Review: Cunegonde's Kidnapping by Benjamin Kaplan

Cunegonde's kidnapping by Robert Kaplan; european history; protestant; catholic; dutch; germany; enlightenment;

Cunegonde's Kidnapping by Benjamin Kaplan is a microhistory of a region on the Dutch-German border, engulfed in religious passions, in late 18th century. Microhistory's value, he writes, is twofold: bringing to life obscure and illiterate voices; and changing our understanding by focusing on individual phenomenon and raising questions about it. Kaplan mentions in the beginning how until recently historians did not "study how ordinary people of different faiths interacted and related to one another in daily life. That was partly due to an exclusive focus, now long outdated, on great men and great news". He states how inter-religious marriage of a Christian to a Jew or Muslim was illegal and hence the term 'inter-religious' or 'mixed marriage' meant a marriage between Christians belonging to different churches. The region on which this book is based is Vaals, famous in Holland for being a Drielandenpunt, 'Three Countries Point', where Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet. From "1839 to 1919, it was even, uniquely, a four countries point, since there existed then a tiny sliver of an artificial country named Moresnet".

Cunegonde Mommers was a German Catholic in Aachen, her brother Hendrick had married a Dutch Calvinist from Vaals named Sara Maria Erffens. Sara gave birth to a baby boy, Mathias Hendrick, on Tuesday, 13th April 1762. Her first infant had died before turning one. The sparks of friction were generated soon after the birth of their second child when the midwife Anna asked Sara about how the infant was to be baptised, being born to a Calvinist mother and a Catholic father. Hendrick and Sara themselves had made four different agreements on the religious upbringing of their children. These combined with pressures from their respective religious communities and support from their families resulted in: Cunegonde, who had some kind of mental disability, trying to kidnap the infant from a Protestant church during his baptism, either on her own insistence or at that of Father Bosten; being caught by the authorities; getting freed by group of Catholic youths; being incarcerated for more than five years later on; and, most importantly, in a protracted hateful and violent disposition by Catholics towards Protestants, whose own disposition was to attack images, symbols and objects associated with Catholic worship; and also, not in the least, the use of religious reprisals in Europe as a tool for ensuring safety of their own kind somewhere else by threatening the practice of others in one's own region. The intricacies of laws back then, the beliefs in ghosts and rituals, combined with economic disparity due to Protestants being merchants while Catholics being craftsmen all resulted in an extended religious war of attrition in Vaals. This violence took place during "the so-called Age of Enlightenment, a defining stamp on European culture". Kaplan also questions the generally accepted scholarly narrative that "thanks to Enlightenment, in eighteenth century, violent religious conflict in Europe became a thing of the past".

Cunegonde never married and died at the age of thirty-one in 1771; Hendrick died when thirty-seven years old; their third infant also died in 1772; Mathias Hendrick died in 1787; and Sara, now a childless widow, died in 1818 after having married a fellow Calvinist Gijsbert Verbrug, who also died four years after their marriage.

Kaplan however doesn't restrict itself only to the finer details of the case, but gives a fine broad overview of the religious enmities of the Europe from the sixteenth till eighteenth centuries and the various arrangements, like Peace of Westphalia, made between differing factions to maintain a semblance of toleration. Kaplan has done extensive work on primary sources like documents from Father Bosten’s trial, resolutions of governing local and national bodies, dossiers from court cases, correspondence, birth and death registers, chronicles by Catholic and Protestant contemporaries and more for a rich blend of story-telling, drama and suspense. However, owing to the inconsistency in the accounts of various witnesses, he states his rule of thumb was "to recount things as matters of fact if the account of them given by a source was never contested, if they are attested by multiple sources that do not differ substantially, or if the evidence for them is overwhelming". He notes how early modern justice had a high price tag, where everyone involved was paid for his work, and it was the party who lost a case, not the state, who bore the charges. Reproduction of maps from the eighteenth century and photos of various places of interest in Cunegonde's history make this work highly accessible to the general reader and at times full of action, betrayals and fervour, reflective of the times gone by.

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