While I was completing my doctoral coursework, I read Steven Ozment’s When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, in which he described the magisterial reformers’ exaltation of marriage as an opportunity for women to take up their roles as mothers of the house, a position of “high authority and equal respect” to that of the patriarch.1 While Lyndal Roper and others have criticized Ozment’s rosy portrayal of Reformation-era gender relations, which failed to account for the vast gulf between the rights and privileges enjoyed by husbands and those afforded to wives, there is no doubt that many sixteenth-century Protestant writings emphasized marriage and motherhood as the primary opportunity for Christian faithfulness offered to most women.2 As wives and as mothers, they could obey the Scriptures and bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. Catechizing their own children was the primary mode of spiritual authority available to them.
At the same time, for my Radical Reformation field, I was reading Adam Darlage’s article on sixteenth-century Hutterite women, which emphasized the communal nature of child-rearing in Hutterite colonies. Hutterite mothers were not expected to be their children’s primary spiritual teachers—instead, children were housed separately from their parents as soon as they were weaned and received both spiritual and practical instruction in junior and then senior schools run by the community.3 Reading these works in parallel made me wonder whether sixteenth-century Anabaptists had qualitatively different views of motherhood than their magisterial counterparts. On the one hand, the radical reformers, like the magisterial reformers, rejected celibacy as an ideal and encouraged marriage instead. And the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites, at least, would not have objected to mothers viewing childrearing and raising their children in the faith as an important spiritual task. But, at the same time, Anabaptist women faced a far more imminent threat of martyrdom than most other Protestant women, and so motherhood was, at best, their second-most pressing spiritual challenge. Their obedience to Christ was more likely to involve hostile interrogations and the threat of death, and to be willing to suffer death or imprisonment for Christ was of necessity to be willing to leave one’s family behind and to entrust the raising of one’s children to someone else.
In another life, I might have written a dissertation on sixteenth-century Anabaptist ideals and realities of motherhood. In the end I didn’t, though I think someone should! But for now, I thought I’d begin by looking at depictions of motherhood in one of the best-known early modern Anabaptist sources: the Martyrs Mirror. The first depiction of motherhood in the Martyrs Mirror that came to my mind was the iconic image of Anna Jansz, who was drowned in Rotterdam in 1539, searching the crowd for someone to raise her son Isaiah. The engraving shows the baker who finally stepped forward and agreed to raise him. He also agreed to give him a letter she had written to him, and the text of the letter became part of the Dutch martyrological tradition that culminated in the Martyrs Mirror.4 Also interspersed throughout the text are letters from five other mothers about to be martyred—Soetgen van den Houte, Maeyken Boosers, Maeyken van Deventer, Maeyken Wens, and Janneken Munsdorp—written to their children, in a last attempt to provide them with spiritual guidance. Soetgen and the three Maeykens left behind children old enough to remember them, and even to write back, so their letters reaffirmed values they had already taught their children over the years. They were deeply conscious that, after years of trying to teach their children, they were now setting the ultimate example by dying for their faith. They hoped that their children, too, would choose to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ on the narrow path that led to life. They took great comfort in the children who wrote back to them, confirming their intentions to live faithful lives. Maeyken Boosers even sent her children’s letters back to them, as a reminder of the promises they had made to her.5 The content of the children’s letters, and the faith most of their children adopted as adults, is not known, but the Martyrs’ Mirror does relay the story of Maeyken Wens’ fifteen-year-old son Adriaen, who went to witness her execution along with his youngest brother Hans (whom Maeyken, in the most touching part of her letter, had instructed Adrien to hug now and again on her behalf). He fainted when the pyre was lit, and when he came to only ashes remained. He sifted through them, found the tongue screw her torturers had used, and kept it as a memento. By the time this account was published in the mid-seventeenth century, Maeyken had several surviving grandchildren who had been named in her honor.6
Anna Jansz and Janneken Munsdorp, on the other hand, were both writing to babies so young that their letters would be their children’s only memory of them. Anna instructed Isaiah to take the fear of the Lord as his father and wisdom as his mother, a phrase that surely resonated with others as the letter circulated, since Maeyken van Deventer repeated it to her children 34 years later.7 While the rest of Anna’s letter was mostly filled with apocalyptic language about the evils of the current age and exhortations to live a righteous life, Janneken’s letter gave voice more fully to the anguish of being separated from such a young child and the deep pain she felt at not being able to live long enough to raise her. She and her husband Hans had been married less than a year when they were both apprehended, and he preceded her in death when the authorities discovered she was pregnant, since it was customary to wait until after pregnant women had delivered their children to execute them.8 She recounted how difficult it was to experience pregnancy in prison, knowing this separation was imminent. “Now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me,” she lamented.9 She held on to a sliver of hope, almost despite herself, that God might yet miraculously deliver her and return her to her daughter, but she realized that this was not the most likely outcome. “Oh, that it had pleased the Lord, that I might have brought you up; I should so gladly have done my best with respect to it; but it seems that it is not the Lord’s will.”10 Since she could not bring her daughter up in the faith herself, she hoped for one of two outcomes: “that [God] will keep you, and you grow up in His fear, or that He will take you home in your youth.”11 In a letter to her sister, she confessed to a preference for the latter outcome, so that she might be reunited with her child even sooner.12
Janneken was not the only woman in the Martyrs Mirror to give birth while imprisoned and awaiting death. Five other women gave birth under similar circumstances: Christina Haring, a woman named Lyntgen, Lijsken Dircks, Mary Joris, and the unnamed wife of Adriaen Pan. Christina, Lijsken, and Adriaen’s wife were each executed after giving birth.13 Mary Joris died in childbirth, a fact that the account of her death interpreted as deliverance, and as for Lyntgen, “the pain of delivery so affected her, that she became utterly deranged in her mind; after this she laid for a long time at Amsterdam, in a little house, in which also died.”14 There is no doubt that this experience of pregnancy in the worst possible conditions, with the certain knowledge that only death and separation from their children awaited them, was deeply traumatic for these women.15
Mothers who nursed infants at the time of their arrest were sometimes able to keep the child with them in prison, though the authorities did not hesitate to use the child to punish the mother. The Martyrs’ Mirror recalls the story of Paul Vandruynen and his wife, who had a nine-month-old child with her in prison until the authorities took the child and had it baptized. Another woman,Claudine le Vettre, suffered increasingly harsh interrogations while nursing her infant in prison, and, when these tactics failed the authorities took the child away and gave it to a wet nurse in a last attempt to coerce her into recantation. This attempt was unsuccessful, but it was “the greatest affliction she suffered during her imprisonment.”16 Mothers of slightly older children likewise found separation from their families the hardest loss to contemplate as they faced martyrdom. A woman named Claesken, who left behind two daughters and a son, became indignant when her inquisitor accused her of being confused and insufficiently familiar with the New Testament. “Do you think,” she retorted, “that we run on uncertainties? We are not ignorant of the contents of the New Testament. We forsake our dear children, whom I would not forsake for the whole world, and we stake upon it all that we have. Should we run on uncertainties yet?”17 For Claesken, the fact that she and other Anabaptists were willing to do something as impossible as leaving behind their beloved children was proof that they had been imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.18 In addition to the mothers I have detailed so far, the Martyrs Mirror mentions three more mothers of minor children who were imprisoned: Hadewijk of Leeuwarden, Levina of Ghent, and Grietgen de Raet. Hadewijk escaped and lived out the rest of her life in Emden, but Levina and Grietgen were both executed.19 Two mothers of Anabaptist ministers, Janneken Walraven and Sijntgen Vercoilgen were also mentioned, but it seems that their sons were already adults by the time they were martyred.20 It is, of course, likely that other women in the Martyrs Mirror left behind children who simply were not mentioned in the accounts of their deaths.
Finally, the Martyrs Mirror recounts five stories of mothers who were martyred alongside one of their children: the wife and son of a man named Arent Jacobs, Neeltgen and Trijntgen of Maastricht, Lijngten Joris and her daughter, who was named either Catharina or Trijntgen, the wife and daughter of a man named Hans de Ruyter, and Anneken Botson and her daughter Janneken. While most of these accounts are cursory, the story of Neeltgen and Trijntgen describes how the two women spoke encouraging words and strengthened each other’s resolve in prison.21 The story of Lijntgen and her daughter, meanwhile, shows how the authorities attempted to pit mother and daughter against each other in order to force a recantation. On the day of their execution, they brought the daughter out of earshot of the mother and tried to tell her that her mother had recanted and she should as well. Their ploy did not work and the two women were executed together.22
The Martyrs’ Mirror, of course, self-selects for women who, however much it broke their hearts to leave their children behind, ultimately felt that martyrdom was a higher calling than motherhood. They entrusted their children to God and went bravely to their deaths. If they wavered, if they even briefly considered recanting in order to return to their families, the sources have not preserved these doubts. Overwhelmingly, it seems, they felt that their greatest task as mothers was to set a good example of faithfulness for their children. If they denied Christ in order to be restored to their children, paradoxically, they would fail at this task. It would be interesting to see what less hagiographic sources reveal about women who recanted, and how many of them cited their children as a reason for doing so.
1 Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 54.
2 See Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women, Religion, and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
3 Adam Darlage, “Double Honor: Elite Hutterite Women in the Sixteenth Century,” Church History 79:4 (2010): 769.
4 Gerald Mast, “Anna Jansz,” Bearing Witness Stories Project, published 13 November 2015, https://martyrstories.org/anna-jansz/.
5 Thieleman J. Van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, edited and translated by Joseph F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 668.
6 Van Braght, 980-982.
7 Van Braght, 454; 979.
8 Van Braght, 985.
9 Van Braght, 984-985.
10 Van Braght, 985-986.
11 Van Braght, 984.
12 Van Braght, 988.
13 Van Braght, 441; 504; 618.
14 Van Braght, 483; 564.
15 Van Braght, 448.
16 Van Braght, 737.
17 Van Braght, 613.
18 Van Braght, 616.
19 Van Braght, 547; 549; 726.
20 Van Braght, 563; 740.
21 Van Braght, 743.
22 Van Braght, 887.