“Let there be light!” – Adriaan Koerbagh’s book in modern Dutch

“Let there be light!”

Adriaan Koerbagh’s A Light Shining in Dark Places now available in modern Dutch

The ‘tragic story of the brothers Koerbagh’, Jonathan Israel observed in Radical Enlightenment, ‘may very well have been the very first example in Europe of official suppression of philosophical “enlightenment” of the people, as distinct from traditional suppression of theological blasphemy’. To briefly repeat the main ingredients of their tragic story: the Koerbaghs, natives of Amsterdam, first came to official notice in the summer of 1666, when Johannes Koerbagh, a candidate for the ministry since 1660, was reprimanded by the reformed consistory for expressing ‘perilous’ (i.e. Socinian) feelings. In the early months of 1668, his brother Adriaan published, at his own expense, Een Bloemhof van allerley lieflijkheyd (A Flower Garden of all Kinds of Loveliness), a dictionary of foreign words which were translated and explained for Dutch readers without any command of Greek, Latin or Hebrew. (A copy of this edition is on the shelves of The Ritman Library). But Koerbagh also queried fundamental Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the creatio ex nihilo and the Atonement.

'Een Bloemhof van allerley lieflijkheyd' from 1668

One of the two title-pages of ‘Een Bloemhof van allerley lieflijkheyd’ with Amsterdam in the imprint and the author’s name.

Koerbagh’s aim in presenting theological terms that were used – and abused – by the clergy was to expose religious hypocrisy and liberate people from the thralls of superstition, and make them think clearly and fearlessly: he also showed them what angels and demons were really all about. The furore following the publication of Bloemhof caused Adriaan Koerbagh to leave Amsterdam for the relative safety of Culemborg, a place that lay outside the jurisdiction of the States of Holland. He and his brother then attempted to have another work printed in nearby Utrecht in the summer of 1668. This time it was a sustained argument in sixteen chapters, aimed at enlightening the people: Een ligt schijnende in duystere plaatsen. The printer, alarmed by the contents of the work and no doubt mindful of the official decree issued by the States General in 1653 which imposed heavy penalties on printers who were caught in the act of printing or distributing seditious books, handed over the copy text to the authorities of his city, who lost no time informing their colleagues in Amsterdam. Adriaan Koerbagh went in hiding in Leiden, where he was betrayed, arrested and taken to Amsterdam. He was sentenced and died in prison in 1669. With many copies of Bloemhof confiscated and Een ligt suppressed, it seemed the light had been effectively put out.

The prison in Amsterdam ("Willige Rasphuys") where Koerbagh died in October 1669.

The prison in Amsterdam (“Willige Rasphuys”) where Koerbagh died in October 1669.

In 2011 a bi-lingual edition (the original Dutch and a modern English translation) came out of Koerbagh’s suppressed book, the first edition since the aborted attempt of 1668. In the deadpan words of translator Michiel Wielema: ‘This book has taken a very long time to produce – in a way almost three and a half centuries.’ And now Koerbagh’s still highly readable seventeenth-century Dutch is available in modern Dutch, expertly rendered by Wielema, with insightful annotations outlining the background of Een ligt. This edition in modern Dutch makes it possible for ‘all the Dutch people’, to whom Een ligt was originally addressed, to sample the work which would certainly have proved to be an important source of inspiration for Radical Enlightenment thinkers had it been allowed to come out in the summer of 1668. More than three and a half centuries later, Koerbagh’s persuasive arguments have not lost any of their force, something which both the international and the Dutch public can now fully appreciate thanks to the translations and commentaries by Michiel Wielema.

LIGT oud-nieuw

‘Een ligt’: the original title-page and the cover of the new edition in modern Dutch.

Adriaan Koerbagh, Een licht dat schijnt in duistere plaatsen. Hertaling Michiel Wielema. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2014. Go to: http://www.vantilt.nl/detboek.aspx?Boek_ID=440.

Cis van Heertum.

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