Tres Fratres Belgae

Brothers, Poets and Civil Servants in the Sixteenth Century

This article is based on an extensive study of the works and lives of Janus Secundus (1511-1536), Adrianus Marius (1509-1568) and Nicolaus Grudius (1504-1470), three brothers who became famous as the ‘triga’, the ‘team of three’ poet-brothers.1 For once, I have decided not to stress the fact that one of them, Janus Secundus, ranks among the foremost poets of the world.

Rather, I shall address the position of the three brothers in the bureaucracy and court system of the Burgundian Netherlands, on the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles V, and I have selected for translation the end of the elegy that Secundus wrote at his father’s death. It has been my good fortune that Peter Brodie has been willing to translate this fragment into heroic verse.

The generation born during the first decade of the sixteenth century no longer had to fight for humanism. The brothers were able to study in Leuven at the Collegium Trilingue, set up in 1518 in the spirit of Erasmus, where the three sacred languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, were taught according to modern philological principles.2

They wrote their poems in Latin and also wrote each other letters almost daily in that language. At home they spoke Dutch and as attorneys and magistrates they could write Dutch and French, but Latin was the only language in which they were able to write down intimate or poetic nuances. Even at the beginning of the next century humanists still felt that poetry in Dutch was unartistic.3 Secundus is the only famous Dutch poet, because he wrote in Latin. He became famous because of his Basia, his ‘kisses’, but he was also one of the first medallists in the Low Countries.

Humanists may be recognised by the fact that they want to go back to the sources which, in their eyes, became sullied during the Middle Ages. Thus, back to the Bible and the Church Fathers and away from the barbaric Latin of scholastic theologians; back to the Corpus Juris and away from the authority of commentators in barbaric Latin; and back to the exemplary poetry of the classic Roman poets.

Linguistically informed research on the sources of Christianity boiled down to the question: Is this the true text, is this the true interpretation, and is this really true? Erasmus too occupied himself with critical editions of the New Testament and the Church Fathers. All too often the answer, as far as the Vulgate and the Roman Catholic tradition were concerned, had unfortunate consequences for the tradition of the Church. And what in earlier times might have remained restricted to an argument among monks and complaints about corruption now became everybody’s business, due to the spread of paper manufacturing and the invention of printing. The result was that heresy could no longer be contained. The critical point was the iconoclasm of 1566. Philip II sent the ‘Iron Duke’ Alva to the Netherlands with wide-ranging powers. The atmosphere had already turned bitter, certainly after the abdication of Charles V in 1555 when Philip came into power.

The reign of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who was the regent of the Netherlands from 1507 until her death, was in retrospect seen as an ideal era. Music, tapestry and the fine arts thrived in line with the Italian Renaissance; the language at her Court in Mechelen was French, her court poet was a Savoyard rhetorician; there were many Dutch-language rhetoricians’ associations, and the highest court of justice, the Grand Council, was of course humanistic, as was the Collegium Trilingue in nearby Leuven.

Janus Secundus was born in The Hague, lived in Mechelen, and died at not quite twenty-five years old near Doornik, on a visit to his employer, the Bishop of Utrecht. So, he lived in the yet undivided Netherlands. In those days you were not travelling from one country to another when you went from The Hague to Mechelen.

First, I shall discuss his fame, then his life in connection with his two brothers Grudius and Marius, likewise poets, along with that of their wise older brother Everaart (1497-1561).

At the end of my essay, I shall record a conflict between bureaucracy and court; a conflict that was Grudius’ downfall. I am able to do so thanks to some highly personal letters. They seem never to have been intended for publication; they are so disadvantageous to Secundus’ and Grudius’ ambitions.

I will conclude with the Revolt, insofar as it occurred libertatis ergo (‘haec libertatis ergo’ became the motto of the University of Leiden), ‘for the freedom’ of the old system of government — to which the family was attached, and which was abolished by Alva in 1567. In this liberal vision the Revolt was not caused by religious strife: religionis ergo.

The fame of Janus Secundus

Secundus was revered by one of the founders of Leiden University, the hero of the siege, Janus Dousa, who himself had wanted to become another Secundus by writing Basia. Dousa cultivated this poetic passion when he was studying in Paris. The French Pleiad poets honoured Janus Secundus by imitating him, alone of the poets north of the Alps. A Janus Secundus conference was held in 1998 in Paris, in which many seizièmistes, or sixteenth-century scholars, participated. Among the Dutch philologists Harm Jan van Dam presented a paper on Latin Poetry in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century, in which he emphasised the veneration for Secundus in the north as well as the south, but particularly in Leiden.4 It is very important for the history of Dutch culture that at the foundation of this university, the founders on the rebel side wanted to link themselves to Secundus and Erasmus (they died in the same year, 1536, for its founders only forty years ago). Poetry overcomes religious antitheses. In 1561 the Dutchman Cripius published an edition of Secundus’ Opera in Paris; a second edition, after the 1541 edition published by Secundus’ brother Marius. During the Revolt Cripius chose the Catholic side, and became chancellor of Spanish Guelders. By contrast, one of Everaart’s sons, and thus a nephew of Secundus, Aarnout, chose the side of William of Orange even though he remained a Catholic. He continued the family tradition and became the first president of the new Grand Council in The Hague. This Aarnout took along the poetical archives of Marius and Grudius that he had inherited from his father. And so it was that the poems by the two other brothers were published in Leiden.5 The brothers lived to be old, and practised genres other than love poetry. Secundus was planning to do this as well, but he died too soon. Only his juvenile poetry is left us, including the erotic poems that made him so famous.

How are we supposed to imagine the fame of a love poet in Calvinistic Holland? But Latin love poetry did become a Dutch speciality, along with classical philology. The Calvinist Daniël Heinsius, one of those child prodigies who adorned the University of Leiden at the end of the sixteenth century, and who became a professor of Greek as well as poetry at a very young age, made his poetic debut writing erotic poems. Many philologists followed his lead and it was only around 1800 that complaints were rising that the Dutch were neglecting poetry in the vernacular.

Loyal to Emperor and King

The brothers’ father, Nicolaas Everaarts (1462-1532) was born in Walcheren as a sea-captain’s son. He made a career in law. In 1505 he became a councillor at the Mechelen Grand Council, the highest Court of Appeal of the Netherlands, in 1510 president of the Court of Holland in The Hague, and in 1528 president of the Grand Council in Mechelen. He built up a reputation as a great and irreproachable lawyer and governor. His sons followed in his footsteps. Everaart and Marius were equally irreproachable magistrates; but Grudius and Secundus were not. They couldn’t stand the fact that with all their erudition, with their great poetic talent, they had to live like poor courtiers.

Let me briefly pursue the careers of four brothers (from a total of eighteen children). In 1523 Everaart became a lawyer at the Court of Holland presided over by his father, and in 1526 he became a councillor at the Court of Friesland. In 1533 he became a councillor at the Grand Council of Mechelen. He returned to the Frisian Court as president, and in 1549 he became president of the Grand Council of Mechelen, as his father had been a quarter of a century earlier.

In 1534 Marius became a lawyer to the Grand Council of Mechelen, in 1540 councillor at the Court of Utrecht, a year later councillor at the High Court, in 1546 chancellor of Gelderland.

In 1526, Grudius became a lawyer to the Court of Holland, in 1532 Secretary under Nicolas de Granvelle, who was in charge of Netherlands affairs. He travelled to Spain with the Court and after his return in 1538 he became Secretary of State and Secretary of the Privy Council. In 1540 he became the Registrar of the Order of the Golden Fleece and Receiver of Subsidies of the province of Brabant. However, he handed over not one cent and was arrested in 1554. He had invested the collected tax money in a failed project to reclaim land from the Zijpe in the North of Holland. He died in 1570 in Venice, destitute and on the run.

Secundus was also trained as a lawyer. He followed Grudius to Spain from where the brothers were sure to return loaded with gold. After a year he got a job as secretary to the Spanish Archbishop Tavera and hoped for a clerical career; he wanted to become the priest and provost of Haarlem! However, he contracted malaria in this to him barren, hot, impoverished, and uncultured country, returned home ill and died of anaemia, the consequence of malaria.

From this brief summary it appears that these middle-class young men (the family was ennobled in 1535) pursued judicial and administrative careers, in the jumble of provincial governments, including the Court of Holland (legislation and administration of the law were not separate), the Subsidies of Brabant, and central Councils, and the summit of such a bureaucratic career, the Grand Council, the highest court of appeal in the country. These civil servants, trained in Roman and ecclesiastical Law before which all are equal, were supposed to serve as a counterweight to the privileges of nobility, clergy, and cities, and so were part of the road to centralism.

Taxes were called ‘Beden’, ‘Quêtes’, literally ‘Entreaties’: the sovereign had to ask for them. And because wars kept getting costlier, the central administration was getting into ever deeper financial trouble, and national bankruptcy threatened more than once.

The watchword ‘Haec Libertatis Ergo’ means that the Revolt was a protest against the centralism that Alva ultimately wanted to push, including central taxation. And indeed, the Republic of the Seven Provinces later persisted with the old system, as faulty as it was, with their Provincial States, their States General, and their Council of State; and the Dutch are still accustomed to discussing everything along the ‘polder model’. In this way the Dutch, unlike the Spanish, escaped absolutism. The Nicolaï family remained loyal to the Emperor and also to King Philip. Grudius bore the title of councillor of Charles V, and Philip kept him on in that capacity, even after his arrest. The family remained loyal to the system. However, Marius ended his career in the Council of Troubles that Alva had instituted, to repress the opposition.

Times had changed halfway through the century, although even in 1567, one year after the iconoclasm, an Italian, Guicciardini, described the Netherlands as an idyllic nation, a ‘vera e felice repubblica’ (‘a true and prosperous republic’), because he encountered everywhere the same ‘cività e politia’ (‘civil and political culture’).6

Bureaucracy and the Court

Lawyers are bureaucrats and bureaucrats are, in principle, incorruptible. Against this stands the royal court, which to us, in principle, is corrupt. The former statement sounds idealistic and the latter cynical; but they are tautologies: the rule of law, as opposed to favours. The Sovereign is the source of all law and therefore stands above it. He dispenses favours and mercy, or the contrary, at his will. A courtier is grateful for the charity the sovereign has been pleased to offer; or else he dreads his capricious wrath. Although of course father Everaarts was appointed President of the Grand Council on his merits, Secundus yet calls his appointment ‘a gift’ from the Emperor in his poem on his father’s death.

Secundus exhibits his courtier mentality in his letters to his brother Everaart when he has his eye on privileges in the form of clerical sinecures. When Secundus has finally been appointed secretary to Archbishop Tavera of Spain, he writes to Everaart on 31 May 1534:

I am going to have a brilliant career and if I behave myself, which I certainly plan to do, I will presently be counted among the foremost of his court. I can imagine all manner of things, whatever you want, due to the friendliness, the culture, the power of my Lord. Besides stipends, favours, and exceptional honours which are not to be slighted, is a hardly indubitable expectation of the most generous privileges for me. For, because he is Cardinal, all the dignities of the church and the privileges that become vacant all through the year wait for his and only his decision, to such an extent that each week he can help one of his people to a handsome amount of loot.

Grudius with his office of Receiver of Subsidies in Brabant ended up entangled in the bureaucracy. As a bureaucrat, he was now under the control of the Auditor’s Office (this, too, is an institution we are still familiar with today). However, after his arrest, aside from his legal defence, he also kept appealing to his role as one of King Philip’s councillors and to the orders of his lord, which he could not have refused.

It is even the case that after his first arrest Grudius was released by order of the King. When Philip left the country in 1559, Grudius had to flee; his possessions were sold on the street. The States of the province of Brabant still had a claim on him for two hundred thousand guilders, hundreds of millions in today’s terms.

I have selected the conclusion of Secundus’ elegy on the death of his father in the verse translation by Peter Brodie. I include it in order to show another side of the young poet (he was then twenty-one) than the one of the very well-known Basia. He was capable of more, and was planning an epic on the Emperor’s victorious expedition to Tunis. He would, had he persevered in his clerical aspirations, certainly have set himself to writing religious poetry, as Grudius did at the end of his life.

Secundus has summoned his father’s ghost from Elysium, or paradise, in Koninklijke Bibliotheek order to give his political testament to his son. Father Everaarts is introduced as the man who was to make an end to the exploitation of the nobility and the general lawlessness in Holland by introducing Law, which applies equally to all.

Secundus has his father’s speech end in praise of his incorruptibility. He added later (as appears from his manuscript) an encouragement to consider that as his first and foremost legacy. However, at precisely this juncture an inappropriate yearning to become rich had come to possess him; and a bit later Grudius was exposed as a swindler.

By J.P. Guépin
Translated by Wanda Boeke

Published in The Low Countries, 2000