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Historian in troubled times. An intellectual biography of Pontus Heuterus (1535-1602)

The goal of present doctoral project is to offer a thorough, intertextual and contextual analysis of the life and works of the humanist scholar and historian Pontus Heuterus (1535-1602). Born in Holland as the illegitimate son of Jan de Huyter, who was bailiff of Delft and steward or ‘dijkgraaf’ of Delfland, Pontus de Huyter (latinized as Heuterus) enjoyed a decent education in Leiden, Mechlin and Paris. During the Dutch Revolt Heuterus fell victim to religious violence when the Sea Beggars captured the town of Gorinchem in 1572. He managed to nearly escape the brutal hangings of his colleagues, later known as the ‘Martyrs of Gorkum’. Instead he was able to flee to the Southern Netherlands where he served as a priest in the town of Jabbeke. Heuterus was forced to flee once again, this time because of Flemish Calvinists, and went north. He became a canon in Deventer in 1587, but had to leave for a third time when troops of Maurice of Orange (1567-1625) took that city. He fled to the Southern Netherlands and decided to stay there permanently. Pontus died in 1602 in Sint-Truiden.

Further research on the life and works of Pontus Heuterus is valid for multiple reasons. First of all, Heuterus was a learned man with various interests, including history and linguistics. His wanderings through the Low Countries prompted him to publish his first major work, titled Nederduitse Orthographie (Antwerp: Plantin, 1581) in which he dealt with the beautification and purification of the spoken language and the improvement of its spelling. Heuterus, however, was largely known for his historical works. The Delft humanist published his Rerum Burgundicarum libri sex (Antwerp: Plantin, 1583-1584) in Antwerp and dedicated it to Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). His Rerum Belgicarum libri quindecim (Antwerp: Nutius, 1598) was dedicated to Albert VII (1559-1621), then Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands. Heuterus had planned to conclude this trilogy with a work on the history of the secession in the Low Countries. A minor part of this work, titled Historia Secessionis Belgicae, would be posthumously published in Brussels in 1649, even though it had been forbidden by the authorities. Besides these, Heuterus also wrote a poem on the martyrs of Gorkum and bundled several minor works in his De Veterum ac sui saeculi Belgio libri duo. Quid his libris et deinceps hic tractetur, versa indicabit pagina (Antwerp: Van Keerbergen, 1600), including works on history (Tractatus de libera hominis nativitate seu de liberis naturalibus and Veterum aliquot Germanorum, utriusque sexus Hominum, proprionum Nominum Restitutiones, ac significationes, ex Etymis eorum desumptae), numismatics (Declaratio valoris monetae aerae, argenteae, aureae quae olim apud Hebraeos, Graecos et Latinos praecipue in usu fuit, cum nostri saeculi Anni a nato Christo 1600 analogica comparatio), metrology (Tractatus de mensuris longitudinum, quibus olim Graeci, Romani, Hebraei, ac Peregrini, in faciendis itineribus, praecipue sunt usi). His entire oeuvre is clearly delineated and deserves more thorough research.

Given Heuterus’ background and traumatic experiences during the Dutch Revolt, it would be interesting to see what his stance was on the political and military rebellion against the Habsburg crown as well as the religious issue of Protestantism. Through a contextual and intertextual analysis of Heuterus’ works, we hope to see if there is a certain evolution in his mindset and his general view on the political and religious world. In what way did the traumatic events of the Revolt and the Counter-Reformation change Heuterus who, as a young man, had still experienced pre-Tridentine Catholicism and political unity? By dedicating his historical works to Philip II and Albert VII, it seems that Heuterus not only wanted to reveal the rich past of his fatherland, but also aimed to present the historical exempla and anecdotes as instructive lessons of morality and paradigms of virtue. There are probably many more underlying messages in his works.

Thirdly, the life and works of Pontus Heuterus have not been studied in recent times. The last major research on Heuterus’ oeuvre was done by Marc Lefèvre in 1963.  Even though the Delft humanist was praised (and criticized) for his works during his own lifetime, he is hardly mentioned in the leading bibliographies.  Not one of his works has been recently studied in great detail. It is obvious that these lacunae need to be filled. Despite Heuterus’ obscurity it is very well possible that his works have had more influence on the way we look at the history and historiography of the Low Countries than we realize today. It would be interesting to analyze if certain ideas or views have their origins in Heuterus’ writings. At first glance Bart Van Loo’s De Bourgondiërs (2018), for example, shows clear similarities with Heuterus’ De Rerum Burgundicarum.

A thorough analysis of Heuterus and his oeuvre would not only give the Delft humanist the credit he deserves, but would also give us greater insights into how traumatic events such as the Dutch revolt or religious reform impacted the inhabitants of the Low Countries. Being exiled from his homeland while dealing with the whims of fate during a civil war, Heuterus could give us a glimpse of the psychological and emotional uprooting he had to experience. Analyzing his individual case could better illuminate how the inhabitants of the Low Countries generally perceived and experienced the Dutch Revolt.

Date:20 Feb 2018 →  20 Feb 2022
Keywords:humanist, political history, historiography
Disciplines:History, Language studies, Literary studies
Project type:PhD project