Oldenbarnevelt and Fishes: Satirical Prints from the 12-years Truce

Oldenbarnevelt and Fishes: Satirical Prints from the 12-years Truce

What connects fishes with the politics of the Dutch Republic? More than you would think!

At a recent LUCAS gathering, Sophia Hendrikx and I discussed our respective research interests. When Sophia mentioned an engraving connecting the Truce-Conflicts in the Dutch Republic with early-modern imagery of fishes, I was surprised to hear about it in that connection, for I thought of the image as dating from at least half a century earlier. Later Sophia sent me a link to the engraving in question and indeed, this was a version of the well-known Breugel allegory ‘Big fish eat little fish’ from the 1550s, copied and creatively re-applied to the turbulent politico-religious events in the Republic of 1617-18, which led to the downfall of Oldenbarnevelt’s government and, eventually, his execution in on 13 May 1619 –an event which has been widely commemorated this year.

Pieter Bruegel I, Big fish eating small fish, ca. 1556, drawing (pen and ink). Vienna (Albertina), inv. no. 7875 (source).

Pieter van der Heyden, 'The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish', 1557, London, British Museum, no. 1875,0710.2651 (source).

I found the re-application most intriguing. Why was Breugel’s fish image considered topical to the Truce Conflicts? Breugel’s image satyrises, or so I thought, either oppression of the common people by the rich and powerful, or perhaps the growth of the Burgundian, then Habsburg empires by absorbing smaller principalities until the resulting agglomerate collapsed under its own instability and tyranny. On the other hand the Truce Conflicts centered on the relationship between Church and government, and on whether the state has any authority to prescribe religious doctrine. What was the connection?

De grote vissen eten de kleine vissen, Anonymous, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam RP-P-OB-77.302 (source).

However, that was not all. At first Sophia had inadvertently sent me a link to a different image, of another monstrous fish representing the Oldenbarnevelt government: a 1619 engraving by Pieter Feddes van Harlingen (1586-ca. 1623) accompanied by a long poem. This raised my curiosity further: apparently the re-application of the Breugel fish image was more than a whim prompted by the facile availability of an image which could be re-framed simply by writing contemporary names on its visual elements. Here was an entirely new image that applied the same metaphor afresh to the situation of the Truce conflicts -- but why? What was so particularly 'fishy' about Oldenbarnevelt's government or his person? Fortunately the (anonymous?) poem in Dutch printed alongside the Feddes engraving gives some help in explaining the giant-fish metaphor in the particular political situation.

Pieter Feddes van Harlingen, Spotprent op Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, [1619]; Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-67.665 (source).

The Feddes poem and image

The poem first and foremost reflects the deeply conflicted and polarised state of the United Provinces by the later 1610s. Insults, accusations and incriminations are towered upon the leading men of the Staatsgezinde party in Holland; not just on Oldenbarnevelt’s head but on Wttenbogaert, Grotius, Van Toor and several others as well. With that respect the image and poem feel eerily modern, in their closed-minded and partisan attack on the motives and personalities on the opposite side. There isn't the slightest attempt or willingness here, not even satirically, to understand the perspective of the others, nor any sense of a need for evidence for the poem's outrageous claims; only massive and a priori denunciation and condemnation. This is the ugly face of polarisation.

The poem's main polemical points are:

- Oldenbarnevelt is a secret agent of the Spaniards, conspiring against the Republic in favour of Spain;

- The Twelve year Truce of 1609 is part of a secret Spanish plan to reconquer the Republic;

- The religious controversy and near-fatal discord of the 1610s were deliberately engineered by Oldenbarnevelt as instruments to achieve the above;

- Oldenbarnevelt is a master of political deceit, cunning, manipulation and tyranny;

- Remonstrant theology is a false 'new doctrine' introduced solely to sow discord

- one fish 'eating' another means: subjugate, make one's instrument

Detail from Feddes image (center): the Spanish fish is swallowed, with his money, by the Oldenbarnevelt fish. The divine figure in the sky points at this scene. With thanks to Sabine Waasdorp, UvA.

Suspicions of a Spanish secret plan

This suspicion of a secret Spanish plan actually had some basis in written evidence, for in 1595 the Leuven professor Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), who had previously worked and taught in Leiden, wrote an advice letter to a counsellor of the Archdukes of the Southern Netherlands (who were basically the proxies of the King of Spain in the Low Countries).[1] Lipsius had been one of Leiden's famous professors until he came to feel that the nascent Dutch Republic was not a safe place to build his future on, and returned to the South, to Catholicism, and to obedience to the Habsburg rulers (in 1591). In the advice letter of 1595 Lipsius wrote that judging by his experience of the chaotic politics of the North, the King should best seek a peace with the United Provinces, for once their common enemy would be gone, the Republic would collapse under internal strife and the king would need little effort to re-unite the provinces with his realm. This lack of unity and solidarity between the provinces in the Low Countries is a commonplace of the period, expressed by observers both inside and outside the Low Countries, and was part of the contemporary self-image of the Lowlanders (a far cry way from the culture of polderen or mutual consultation and compromise which the Dutch regard as a national trait today). Inevitably Lipsius' letter was leaked to the North where it was printed and caused a considerable degree of indignation. During the peace negotiations of 1607-1608, which were highly contested within the Republic, it was reprinted as evidence of the Spaniards’ secret plans and bad faith. Another decade later, during the Truce Conflicts a series of very influential pamphlets repeated the accusations again with a particular focus on Oldenbarnevelt whom they claimed had been bribed by the Spanish to serve their interests.[2] Oldenbarnevelt’s policy to make the Truce a permanent peace after 1621 was another important cause of these perceptions. The poem expresses this incrimination by the interaction between Oldenbarnevelt and the Spanish fish.

Portrait of Justus Lipsius; engraving by E. de Boulonois after A. van Dyck. Private collection.

But however that be, Justus Lipsius has a further relevance here. In Leiden Lipsius had published a ‘handbook’ of political practice for princes, which became one of the most influential texts in political thought over the subsequent century (the Politica,1589). Religious policy is one of the key topics in the book. Lipsius advocates a secular-minded approach, in which the prince submits his religious policy to the needs of his political agenda, that is, to the best interest of his government and his subjects. This went straight against the traditional view of church-state relationships, which held that a prince’s first duty is to protect the True Faith –which in reality meant submitting politics to the agenda of the ecclesiastical institutions, possibly even to the point of waging war on parts of the population if the Church saw them as heretics. For Lipsius, a prince should maintain religious uniformity within his realm because this strengthened political harmony. But whenever the expected negative effects of upholding this unity outweighed the positive effects, religious pluriformity should be accepted, at least for the time being. When the stability of the political order is at stake, for Lipsius reality and necessity must take precedence over moral, legal, or religious principle. Lipsius also separated religious institutions and public observance from inner beliefs and one’s personal relationship with the divine. Consequently while in principle he argued against freedom of religion, he argues for freedom of conscience at the same time.

However, to orthodox believers in this period, Catholic or Protestant, such ideas amounted to outright Machiavellism, tyranny and to submitting God and the True Faith to the accidentals of human political wangling. By this time Machiavelli had the reputation of claiming that in government, everything (including ethics, law and religion) was secondary to the acquisition and preservation of power and glory, and that a clever prince should best feign the princely virtues instead of actually living them. In all societies in Europe around the turn of the 17th century majority opinion was generally of this orthodox type, and ideas such as Lipsius’ were only held by (often well-educated) minorities, and scorned as ‘Machiavellian’ and ‘politique’ by the majorities.

Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547-1619), by workshop of Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, 1616. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

In the Dutch republic however this minority was a powerful one, for Lipsian and politique views of religious policy enjoyed a degree of popularity among the Staatsgezinde regents to which Oldenbarnevelt belonged, and with him Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and others. For them the French king Henry IV was a great statesman whose conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism in order to qualify for the throne and put an end to the religious wars in France had set an example for the new century; the disasters of the 16th century had shown that in everybody's interest religious institutions should not be allowed to dictate the agendas of secular governments. Grotius for example wrote a history of the Dutch Revolt in which the 'Lipsian' view of religious policy is clearly recognisable and applied as the mainframe of his historical analysis. He never presents organised religion as a driving force behind the Dutch struggle for freedom, only as a source of chaos and social conflict. That its commissioners, the States of Holland, did not publish the work when it was finished in 1612 and they had paid Grotius a pleasant sum of money for its composition, is probably explained by the controversiality of Grotius’ politique approach and its implications for the place of religion in both the memory of the Revolt and the politics of the resulting Republic. The States probably considered it unwise to suggest endorsement of such a view of the Revolt and their own religious policies in the present: in the public perception this might strengthen an image of their government as Machiavellist, atheist, tyrannical, and abusive.[3]

Now this is where the Feddes image and poem become fascinating, for they show that what actually happened was precisely that. The poem is seething with words invoking the orthodox perception of the Staatsgezinde religious policy as deceptive, immoral, tyrannical, Machiavellian: loos, deurtrapt, arg, list, listich, listigheyt, bedwang, ‘secreten van het land’, Tyranny, twist, ‘schijn van Godsdienst’, beveynsd, regiersucht, hovaerdy [false, rogue, evil, ruse, cunning, slyness, force, 'secrets of State', tyranny, discord, 'semblance of religion', dissembled, lust for power, conceit]. Thus, the link with tyrannical power politics in the Breugel image seems clear enough, with the added dimension of Machiavellism and deceitfulness in the Feddes image. But still, why the fish?

The Geelkerken print (source).

Whale portents

An important clue for our the interpretation of the fish imagery appears near the end of the poem: the reference to the stranded whale at Noordwijk in 1614 as portent and image of Oldenbarnevelt's downfall. Whale strandings, which happened in Holland every so many years in the 16th and 17th centuries, were interpreted as divine messages foretelling important (unfortunate) events.[4] Whales themselves are presented as horrible sea monsters and a threat to humans. This helps a great deal to understand why a (perceived) tyrant, or Machiavellian ruler were allegorised in the image of a monstrous fish.

A dead sperm whale washed up the shore at Noordwijk, not too far from The Hague, on 28 December 1614, and several pictures of it were in circulation at the time. A different print of 1617 published by Nicolaes van Geelkerken[5] (with accompanying text listing the whales stranded on the coast of Holland between 1519 and 1617), shows that the Noordwijk stranding of 1614 must be the one referred to here. This roughly fits Feddes' voor drie Iaer.

Esaias van de Velde, stranded sperm whale at Noordwijk, 1614. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam RP-P-1926-239 (source).

Van Geelkerken presents the whales as horrible ‘monsters’ whose strandings are as many signals from God that a remarkable event is at hand ('...dat Godt almachtich naer het seynden van sodanighe Visschen ende andere Zee-Monsteren yet merckelicks heeft laten gheschieden') -- only we don't know what He is trying to tell us (Dit is soo veel als aengaet de monstreuse Pot-Visschen / wat ons de heere Godt daer mede wil te kennen gheven is hem alleen bekent'). Van Geelkerken reads the stranding of 1614 differently than Feddes, i.e. as signalling the resumption of the Jülich-Cleve War of Succession (for which see also Feddes' reference to Rees and Emmerich). For 1617 Van Geelkerken mentions no fewer than four whale strandings, plus sightings of live examples in the North Sea, suggesting a whole lot of misfortunes to come in that year. However with respect to their relevance to the civil strife in the Republic in 1617 he is more cautious: 'Offer oock eenighe rechtveerdige straffinge soude moghen voor handen zijn van onse verkeerde Godt-salicheyt / daer moghen de oude bedaechde Lieden van oordelen' (“whether any just punishment might be forthcoming for our misdirected piety, be up to the judgment of the old and cautious to decide”).

The general awareness of the fundamental difference between fishes and whales (mammals) seems to date only from the 19th century.[6] The common word for whale in Dutch, walvis, confuses the two genera anyway. Since the 19th century the human perception of whales underwent a fundamental change, towards the image of the friendly, intelligent giants that we cherish today. For the 17th century this picture was unavailable. Feddes' monster shows similarities with ancient and early-modern images of dolphins. Also, it seems possible that Breugel's original fish image depicts a whale rather than a giant fish, given the similarities with the early-modern images of stranded whales. It may not be a coincidence that the 1617 adaptation of the Breugel image uses the word monster for the big fish. For 16th- and 17th-century observers, there was symbolic connection between big (whale-) fishes and political disaster, hence the polemical depiction of the fall of the criticised Oldenbarnevelt government by means of a monstrous and/or stranded giant fish.

With thanks to Sophia Hendrikx, Sabine Waasdorp, Marijke Tolsma and Kate Rudy.

Further reading

This post is an abbreviated version of a short article; the full version, including a summary of the poem, complete footnotes and further background information on the Truce Conflicts can be found on my Academia page.

K. Barrett, "Boschian Bruegel, Brugelian Bosch: Hieronymus Cock’s Production of “Bosch” Prints," Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 5:2 (Summer 2013) DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2013.5.2.3

S. Groenveld, Evidente factiën in den staet: sociaal-politieke verhoudingen in de 17e-eeuwse Republiek der Verenigde Nederlanden, Hilversum 1990;

H. de Groot, Kroniek van de Nederlandse Oorlog. De Opstand 1559-1588 vertaling en nawoord J. Waszink, Nijmegen 2014

H. Grotius, Ordinum Pietas, ed. with intr. by E. Rabbie, Leiden 1995

C. Lenarduzzi, ‘De oude geusen teghen de nieuwe geusen’ in: Holland, Historisch Tijdschrift 43 (2011), 65-81

H. Nellen, Hugo Grotius. A Lifelong Struggle for Peace in Church and State, 1583-1645, Leiden, 2015) p. 279-280

J. Lipsius, Politica. Six books of Politics or Political Instruction, ed. with translation and introduction by J. Waszink, Assen 2004, p. 27, 28, 127

J. Pollmann, Religious Choice in the Dutch Republic: the Reformation of Arnoldus Buchelius (1565–1641), Manchester U.P. 1999; B. Kaplan, Calvinists and Libertines: the Reformation in Utrecht, Ann Arbor 1989.

E. Rabbie, ‘Grotius’ denken over kerk en staat’, in: H. Nellen & J. Trapman (eds.), De Hollandse Jaren van Hugo de Groot, Hilversum 1996, p. 192-205.

L.Rogier, Geschiedenis van het Katholicisme in Noord-Nederland in de 16e en 17e eeuw, Amsterdam 1945, vol. 1.

B. Sliggers & A. Wertheim (eds), 'Op het strand gesmeten'. Vijf eeuwen potvisstrandingen aan de Nederlandse kust, Zutphen 1992

J. den Tex, Oldenbarnevelt vol. II, Oorlog 1588-1609 (Haarlem 1962), p. 566; and vol. III, Bestand 1609-1619 (Haarlem 1966) p. 565-570, 588-589

Y. van Vugt and J. Waszink, ‘De Middenweg als uitweg? Politiek in Hoofts Baeto’, in: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde 116 (2000), pp. 2-22.

J. Waszink, 'Lipsius and Grotius: Tacitism' in: History of European Ideas 39/2 (2013), 151-168

J. Waszink, ‘Tacitism in Holland: Hugo Grotius' Annales et Historiae de rebus Belgicis’ in Rhoda Schnur (ed.), Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Bonnensis: Proceedings of the 12th International Congress of Neo-Latin Studies (Bonn 2003). Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies vol. 315, 2006

J. Waszink, 'Your Tacitism or mine? Modern and early-modern conceptions of Tacitus and Tacitism' in: History of European Ideas 36 (2010), 375-385


Pracktyke van den Spaenschen Raedt, dat is: clare vertooninghe dat den Raedt door I. Lipsium, Er. Puteanum ende F. Campanellam gegeven om de vereenighde Nederlanden wederom te brengen onder t gebiet van den Coninck van Spaengjen etc (Inv. Knuttel no. 2618, 1618)

Provisionele Openinghe van verscheyden saecken, ghestelt in de Remonstrantie van den Heer Advocaet van Hollandt ende Westvrieslandt. 1618. Ascribed to François van Aerssen (Inv. Knuttel no. 2634, 1618)

[1] See J. Waszink 'Introduction' to J. Lipsius, Politica, p. 27-28 and 127.

[2] See the pamphlets under 'Further reading'.

[3] See Waszink, ‘Tacitism in Holland’.

[4] Interestingly it seems that in Staatsgezinde circles the belief in portents of these and similar kinds was actively rejected; at least Grotius does so in his history of the Revolt; see Waszink, 'Your Tacitism or mine', p. 382-384.

[5] Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-80.813

[6] B.C. Sliggers, 'Inleiding' in: Op het strand gesmeten. Vijf eeuwen potvisstrandingen aan de Nederlandse kust, Zutphen, Walberg pers 1992 p. 10.

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