Friday, March 01, 2013

"Fools In Old-Style Hats & Coats": A 21st Century Blasphemer Reads Anneken Heyndriks

Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee — Deuteronomy 32:7

We must cling to a God who approves of blasphemy because he hates Jehovah and Nobodaddy and Zeus . . . all the other kings of terrors and tyrants of the soul. To a God who appreciates obscenity because he looks not into the secret of our hearts, but into the hearts of our secrets, and knows that our bloodfilled guts and cocking guts are the real battlefield — Northrop Frye

Some people should die. That's just unconscious knowledge — Jane's Addiction


I have friends — born and raised and baptised Mennonites — who went on to become Catholic. I've also spoken with former Catholics who pointedly embraced Anabaptism so completely that they submitted to a second baptism of conscious consent. I've converted several PCs from Windows to Linux. Maybe the metaphor is too facile to be pertinent, but it seems to me these people have allowed their guiding, religious Operating Systems to be similarly converted.

Some of these conversions provoked considerable consternation among family members. But physical violence? Not really. A parental eye-roll, a noisy sigh of exasperation, occasionally some shouts and unfortunate words. Nothing in league with getting tied to a ladder and dumped into flames.

So my first, unfiltered response to poor Anneken's demise: is there any stupidity more brutal than the attempt to physically exorcise one's religious doubt in the face of another's religious certainty? Funny (o ho-ho — my sides) how religion provides convenient license to execute: if you're a bailiff in 16th Century Amsterdam, a Communist in 20th Century China, an Imam in 21st Century Tehran — or (it could, and probably should, be argued) a drone pilot for present day America. “I'm right. You're wrong. Go to Hell.”

"Here's me under the ladder,
losing my religion..."

The more circumspect side of me wonders what this account is not saying.

Anneken Heyndriks was a relative newcomer to Amsterdam, from Friesland — which even today's Amsterdamers consider a back-water. She couldn't read or write, but (if we take the account at face value) she was no slouch at committing scripture to memory: her response to her underbailiff neighbour's intrusion is remarkably similar to her Savior's, when He was finally approached by the State constabulary. It is this adept knowledge of the Gospels, or at least of their Passion narratives, which she is keen to impress upon her (Christian) captors.

What did she do to piss off her neighbour? Sixteenth Century Amsterdam was a city of massive commerce, and a modestly successful diaspora: even Jews — the most obvious, and thus the most frequently persecuted, dissenters to the ruling religion — were tolerated by the authorities. The regents who ran the place clearly had more pressing concerns than hunting down illiterate peasant heretics. Yet something about Anneken prompted Evert to drop the hammer. Perhaps the sound of hymns being furtively sung in the neighbouring barn during the wee small hours of the morning woke him up once too often.

Or perhaps it was something more personal. Listen to her response, preferably in Plaut-Dietsch or German, when he shows up with the rope: “Neighbour Evert, what is your wish? If you seek me, you can easily find me: here I am at your service.”


“Meek spirit,” you say? Riiiiiiight. Listen, I've known a few Heinrichses in my day. If you're in the right frame of mind, they can be a barrel of laughs. If you're not, they're a pain in the ass (a little like some Reimers, maybe). When Anneken spoke, Evert clearly wasn't in a laughing mood — yet.

And she goes on to speak a great deal more, with a liberty perhaps born of the realization she has nothing left to fear or lose. Or maybe she just likes to talk — some Heinrichses are like that. The fact that she, a peckerwood Frieslander, moved to the nation's bustling metropolis — at her advanced age — indicates a remarkably robust spirit (again, another trait common among the Heinrichses). Whatever the case, she does what she can to keep the spotlight trained on her, whether her audience consists of passersby or Pieter the Bailiff or Sir Albert the anointed chaplain of State.

Go on and look at me, an old woman all hog-tied and off to jail. What for, do you think? Prostitution? Robbery? Nope: following Jesus — you know: that guy you stare at every Sunday morning at Cathedral. The one ON A CROSS. Kind of ironic, isn't it? Kind of makes you think, doesn't it? Well if it doesn't, it sure should. Say, He was tried by the religious authorities of His day, too, wasn't he? Sure makes a person think, alright. Hey, good neighbour Evert: you remember that guy Judas, who led the State authorities to Jesus? Jesus died, Judas lived — for a bit longer, anyway — you know the guy I mean. Where's Judas now, do you suppose?

So Anneken, our determined saint, gets the final word; Evert, the last laugh.

"Fools in old-style hats & coats,
who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats."

Philip Larkin

Or does he? Both Anneken and the Mirror's scribe clearly (and quite understandably) expect God's Righteous Judgement to mete out a proper turnabout to underbailiff Evert in the Hereafter. And even if the staunch materialists among us determinedly dismiss this theological phant'sy, a curious historical irony nevertheless takes place.

You see, I happen to know a few Ewerts, also — in fact, it's a fairly common name among Mennonites. They're wickedly intelligent, and possess a weary sort of humour that I deeply enjoy, especially in difficult times. They're also an incredibly supercilious bunch (again, a little like the Reimers). It seems that somewhere in the untold part of this story, family members of the villainous underbailiff were radically converted, and joined the community this man hated with a murderous passion.

So it goes. Perhaps a few 21st Century Ewerts have even returned to Catholicism. And of course there are Heinrichses, Ewerts and Reimers who have committed apostasy — that's inevitable, no matter what your clan or religion. You can be as pious as you like, but walk far enough and you'll eventually cross paths with someone who thinks you're beyond the pale. In my hometown, back in the day, there were elders who considered a zipper on your pants an act of heretical pride.

I gave last week's post to my wife to read. She said, “There's something ghostly about those accounts, isn't there?” There sure is. Read it in its ancient font, with the crude illustrations, inside a 1200-page hardcover too heavy for your coffee table, and that “ghostly” quality is magnified something fierce. But do keep reading it. These people, who were just smart enough to get into the worst kind of trouble, changed the world.

Are you enjoying your religious freedom, the freedom to have no religion at all, the freedom to read whatever you like? You owe it all to the Age of Enlightenment — a tertiary ideological engine set into motion by the Reformation, the wheels of which my people greased with their blood, motherfucker. And you're welcome.

You're even welcome to chuckle at the old fart with the combed beard who tut-tuts the zipper on your pants. Perhaps he knows, like few people do, that in the bloody tide of our species' history your many blasphemies are trivial and banal, enacted to no great effect and easily forgotten.

Further reading: Mennonites, patron saints of mediocrity; awfully full of themselves, but boy, can they sing; and please won't you join my Long Line of Nüscht?

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