8vo (143 x 95 mm). Collation: A-T8 (T8 blank).  pp. Text in gothic types, stage directions and lists of actors in italic. Title woodcut of a family meal, six text woodcuts of which 5 half-page and one smaller. Wormtrack in gutter of first few leaves, dampstaining to foremargins and lower corners, a fewer quires with larger dampstain. 17th-century stiff parchment, manuscript spine title. Provenance: “Herman Lamberts Bellaer, A[nn]o 1685,” signature on front flyleaf ((Bellaer was a notary in Weesp, North Holland, from 1656 to 1658); “no. 38” written on title; sheet of 20th-century paper with note tipped in at front. ***
only edition of an anonymous vernacular play collection, a late survival of a popular medieval performance tradition. These seven plays in Dutch verse dramatize the seven Works of Mercy (from Matthew 35:35-46). They were written and performed in the open air on seven consecutive Sundays, by the amateur Amsterdam literary and theatrical confraternity or “chamber of rhetoric,” known as de Egelantier (eglantine or wild rose), allegedly in order to encourage the citizens of Amsterdam to participate in a lottery for the benefit of the Amsterdam insane asylum (Poll, p. 113).
By the early sixteenth century, every town and many villages of the Low Countries possessed their own “college” or chamber of rhetoric; these were literary confraternities whose origin lay in medieval French-speaking theater groups of Flanders and Brabant, which performed mystery and miracle plays. Endowed with corporate structures, emblematic names (often flowers), and their own blazons and regalia, the chambers of rhetoric became a central cultural institution of Netherlandish life. After the Reformed church came to power in the northern provinces in 1581, it attempted to halt public performances of religious plays, and even to suppress the chambers altogether, but largely failed, the chambers especially of larger towns usually retaining the support of local authorities. Hence one finds such “throwbacks” as the present series of religious plays. A peculiar (to the modern reader) mixture of traditional farce and didactic allegory, it is typical of rhetoricians’ plays, which were usually “absolutely middle-class in tone, and opposed to aristocratic ideas and tendencies in thought” (EB 1911, 8:721), with simple, dramatic plots that were secondary to their educational value. In each play of the present collection an allegorical figure (with a name like “Good Education” or “Brother Love”) knocks on the door of the house of a different stock character – a burgher, an artisan, a farmer, etc. – asking to be fed, or clothed, or given shelter. While these tradesmen comply, a selfish character named “Most of the World” invariably rejects the stranger. Each play has a prologue and an epilogue that provides the moral of the story, explaining that the stranger, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, etc. are all Christ on the Cross (cf. Kalff, pp. 54-55).
Although founded later than many others, at the end of the 15th century, Amsterdam’s de Eglantier was the most prominent Chamber of Rhetoric in the northern Netherlands. Its prestige was enhanced by the infusion of humanist writers and writers from the southern Netherlands who emigrated to the north during the religious wars. The Zeven Spelen is unique in containing the productions of a single city’s Rhetorical Chamber: all other known Renaissance Dutch rhetoricians’ collections contain the productions of several different towns, performed in elaborate literary competitions known as landjuweelen.
Five of the six simple but charming woodcuts illustrating this edition, in a consistent style and apparently by the same wood-engraver (the printer?), show scenes from daily life: a family dining as a servant brings a platter and a mother feeds her baby; a vintner sitting cross-legged on a wine barrel in a medieval square, pouring a welcome drink to a pair of wanderers (while a neighbor quaffs behind him); naked men being clothed, a prisoner in a stockade; a sickbed, with a woman stirring gruel. The final play is illustrated with a smaller cut of the Last Judgment, probably from the printer’s stock. The printer Harmen (or Herman) Jansz Muller (ca. 1540-1617), was also a well-known engraver, from a family of engraver-printers. It is possible that the title woodcut and the five larger cuts were his own work (cf. Thieme-Becker 25:230, who suggested as much).
OCLC locates 5 copies in American libraries (Folger, Newberry, National Gallery of Art, Harvard, and U. Michigan). STCN 844000841; E. W. Moes, De Amsterdamsche boekdrukkers en uitgevers in de zestiende eeuw (1900-1915), I, p. 315, no. 223; Univ. of Amsterdam Library, Catalogus van oudere werken op het gebied der Nederlandsche letteren (1921) no. 6; Scheepers collection (Catalogus van een zeer belangrijke verzameling fraaie en zeldzame boeken der 16e-19e eeuw, 1947) I:66. Cf. G. Kalff, Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche letterkunde in de 16de eeuw, part 2 (1889), pp. 25 & 48-55; Klaas Poll, Over de tooneelspelen van den Leidschen rederijker Jacob Duym (1898), p. 113-14; A. van Dixhoorn, “Chambers of Rhetoric: performative culture and literary sociability in the Early Modern Northern Netherlands,” in The Reach of the Republic of Letters: Literary and Learned Societies in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (2008), 119-148. Item #2981