Antwerp: The Glory Years 
by Michael Pye.
Allen Lane, 271 pp., £25, August 2021, 978 0 241 24321 3
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It was good​ to be a butcher in Antwerp. The Butchers’ Guild was one of the oldest in the city and membership was hereditary: the names of the 62 old butchering families were inscribed in the guild’s Lineage Book. Turned out in blood-red tunics, the butchers spent the morning trading cattle at the Ossenmarkt, or selling sausages and offal in the Vleeshuis, the butchers’ guildhall. The Vleeshuis was at that time the largest secular building in the city, built in the Gothic style on a little hill that Antwerpers called Blood Mountain. There, the butchers processed their fresh meat beneath elegant tapestries. They feasted in the Vleeshuis, sitting on fine Spanish leather chairs embossed with the figure of their patron, St John, accompanied by his flock of sheep and oxen; in the evenings, they retired to estates built on acres of quiet pasture just outside the city, with names like De Ribbe (the Rib) or De Ijseren Verckens (the Iron Pigs), Dlammeken (the Little Lamb) or ’t Ossenhooft (the Ox Head).

In the Middle Ages, Antwerp had been a quiet regional town, with a small river port and two trade fairs a year. The butchers’ trade was heavily protected and they easily met the demands of the city’s population. But when the Zwin channel silted up around 1500 and Bruges became inaccessible by ship, trade moved east to Antwerp. First came alum and English wool, and then, momentously, in 1501, the Portuguese trade in spices – black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger. Following after were merchants trading paper, gems, and pearls from India; and soon, the trade in printed books, in cochineal and vermillion, silks and metalware, copper and silver; in sugar, ivory, gold; in Chinese porcelain and barrels of wine. Dürer visited in 1520 to purchase dye; in the course of his stay he saw Aztec gold for the first time, and bought coral, a tortoise shell, a lodestone, elks’ hooves, and feathers from Calicut. On their estates, Antwerp’s merchant gardeners grew tomatoes, cotton, aubergines, gladioli, artichokes, morning glory, peonies; there was even a dragon’s blood tree that had travelled from the Canaries via a monastery in Lisbon. The city expanded – its population more than doubled to a hundred thousand by the middle of the 16th century – and became wildly rich. This, in brief, is Michael Pye’s story of Antwerp’s ‘glory years’, a few fleeting decades when the city burned brightly as Europe’s most important commercial port.

It had once been good to be a butcher. Now, it was better to be a merchant. Antwerp’s Beurs, which opened in 1532, was Europe’s first commodity exchange; when the merchants walked to work in the morning, they were accompanied by trumpeting bands. The merchants didn’t trade real things – not rich flanks of meat or fragrant spices – but money itself, in the form of bills of exchange. A merchant wrote an order to his agent to pay a certain amount in a particular local currency, thereby avoiding having to send a quantity of money across land and sea. Issued by the merchants who signed them, unsecured by any state authority, these bills held no intrinsic value; their worth rested on the trustworthiness of the merchant himself. They soon became instruments of financial speculation: merchants could buy and sell bills to make a profit from gambling on fluctuating currency exchange rates across Europe. Credit could be extended further and further: merchants began to deal not only in Italian grain but in its predicted harvest; not only in textiles but in wool that hadn’t yet been shorn from flocks of English sheep. In her study of the Northern European commercial economy, Martha Howell notes that the Fugger merchants proudly proclaimed that they traded with ‘Baargeld’, real money, unlike the Genoese, who did it ‘mit Papier’. But in Antwerp, everyone traded with paper. When he came to study it, Fernand Braudel found the trade in bills of exchange and money-changing ‘not only complicated, but diabolical’.

The nouveaux riches of Antwerp loved nothing more than eating huge quantities of meat. The 62 old butchering families couldn’t keep pace. In 1551, the buitenbeenhouwers – butchers from outside Antwerp – attacked the guild’s trading monopoly in the courts. Behind the striped sandstone and brick walls of their Gothic palace (they called such stonework ‘bacon layers’), the old butchers grew angry. Their way of life – their farms, cattle trading and banqueting – was disappearing. In the same year, the Antwerp painter Pieter Aertsen produced a portrait of raw meat, the first painting of its kind in European art. The Meat Stall is an outrageous depiction of animal flesh. A rack of grisly ribs; a haunch marbled with fat; an ox’s head with the skin slightly shrivelled, one dark eye open; links of red and white sausages, still more sausages, and pigs’ trotters; pale butter, dripping; draped tripe; feathered chickens with their necks slit open; a lung hanging by a windpipe; a pig’s head with near translucent ears; bowls of rendered lard to be sold by the spoonful.

The painting seems to be made of gristle and fat and silverskin, offal and fur and feather; a later Flemish painter wrote that Aertsen was ‘a great, deft, crafty deceiver’, who depicted things so naturally that the viewer ‘feels like grasping [them] with his hands’. I find Aertsen’s painterly deception so complete that I don’t want to touch anything; in front of so much flesh, it’s hard not to feel accused. Behind the stall, Aertsen painted the Flight into Egypt, but as Charlotte Houghton pointed out in her wonderful article on the painting, the largest person in that scene is smaller than a sausage. In another part of the background, a butcher crouches in his red tunic (he’s about the size of the skein of tripe). And in the top right corner, a sign is nailed to a post: ‘Behind here are 154 rods of land for sale immediately, either by the rod or all at once, according to your convenience.’

Unlike notes of credit, meat rotted. The butchers were tied to the land, unable to take part in international trade and now at the mercy of a hyper-inflated real estate market. The boom years of the 16th century caused property speculation and a land grab, as thousands of immigrants were drawn to Antwerp by its promise of wealth, and the rich bought up tracts of land to build their summer houses. Gilbert van Schoonbeke, a major developer in these years, was said to be such a crook that he didn’t have ‘a single hair on his body that he hadn’t acquired by theft’. As Houghton discovered, the ‘For Sale’ sign nailed to Aertsen’s meat stall was a reference to a real sale of 1551, clinched by van Schoonbeke on behalf of the city. The deal was so corrupt that it even involved stealing land from nuns. In The Meat Stall, Aertsen depicted the crumbling foundations of Antwerp’s social order, as the old economy – represented by the land, trading privileges and local families – was rapidly replaced by an international economy of paper credit.

In his Utopia, Thomas More is introduced to the traveller Raphael Hythlodaeus on the docks at Antwerp. But the utopian tradition in the Low Countries, centred on luilekkerland (‘lazy-delicious-land’), was meatier, and more Antwerpian. In one luilekkerland story written in Antwerp in 1546, the houses are roofed with pancakes, the walls made of pancakes with bacon, the beams of suckling pigs, and each house is surrounded by a fence ‘woven of fried liverwurst, mettwurst, or other kinds of sausage’. Meat pies grow like pine cones, and pancakes sprout on birches. Roast chickens, geese and pigeons fly through the sky, and the pigs walk around pre-roasted, too: ‘If one feels like taking a bite, one can straightaway slice off a piece of meat and stick the knife back in again.’ (It’s no wonder the butchers couldn’t keep up.) Cherries are pitted with sugared almonds. Donkeys shit sweet figs. The virtuous are disgraced, the debauched crowned king, the highest praise is saved for those who laze around eating liverwurst. ‘One only has to say, or even just to think: mouth, what do you want? Heart, what do you desire?’

Antwerpers worried about whether their prosperity was diabolical. (It was: the goods exchanged in Antwerp fuelled the emergent Portuguese slave trade on the West African coast.) The sinfulness of money was shown by Quentin Matsys in The Money Changer and His Wife (1514), which depicts a young, smooth-faced woman distracted from her devotions to the Virgin by the glint of the coins her husband is busy weighing out. In his study of early modern genre painting in the city, Larry Silver cites a ballad from 1524:

All the world used to be filled with riches
When the merchant was without trickery
He bought, he carried, then everyone became fat
He made riches fly throughout the land
He knew nothing of cheating or lying
Of pushing or badgering, but only happy living
But now things have really gone beyond the pale.

Building on research by Stephen Goddard, Pye describes the doodles made by Antwerp’s notaries, now to be found in the city archives: pairs of dice; a bare bottom; a note-to-self: ‘All that a man has is hanging by a fine thread, and the most secure things can collapse quite suddenly.’ Merchants surrounded themselves with fine things. Silks could be draped and handled, jewels hung round the neck. And yet this wealth was secured by networks of paper credit stretched thinly across and between banks, nations, seas. If, as Howell writes, an exchange like the Beurs provided a reassuringly solid space for the exchange of credit, a place where dealing could be conducted openly in the presence of others, the people of Antwerp still felt uneasy. Just like the luilekkerland of their ballads, it might all prove an illusion.

But deception was Antwerp’s speciality. The city maintained a careful religious tolerance for much of the 16th century, not for any ideological reason but in order to keep trade flowing freely. Heterodoxy was the bread and butter of the city’s printing houses: William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English was published there in 1526; only a couple of decades later, Antwerp printers were bundling Jesuit books into barrels of wine to be shipped to clandestine English Catholics. This commitment to looking the other way was especially important for Jews. The Inquisition was bad for business, and Antwerp – part of the Spanish Netherlands – successfully kept inquisitors away from the city for decades. Diogo Mendes was a Portuguese Jew and a member of one of the most powerful banking families in Europe. In his enormous house in Antwerp, he read books in Hebrew, kept kosher and attended his own private synagogue. The contemporary Italian merchant Lodovico Guicciardini wrote that ‘one can discover or even follow the nature, habits and customs of many nations’ in Antwerp, where you might be fortunate enough to find yourself feasting on peacock with the exiled Bey of Tunis, or – as one Venetian merchant marvelled – eating eggs during Lent.

In 1566, Antwerp’s fragile religious accord cracked. Protestants attacked the Church of Our Lady, and within the hour, every church and monastery in the city was besieged by image-breakers. The mapmaker Abraham Ortelius, whose business depended on Antwerp’s cosmopolitanism, mourned that ‘the churches looked as though the devil had been at work there for one hundred years.’ From the 1550s, Protestants had become more open in their devotions; they established their first real congregation in 1555 and ‘hedge preachers’ spread the word by means of large open-air sermons in the countryside. In 1567, the Inquisition finally came to Antwerp. Merchants began to leave in a steady stream, complaining of ‘disordered times’. The Habsburg Duke of Alba hunted for heretics, imposed new taxes, and had a bronze statue of himself cast for his new citadel (which had its guns pointed not outside the city walls but within them). The duke ‘struck such a terror into every man’s heart’, one witness remembered, ‘that an infinite number of merchants and of the wealthiest citizens departed forth of Antwerp … leaving their lands and inheritance to the wide world’. Alba’s bronze held a mask, a symbol of the way he had stripped the enemy of his hypocrisy.

And yet, without illusion, what was Antwerp? In 1577, the Spanish were defeated and Calvinists took control of Antwerp’s council. The bronze duke was melted down and the churches attacked again; the ships in the city’s port were loaded up with sculptures and bells, effigies and candlesticks, to be sold on in Moscow or Narva. The Sea Beggars, Protestant privateers, flew red flags with a crescent moon that read ‘Liever Turks dan Paaps’ – Better Turks than Papists. In 1585, after the Beurs had accidentally burned down and the Spanish had successfully blockaded the river, Habsburg forces retook the city easily. But the merchants had long since left for Amsterdam, Europe’s global city of the 17th century. Grass grew in Antwerp’s streets. Worse still, Jesuits moved into the old trading houses.

Pye sets out to show that Antwerp was most itself during its 16th-century ‘glory years’: ‘Glory to me,’ he writes, ‘is the time when the city could be particular and individual.’ I’m not sure how one sets about measuring glory in these terms, or whether, as Pye tells us at the end of the book, ‘what happened’ in Antwerp really ‘helped change the world and how we think about it’. But we do learn how Antwerp changed, and about the people who passed through its markets, who painted there, who worshipped in its open and clandestine churches, who found refuge, who made and lost fortunes on the Beurs. We learn what these 16th-century men and women thought about the great transformations they witnessed; about their worries and fantasies and their large appetites.

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