Dissertation Genji Yasuhira: Catholics’ Survival Tactics in Utrecht, 1620s-1670s

16 April, 2019

Johannes Steffelaar, Interior of the Clandestine Church St. Gertrudis in Utrecht, 1896, oil on canvas, 64.5 x 52 cm, photograph by Museum Catharijneconvent (currently displayed at de Driehoek in Utrecht).

Recently Genji Yasuhira defended his dissertation titled Civic Agency in the Public Sphere: Catholics’ Survival Tactics in Utrecht, 1620s–1670s (Tilburg University 2019, cum laude). The theme resonates with the key concerns of the Religious Matters project.

Read Genji’s summary of his thesis:

The Dutch Republic (1588–1795) is famous for its official acceptance of the Protestant Reformation combined with the toleration displayed towards non-Reformed believers. Seventeenth-century Dutch history has in several respects still been positioned as an ‘exceptional’ case within the history of modernisation, concerning Protestantisation, secularisation, privatisation of beliefs, and the rise of toleration. At a glance, Catholics would seem to occupy a difficult position in Dutch national history, where the Dutch Revolt against Catholic Spain (1568–1648) is represented as the war of independence for the nation. Indeed, historians have long argued that Dutch Catholics were just a passive entity composed of either victims of coerced Protestantisation, or else of recipients of the toleration bestowed on them by ‘Erasmian’ regents.

Thanks to the historiography of the past decade, early modern Dutch Catholics are now considered as a group of people maintaining their own confessional identity and sub-culture in their private sphere, whereas they were excluded from the public sphere of the Reformed Republic. Catholic clandestine churches – chapels constructed inside the private houses or barns which exhibited a sharp contrast with the public church of the Reformed Protestantism – are regarded as a good example of such a public/private distinction functioning in the Dutch Republic. However, some questions still remain relating to their agency in the public sphere. How did Catholics attempt to survive identifiably as ‘Catholics’ in the Dutch Republic, where public authorities tried to exclude them from the public sphere? In order to survive the Reformed regime, did they withdraw from the public sphere, conforming to the existing norm of a public/private distinction controlled by the political authorities and the politico-religious majority of the Reformed? Given that recent sociological, anthropological, and political-philosophical studies focus on religion or (politico-)religious minority in the public sphere in the contemporary ‘post-secular age’ (as the age that followed modernisation understood as the alleged secularisation and privatisation of beliefs), it is most necessary to assess the agency of a politico-religious minority in the public sphere in the early modern era (as the age perceived as the beginning of modernisation understood as secularisation and privatisation of beliefs) in order to critically rethink the teleological modernisation thesis of Western liberalism.

To answer the aforementioned research questions, this study attempts to shed light on the survival tactics deployed by Catholics in Utrecht from 1620 to 1679. The choice for this case study can be explained by Utrecht’s status as the stronghold it had become for both the Reformed and the Catholic Churches in the Dutch Republic by the 1620s or 1630s, thereby offering various primary sources for the conflicts, such as legal documents and petitions, allowing historians to assess Catholics’ agency and survival tactics. Within the framework of the civic community, this study traces shifting relationships and interactions between the three actors in the city of Utrecht, namely political authorities and the public church, as well as the Catholics themselves.

The focus in this study is on the public/private distinction, which is not only seen as a core concept of modern Western liberalism, but also often used in descriptions of early modern toleration and confessional coexistence. The present study argues that the existing interpretations of the early modern public/private distinction have led to an underestimation of the agency of such religious dissenters as Dutch Catholics in the public sphere. Although in previous studies the public/private distinction has only been used as an analytic tool on the basis of scholars’ own definition of ‘public’ and ‘private’, this study pays attention to the way the ‘public’ and ‘private’ were perceived, argued, and appropriated by early modern Utrechters, especially Catholics, quoting as many original texts as possible where the primary source includes the terms ‘public’ (in Dutch, publiek, openbaar, and gemeen) and ‘private’ (in Dutch, privaat and particulier). In the course of the present study, ‘delimitation of the “public”’ is demonstrated as an alternative analytic perspective on early modern confessional coexistence. ‘Delimitation of the “public”’ is defined as a constant, social, and communal process in which people (re)defined what was ‘public’, (re)drew the border of the ‘public’, and (re)created norms for how people could/should behave in the public sphere.

Coexistence was a precarious environment. Thus, political practices of ‘pro/persecution’ and ‘toleration’ were required to manage and regulate this precarious environment of ‘coexistence’. Under pressure from the public church, which desired anti-Catholic legislation and Reformed confessionalisation, political authorities strategically intervened in the environment of ‘coexistence’ through the political art of ‘social engineering’ consisting of ‘pro/persecution’ and ‘toleration’. On the one hand, magistrates utilised pro/persecution to deprive Catholics of their right to behave as ‘Catholics’ in the public sphere. During the sixty years studied, Catholics were prosecuted in 116 legal cases in the city court of Utrecht for engaging in behaviour that was identifiably ‘Catholic’ and as such constituted a punishable offence. On the other hand, political authorities practically used toleration to manage the environment of confessional coexistence. Despite numerous anti-Catholic edicts, illegal presence and behaviours of many Catholics were at times publicly recognised or non-publicly connived at. Political practices of toleration also reproduced the asymmetrical politico-religious power-relationship between the Reformed – those who tolerated – and the Catholics – those who were tolerated –, and perpetuated discrimination of the latter.

However, coexistence cannot fully be understood only from the perspective of strategies of social engineering employed by public authorities. We have to pay attention to survival tactics deployed by Catholics, who tactically intervened in the environment of coexistence. Catholics constituted a powerful pressure group within the civic community of Utrecht not only because of their strong numerical presence within the population, but also by virtue of their equally strong representation among the indigenous social elite and in the various networks. On the basis of their elevated civic status, substantial social capital, brilliant public reputations, and (confessionally) diverse networks, members of the indigenous Catholic social elite were not only guardians of the Utrecht Catholic community, but also pillars of the wider civic community of Utrecht. For instance, they were needed by Utrechters both as administrators of and donors to public charitable institutions as part of the social responsibility that came with their civic stature. In addition, through their flexible and creative spatial practices, Catholics sought spaces for survival as ‘Catholics’, continuously using the physical urban space as they had done in medieval times, and newly appropriating it to adjust themselves to the environment of confessional coexistence. By so doing, Catholics, especially their members of the social elite whose houses functioned as clandestine churches for their co-religionists, tactically created spaces for survival by participating in the process of the delimitation of the physical ‘public’ and challenging public authorities. Here human senses, such as visibility and audibility, played an important role. Furthermore, the tolerated and pro/persecuted Catholics mobilised various discourses for their survival. Not all Catholics discursively confirmed their withdrawal from the public sphere. Members of the Catholic indigenous social elite attempted to tactically defend their rights by resorting to their civic status, which in some cases originated from medieval times. They managed to protect themselves, and even the Catholic community at large, by defining the ‘public’ in an original way, and by mobilising alternative interpretations of the ‘public’. By mobilising diverse discourses in the process of the delimitation of the abstract ‘public’, Catholics tactically created room for survival as ‘Catholics’ vis-à-vis their strategical exclusion promoted by public authorities.

This empirical case study demonstrates that Catholics had considerable agency in the public sphere of multi-confessional Utrecht. Alongside the political authorities and the Reformed Church, Utrecht Catholics were one of the actors in the shared process of the delimitation of the ‘public’ in the civic community. In particular, backed by their elevated civic status, members of the indigenous Catholic social elite did not obey the existing norm and definition of the public/private distinction, which public authorities and the Reformed majority strategically attempted to control. Instead, they not only developed their own sub-culture in their private sphere, but also challenged public authorities and the formal hegemony of Reformed religious culture, by tactically shifting the border of the ‘public’ on their own initiative. By actively participating in the delimitation of the ‘public’, they wielded a wider agency not only in their survival both individually and collectively as ‘Catholics’ but also in the realisation of confessional coexistence. In order to make confessional coexistence possible, people living in seventeenth-century Utrecht attempted to delimit the ‘public’, which, in their perception of the civic community, still retained medieval legacies without conceptualising the modern notion of ‘privacy’.

Genji Yasuhira


Genji Yasuhira is a JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) Postdoctoral Fellow PD. After obtaining his BA (Occidental History; Osaka University 2012) and MA (European History; Kyoto University 2014), he completed his PhD (summarized here) at Tilburg University the supervision of Prof. Dr. Paul van Geest (Tilburg University) and Dr. Jo Spaans (Utrecht University). His PhD research was funded by the JSPS (Research fellow DC1) from April 2014 to March 2017 and by the Stichting Adrianus Fonds from April 2017 to March 2019. From September 2015 to March 2017 he was a guest researcher at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in the Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University. He is now preparing to publish a book on his dissertation. For more information on his research, see his Academia.edu page (link).