Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Those who think that today’s Catholic Church has problems reining in its errant clergy should read Craig Harline and Eddy Put’s summary of the new code of conduct that Mathias Hovius, Archbishop of Mechelin (not far from Brussels in today’s Belgium) from 1596 to 1620, laid down for every priest in his diocese:

[The priest] no longer appointed his illegitimate son to succeed him as pastor because he would have no children at all. He no longer merely refrained from fornication but avoided the “burning fire” of a beautiful young housekeeper. He no longer allowed his housekeeper to masquerade as his sister, especially when he bore no resemblance to her, thus risking rumors that she was his sister as Sarah was Abraham’s sister. He no longer greeted women in public with a kiss. He no longer threatened to shoot parishioners who might criticize him for keeping a concubine, for he had no concubine. He no longer even thought of commissioning altarpieces for the parish church that included himself on one side panel and his concubine and son on the other . . . . And he no longer tried to sleep with the maid or play indecent games with women.

If that were not enough, Hovius enjoined his parish priests that they were not to wear “silly fur hats or gloves to celebrate Mass.” They were not to hear confessions from their female parishioners in dark and secluded corners. They were not to hawk, dance, or gamble. They were not to cultivate reputations as “remarkable,” “distinguished,” “in­ corrigible,” “great,” or “assiduous” drinkers (all those adjectives come from parish records of the time). And Hovius’ priests were absolutely not to show up drunk for a baptism, lest they get the child’s name wrong and have to do it over.

In other words, Hovius’ job was to put the kibosh on the Bruegelian Catholicism of medieval Flanders and bring the Counter“Reformation to his diocese. This was no easy task for any bishop in the Europe wracked by the religious and nationalistic wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in Flanders the bloody struggles between Catholics and Protestants for converts and power took place right on home soil.

Hovius, however, seemed up to his daunting task. Lowly of birth, the son of a Mechelin fuller (the era’s equivalent of a dry cleaner), who had shown ability rather than brilliance in school, and far from handsome, with glowering eyebrows and a long fleshy chin pointed like a pie“wedge (numerous portraits of him are reproduced in the book), Hovius was not loved. But he was tough, prodding the priests in his 450 parishes not only to behave themselves but to acquire real learning in seminaries (the pastors of the Middle Ages had typically apprenticed with their priest“uncles, then inherited their parishes), forcing a local monastery to turn over its rents to support his threadbare bishopric, weeding out heresies, casting a cold eye on the dubious saints’ relics and miracles with which Flanders still abounded. As Archbishop of Mechelin, Hovius was primate of the Low Countries. By the end of his life, he had wrestled the Flemish church into a rationalized, bureaucratized, and decorous institution characteristic of the “modern” Catholicism envisaged in the reforms of the Council of Trent.

Fortunately for scholars (and for us), Hovius kept a detailed daybook of all his activities”his building projects, his ceaseless and wearying parish visits, and the endless round of petitions and disputes, on issues ranging from pornography and marriage annulments to questions of heresy”that he adjudicated in his busy ecclesiastical court. Most of the journal has been lost, but in 1987, Harline, a history professor at Brigham Young University, and Put, a Belgian archivist, discovered in a seminary library in Mechelin the last volume, covering the period from 1617 to Hovius’ death. This book is the fruit of their reconstruction of Hovius’ life from that diary and other contemporary documents.

Harline, author of the well“received Burdens of Sister Margaret: Inside a Seventeenth“Century Convent , decided to focus on Hovius for his second book as a corrective to the worthy but perhaps exaggerated preoccupation of today’s medievalists with eclectic and colorful “ordinary” Catholicism in contrast to the official kind. Harline and Put decided that the career of a bishop would offer as good a vantage point as any for looking into the seventeenth“century social world. They thought that since “religious life was a constant negotiation among all parties rather than a simple matter of the hierarchy proclaiming and the flock obeying, then being a bishop was hardly the mundane, absolutist task it has been made out to be.”

Making one’s way as a Catholic prelate in seventeenth“century Flanders required negotiating skills and many other skills besides. To the north lay the staunchly Calvinist Dutch Republic, product of a protracted war of secession that had begun in the 1560s, when Hovius, born in 1542, was a young man. Until the Dutch formally declared their independence in 1581, more or less ending the strife, all of the Low Countries belonged to Philip II of Spain, who had inherited them from his father, the Flanders“born Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

After the Dutch breakaway, Flanders became known as the Spanish Netherlands, an uncomfortable moniker. Even the Catholics of the Low Countries detested the dour and culturally alien Philip, who tried to reduce their once“auto­ nomous territories to a Spanish province and who introduced the Inquisition to Flanders. At the very end of his life in 1599, Philip turned the Spanish Netherlands over to his daughter Isabella and her husband, Prince Albert of Austria, and made it a quasi“independent archduchy. Isabella and Albert were popular sovereigns, and a measure of peace finally prevailed.

By then, the city of Mechelin, once a robust medieval commercial center with a population of thirty thousand, had been thoroughly trashed in the decades“long civil strife. During the 1560s, as Hovius was preparing for ordination, bands of Calvinist iconoclasts raged through Mechelin burning crucifixes and murdering priests and nuns. Then came a Spanish reprisal“cum“Inquisition session, so nasty that most of Mechelin’s Catholics decided they preferred the Dutch Protestant rebels. The Spanish Fury, which ruined Mechelin’s economy, was followed by the English Fury, an invasion in 1580 launched by the Dutch ally Elizabeth I that included a spree of burning, looting, and clergy“killing so fearful that Hovius escaped with his life only by disguising himself in a peasant’s smock and sneaking out of the city.

The incident undoubtedly toughened him for his later episcopal duties. One of his first acts as bishop was to preside over the last execution for heresy in Belgium, the burying alive in 1597 of Anna Utenhove, a forty“five“year“old Anabaptist servant woman who refused to take holy communion (the incident made a Protestant martyr out of Anna). Since he was not independently wealthy and his bishopric was penniless”the cathedral was thoroughly wrecked”he spent the next few years bleeding white the monks of Affligem, a wealthy Benedictine monastery nearby that Philip II had designated as Mechelin’s archdiocesan milk cow. The monks appealed to Rome for relief, but Hovius had allies in the papal court. He was a bishop who did what he had to do.

His principal task was to create order out of the entertaining mess that was clerical life in medieval Flanders. There was actually a shortage of parish priests in the Mechelin archdiocese, not for want of ordinations (Hovius ordained about one hundred new priests a year), but because most of those ordained would do practically anything”find a chaplaincy with the nobility, attach themselves to the cathedral as canons”rather than serve in a rural church. Country pastors literally had to live off the tithes from their parishioners’ fields. One priest armed himself and his father, mother, and sister with pitchforks to collect the sheaves of flax and grain that he considered his due at harvest time. Another pastor was so poor that he had no rectory and slept inside his rundown church along with his farm animals. His parishioners complained that his hens laid eggs on the altar, his pigs tore an altar cloth on a feast day, and his doves flew about during Mass showering those in attendance with droppings. The same priest was alleged to have hit a parishioner over the head with a beer mug after the parishioner accused him of sleeping with his wife.

There were also scandals at convents. At one religious house belonging to a supposedly contemplative order of nuns, the ever“popular chaplain, Jan Kerremans, ate at the sisters’ table, lent them his vestments for a lark to wear to church, and often slept over instead of returning to the male monastery where he was supposed to be the abbot. Reports circulated that Kerremans was having an affair with one of the nuns, Sister Joanna, a frequent horseback“riding companion of his and a thorn in Hovius’ side. At another convent, the nuns and their confessor drank beer and traded bawdy jests well into the night. At a third nunnery housing a nursing order, one Sister Cornelia was accused of taking money from a wealthy old patient that she said went to the poor but that actually went to decorate her cell with silk curtains and an expensive leaded“glass window.

Stories like these fueled Protestant fires on the other side of the Dutch border, and Hovius had to be a stern disciplinarian as well as a fair adjudicator of these motley disputes. To upgrade the priesthood (and establish control over it), he built a diocesan seminary that would provide a solid, subsidized education to clerical aspirants, who would then, beholden to their bishop, be funneled into rural pastorates at his direction. He ordered the contemplative nuns, including the truculent Sister Joanna, to stay inside their convents (he had less luck with Kerremans, who was subsequently accused of fathering another nun’s child but had political connections to protect him). He convened diocesan councils that set standards for instructing his lay flock in the basic tenets and rituals of their faith, and he oversaw the publication of Counter“Reformation propaganda that paid the Calvinists back with equal slanders for their own tracts defaming Catholics. And he worked his way through a minefield of ecclesiastical politics, fending off interference from papal nuncios and territorially ambitious Jesuits on one side and from Isabella and Albert, who considered the church to be part of their secular patrimony, on the other.

Hovius was not a saint, and when he died at age seventy“eight after a protracted conglomeration of miserable old“age diseases, no crowds swarmed around his corpse cutting off pieces of his clothing for relics. But he was “a regular shoulder rubber with all of society,” as Harline and Put write. “He was simply a flesh“and“blood prelate who descended from his throne and ‘muddied his boots’ in the filthy streets, hopeless roads, and eternally damp fields of the archdiocese.” Further, Hovius was a “diligent shepherd . . . and gracious host of exhausting audiences with people from the entire social spectrum, who crossed his tiled floor to tell the deepest secrets or recount the simplest troubles.”

The bishop recorded it all in his daybook, and he”and his biographers Harline and Put”have left all of us the richer in understanding, not just of his own time, but of the comic frailties of human nature that don’t change with the times.

Charlotte Allen is Senior Editor of Crisis magazine and author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.