Despite its famed university and openness to the freedom of thought and research, Leuven was not spared the inquisition during the Spanish rule of the Low Countries in the 16th century.
The inquisition persecuted not only Jews and heretics but also other Christians, whom it did not tolerate because they dared to preach the Bible in their native languages.
A reminder of the dramatic events in Leuven during that period can be seen in a painting in the grand Gothic meeting room in the City Hall. The painting is from 1882 and made by André Hennebicq, a Belgian painter specialising in historical pictures and murals. It shows a woman explaining the Bible to a group of reform-minded men and women.
The name of the woman is Antonia van Roesmale but she is often confused with another woman named Katelijn Metsys. Both women were accused of heresy by the inquisition in Leuven and were sentenced to death in 1543. While three others accused were beheaded or burned at the stake, after being strangled, the two women met a terrible death and were buried alive according to legend.
History professor Violet Soen from KU Leuven told The Brussels Times that the painting can be seen as an expression of the visual propaganda in the culture debate between Liberals and Catholics in 19th century Belgium. The main character is a local woman about whom not much is known. What is sure is that the trial and the executions caused a collective trauma in Leuven.
During that period, residents and students in Leuven, among others from Spain, were interested in the reformation of the Church. However, it was forbidden to study the Bible on your own or to read non-authorised translations. Reading the Bible was done in secrecy and could lead to accusations of heresy and punishable offences.
Martin Luther, who spearheaded the reformation movement, was excommunicated, and even Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had founded Collegium Trilingue in Leuven for the study and translation of the Bible, was suspected of heresy and had to find refuge in Basel. In the Edict of Worms (1521) and following laws (“placards”), the Catholic Church criminalized the dissemination of reform ideas.
While Spain and the Low Countries were ruled by the same Spanish King Charles V, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor, professor Soen emphasises that the notorious Spanish inquisition was not directly involved in the trials in Leuven. Those responsible for the trials were often university professors, who served as inquisitors or investigators, in cooperation with local authorities.
Dr. Gert Gielis, also a historian from KU Leuven, has published several studies on the “Leuven heretics” but admits that he would like to study them in even more detail, since several details are still not entirely clear.
“This is indeed an intriguing, yet little known episode in the history of the Low Countries,” he says. “The painting of André Hennebicq is of course a 19th century romanticized interpretation of the episode, but that makes it interesting in its own respect.”
“Here, a particular inquisitorial system was operating, with several jurisdictions and authorities interacting, cooperating and conflicting with each other. The majority of the Leuven reformers were not prosecuted by inquisitors, but by a secular court, and some were prosecuted by the court of the university,” Gielis explains.
There were a number of different courts depending on whether the investigators were priests or lay lawyers and appointed by the Pope or not. Compared to Spain, there was apparently no formal inquisition tribunal in the Low Countries with priests in charge of the investigations.
That said, the purpose ‒ to eradicate “heresy” and suppress free thinking ‒ was the same, as were the punishments and death sentences. Torture was probably used to extract confession. The courts in the Low Countries might have been more independent than in Spain, but those who advised them came from the university. Altogether, an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 “heretics” were tried between 1520 and 1570.