Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Michael Pye. Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age. New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2021. xii + 273 pp. $28.95 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-64313-777-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Raingard Esser, University of Groningen.


The title chosen by the US publisher of the present book (as compared to the slightly more prosaic title of the European edition, Antwerp: The Glory Years) sets the tone for this panoramic survey of one of Europe’s most important early modern cities. It indicates both the superlatives and the nostalgia attached to this lively portrait of the metropolis. Michael Pye, a British historian, journalist, and author currently living in Amsterdam, provides his readers with a colourful kaleidoscope of elements that came together in Antwerp and that shaped and were in turn shaped by the city. This is skillfully done through a series of vignettes which focus on its highly international inhabitants. Many of those inhabitants were newcomers from elsewhere in Europe seizing Antwerp’s opportunities to accumulate riches for themselves, for their families, friends and clients. They also generated wealth, prestige, and values for and in Antwerp, which thrived on its image as a centre of creativity and as a way of life. The stories and their protagonists, whom Pye presents, are based on a mine of rich and diverse sources very often from outside the city, which lost many of its archives during the violent mutiny of Habsburg troops in 1576.

Pye elegantly weaves together information from letters, paintings, contemporary histories, novellas, travel accounts, schoolbooks, and songs to provide a series of portraits of famous and less famous men and women who lived, worked, took refuge, and died in the city. Some of them moved on after a temporary stay. His protagonists are property developers such as Gilbert van Schoonbeke, printer/publishers such as Christoffel Plantijn, the female painter Catharina van Hemessen, the language teacher Peeter Heyns, the African servant Katharina (no surname given), early modern adventurers such as Gaspar Ducci who tried his hand in various more or less successful enterprises, and merchant families such as the Portuguese Jews Mendes, who operated in an international network all over Europe and beyond. The common thread in these vignettes is the portrayal of a city in which “everything goes”, where large-scale immigration brought new skills, new products, new markets, new knowledge, and new knowledge sites. The precondition of these opportunities, in Pye’s reading, was religious tolerance (in the early modern sense of the concept) and restraint in political and administrative intervention from urban and religious authorities and the Habsburg rulers of the time.

These stories of the “Golden Years” are harnessed to a chronology which spans the late fifteenth to the second half of the sixteenth century or, more specifically, to the Iconoclastic Fury (1566) and its aftermath characterized by the arrival of the “arch-villain” of Low Countries history, the “Iron Duke” of Alva as new Governor General. Given that the underlying message of Antwerp’s success delivered in Pye’s story is the city’s economic, religious and cultural openness, this end-date – rather gloomily titled “Antwerp is lost” (thus the title of Chapter 14) – might make sense in the light of the tightening rule of the Habsburg regime in the Southern Low Countries, which had already been inaugurated by the highly contested diocesan restructuring that the Spanish king Philip II had instigated in 1559. This, however, is a rather one-sided view of the city’s fortunes, which overplays the role of the confessional regime imposed by the Habsburg authorities and underplays Antwerp’s continuing influence as an international entrepot and global player both in the later decades of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth century. In a way Pye’s chronology continues and even predates an older narrative of Antwerp’s perceived decline. Earlier historiography up to the end of the twentieth century had diagnosed an “ongelukseeuw” – a century of disaster – for the period from 1585 onwards, when the city was retaken by Habsburg’s forces after a five-year period of a Calvinist city council, and the closure of Antwerp’s economic sinew, the river Schelde, for international trade. Much has been written in recent years to redress this narrative, which had also been framed in the context of Amsterdam’s rise as an international powerhouse. The effects of the exodus of skilled artisans and merchants from Antwerp to Amsterdam in the wake of 1585 and the continuing contribution to high-calibre science and arts, for instance in mathematics and architecture, in the Southern Netherlands, have been reassessed emphasizing Antwerp’s enduring role as a centre of trade and knowledge production under Habsburg auspices well into the seventeenth century. (For an overview of the historiography of Antwerp, see Raingard Esser, “Antwerpens ‘Altweibersommer’: Wirtschaft und Kultur in der Scheldestadt zwischen ‘Fall’ (1585) und ‘Frieden’ (1648),” in Wolfenbütteler Barock-Nachrichten 43, 1, 2016, pp. 65-84.)

In Pye’s reading, however, the factors that contributed to the endurance of Antwerp’s role as an international entrepot and cultural centre – the networks of the Catholic Church and, more specifically, the Jesuits operating on the forefront of the Counter-Reformation – have been largely ignored in his book. Antwerp’s printing presses became smaller and less numerous than their Amsterdam rivals, but in 1572 Christoffel Plantijn managed to secure the monopoly to print all breviaries and other liturgical texts for the Habsburg empire, including the large and increasing market in Latin America. Given that religious texts still made up by the far largest number of print products in the seventeenth century, this was a highly lucrative concession.  Also missing are the landmarks of the Catholic agenda of the city, such as the Cathedral and the many religious houses and churches, which formed the fora as well as the financial back-up for much of the exquisite art, for which Antwerp’s artistic community was internationally acclaimed. In Pye’s reading, however, these are much more orchestrated achievements in support of the Habsburg regime and the Counter-Reformation programme of the Catholic Church, rather than the free-ranging enterprises which characterized the earlier decades of the sixteenth century.

The second outdated paradigm that Pye perpetuates in this story centres around the incompatibility of strong guilds and successful entrepreneurship and merchant enterprises. He repeatedly refers to the weakness of Antwerp’s guilds at the time, which allowed for unrestricted market enterprises, new products, and new methods of production unrestrained by rules and regulations installed to keep the status quo of artisanal standards. This perspective ignores the creative power of guilds, again, particularly in the realm of the fine arts including high-quality silverware, top-of-the-range wooden furniture, tapestries, and other luxury products, which were a signature of Antwerp’s trademark as a centre of innovative high-end products. (On the role of early modern guilds, particularly in Antwerp, see the studies of Antwerp historian Bert de Munck, in Karel Davids & Bert de Munck, eds., Innovation and Creativity in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Cities, Ashgate 2014. See also de Munck, Guilds, Labour and the Urban Body Politic: Fabricating Community in the Southern Netherlands, 1300-1800, Routledge 2017.)

The neglect of more recent literature on guilds and their role as guardians of quality is all the more striking since Pye is otherwise well aware of the recent trends in the historiography around Antwerp. His footnotes refer to studies written in many European academic languages, which in turn, demonstrates the international relevance of this very special early modern European metropolis.

What is perhaps not surprising for a book written for the wider anglophone market is that there is considerable coverage of the role of Antwerp in Anglo-Flemish relations and particularly of the agenda of English reformers such as William Tyndale, whose New Testament in English was printed in the city. Overall, however, international relations in and with Antwerp are well-balanced ranging from Lisbon to Istanbul, from Jerusalem to Mexico, from Cologne to Seville.

The composition of the text as a series of vignettes leads to some overlaps, repetition, and jumbled chronology. Sometimes, the story seems just to peter out (see, for instance, pp. 40-41). There are some musings which perhaps are meant as impulses to reflect on current debates, and it might be in this light that the rejection of guilds as stumbling blocks for free enterprises could be seen, thus reflecting more on the neo-liberal agenda of contemporary British politics than on power relations in early modern Antwerp. But, overall, this is a very readable book, which is richly illustrated with well-known and some lesser-known images of the city and its illustrious inhabitants.


Raingard Esser is professor of early modern history at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Her main areas of interest are early modern migration and border studies, and her recent publications include “Norwich’s ‘Disorderly Maids’: Immigrant Women and the Institutions in Early Modern England”, in Raingard Esser & Anita Boele, eds., Nieuwe Tijdingen:Genderpatronen in vroegmoderne (Leuven, 2021), and “Niederländische und Wallonische Migrantinnen in Frühneuzeitlichen Exulantengemeinden”, in Victoria Asschenfeld, et al, eds., Die Neustadt Hanau: Ein Drehkreuz im Europäischen Kunst- und Wissenstransfer (Sandstein Verlag, 2022).

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