and that its adherents were found for the most part among those who were dissatisfied with their lot on earth.

Furthermore, it seems that in only two periods (1534-35 and 1566) did any great number of the laboring class join the movement for a time, but only a few of these became members, and these gave an adequate account of their transfer. They were able to read the Bible and the reformatory writings, they composed good letters, and their confessions of faith were well considered. There were also some writers of songs among them. A number were able to give pointed replies to the inquisitor. Actually, the brotherhood made lofty demands of its members. Baptism was imparted only to those whose confes­sion of faith and conduct were considered worthy.

The trials also show that the meetings were at­tended by 20 persons at the most; this was the usual number found by the authorities when they sur­prised a meeting. And only a few persons were bap­tized at a time. The prisoners on the rack were never able to give more than a few names, which suggests that the congregations were not large. But the members must have had unusual financial re­sources, for in no other way could the large number of published writings be explained. It must also be considered that in the Frisian vs. Flemish disputes one of the causes for friction was the costly clothing of the Flemish, and that one reason why Leenaert Bouwens was removed from his office of elder was that he drank too much wine.

The organization of the congregations was also different from that of the north, partly because of difference in national characteristics, and partly be­cause they had other preachers. Menno and Dirk Philips were never in Flanders; nevertheless they were no doubt very highly regarded here. The Flemish congregations were more independent. Whereas in the north only the elder could perform the rite of baptism, in the south it was frequently performed by men who were not yet ordained as elders.

The strict adherents of the ban and shunning did not live in Flanders. On the contrary, there were many here who favored milder views. Still, they did not want to be too lenient. The martyr Christian Rijcen (burned at the stake at Hondschoote in 1588), formerly a preacher in Leyden, had to resign from his office for that reason.

The following preachers and leaders served in Flanders: Leenaert Bouwens, who baptized about 350 persons in Flanders in 1554-82, Joachim Vermeeren, Joost Verbeeck, Herman de Timmerman, Hans Busschaert de Wever, Gillis van Aken, Jan van Ophoorn, Jan van de Walle, Gillis Bernaerts, Michiel Bernaerts, Adriaan du Rieu, Hendrik van Arnhem, Paulus van Meenen, Hans Symons of Rijssel, Olivier Willems, Gillis de Hevile, and Filips Bostijn (all of these are discussed by K. Vos, De Doopsgezinden te Antwerpen in de 16. eeuiv). Ad­ditional names are Joos de Tollenaar, Hendrik van Roseveit, Martin van der Straten, Wouter van Stoelwijk, Christiaen Rijcen, Jacob de Rore, Hartman Sybrands, and Christoffel van Leuvene.

Without doubt Ghent had the largest con­gregation. Other congregations that produced mar­tyrs were: Aire, Armentieres, Bailleul (Belle), Bruges, Cassel, Comines, Dixmuiden, Halewijn (Halluin), Hondschoote, Ieper, Kortrijk (Courtrai), Meenen, Messines, Middelburg, Nieppe (Nijpkerke), Oostende, Oudenaarde, Pamele, Rijssel, Rupelmonde, Thielt, Vinderhoute, Waastene (Warneton), Wervik, and Wynoksbergen. Anabaptists were also liv­ing at Harelebeeke, Ronse, Rousselare, Steenwerk, and Swevegem.

The last Anabaptist martyr of Flanders was Michiel de Cleercq, executed at Ghent in 1592. Thereafter the Mennonites in Flanders died out or emigrated. Until about 1630 Mennonite congregations were found in the neighborhood of Ghent, at Lovendegheni and Zomerghem. At this time many Mennonites fled to the Netherlands, especially to Aardenburg. Others went to the Rhine Province of Germany. Among the Mennonite families in the Netherlands of Flemish descent (in large part they have died out) are the Anselmus, Apostool, de Block, Beheydt, Boekenoogen, van de (den) Boogaert, Calvaert, Claeys, de Clercq, Coppens, Couwenhoven (Kauenhoven), Cranen (Craen), van Daele (Dalen, Daalen), Dobbelaere, Dyserinck, van Eeghen, Fack, de la Faille, de Forest, de Fremery, Goudeseboys, Gryspeert, de Haan, van Halmael, Hartsen, van Outryve (Hauteryve), d' Hoye (de Hoeye), van Houcke, Hebberecht, de Heere, Hennebo, Huygaert, van de (den) Kerckhove (Kerckhoven), van der Meersch, Mehoude, Messchaert, Mulier, de Neufville, de Pia, Plovyer, le Poole, des Rameaus, Roose (Roosen), de Sitter (de Suttere), van (der) Sluys, van der Smissen, van de Steenkiste, Tak (Tack), Verhamme, de Wale (de Wael), de Wolff.


Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 649-52.

Verheyden, A. L. E. "Introduction to the History of the Mennonites in Flanders," Mennonite Quarterly Review XXI (April 1947) 51-63:

Verheyden, A.L.E., Het Brugsche Martyrologium (12 oktober 1527 – 7 augustus 1573). Brussel, 1944.

Verheyden, A. L. E. Het Gentsche Martyrologium (1530-1595). Brugge: De Tempel, 1946.

Verheyden, A.L.E., Le martyrologe Courtraisien et le martyrologe Bruxellois. Vilvorde, 1950.

Verheyden, A. L. E. Le Protestantisme ä Nieuport au XVIe siecle. Brussels, 1951.

Verheyden, A. L. E. Anabaptism in Flanders, 1530-1650: a century of struggle. Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite history, no. 9.  Scottdale: Herald Press, 1961.

Vos, Karel. De Doopsgezinden te Antwerpen in de zestiende eeuw. Brussels, 1920.

Author(s) Karel Vos
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Vos, Karel and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Flanders (Belgium)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 7 Jul 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Flanders_(Belgium)&oldid=145053.

APA style

Vos, Karel and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1959). Flanders (Belgium). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 7 July 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Flanders_(Belgium)&oldid=145053.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 334-336. All rights reserved.

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