November 1531, Amsterdam
These are only a shadow of what is to come…Col 2:17
Anna sighed as she kneaded the bread dough with both fists, punching it into a misshapen brown ball. With work-roughened fingers, she lifted the wad close to her nose, trying to inhale comfort from its yeasty smell. It didn’t work. Frowning, she flung the dough back in the wooden bowl where it landed with a satisfying smack. She slapped a cloth over it all, then set the dough on the mantel to rise. Now it should be good for an hour or more.
I’ll just slip over to the market to buy butter until the bread is ready to bake. That way I don’t have to go see Maeyken’s baby right away. Anna grabbed up a wooden spoon and gave the mutton stew a vigorous stir, scraping the sides of the iron pot. The stew burbled over the hearth fire, and she hoped it wouldn’t burn while she was gone. Her elderly employer, Simon van Kramer, would never complain if she served him burnt food, but he deserved better.
She tossed aside the flour-dusted apron that covered her floor-length red kirtle and tucked a few unruly dark curls under her white headdress. Swinging her hooded woollen cloak around her narrow shoulders, she headed out the door. The wooden trijps on her feet clunked on the worn cobblestones as her easy strides carried her along the narrow streets of Amsterdam. Tall houses loomed on each side, with their street-level shops already open for morning business. Passing them, she crossed the wooden bridge spanning the Amstel river, joining many other market-goers on their way to Dam Square in the heart of the city. As always, she tilted her head to admire the stained-glass windows of the Oude Kerk, sparkling like rainbows in the morning sunshine.
A cacophony of voices in Dutch, and in a hodge-podge of foreign accents assailed her ears as she entered the busy marketplace, where dozens of vendors haggled and hawked their goods. Out in the harbor beyond the square, hundreds of ships swayed on the water while merchants from the Baltics, Denmark, England, and other lands, traded their wheat and their wool for the famous Flanders cloth of the Low Countries.
Above the din, sudden angry shouts erupted from the vendors’ area, and Anna craned her neck and pushed forward. Who was fighting? Anna sidled closer, slipping between some well-dressed foreigners wearing curly wigs and rich fur cloaks. Near the bookseller’s stall, a crowd of curious market-goers surged forward, surrounding two men engaged in a furious argument.
“Just leave us alone and go back to Spain with your senseless orders from Charles!” The red-faced bookseller shouted, clenching his fists. He stood nose to nose with a furious Spanish official, who was trying to show the bookseller some legal document. “We have been running our city for hundreds of years without the interference of Charles V, and it’s none of his business what we read, or what we believe!”
“And I command, by the decree of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, that you destroy all Bibles, all religious books and all tracts immediately.” The officer’s lips pulled back from his long, white teeth in an ugly grimace. “They are forbidden, heretical writings and will not be tolerated.”
Anna didn’t wait around to hear more. She had witnessed firsthand the results of Charles V’s uncompromising discipline back in Germany, and she had moved to Amsterdam to escape all that. His imperious decrees did not endear him to all his subjects in the Netherlands or elsewhere, though he was their sovereign, and the ruler of a vast empire “on which the sun never set”.
Anna hurried over to the dairymaid’s stall, the best place to go for information. As she approached, Helga beckoned her closer, her round blue eyes and red lips nearly bursting with eagerness to relate whatever gossip she knew.
“Did you hear about the new mandate the Emperor has sent out?”
“No. Pray tell me about it.” Anna leaned forward, as the noise and bustle of the morning shoppers swirled around her.
“The Emperor is determined to get rid of heresy in all his lands, and has ordered the council to ferret out and arrest every heretic in the city. Which to Charles is everyone who doesn’t attend the Catholic church.” Helga lowered her voice. “It annoys the burghers when Charles sends orders, you know. They have run the town their own way for generations, and they resent being told how to run their affairs.” Helga tossed her head, as if nobody should dare to annoy these top citizens of the city. Anna remembered that Helga’s father served on the city council.
“Yes,” Anna said. “But everyone has to obey the Emperor. God will punish us if we do not.”
“Oh Anna!” Helga said. “You’re such a loyal saint, bless your heart. But personally, I do not believe God will punish us for not bowing to every decree of that ondraagkijke man. Just because he controls most of Christendom doesn’t mean he has to stick his nose everywhere. Charles has never liked Amsterdam, and I think it’s because the burghers here are better dressed than he is, and they’re wealthier too. The Emperor is running out of money with all the wars he’s fighting.”
Anna frowned. In her experience, the consequences of disobedience were too severe to take the risk. “So, do you think the council will obey?”
“They will have to. Charles set up the Council of Holland at The Hague, and he’s going to remove every councillor in Amsterdam who doesn’t agree with him. That Spanish man over there, arguing with Bert the bookseller, has been sent here to clear the city of this ‘nest of heresy’.” Helga looked around before continuing. “The founders of this country had a mighty struggle raising the place out of the marshes and turning it into a rich land. Charles will have a fight on his hands if he means to take away the privileges the citizens have worked so hard to get.”
Anna shivered involuntarily. Would there be bloodshed here, as well?
“Helga!” she warned, “Do be careful to whom you talk like this. Your loose tongue is going to get you in trouble.” Anna selected a pound of butter, suddenly ready to leave Dam square.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you, Anna?” Helga wrung her hands.
“No, not if you keep your disloyal thoughts to yourself from now on. Now I really must get home to bake my bread.” Anna paid for the butter, then hurried away.
She was a loyal Catholic for good reason. The Emperor was only one step beneath God Himself, and it would be a sin to oppose someone this close to Heaven. It would mean torment forever in purgatory after death. Anna walked faster, already feeling the demons chasing her. Adhering to the state church was the only way to survive, now or in the afterlife.
She wound her way out of the crowded Dam square, dodging groups of strutting foreign merchants and swaggering Dutch burghers. They clutched purses full of coin in their hands, oblivious to the unwelcome tidings; tidings which would affect numerous of the wealthy in Amsterdam. Anna had to get home and tell her best friend, Maeyken, about this disturbing news. At least her best friend was loyal to the crown, and to the Catholic faith.
Anna was halfway home before she remembered the new baby. Drawing in a sharp breath, she slowed her steps. Why did she let it bother her? In a day or two she would recover. She would say her catechism and pray to Mary to help her. She would go to Father Hendricks at the cathedral, and on her knees, confess to the sin of envy. Maeyken was her friend, and just because Anna was a spinster at age twenty, didn’t mean she had the right to be jealous.
Straightening her shoulders, she decided she had better get it off her mind and see the baby now. Popping into Simon’s house, she dropped off the butter, and took a quick peek at her rising bread dough. It would be good for a little while longer.
Forcing a cheerful smile onto her narrow face, she walked the few steps to her neighbor’s house, which was crowded beside Simon’s home on the Langestraat, the street of the goldsmiths and jewelers. As usual, she let herself in her friend’s back half-door and entered a high, square kitchen, which was lit only by a tall window on the south wall. Maeyken’s young maidservant, Janneken, was cutting up cabbages beside a trestle table. She smiled shyly, nodding towards the bedroom.
“Vrouw Maeyken is expecting you.”
Anna peered into the dim bedroom. Its firmly closed shutters spared the baby from any draughts of unhealthy air, but also made it a little difficult to see anything. A low-burning fire in the fireplace on one wall saved the place from total gloom.
From the rumpled bed in the corner, her friend Maeyken greeted her with a glowing smile. “Anna! Come in, it’s so good to see you. The birth seems complete now that you’ve come to see the babe.”
Anna moved to the bedside, swallowing her unworthy thoughts. She tried hard not to feel covetous, but Maeyken seemed to have everything she wanted for herself, everything Anna would never have — a new baby; three other children; a handsome and kind, well-to-do husband; a beautiful face; a lovely home; even a maid.
“How are you doing?” Anna asked. The new mother looked pale as milk, though maybe it was just the lack of light. Longingly, Anna gazed at the tiny sleeping bundle lying on the bed beside Maeyken.
“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life, but then, I hardly got any sleep last night.” Maeyken grinned ruefully.
Anna couldn’t take her eyes off the baby. A deep, longing ache reached into her heart and clenched it.
“Would you like to hold her?”
“Of course, I would love to. She’s so beautiful.” Anna reached out and picked up the tiny, swaddled infant and hugged her tenderly to her breast. Babies … they are such sweet little angels. She sat on the nursing chair beside the bed with the precious armful.
“We named our third little daughter Anna, after you.”
Anna jerked her head up, surprised and pleased. “You did? That’s an honor I don’t feel I deserve. Maar ik dank u.” Guiltily, she remembered her thoughts of a few minutes ago. “So Dirk didn’t get a little brother. Oh well, maybe next time.” She inhaled the sweet, clean baby scent and touched the downy fuzz of hair. “She looks like Adriaen. The dark hair and the wide forehead.” Anna’s smile and her voice both wavered the tiniest little bit. Maeyken’s husband was an example of perfect manhood, the most adoring family man Anna knew, not to mention the handsomest one. He ruled his household firmly, but lovingly, and she had never heard him raise his voice to Maeyken or to the children. In fact, he was as gentle as her own father had been…but she must not think of her father now, or she would end up weeping.
“You would be such a fine mother, Anna,” Maeyken whispered.
Anna winced and looked down at the babe as her eyes filled with tears. She was glad for the dimness of the room just then; it was childish and silly to cry because she wanted something she couldn’t have.
“You know as well as I do that I will never marry.”
“Anna, I know no such thing. There’s still lots of time for that. You are only twenty, you know. Not eighty.” Maeyken reached out with a languid hand and touched her arm. “You would make some man a good vrouw.”
“No, I’m too ugly. Every man wants a beautiful wife, or at least a charming one. I am neither.”
Maeyken snorted. She could afford to, with her golden hair, smooth complexion, and eyes as blue as a summer sky. She must have been sought after by every panting lad in the Netherlands if not in all of Christendom. At sixteen, she had married Adriaen, the son of a master goldsmith, and would never be in want for anything.
Maeyken had married exactly the kind of man Anna longed to have for a husband. There had been a man once, but that painful experience only made it plain that it was foolish of her to expect any man to marry her, when there was such an abundance of beautiful women to choose from. Through cruel words, Anna had learned how unattractive she was. Besides, she had coarse country manners, and she was too strong-willed and opinionated. Why should any marriage-minded man look at her twice? As if that were not enough, she was nearly penniless. It had not always been so.
Anna gave herself a mental shake and resolved to stop dwelling on it. She still had plenty to be grateful for. She had a roof over her head, regular meals, and employment with a wonderful old gentleman who always treated her courteously. As if she were a lady, and not just a servant. Best of all, she had found a friend in Maeyken, a friend who would never be so shallow as to judge by appearance, but gladly shared her heart and her little family with Anna.
“I’ve known you for a couple of months now, and you haven’t convinced me there’s anything undesirable about you. Somewhere there must be a good man for you. Maybe closer than you think,” Maeyken assured her. Anna wanted to plug her ears. Everyone said that, though it was simply not true. The best men were all taken, including Maeyken’s husband Adriaen.
Anna abruptly changed the subject. “When are you planning to have her baptized?” she asked, stroking the perfectly smooth baby cheek with a tender fingertip.
Maeyken shifted and the bed creaked on its ropes. “Anna, she will not be baptized.”
Anna looked up sharply. “Maeyken! What are you saying? Babies are always baptized. The only ones who are not baptized are…” Anna’s jaw dropped. “Surely you cannot mean…?” She felt cold, as if someone had thrown a bucket of icy water down her back. She stared at the innocent child on her lap, then to the white-faced mother on the bed.
It could mean only one inconceivable thing. An inconceivable thing which Anna had heard too much about at home, something which divided the faithful and the damned. Anna stared at Maeyken as if she had never seen her before. “But you must! You know you must! It’s the law!” Anna’s raised voice caused her friend to cower into her pillows and clutch the covers. Even the sleeping baby on Anna’s lap trembled and blinked in distress.
“Listen! Maeyken, you just listen to me! I heard at the market today that Charles has sent another mandate, and he is putting severe pressure on the council to root out heresy. All the heretics will be punished, and you know what that means. You can’t be thinking of joining them.”
“Anna, please calm down, and try to understand! It is not heresy to read the Bible and follow Jesus. Let me explain…”
“If you’re not baptizing your baby, it’s heresy, it’s as simple as that.” Anna thrust the baby back into Maeyken’s bed. “I must go home now and bake my bread.” She spun around and hurried towards the door.
“Anna, don’t go like this. I can’t bear it. Please say this won’t change our friendship.” Maeyken stretched out her hands, as if she could prevent her friend from fleeing.
“You changed it. I can’t believe you allowed yourself to be deceived by heretics. I can’t listen to this.” Anna shook her head and hastened home as fast as she could go.
Back at Simon’s house, she sank down on a stool beside the fireside, the bread forgotten, and stared sightlessly into the dying coals. Her limbs wouldn’t stop shaking. She realized that at some point, she would have to go back to Maeyken and apologize for her rude departure, but first she needed time to think.
Thoughts slugged through her mind like the muddy waters swishing through the rivers and canals of Amsterdam. Anna had come to the Netherlands to get away from the persecutions in her homeland, away from the haunting memories. She thought the Lowlands were untouched by the Reformation going on in Germany. It appeared she was mistaken. The heretics were as thick here in Amsterdam as anywhere else, but up until now, the authorities hadn’t challenged them. Things were bound to be straightened out now that Charles V’s officers had arrived, and Anna’s heart filled with a nameless dread. The storm clouds were hanging heavy on the horizon, and there was no safe haven for any one disagreeing with the Holy Roman Emperor.
Father Hendricks, in his services at the Oude Kerk, had repeatedly warned his dwindling congregation about these false prophets, to no avail. Anna noticed that each Catholic service she went to, fewer and fewer members attended. By the hundreds, Amsterdam’s citizens abandoned the Catholic church and flocked to hear the seditious upstart preachers. These men falsely fancied themselves prophets, said Father Hendricks, claiming that Jesus would be returning soon, and the world was about to end. They blasphemed the pope, calling him the Anti-Christ, and they denounced the Catholic church by naming it the whore of Babylon. But now, their game was over.
Charles V had found out.
Anna jumped up, remembering the bread. She fed twigs into the round-topped oven, heating it to the perfect temperature for baking. The dough had risen too long and was likely to be full of holes - as full of holes as the ideas of the Anabaptists, the name given to the new religionists by their adversaries. When the oven was hot enough, she scraped out the coals, throwing them into the hearth fire, then set the dough inside.
Anna stirred the coals with the iron poker until they glowed and sparked, then added more wood. Fire was such a terrible thing; it destroyed and left nothing behind except ashes. Heretics died by burning if they refused to recant, at the stake or even in their own houses. The nightmare was real, and the memory returned to haunt her once more.
On New Year’s Day, shouting officers on their horses had chased everyone into the house in Mantelhof, Germany— her parents, her brothers, her younger sister, the neighbors who tried to run away from the shouting officers and their dogs. Then the officers locked the house and set it on fire. Anna should have burned with them. But she had been out on the hills, gathering firewood, and they hadn’t found her. The smoke she had seen through the trees had been her first warning, and when darkness fell, only red-hot coals and ashes remained of her home and her family.
In a near panic, she stepped outside, away from the heat of the oven. According to the priests, heretics would continue to burn in hell forever, and so it would never end. She stood on the stone step of the house and leaned back against the door frame. The neat rows of buildings on Langestraat looked deceptively innocent as she stood there. Which buildings housed Anabaptists, and which held adherents to the true Catholic church? Lifting her face to the sky, she prayed to Mary to intervene for her soul. Back in Germany, she would go and buy indulgences to cleanse herself from sin. Here in the Netherlands such things were not allowed.
Buying indulgences from priests, who had special permission from the Pope, reduced the time the soul spent in purgatory, and she used to buy them as often as she could. The religious Reformers protested vigorously against this act, denouncing the indulgences as useless bits of paper, and insisted that only through forgiveness of one’s sins through the death of Jesus Christ could one go to Heaven. They thought the money would be better spent on the poor. They also attacked the Sacraments of infant baptism, extreme unction, and the mass; and condemned the relics of the saints and the use of images, among other things.
The long-standing traditions of the Roman Catholic church had been honored for centuries. Why were people stirring up trouble now? If a person obeyed the commandments of the church, went to communion and mass regularly, and confessed all sins to the priests, they were an obedient subject. There was nothing wrong with that.
She alone of her family had refused to listen to the Anabaptist hedge-preachers in Germany, must she listen to them now? Her parents and siblings had begged her to go with them to the secret ‘meetings’, but she loved the old familiar chants of the Catholic priests, the beautiful cathedral with its stained-glass windows, the paintings of Jesus, the golden images of Mary, the smell of incense and the air of holiness. Images of her family burning in hell forever tormented Anna’s dreams. No priest had administered the last rites to them, they had not been anointed with the holy oil. It seemed cruel and unfair, the worst thing that could happen. She could not bear to witness the death of loved ones again, not without the comfort of knowing that their souls were winging up to Heaven.
Maeyken an Anabaptist? It was impossible. Anna had thought nothing of it when her friend no longer attended mass, assuming it was because of her increasing girth, and then her confinement. With difficulty, Anna controlled the urge to go back to Maeyken’s and beg her on her knees to come to her senses. Somehow, she must convince her friend to forget this nonsense. She simply could not know what she was letting herself in for. Was Adriaen involved? With a sinking feeling, she knew he must be. Maeyken would never do such a thing without her husband’s approval.
Anna shuddered. Maeyken and Adriaen had no idea what she had suffered already because of heresy. She must warn them, only she could not tell them her story without reliving the terrible memories. It seemed she had not run far enough away from home. The nightmare had found her here.
As Anna had found out in Germany, a sure sign of Anabaptism was the refusal to have their children baptized. They claimed it was unscriptural. This idea was absurd, and Anna was glad the Emperor was stepping in, lest the land become populated by little devils in the form of children. By not reporting this new baby, Anna realized with a start that she would be regarded as a sympathizer, and therefore a criminal, and worst of all, she would be accused of consorting with the devil. But Maeyken and her family were not evil!
She clenched her fists. How could Maeyken put her in this position? She could at least have kept it a secret. Why, oh why, didn’t they just have the baby baptized and be done with it? Why oppose the powerful state church about a minor thing like this? Were their beliefs worth imprisonment, or execution? Did they not believe that they were risking their souls, and that it was a sin to disobey the ordinances of the church?
Anna shook her head as she went back inside. She must stop dwelling on it. There was work to be done. Simon would soon be home from the market, and he would be hungry. Perhaps with the wisdom of his age he could tell her what to do. It would be impossible to report her friend, and impossible not to. However, she was not ready to lay her neck under the sword, die at the stake, or be buried alive.
She rubbed her neck. Distractedly, she set some cheese and wine on the table and removed the golden-brown bread from the oven, scraping the charcoal flecked bottom. The pigs would get the bottom crust for their supper. As she was scooping the hearty stew into a pottery bowl, Simon arrived for his midday meal.
“Smells wonderful in here, Anna. You can sure cook.” Simon greeted her with his usual words of praise as he lowered himself into his chair.
To Anna the food was tasteless, and she picked at it as she tried to find the words to share her predicament. But would speaking her mind condemn her gentle, elderly employer as well as herself? If she told him, he would become as guilty as she. What if he then made it his duty to report Maeyken’s baby? No, it would not do. She would have to think some more. Though God would surely punish her if she didn’t do her duty, she thought, crossing herself. Simon glanced at her fleetingly.
“Anything the matter?” he asked, concern in his faded blue eyes.
Anna shook her head. “Nothing at all.”
She decided it would not be fair to involve him. So, in the end, she said nothing.
In the evening, Simon informed her he was planning to visit a friend some distance away and he would be home late, possibly staying until tomorrow.
“Perhaps you might stay with Maeyken for the night?” he suggested, fastening his good velvet cloak. “Adriaen is going with me, and I know Maeyken would appreciate having you there.”
Anna stared at him in dismay. Ordinarily, she would have rejoiced at the offer. But now…how could she possibly go back there so soon? She crumpled a corner of her apron with restless hands.
“I shall think about it. Though I do not fear staying here by myself.”
Simon peered at her with keen, old eyes as he stroked the wispy white beard adorning his wrinkled face.
“You decide what you want to do. You are free until tomorrow morning.” Simon clapped his plumed hat on his head. Anna nodded, her head spinning. With another inquisitive glance he left, leaving her standing in the middle of the swiftly dimming kitchen. Evening shadows crept all around her and still she didn’t know what to do.
Would Adriaen tell Simon about his newborn daughter? Would he take the risk of Simon reporting it? Anna didn’t think the kindly old man would do such a thing, but the alternative was disobedience to God and to the government.
Finally, deciding she was too worn-out to see her friend that night, Anna crept up the stairs to her small room and climbed into her straw-mattress bed. Pulling the woollen blanket around her ears, she tried to block the voices warring in her head, as well as the images of red and gold flames that insisted on twisting through her dreams. Guilt pricked at her conscience for not doing her duty to the church by reporting Maeyken. The bells on the church chimed the midnight hour by the time Anna made up her mind to deal with it first thing in the morning.