Cunegonde’s Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment, by Benjamin J. Kaplan

A tale of the priest, the boy, his aunt and her arrest in 1762 is first-rate micro-history, says Alec Ryrie

January 8, 2015

The marketing materials for this book make it sound like a thriller about to be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. A kidnapping, a family torn apart, an incident that escalates into a war. And indeed, when the story unfolds, many of the cinematic ingredients seem to be there. The hapless young woman, both perpetrator and victim; the scheming priest and the fanatical magistrate facing off against each other; riots, reprisals, hair-raising injustice; a literal tug of war with a newborn baby over a baptismal basin. The screenplay almost writes itself.


But who needs another book like that? Benjamin Kaplan, a leading scholar of the bumpy history of religious tolerance, has written something much more interesting: a micro-history that has the unexpected, unmistakable flavour of the world as it actually was.

The story he has unearthed from a number of Dutch archives is straightforward enough. In 1762 in the Dutch border town of Vaals, a baby boy was born to Hendrick Mommers, a Catholic cloth-shearer, and Sara Maria Erffens, his Protestant wife. Into which faith would he be baptised? Various contradictory promises and assurances had been made. In the end, he was baptised Protestant – but not before Mommers’ sister, Cunegonde, who was known to all as a simpleton, burst into the church, tried to snatch the baby, and assaulted members of the congregation. She was arrested, but a party of Catholic youths from over the border promptly broke into her makeshift prison and freed her.

Frozen conflicts can warm up fast, and old scripts of hatred and suspicion are easily remembered. But the spasms subside easily, too

These two events – the attempted violation of the sacrament of baptism and the successful cross-border prison break – stirred up a good deal of trouble, but it is an exaggeration to call it a “war”. Precisely one person died, in an almost random murder. Dutch attempts to bring the Catholic perpetrators to justice matched the attempts by Catholics in the German city of Aachen, an hour’s ride over the border, to protect the rights of their co-religionists in Vaals. There were assaults, threats, intimidation and pressure. But over the course of the 1760s the conflict simmered down without ever being properly resolved.

Meanwhile, a prosecution slowly wound its way through the Dutch courts, led by a headstrong young magistrate who was convinced that the young woman was a mere tool and that behind the outrages lay the machinations of Vaals’ Catholic priest, Johannes Wilhelmus Bosten. Both Cunegonde (who was rearrested) and the priest spent years in prison awaiting trial. Opportunities to prosecute others whose guilt seemed much more certain were missed: the magistrate reckoned that the priest’s guilt was “a moral certainty” regardless of the evidence, and would not let up. Kaplan assembles a pretty strong case that evidence was deliberately fabricated. But in the end, although both the cleric and the child’s aunt were convicted, they were released not long after. Both of them vanished back into ordinary life, where the sources are almost silent. So too did everyone else involved in the case.

A screenplay would need to invent a better ending, and tidy up loose ends. There are too many characters drifting through the story whose roles have no satisfying narrative shape. (Readers will need to keep a finger in the indispensable list of dramatis personae at the beginning, especially during the complex reconstruction of the contested events on the day of the baptism.) And there are too many unsolved mysteries. Why did Cunegonde do what she did? What had the couple actually agreed beforehand about their child’s baptism – if anything? Was the priest involved or not? We simply do not know.

The lack of cheap dramatic satisfaction, however, is amply repaid in insight and subtlety. It is by living in the company of these ordinary people, in their very particular place and time, dealing with an unusual but not extraordinary situation, that we discover something of the texture of their lives. Kaplan’s skill is in weaving these wider contexts seamlessly into the narrative. And this is where the real fascination lies, and what the story is really about.

So it is a story about borderlands: Vaals was an enclave of Dutch territory entirely surrounded by the Holy Roman Empire. The border was almost invisible. Some houses actually straddled it. But occasionally it mattered decisively. Just as treason is famously a matter of dates, in these borderlands, heresy was a matter of maps. Minorities on both sides could and did simply hop across the borders for worship. But borders also made those minorities vulnerable: if Aachen’s Catholics wished to put pressure on the Calvinist Dutch authorities, they had only to restrict the rights of their own Calvinist population. The interplay between the opportunities and the hazards that a region of fragmented jurisdictions offered to both governments and people is one of the book’s recurrent themes.

It is also a story about law: how it could sometimes turn a blind eye, as Aachen’s rulers did when they dared not face down Catholic rioters, and how it sometimes fixed on a particular incident almost arbitrarily and locked its jaws on it like death. The underlying theme here is the impossibility of the rule of law in early modern society. The charge against Cunegonde stated that her sacrilege “cannot be tolerated in a land of justice”. That was a claim, in the teeth of the evidence, that the Netherlands was, or at least aspired to be, such a land. Could poor, simple Cunegonde even have understood that, rather than trying to rescue her nephew from heretics, she was assaulting the majesty and the amour-propre of the Dutch state?

It is, finally, also a story about intolerance. This incident was the century’s worst flare-up of religious tension in the region, but not the only one, and it paled beside the horrors of the previous century. The pattern, a strikingly modern one, is one of communities that managed to live together amicably most of the time, even to the point of intermarriage, but which could be summoned back to the old battle lines very quickly. Frozen conflicts can warm up fast, and old scripts of hatred and suspicion are easily remembered. But the spasms subside fairly easily, too. As the Cunegonde affair faded away, the old normality re-emerged, and remained until the armies of revolutionary France swept it away.

Kaplan wants to emphasise that this story belies the claims – already pretty threadbare – that the Age of Enlightenment was one of toleration. It is no secret, for example, that London’s worst ever anti-Catholic riots took place in 1780. A subtler point, made clear by the intervention of the Dutch magnates who finally arranged for the release of Vaals’ Catholic priest, is that Enlightenment tolerance was laden with prejudice of its own. You might believe in freedom of conscience and still despise Catholicism, in particular, as a religion of superstition, corruption and priestly conspiracy – the very antithesis of Enlightenment values.

Throughout this account, Kaplan is level-headed, judicious, humane and shrewd. His story is fascinatingly messy and inconclusive, but his writing is sharp and insightful. He has produced a book that is not only an incomparable guide to life on this particular frontier, but a model of what micro-history can be.

Cunegonde’s Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment

By Benjamin J. Kaplan
Yale University Press, 312pp, £19.99
ISBN 9780300187366
Published 29 January 2015

The author

According to American-born academic Benjamin Kaplan, “Hoe ik kwam mij op de geschiedenis van Nederland te specialiseren is een lang verhaal” – or, for non-nederlandophones, “How I came to specialise in the history of the Netherlands is a long story”.

As a student, he recalls, he “wanted to do something different to other students of European history, and I found much that was unexplored in Dutch history and worth researching. I took a course with Simon Schama, who introduced me to the subject; and I found the country’s culture and society appealing.”

Kaplan was born and raised in a suburb of New York, “which gave me an abiding love of cities and dislike of suburbs. Thanks to parents who were English teachers, I never developed a strong New York accent, although it seems to get stronger whenever I visit the place. I also grew up on the coast of Maine, where my family spent the summer months every year. It’s a place of rugged, stunning beauty, and in my inclinations I still oscillate between the city and the sea (I’m an avid sailor).”  

Now professor of Dutch history at University College London, he lives in decidedly urban West London “with my extraordinary wife Katy, the director of a charity that works with prison inmates, and our daughter Chloe, who recently started primary school and is of course a devotee of the Frozen cult”.

Kaplan was, he confesses, “all too studious as a child – I even had my own little study in the basement of the family home. My father was an academic, my mother a devoted teacher, and we kids were brought up thinking that intellectual and creative work was the only kind worth doing. It’s worked out well for me, but I came later to see the narrowness of that view and the problems it can bring.”

Of his undergraduate years, Kaplan observes, “‘Work hard, play hard’ was the ethos at Yale, and it suited me extremely well. I’d bury myself in the library stacks until 10 or 11 most nights, and then get stoned and have a good time with friends. The real life of the mind, I’d say, took place mostly after hours.”
As someone who took degrees at both Yale and Harvard universities, did Kaplan find that the Ivy League giants are largely the same?

“The two rivals are more dissimilar than they seem on the surface,” he suggests. “For example, both have residential colleges, but incoming students are assigned randomly to Yale’s, which gives them a democratic character. Harvard’s resources - and ego - are unmatched, and of course it’s in cultured Boston, not gritty New Haven. 

“It wasn’t hard to get used to the differences, and I benefited enormously from some of them - I was able to do a lot of teaching as a grad student at Harvard, for instance. But like most Americans, I suppose, my heart was always with my alma mater.”

His early academic posts were in the US. “After getting my PhD I first taught at Brandeis University, a prestigious private institution in the Boston area. For me, at least, it was a horrible job but in a great location. I then moved to the University of Iowa, which was a great job in a horrible location: Iowa City, population ca. 60,000 and four hours’ drive to the nearest big city. Whatever my misgivings, the bottom line now is that I am grateful to have a very good job in a very good location.”

Of his eventual move to University College London, Kaplan says: “The transition from American to British academe, which I made in my forties, was greater and harder. I feel very much at home in British culture, perhaps in part because I tend towards discretion; I have a British wife and child, home and car, and just recently I got dual citizenship because I wanted to be able to vote in the UK. But I have misgivings about some of the structures and values that characterise British universities, which seem to be both more hierarchic and more money-driven than American ones, as well as over-regulated.”  

Turning to his present book, does Kaplan wish there were fewer lacunae in the historical record of these events?

“Actually, the hardest thing to grapple with in writing Cunegonde’s Kidnapping was not the lacunae but the superabundance of evidence, much of it judicial in nature. Not only do figures in the story give conflicting testimony, but also, some figures, such as Cunegonde herself, when questioned repeatedly over a period of years, were inconsistent in their answers. One couldn’t ask for more ample or detailed sources, really, so what remains in the end unknown is so not for lack of evidence, for the most part. Indeed, I might have had an illusory sense of certainty about some points if I had had less evidence, not more. There is a lesson there, I feel, about the limits of historical knowledge.”

If he could uncover one further piece of information about this affair, what would he choose? “I suppose a confession of guilt by Father Bosten might have clarified things – if in fact he committed the crimes of which he was accused. Then again, two other figures in the story make confessions, neither of which is credible,” Kaplan adds.

Asked how he came to be interested in interaction between faith groups, and if the study of these issues makes him hopeful for the future, he says, “I began by trying to understand how religious toleration worked in Dutch society–- how so many diverse, competing religious groups managed to live peacefully with one another in Holland during its Golden Age. 

“From there I felt a need to explain what made Dutch society so distinctive in this respect and why its path diverged from that of other lands. I think the findings of my research give much reason for optimism. Today, it is not infrequently claimed that religions are inherently intolerant and that religious faith therefore tends unavoidably to promote conflict and even violence. Yet in early modern Europe, there were countless communities, large and small, filled with profoundly religious people who practiced toleration in their daily lives.” 

Kaplan adds: “Empirical evidence shows definitively, I think, that sincere faith is entirely compatible with the practice of toleration. That’s good news, since I don’t think religion is going away any time soon. A note of caution, though: I don’t see any trajectory of historical development by which toleration has necessarily to rise over time, so there is no guarantee that the toleration we take for granted today will persist into the future, never mind grow.”

Karen Shook

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