Part Two – The Heretic.
By way of a little background, Jeronimus Cornelisz was born sometime around 1598 in the remote Northern Dutch province of Friesland. Friesland would have been quite the culture shock to Dutch visitors at the time. It was an arduous trek through bogs and marshes to even get there, and once you arrived you were greeted by a province stuck in the past – largely rural, and lacking in much of the conveniences that came from the vast wealth generated by VOC trade in the east. Many Frisians considered themselves Frisian – not Dutch. Many even viewed the Dutch as invaders who had stolen swathes of land from the former Frisian kingdom centuries earlier. I don’t know nearly enough about the history of the Frisians but have always believed the Frankish king Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, not the Dutch, put an end to their self rule in 734 AD – however I’m far from an expert on their history. Many Frisians, whether rightly or wrongly, absolutely hated the Dutch and saw them as oppressors. Friesland was also the kind of place where enclaves of radicalism -particularly religious radicals – held out.
Jeronimus would have been educated. Everyone in Holland had at the least a primary school education – at a protestant school. Prior to declaring their self determination, the Dutch were ruled over by the Spanish wing of the Hapsburg family. Halfway through the 16th century they engaged in a 8 decade long war of independence against the Spanish. In the process they cast off Hapsburg Catholicism for the shiny new Protestantism, doing the rounds of Europe at the time. Schools were used to embed the new religion. Being of an upper middle class background – Jeronimus’ father Cornelis was an apothecary too – Jeronimus went on to higher schooling. He would have been introduced to humanist thought at college – and from there went on to a five year apprenticeship which would have culminated with his ‘masterpiece’. This would have involved the preparation of some potion or other requiring several difficult stages, which showed his mastery of his studies.
A quick sidebar on medicine, and pharmaceutical science in the early 17th century. Medicine was a long way away from it’s current state, and was largely based on balancing your four humours – an idea which was codified by the Greek physician Hippocrates in the late 5th century BC – then further extended by the Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century AD. If you felt unwell doctors believed you either had too little or too much blood, phlegm, yellow bile or black bile in your system. You would be sent to an apothecary to make a potion featuring dozens of ingredients alleged to re-balance these humours. These ingredients could be any number of roots, herbs, animal parts or even human flesh. In this era mummy flesh direct from Egypt – or failing that, the flesh of an executed criminal – was a cure-all.
Having completed his masterpiece, Jeronimus married, moved to an exclusive part of the Dutch city of Haarlem, and opened his own shop. To the recently qualified apothecary the world was their oyster. An apothecary could become extremely wealthy in the 17th century, some amassing greater fortunes over a lifetime’s work than some of the nobility, and certainly many merchants.
So what went wrong?
First he and his wife, formerly Belijtgen Van der Knas, had an extremely ill fated pregnancy. At some time in November 1627 Belijtgen had given birth to a baby boy. From late in the pregnancy she had been very unwell, to the point that by her eighth month, certain she would die – the couple called in a solicitor to draw up a will. Both mother and baby survived the birth, though Belijtgen worsened afterwards. The couple had hired a midwife named Cathalijntgen van Wijmen, who appeared to have been going through a paranoid schizophrenic episode around the birth – hearing voices in her head, and sleeping with an axe beside her bed for protection from some inner torment. Her incompetence however was the main concern – having left part of the placenta in Belijtgen’s womb – which caused a horrible infection. With a deadly fever, fighting for her own life, and completely unable to provide milk for the baby – Jeronimus hired a woman named Heyltgen Jansdr, to provide milk for his son. Again Jeronimus chose poorly. Had he asked around he would have realized Heyltgen was known in the neighborhood for having picked up a mysterious illness some years back after cheating on her husband. Soon the baby became unwell and died. The cause of death, syphilis.
As horrifying, and heartbreaking as this must have been for the couple – it would have been an incredibly painful and bloody death for the child. Death by syphilis for a baby generally involved being covered head to toe in sores, and heavy bleeding from the orifices. The death also had a massive impact on his burgeoning business. In spite of Heyltgen’s reputation, Jeronimus and Belijtgen would have come under suspicion as the parties who had passed syphilis to the child. Many patients, not wanting to buy medicine from the potentially syphilitic, would have gone elsewhere. Add to this, throughout much of the 1620s the Dutch were generally a little cash strapped – war had reignited with Spain, costing both countries dearly – Jeronimus was suddenly struggling to make ends meet.
To compound matters he had borrowed a lot of money from a money lender called Loth Vogel – perhaps to start the business. When repayments slowed, Vogel began pursuing the debt aggressively. While Vogel began legal proceedings against Jeronimus, Jeronimus initiated legal proceedings against his wet nurse, Heyltgen Jansdr. As he collected evidence against the wet nurse, of allegations of her illness, and an affair with a syphilitic widower nicknamed ‘Velvet trousers’ Heyltgen herself gathered a posse who loudly and threateningly picketed the shop – telling all in sundry that Belijtgen’s hair had fallen out from syphilis, and yelling abuse up at the couple. This further hampered their efforts to pay off Loth Vogel. On 25th September, by court order Loth Vogel repossessed all of Jeronimus’ worldly goods in lieu of payment.
This was hardly the couple’s only problem at the time. The other involved religion.
The first thing we can say for certain was Jeronimus was brought up an Anabaptist. The Anabaptist church was an offshoot of Protestantism, which had become particularly popular with the working class of Europe. Most Anabaptists in Jeronimus’ time were quiet folk; fiscally responsible, conservatively dressed, hard workers and not the types to share their religious views. However they were generally disliked by the Dutch, occasionally even persecuted. Many people of his time would remember the Anabaptists of just a few decades earlier.
In the early days of Anabaptism, a handful of factions took radical actions recognizable in groups like ISIS today – forming militias and violently attempting to seize cities across Europe. These acts of terrorism were often on a small scale, as when 40 Anabaptists attempted a coup in Amsterdam, 10th May 1535. They killed the mayor and several other bystanders but were soon put down. The most famous, and particularly bloodthirsty example of this was the 1534 Műnster Rebellion – where a group of Anabaptists first led by a local fanatic named Jan Matthys, then the more charismatic Jan of Leiden, took over the city either forcing non believers out or baptizing them. The society within their walls became extremist, polyamorous, a little communist, mostly heavily repressed by the leaders– and very eschatological, believing end times were coming. The siege carried on until 1535, ending in their defeat amid the mass slaughter of the rebels. Much of the reasoning behind this, and other acts of terrorism was they were eschatologically minded, a kind of millenarianism. They believed the end of the world was nigh; they would be the minority saved who would ascend to heaven, but that this was dependent on someone bringing on end times. This was their job. In the wake of this event Catholic and Protestant powers alike began repressing Anabaptists. Some groups redoubled their peaceful ways, like the Mennonites and Amish.
Initially the remaining radicals coalesced under the leadership of a man named Jan Van Batenburg, who turned to robbing travelers on the Dutch border with the Holy Roman Empire. The group would continue to do so after Batenburg’s capture and execution in 1538, at least until 1580. At that point they dispersed, mostly to Friesland. Jeronimus’ parents were Anabaptists – and suspected to have been Batenbergers. He was never baptized. Had he been Protestant he would have been baptized as a child, had he belonged to the Mennonites he would, typically, have been baptized around the age of 18. Most Anabaptists do take baptism as an adult, so it is thought he lost his faith somewhere along the line, or possibly was a hardline Batenberger. He certainly had similar views to them in regards communal property, and the righteousness of killing those different from yourself.
Another influence on Jeronimus was a friend named Johannes van der Beeck, known to many as the Dutch painter Torrentius. Torrentius was an altogether different kind of heretic, having gleaned a number of radical ideas while frequenting a fencing club in Amsterdam, run by a radical thinker named Giraldo Thibault. Thibault’s fencing club was a known hotbed of radical thinking, but largely left alone due to the high number of young adult sons of extremely wealthy citizens who fenced there. How Jeronimus came to know Torrentius is not known. At one point they lived a few hundred yards apart, and Torrentius would have likely picked up art supplies at Jeronimus’ shop, such as white lead, or gold leaf. However they became friends, Jeronimus would become something of a disciple of Torrentius.
So what did Torrentius teach Jeronimus Cornelisz, and how did this lead to Jeronimus’ exit from Haarlem? Starting with the painter’s beliefs.
I guess you could say firstly Torrentius was a known bon vivant. Having become a successful artist he had taken to a life of excess. He wore fancy clothes considered above his station in life. He spent a lot of time, and money carousing in the local taverns – at times with his entourage spending the equivalent of a year and a half worth of wages for an average painter, in a single sitting. He spent a lot of money in the brothels of Haarlem. Torrentius was married, to a well thought of young woman, but when their marriage broke down he refused to pay anything towards his wife’s upkeep – and spent some time in jail because of this. His regular paintings of scenes from pagan mythology, and nudes raised some eyebrows. It was however his loud, drunken conversations which marked him as a possibly dangerous man in Haarlem.
He was known to regularly toast the devil while drinking. He also cultivated a legend that his extraordinary paintings were created by black magic. Torrentius, allegedly, laid out paint and a blank canvas on the floor, then some unseen supernatural force would paint for him. Rumours spread Torrentius often took solitary walks through the forest, talking with the devil. Ghosts allegedly could be heard in his artist’s studio. Some claimed he performed blood sacrifices with hens bought from the market.
The truth of the matter was far simpler. Torrentius appears to have been a gnostic. He had said to people he did not believe in either heaven or hell, the bible was a “book of fools and jesters” and that religion was a tool used by the ruling class to keep the others in check. All the same he did believe in a greater, divine power, and that everyone on earth had some of that power embedded in them. The power was suppressed by original sin, but could be tapped into if you knew how. Jeronimus had picked up Torrentius’ epicurean taste in hard living, and skepticism of the bible – he did however hold a few dangerous views all his own.
Jeronimus believed every action he made in life was the result of God’s will – once stating to friends “All I do, God gave the same into my heart”. This meant that he could live a completely guilt-free life, regardless of what he did. Wherever he picked this idea up, technically he would be considered an Antinominalist, it was a dangerous idea for a psychopath particularly to have. If you were perfect, in a state of grace – already one of the elect – anything you do is divine, no matter how evil. Sabotage a ship full of people? Kill or incite others to murder? You are only furthering God’s plan. This will be important later. Now we have ascertained Jeronimus Cornelisz would have been considered a heretic, let’s take a quick sidebar and discuss how a conspiracy theory would cause further troubles for our antagonist.
In 1625 the artist Torrentius was arrested, initially on suspicion of being a Rosicrucian.
The Rosicrucians, or Order of the Rosy Cross appear to have been more an idea of what a movement could be, which in turn grew legs, than a bona fide movement in its own right. Manifestos from the group began to appear across Europe, first in the German town of Kassel in 1614, then rapidly elsewhere. The alleged group behind them claimed to be a secret society of German mystics who had collected esoteric learnings from a distant past; powerful truths which they believed were the key to great power and greater understanding of the universe – much of which had been suppressed or forgotten through the ages.
The order was, apparently, established in the fifteenth century by a man called Christian Rosenkreuz. Rosenkreuz had travelled throughout the middle east, bringing back ancient wisdom and supernatural powers. When he returned to Germany he established a group with seven other adepts, whose task was to travel throughout Europe and spread this secret knowledge. Like the comic character The Phantom, each of these 8 brethren were tasked to find a replacement as they grew older, basically to step into their shoes. According to the legend Rosenkreuz died in 1484 aged 106, and was buried in a secret location. His tomb would be left for 120 years, then re-opened, signaling the dawning of a new Golden age. Then the Rosicrucians would spread their learnings far and wide throughout society as a whole – ushering in the Golden age. The legend spread, as memes often do, appealing to many a Walter Mitty type and occultist alike. Both types hoped they would be invited to join this exclusive group. You don’t need to imagine too hard how much this concerned local rulers across Europe, many of whom recalled the real world problems from the Anabaptists.
In 1624 the Dutch Republic began chasing the Rosicrucians, claiming they uncovered a secret plot between French and Dutch Rosicrucians to overthrow both countries. A judicial body was established to locate the heretics and bring them to justice. As they investigated two rumors kept coming up. One, Haarlem was ground zero for the order; and two a Thorentius was a leader in the group. It did not take long for them to hear tales of Torrentius’ toasts to the devil, supernatural boasts and antisocial behaviors. Torrentius would be brought in and interrogated five times between August and December 1625. He admitted to joking about having magical powers, and loved saying outrageous things, he held to the assertion he was not a dangerous heretic.
Feeling they were getting nowhere, the justices applied for permission to torture Torrentius. The torture began on Christmas eve 1627. He was hauled into the air by ropes, weights tied to his feet to stretch him. He was put on the rack and stretched further, until his joints all popped out of their sockets. He was beaten up, had his jaw broken, and shot at, but Torrentius kept to his story. The town torturer and executor Master Gerrit could not get a confession out of him.
In January 1628 Torrentius, still unable to walk or stand, was brought before the courts and tried, extra ordinaris – a method which denied him a defense or right of appeal – on 31 charges of heresy. Though the prosecutor wanted him burnt at the stake, he would ultimately find himself sentenced to 20 years in prison. Though the trial failed to confirm his membership of the Order of the Rosy Cross, it did prove his many other heretical acts. The prosecution lit a fire under the authorities however to find any and all heretics in Haarlem, to rid themselves of them.
So it transpired that Jeronimus Cornelisz, his reputation, family and business in tatters – in serious danger of spending his remaining years in jail on account of an urban legend – suddenly realized he needed to get out of town in a hurry. We don’t know the specifics of what followed. We know on 5th September 1628, the burgomasters of Haarlem ordered Torrentius’ circle of followers to sell up and leave the city within weeks or face dire consequences. We know Jeronimus closed his shop and gave all of his possessions to Loth Vogel, abandoned his wife, and by October was on his way to Amsterdam, where he would join the crew of The Batavia. The likelihood is the two were connected.