Civic Agency in the Public Sphere: Catholics' Survival Tactics in Utrecht, 1620s-1670s

Genji Yasuhira

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral 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. How, then, did Catholics survive the Protestant Republic and the environment of confessional coexistence? Were they a passive entity composed of either victims of coerced Protestantisation, or else of recipients of the toleration bestowed on them by ‘Erasmian’ regents, as scholars have long argued? By shedding light on the survival tactics deployed by Catholics in the city of Utrecht from 1620 to 1679, the present study demonstrates that they wielded a wider agency not only in their survival as ‘Catholics,’ but also in the realisation of confessional coexistence. 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 (e.g., legal documents and petitions), allowing historians to assess Catholics’ agency and survival tactics.
    The focus in this study is on the public/private distinction, which over the past several decades has been regarded as a key concept for understanding the seemingly paradoxical religious situation of the Dutch Republic – that is, the Reformed Church as the only public church and the prohibition on Catholicism on the one hand, and freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Union of Utrecht and de facto religious diversity on the other. Recently, scholars have argued that Catholics were connived so as to be able to worship and preserve their sub-culture in their own private sphere, as long as they refrained from crossing the border between ‘public’ and ‘private’ and challenging the monopoly over public religious life. However, some questions relating to Catholics’ agency in the public sphere still remain. While previous studies applied scholars’ definitions of the ‘public’ and ‘private’ to early modern society, the present study focuses on how seventeenth-century Utrechters themselves perceived, argued, and appropriated the ‘public’ and ‘private’ by paying attention to their actual use of these terms in primary source materials.
    The 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, Catholics were one of the actors in the shared process of the ‘delimitation of the “public”’ in the civic community. ‘Delimitation of the “public”’ is defined here 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. In particular, backed by their elevated civic status, members of the indigenous Catholic social elite in seventeenth-century Utrecht 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.
    Original languageEnglish
    • van Geest, Paul, Promotor
    • Spaans, Jo, Co-promotor, External person
    Award date19 Mar 2019
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


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