Antwerp’s Golden Age in the sixteenth century

March 6, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

The idea of Atlantis — the myth of a far-off, lost colony where people flourished and lived in harmony — has been an enduring part of the Western mind since the days of Socrates and Plato, from whence it sprang. I have been reminded of that myth as I have learn more and more over the last few weeks about the city of Antwerp (now in Belgium) and its Golden Age, which occurred in the the sixteenth century.

Michael Pye, a former journalist for the BBC, has just published a book about that time in that city, and what he has to say is fascinating. You can listen to an interview with Pye on the Not Just the Tudors podcast, which you can find on Google Podcasts here, or you can read about his book in a recent review by Jenny Uglow in the New York Review of Books. You can also purchase Pye’s book, Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age.

However you find out about it, Antwerp’s story is worth knowing.

It was an odd set of political and social circumstances that came together around 1500 to make the city of Antwerp largely free of close political or social control —no king and no bishop is one description. That opened up the city to an influx of people, good, and most importantly ideas that set it sailing on a Renaissance sea of exploration and experimentation.

Antwerp thus became, for one, the printing capital of the European continent, particularly texts with Protestant leanings. It was also a refuge for heretics. As Uglow’s review says:

The city was therefore a natural refuge for the priest William Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament appeared in 1526, the year he arrived in Antwerp. A year later, after protests from the English ambassador, all copies were publicly burned, but printing almost immediately resumed. In his “semi-sanctuary” in the English House, the protected base of British traders, Tyndale persisted with his translation of the full Bible until 1535, when—to the fury of English merchants, who felt their privileges had been breached—he was finally lured out and arrested by the imperial authorities. Convicted of heresy, he was strangled and burned at the stake.

Antwerp was also a city where women could be in charge. They ran businesses as well as households. They could operate banks and money exchanges. They could keep shops for their husbands or for themselves. They could become artists and openly sell their work. Pye points out that (in Uglow’s words):

The artist Catharina van Hemessen worked for Mary of Hungary, became a member of the Guild of St. Luke, and painted “the first known signed self-portrait of a working artist, a woman insisting on being seen.”  (See the illustration with this post)

Anything could happen in Antwerp, and it often did. Crimes of all sorts occurred. The city opened itself up to people who were banned elsewhere, especially Jews. Sexual freedom was explored. Espionage was actively and openly practiced. They city pioneered new ways of thinking about money and trade.

Thomas More, who visited Antwerp several times, used Antwerp as the opening scene in his famous book Utopia.

Antwerp’s Golden Age could not last. Authorities were bound to notice the insidious spread of its heresies. They also noticed its wealth of money, opportunities, and ideas, and the over-reaching of its inhabitants. Some of those inhabitants became rebellious when controls were exercise, and eventually Antwerp was no longer a free or safe space for any kind of original thinking or action. What has started around 1500 and flourished through the decades was finished by around 1580. Antwerp’s Age of Aquarius was over.

The city was subdued, and its history repressed. Thankfully, we have Michael Pye, who is determined to resurrect it.


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