Anna Bijns (1493-1575)

A Poetess in Antwerp

1528 saw the appearance in Antwerp of a remarkable collection of refrains. Among its novel features was its attribution to a living writer. Furthermore, the author turned out to be a woman, the ‘honourable and ingenious young lady, Anna Bijns’. That this need be no obstacle to excellence was proclaimed at length on the title page. The book claimed to contain beautiful, refined texts, to be religiously orthodox and to offer a host of artistic refrains in line with the literary fashion of the age. This was all the more astonishing since women were not admitted as official members of the chambers of rhetoric. That was reserved for men. Yet Anna mastered like no other the art of the rhetoricians, who were the first to design a literary language and try their hand at new kinds of text.

That judgement was a contemporary one, since at least five editions of this first collection appeared during her lifetime. What is more, a Latin translation appeared as early as 1529 – virtually unheard of with literature in the vernacular – which actually gained her a European reputation. In addition, new collections appeared in 1548 and 1567, and were also reprinted. This was further proof that she had rightly been labelled ingenious in 1528, blessed with a talent inspired by the Holy Ghost irrespective of sex.

Fearing the charge of pride, Anna began her book with a dedicatory poem which immediately acknowledged her readers as her equals: ‘Artistic spirits, who long for art’, that is, we are all connoisseurs together, thirsting for good literature. She had not produced these texts out of vanity, but as a loyal daughter of Mother Church. And should anything have gone amiss with the style, ‘tell yourselves, it’s all just woman’s work’. Women were intellectually less capable than men, as science had shown, and Anna did not question this. There was no question of irony, however much she might relish using it in other places. Still, this demonstration of humility after the fanfares to her genius was also very sophisticated. One did not need to be a connoisseur to see that her refrains were far superior to anything one might have read and heard up to then.

Anna Bijns, who lived and worked in sixteenth-century Antwerp, is one of the Low Countries’ major authors. Yet her work is little known. But in her own time her texts were widely disseminated in manuscript and print. She was in fact the first writer in the vernacular to achieve widespread fame through the printing press. Everything she experienced in her city was material for her sharp pen. Nothing was taboo: badly thwarted love, the vain illusions of Luther and his followers, the threat of freebooters from Gelderland at the city gates, the insufferable policy of tolerance pursued by the city council, deceit and conflict within marriage, the sad but well-deserved lot of hen-pecked husbands and the need to relax with the hilarious nonsense of the repertoire of popular festivals.

She is able to express all that excitement with a verbal dexterity almost unequalled in Dutch literature. Complex rhyme-schemes, alliterations and neologisms gave her texts an irresistible cadence, while the subtly orchestrated passion still came across as natural. She was also the first author in Dutch literature, to present herself emphatically as an individual with personal views and emotions of her own. That was undoubtedly due in part to her being a woman, which meant that the rules of public life did not apply to her and to a large extent she was able to be herself.

The family Anna grew up in must have started her on the path to literature. Her father, a successful breeches merchant, moved in rhetoricians’ circles, since at least one refrain by him is known. Probably he awakened Anna’s interest in the new literature, which proved exceptionally congenial. She definitely participated in the competitions between members in the chamber of rhetoric. Talented women operated quite often in these male literary preserves, but always had to do so anonymously.

Was she not the fifteen-year-old girl from Antwerp who won a prize at a poetry festival in Brussels in 1512 with refrains in praise of the Virgin Mary? Unfortunately the age does not tally, since Anna Bijns was already nineteen at the time. But ‘maiden’ and an age of fifteen might well be an estimate in describing a teenager, as yet unmarried and still without a fixed position in society, who had been allowed to compete with the eminent gentlemen. With her younger brother Maarten she ran a primary school, and after his marriage in 1536 set up in business for herself: she was now officially enrolled in the teachers’ guild. For many years, until 1573, she continued to teach the simple catechism, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. Finally, at the age of eighty she was no longer able to continue. Two years later Anna died, and was buried on 10 April 1575 after a pauper’s funeral that was definitely not in keeping with the reputation she had acquired in the course of a long life.

Attacking the Reformation

Besides the three printed volumes, three bulky manuscripts of her work have been preserved, having been collected between 1540 and 1550 by the Antwerp frater minor Engelbrecht van der Donck. In addition, refrains by Anna are found in some fifteen manuscript collections of rhetoricians’ work. All in all this distribution in manuscript form points to great popularity in rhetoricians’ circles, where a repertoire of such manuscripts circulated. The work that has been preserved consists almost solely of refrains, a genre that seems to have been invented with her in mind. Modelled on the French ballad, such poems had at least four verses, with a recurring line (or refrain) at the end of each verse marking the theme. Each verse, with an identical rhyme scheme, contained an exposition with varied arguments, which always culminated in the repeated conclusion in the refrain. This made the form admirably suited for persuasion and provocation, like an axe with a repeatedly chopping blade.

Anna’s approach was far from dainty. With unequalled mastery of form and virtuosity she succeeded in raising the refrain to the level of a seemingly natural mouthpiece for the heights of indignation and the depths of feeling. The impact was all the greater because of the oral nature of the literary form. It involved emotionally-charged recitations to gatherings that were frequently not predisposed to share the opinions being expressed. Many rhetoricians had Erasmian sympathies or were even bold enough to take an expressly Reformist stance, while her merciless satires of family life were not calculated to please every head of household or lady of the house in her audience. Her refrains were built on such public confrontations. The audience was often addressed in so many words, as were those at whom a refrain might be strictly aimed: Luther, his foolish followers, lax monks, deceitful lovers, bossy women and hen-pecked husbands.

The first collection of 1528 consisted almost entirely of fierce attacks on the Protestant heresy, which she invariably saw as the aftermath of Martin Luther. The Lutherans were sneered at, derided and blamed for all the misery on earth. There was scarcely any reasoned argument, for which Anna anyway lacked the intellectual baggage. She had an impressive knowledge of the Bible, but at the level of the catechism lessons she gave to primary school pupils. She simply reiterated the traditional articles of faith of the Mother Church, but now allied bizarrely with the new literary genre and quasi-realistic street language.

As a result Protestant theology was reduced to the arrogant populism of conceited laymen who thought they could take charge of their own salvation: ‘Scripture these days is read in the ale-house, / With gospel in one hand, in the other a pint.’ Even women believed that they were capable of teaching the gospel to scholars – what drunken idiots! They were leading the world towards a new Flood, since ‘Man wallows in evil like pigs in the sty’. This tone was tempered somewhat in the second volume, to make way for moralising, self-examination and meditation. In the third volume militancy faded into the background and resignation and praise of the Creator predominated.

Crossed in love

Her refrains on worldly love, marriage and the family were very different, both serious and sarcastic. These are found only in manuscript form. Anna was sceptical about all aspects of earthly love. Lovers were faithless, marriage led directly to slavery and bred battle-axes and hen-pecked husbands, leading to complete chaos in the family. This was her variation on a set of literary themes that were almost de rigueur in the chambers of rhetoric and hence cannot simply be taken as an idiosyncratic preference. Still, Anna’s almost obsessive choice of these themes is striking. She herself never married, though she did remain focused on the world, which at least leads one to assume that she did not want to exclude the possibility of marriage. At any rate deep disappointments in her personal love life may well have triggered these literary settlings of account.

The refrains with the recurring lines ‘You are what you are, I’ve come to know you well’ and ‘Although I don’t say much, I think no less for that’ are telling. But elsewhere, too, the deep amorous wounds are repeatedly mentioned. Precisely that fixation on cheating in love create the impression that she is definitely making use of her own experiences, no doubt distorted and exaggerated, since we are after all dealing with literature. Besides, private situations and current affairs also prompt her to write in other situations too. That is the purpose of poetry: to give depth to the particular, individual and private and convert it into emotions and more general messages. That is also achieved by fitting these events into significant historical contexts.

That is why she opens a refrain with Jason as the archetypal love cheat, drawing a parallel between the deceitful lover and the faithless Christian, and hence making her personal experiences an integral part of God’s scheme of salvation:

The one who believed so devoutly in me,
Now proves false. But I clearly see
How his passions fade.

It is not even beyond the bounds of probability that she is trying to communicate directly with her ex-lover in this way, making it appear that he is still within reach. In the other refrain she addresses him directly as ‘O love’, and the emphasis in the whole poem is on humbly enduring the pain he has inflicted on her. She even reveals that she constantly bombards him with (literary) texts:

What good are my poems, all I write or say?
My lover thinks that they’re hot air anyway.
Even if I read him this pretty wee refrain,
I’d declaim it in vain.

In such repeated assertions and laments there is a single message, only comprehensible to the intended recipient, which other readers and listeners cannot make head or tail of:

Princely love, it still makes my heart bleed,
That you should deceive me so: you know when indeed.

We know that Anna actually corresponded in refrain form, so that such remarks have a definite meaning. However, in this case, it can only apply to the deceitful lover. Such a clause is meaningless to an anonymous readership: the secret is not solved in the text, the unsuspecting reader or listener cannot help feeling excluded. Or is this a way of reinforcing the illusion that the listener is privy to private business?

This literary game is best understood as a personal formal expression of deep hurts, whether or not at the invitation of friends, a chamber of rhetoric or a printer. After all there is no real reason to leave such deeply-felt, intensely emotional sentiments hanging in the air as superior exercises in the art of rhetoric. The formal professionalism need not be at odds with personal motives. On the contrary, it provides the right platform for giving private sorrow literary shape according to the rules of art and the taste of the time. However, we know nothing concrete about Anna Bijns’s experiences in love. She does, though, write about them continually. And we find that she is capable of establishing intimate relations with a small number of monks, who act as confessors, spiritual guides, literary admirers and editors.

There’s nothing worse than Luther

She also had a number of personal friends among the Antwerp fratres minores. Brother Matthias Weijnssen in particular seems to be the person who encouraged her to write. Elsewhere too, the fratres minores were known to be fervent opponents of the Reformation. And literature in the vernacular was one of the ways they used to wage a propaganda war and reach as many people as possible emotionally. Very probably Anna allowed herself to be used for their purposes from the very beginning. Her themes matched their ambitions completely: fighting heresy, satirising marriage, and monastic entertainment in silly refrains with scores of names for anus and a farting competition among beguines – people were fond of combatting the dreaded melancholy, which could lead to suicide, with the crudest form of scatological folklore.

Her best-known refrain concerns the (ironic) question: which is preferable, Martin Luther or Maarten van Rossem? This was prompted by the frustrated assault on Antwerp by the freebooter from Gelderland in 1542. In fact she used his violent actions to argue yet again how much more harmful the actions of Luther were. Van Rossem tormented bodies, but Luther sent souls to perdition. If destruction by the robber baron meant a passport to heaven, the price of selling one’s soul to Luther was eternal damnation. Hence Van Rossem was after all the better of the two.

Van Rossem might be a villain, yet he had the ‘advantage’ of not being a heretic and therefore exercised some restraint with clergy and church property – at least so Anna maintained, before letting rip at Luther again. And for the umpteenth time she drew on her arsenal of terms of abuse, traditionally disguised as arguments. In view of his sermons no one could be sure of their own possessions any longer. And what’s more Luther had set his sights particularly on the plundering and destruction of church property and egging people on to disobey the clergy. As a result of all those atrocities there had already been 200,000 deaths in the Peasant War in neighbouring countries.

In the final verse she reached the high point of her indictments of Luther, which though familiar were expressed with surprising originality. First she dubbed Van Rossem and Luther the prince of all ‘highwaymen’ and all ‘false prophets’ respectively. But why should she waste any more paper lamenting their atrocities? Actually both belonged in the company of Lucifer, whom she introduces at the last moment as the unexpected member of the trio: ‘which of the three is best?’ But even then she continued to give precedence to Van Rossem. She was most afraid of Luther’s poison – Lucifer is obviously in a class of his own. And she concluded with a vulgar image that put things in perspective: she didn’t give a ‘squashed pear’ for the choice – after which she wrote the recurring line for the last time.

Anna Bijns is the first author in Dutch literature to reach a wide readership thanks to the printing press. Her talents were fully recognised, used and exploited. The fact that she excelled in a literary form, which as a woman she was debarred from practising in the context of a chamber of rhetoric, makes it all the more piquant that in the view of her contemporaries she far surpassed all her male colleagues.

By Herman Pleij
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2013

Further Reading

Herman Pleij, Anna Bijns, van Antwerpen, Prometheus, Amsterdam, 2011.
Herman Pleij, Meer zuurs dan zoets. Refreinen en rondelen van Anna Bijns (More Sour than Sweet), 2013.