Multimedia Practices and Urban Contexts in the Reformation Low Countries: Project Outline and Preliminary Results

By Louise Vermeersch (PhD Candidate, University of Ghent,

This is a revised version of my presentation at the COST action IS1301 training school “Production and Use of Religious Texts in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe”. It gives you an overview of the objectives of my PhD project that focusses on multimedia practices in the sixteenth century (‘Multimedia practices and urban contexts in the Reformation Low Countries’, Supervisor: Prof. Van Bruaene, BOF fund University of Ghent). This overview is followed by some preliminary results of a case-study on the Dutch Anabaptists and their mediapractices in Ghent. Mind that this is work in progress that is not yet ready for publishing. I am grateful though to present some thoughts to the COST action network by this blog post.  

1. Why Multimedia?

During the sixteenth century, two major events have defined the cultural history of both the Low Countries and the European area. The emergence of the Reformation on the one hand challenged authorities to deal with religious dissent and invited lay people to participate into religious polemics. On the other hand, the invention of the printing press at the end of the 15th century offered unprecedented opportunities to circulate those dissident ideas. Both developments have often been studied in close relation to one another. This can be identified with ‘the protestant paradigm’ of which Elisabeth Eisenstein is the most influential representative.[1] More recently, other scholars such as Scribner and Fox contrasted this paradigm by focusing on the persistence of oral and visual communication such as preaching, images, ceremonies, songs and others.[2] These media are studied in opposition to the printing press, as ‘alternative’ media. In their effort to provide an alternative for the ‘Gutenberg Galaxie’[3], however, they still tend to focus on but one medium. Though none of these studies denies the coexistence of various media, a real understanding of how different media interacted in specific settings and the precise role of media producers and consumers is often lacking.

Nevertheless, multimedia practices were very present in early modern society and seem to be a key mechanism for the spread of dissident ideas. Especially in an urban context, in which the boundaries between literate and illiterate audiences were porous and public spaces contested arenas of public opinion, ideas migrated very easily from one medium to another. Whereas the printed medium was an ideal carrier of information within regional networks, within an urban context, printed texts needed to be integrated into an oral and physical media system in order to actually reach city dwellers and influence their actions. This hybridity of oral and textual communication should not only be seen as a characteristic of a transition period or a way to include an illiterate audience, but also as functional to the circulation of popular religious dissent within an urban community. Religious debates, for instance, touched various communities of interpretation, crossing social, geographical and intellectual boundaries. Considering multimedia as a distinct feature of early modern media practices can help us to overcome traditional divides between lay and religious communities, literate and illiterate audiences, divides which are more the result of our present-day institutionalization of research than a historic reality.

I therefore propose to focus on the structures and practices that facilitated this multimedial transposition of dissident ideas. This will be examined within one urban community, that is sixteenth-century Ghent. With its local printing industry  and lively literary scene this city came up as an ideal test case to tackle functional aspects of intermediality. Ghent suffered furthermore several political crisis during the sixteenth century of which the instauration of the Calvinist republic in 1577 is directly related to religious polemics. Extant material, produced or aimed at the Ghent market, and descriptions of media use in chronicles and normative or administrative sources will be examined in order to answer the following questions. How did content migrate from one medium to another, what consequences did it had on the original message? To which extent did multimedia practices enhance the agency of urban producers and consumers of polemics during the religious and political conflict of the sixteenth century in the Low Countries?

It is the central hypothesis of my research that this migration of content from one medium to another was not only responsible for the wide dissemination and reception of dissident ideas, but that this transference of medium enabled city dwellers to appropriate and transform these ideas in times of censorship and harsh persecution.

2. What are multimedia practices and how can we study them?

In order to study multimedia practices in the early modern era we need to come up with definitions for media, multimedia and consequently multimedia practices. Although definitions can be rather artificial, they are absolutely necessary to limit the scope of my research project.

In the broadest sense, a medium is a means of transferring information. To discern various categories of media one can look at particular technological aspects (e.g. speech, print, script), semiotic systems (e.g. characters, iconography) or channels of communication (e.g. visual, aural, tactile). The history of communication is nowadays institutionalized among those categories in media-specific disciplines such as Literary Studies, Art and Book History, etc. Yet, this particularity is a theoretical aspect of media which allows us to discern different categories. If we look at the production and consumption of media, i.e. the central object of my research project, a mixture of various ‘technological aspects, semiotic systems and channels’ blurs the boundaries between them. The concept ‘multimediality’ consequently can be viewed as a characteristic of media that is useful to describe the interactions between those categories. In order to analyze formal and functional features of this phenomenon, we thus need a typology of multimediality.

As the incorporation of any type of multimedia practice is impossible, the main focus of this project will be on the interactions between the textual (print or manuscript) medium and the oral or performative medium (linked to the urban public space of Ghent). Within this scope, I outlined two types of multimediality that I wish to investigate: plurimediality and intermediality.[4]

Examples of plurimediality are printed or written representations of oral genres such as songs, plays and sermons, (theatre) performances using written text on stage, images with text banners etc. Various media are thus combined within one new entity, which makes it a hybrid product.

For this project I will gather extant material related to the religious and political turmoil in Ghent in which the displaying signifiers belong to more than one semiotic system. By this I mean the intentional preservation or representation of other media through paratextual features. Those features could be introductions, marginal notes, tune indications or images that provide an oral or visual context or refer to the performative origin of the text. My interest goes out to the intention of the producer of this hybrid product, why was it useful to represent more than one medium? Furthermore, this hybridity affects the circulation of the message, stimulating our second type multimediality: ‘intermediality’. Tune indications accompanying a printed song, for instance, echo its use in an oral context or at least the potential transference from a textual to an oral medium. Hence, both types of multimedia are intertwined: plurimediality stimulates the process of migration between various media that is ‘intermediality’.

One of the hypotheses of my project is that the wide reception of a (printed) message was guaranteed by its migration across media, I call this process intermediality. Accounts of urban performances such as entree ceremonies and public executions, for instance, found their way into print. Poems and songs might be composed orally as an almost instantaneous response to religious and political events, a practice already present during the Middle Ages. However, these were also copied and inserted into handwritten chronicles or private anthologies of city dwellers, transferring the oral to the written word. Also printed pamphlets were copied and circulated in more private scribal networks, a medium which is less easy to control.

Two types of sources will be very helpful in this respect. First of all we will look into urban chronicles among which the one of Marcus van Vaernewijck is most known, yet the university library of Ghent possesses many other (unedited) chronicles and anthologies.[5] Other descriptions of media use can be found in practical regulations of the city council and judicial decrees dealing with the spread of dissident opinions. Especially actions of groups who didn’t have access to the printing press or even the written word can be found in these sources.

Intermediality is thus situated in the process of communication involving actions of producers and consumers. Those actions such as compiling, copying, reading, singing, displaying and others I call multimedia practices. By focusing on practices, extant material can be connected with agency of media producers and consumers. This methodology allows for a more dynamic understanding of culture, since it is approached as a process of interplay and appropriation, not as immanent to a certain object or technology.[6] Accordingly, dissident ideas did not flourish within an object or certain technology, but within the process of their reformulation through multimedia practices. The impact of the printing press consequently lies within its interaction with former means of communication that created new hybrid genres and redistributed the communicative functions of early modern media.

Whereas plurimediality can be documented by cataloguing paratextual features of extant material in a database. The intermedial transposition of a ‘message’, however,  is less easy to catalogue systematically. To analyze this aspect, significant case studies who illustrate how intermediality enhanced local agency and participation in religious polemics will be elaborated.  In the following, I will outline some preliminary results of one of those cases.

3. Preliminary results: Martyrs and multimedia practices in the urban context of Ghent

In searching extant material relating to Ghent and religious polemics, especially songs, I came across many martyr ballads of Anabaptists who had been executed in Ghent. Anabaptists had a particularly interesting martyr tradition when we consider media practices. Not only did condemned Anabaptists staged their own ‘glorious and heroic death’ at the scaffold and tried to convince their public of the righteous path, they also wrote letters and songs to comfort friends and family. Moreover, these writings were compiled and printed in anthologies, which inspired fellow Anabaptists to profess their faith.[7]

Both the intermedial circulation of the story and the plurimedial character of the printed martyr book illustrate how multimedia practices could be functional in a context of persecution. The circulation of the martyr ballads was not only guaranteed through various means of communication, these means also interacted with one another as a new song was composed out of a martyr letter and the printed editions carefully reminded their readers of the scribal and oral origin of the martyr stories, which enhanced the authority of the printed text.

Unlike most hagiographical research, we also have juridical documents who confirm at least that these persons existed and where executed for their faith. Chronicles furthermore describe the horrific executions of the Anabaptists.[8] Whereas the printed martyr book is relatively well-studied within Anabaptist historical circles, the connection between those printed stories and local chronicles or archival material has hardly been made. This combination can overcome the obvious bias of the martyr book, which will always glorify the martyr and his behavior at the scaffold. How did the Anabaptists martyr stories migrated from the Ghent market square into a printed artefact?

First of all, the publicity of a dramatic public ritual such as an execution was exploited by both the authorities and the Anabaptists. Whereas gruesome executions were meant to present the ‘patient’ as a degraded and contrite person[9], the scaffold could very easily turn into a public platform for the Anabaptists, since they did not play the part of the repentant criminal. On the contrary, they embraced martyrdom and went laughing and singing to the scaffold. Without a doubt the rendition in the printed martyr book exaggerated the heroic behavior at the scaffold of the executed Anabaptists. Yet, if preserved, the judicial sources affirm the stubborn persistence in faith of individual martyrs.[10] Moreover, Ghent chronicles describe in general how Anabaptists preached, prayed and sung (or were prevented to do so) during their executions.[11]  In this way, Anabaptists used their execution to persuade a local audience of their faith which had for instance the desired effect on Claes de Praet who wondered why these people died so free of fear, whereupon he investigated the bible and became Baptist-minded himself.[12] Yet, whereas their performance moved many people, as we can read in the Ghent chronicles, this did not mean that they effectively converted the inhabitants of Ghent.

Secondly, letters and poems were written ‘in the dark and with poor equipment’[13] by the Anabaptist prisoners. They wrote accounts of interrogations in which they argued with religious authorities, descriptions of the heroic behavior of fellow prisoners at the scaffold and personal admonitions to relatives and friends. These writings can be viewed as individual confessions of faith aimed at personal networks. However, we can find exhortations in the printed reproductions of these letters to spread them among others (by reading out loud and copying them[14]). Scribal texts could be produced very quickly and were easier to hide in comparison to printed communication. The intimacy of a letter, furthermore, generated a sense of face-to-face communication, which enhanced the authenticity and thus persuasive aspect of the message.

Scribal networks enabled prisoners to comfort their loved ones, yet, once printed, these letters became a source for education for the Anabaptist community. Unfortunately, due to the clandestine nature of the martyr book, the producers of these prints stay rather obscure.[15] What concerns me here though is their choice to present the martyr story in a multimedia way. Interrogations by the religious and worldly authorities are for instance reproduced in dialogue, which enhances the presence of orality in the text.  Running titles informed readers on the exact circumstances in which the letter was written (place and date), by whom, when and where he/she was executed. This reminds us of the oral and written origin of the message which also shapes the idea of a compilation of authentic martyr letters. Moreover, a songbook was added to the miscellany of letters and testaments. Although in all extant copies they are bound together, paratextual features helped to keep both books separated: they each have their own title page, pagination, index and conclusion. Nevertheless, glosses in the margins of the songbook and the introductions of both books refer to one another. In this way the printers exhorted their readers to combine both media, texts and songs, to profess their faith.[16] Thanks to the well-known tune indications, no technical training was required and the printed text could be the stimulus for another oral performance, namely the singing of the martyr ballads.

These plurimedial characteristics, could also be indications of what Alexandra Walsham called ‘the Absent preacher’. Protestants turned to the printed text, as a consequence of the denial of public pulpits, hence print could function as a substitute for face-to-face communication.[17] Likewise, the martyr book contained interpretations on what it meant to live a true Christian life. Not the educated catholic clergy but the charismatic and exemplary martyrs were fit to admonish the  scattered community of Anabaptists.

Today, only the printed martyr books survive, yet they once were produced in an oral, scribal and performative context. The individual sentenced Anabaptist managed to transform his/her execution into a pulpit, challenging the authorities as well as convincing a local crowd. Letters and songs by or about these martyrs could circulate very easily and encouraged brothers and sisters to persist in the Anabaptist faith. Yet, whereas the performance of Anabaptist at the scaffold served more polemic purposes, the scribal and printed martyr stories were rather aimed at already converted Anabaptists. We should ask ourselves consequently how the printing press is related to the dissemination of Anabaptist thought in the local context of Ghent. With more research into the local reception of rituals such as executions but also the public renouncement of their heretic opinions I hope to shed more light on this issue in the future.

[1] See discussion between E. Eisenstein and A. Johns on the revolutionary aspect of the printing press. E. Eisenstein, The printing press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979. A. Johns, “How to acknowledge a Revolution”, in: The American Historical Review, 107/1 (2002), p 106-125.

[2] Pioneered by R. W. Scribner, For the sake of simple folk: popular propaganda for the German Reformation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981. For a synthesis of research on media use in connection with the Reformation see A. Pettegree, Reformation and the culture of Persuasion, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005. See also J.C. Crick and A. Walsham, The uses of script and print, 1300-1700, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004. A. Fox and D.R. Woolf, The spoken word: oral culture in Britain, 1500-1850, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2003.

[3] Expression M. Mc Luhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1962.

[4] This typology is based on W. Wolf, “Intermediality Revisited. Reflections on Word and Music Relations in the Context of a General Typology of Intermediality”, in: S.M. Lodato and S.P. Scher, Word and music studies: essays in honor of Steven Paul Scher and on cultural identity and the musical stage, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2002, p 13-34. And W. Frijhoff, “Leescultuur: een nieuwe insteek voor onderzoek naar culturele dynamiek”, in: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse kerkgeschiedenis, 9 (2006), p 63-65.

[5] J. Scheerder, “De handschriften van Gentse kronieken en memorieboeken, bewaard in de universiteitsbibliotheek te Gent”, in: Handelingen der Maatschappij voor Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde te Gent,  30 (1976), p 15-59.

[6] W. Frijhoff, “Leescultuur: een nieuwe insteek voor onderzoek naar culturele dynamiek”, p 65.

[7] See K.L. Sprunger, “Dutch Anabaptists and the telling of the Martyr stories”, in: The mennonite Quarterly Review, 80/2 (2006), p 149-182. And B.S. Gregory, Salvation at stake: Christian martyrdom in early modern Europe, Cambridge, Harvester university press, 1999, p 197-235.

[8] For Ghent see A.L.E. Verheyden, Het Gentsche martyrologium, Bruges, de Tempel, 1945. This repertory links individual martyrs with martyr books, archival material such as chronicles, accounts of confiscations and juridical documents.

[9] D. Nicholls, “The theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation”, in: Past & Present, 121 (1988), p 49-51.

[10]See for example the sentence of Hans Van Overdam  in which he denies the existence of purgatory and the validity of confession, child baptism and  the holy sacrament. (Sentence Hans van Overdamme 9/07/1551, State archives Ghent, Raad van Vlaanderen, nr. 7613, f. 160 r.)

[11] See for example A. Van Heule and P.C. Vander Meersch (eds.) , Memorieboek der stad Ghent: van ‘t j. 1301 tot 1737, Gent, Annoot-Braeckman, 1853, p 378.  “Op den VIIen dach van Novembris waren twee vrauwepersoonen ende een manspersoon in Scepenencamere ghecondempneert verbrandt te werdene […], ende was elc van hemlieden een cleen ballekin in den mondt ghesteken, ende voor den mondt ghebonden elck met eenen schoonen snuutdouck.” [on the seventh day of November there were two women and one man condemned by the court to be burned […], and in the mouth of each of them a little ball was put, and a clean handkerchief was bound before their mouths.]

[12] J. Decavele, De dageraad van de Reformatie in Vlaanderen (1520-1565), Brussel, Paleis der Academiën, 1975, p 438 and p 609.

[13] See letter Jannijn Beuskin in the martyr book: Dit boec wort genoemt: Het offer des Heeren, s.l., s. n., 1578, f. 51 v.

[14] Hans van Overdam urges people to copy his letter and send it to Antwerp and eventually to Emden, where the martyr books were presumed to be printed. See Dit boec wort genoemt: Het offer des Heeren, s.l., s. n., 1578,  f 45r. –v.

[15] Except for the last editions (1590,1595, 1599), all were printed anonymously. The first preserved edition of Sacrifice unto the lord appeared in 1562 and is attributed to Jan Hendricks van Schoonrewoerd, who worked in Franeker. On the work of this printer see P. V. Blouw,  “An unknown mennonite press in Friesland”, in P.V. Blouw and A.R.A.C. van Uchelen, Dutch Typography in the Sixteenth Century: The Collected Works of Paul Valkema Blouw, Leiden, Brill, 2013,  p 403. However, the first edition could also have been printed by Nicolaes Biestkens in 1561, partly based on his earlier spiritual songbooks (Veelderhande liedekens) See B. Hofman, Liedekens vol gheestich confoort : Een bijdrage tot de kennis van de zestiende-eeuwse schriftuurlijke lyriek , Hilversum, Verloren, 1993, p 210.  Discussions on the difficulty to attribute dissident Anabaptist prints see P. V. Blouw, “Mennonitica and bibliographical research” in: P.V. Blouw and A.R.A.C. van Uchelen, Dutch Typography in the Sixteenth Century: The Collected Works of Paul Valkema Blouw, Leiden, Brill, 2013,  p 91.

[16] For example  Dit boec wort genoemt: Het offer des Heeren, s.l., s. n., 1578, f. 44 Peter van Wervick: “leest zijne[n] brief fol. 107” [read his letter on folio 107].

[17] A. Walsham, “Preaching without speaking: script, print and religious dissent”, in: A. Walsham and J. Crick, The uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004,  p 230.


CC-BY-NC-ND: Multimedia Practices and Urban Contexts in the Reformation Low Countries: Project Outline and Preliminary Results by Louise Vermeersch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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