One of the fascinating elements of the Dutch Revolt is the development of "Beggars' Songs" - a curious form of folk song that ranged from political protest and patriotic nationalism to religious identity and even to proto-historical epics. Thanks to the widespread growth of the printing press in the Low Countries, these Geuzenliederen have been saved in good numbers for posterity.
The term Geuzenliederen appears to have taken root in the 1570s. By that time, the epithet of Geuzen (Beggars) had been firmly reappropriated from a dismissive insult uttered by Charles de Berlaymont, advisor to Margaret of Parma (Phillips II’s appointed governess of the Low Countries), into a proud, unambiguous statement of local political independence. Though that transformation was first made by the mass of lesser nobles who made up the majority of signatories to the Compromise of Nobles (and thus, the direct subjects of Berlaymont’s insult), it was helped along tremendously by the popular culture of the day.
So, calling the burgeoning category of these political-protest songs “Beggars’ Songs” was an easy and natural evolution.
A History of Beggars’ Songbooks
While 1581 marked the publication of the most well known early collection in the form of the Nieuw Geuzenliedboek (the New Beggars’ Songbook), these songs had been circulating through the Low Countries for several years by that point. They had first been collected in print in c.1574-1577.
The form proved to be wildly popular and continued in print – with song selections changing and evolving over the decades – until the 1680s (Hermans, Theo. A Literary History of the Low Countries. Suffolk: Camden House, 2009: 165-167.)
Types of Beggars’ Songs
As mentioned earlier in the article, he subject matter of these songs is remarkably diverse. They were largely set to existing, well-known melodies: taken from popular folk songs and metrical psalters.
Political protests – particularly against the administration of the Duke of Alva following the first phase of the revolt in 1566 – were a popular topic. In particular, Alva’s “tenth penny” tax was the subject of hundreds of songs in and of itself (Pettegree, Andrew. Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005: 69-72).
Continuing the theme of protest were the large numbers of sharply anti-Catholic – often using biting satire – songs. As a category, the use of popular songs by the Calvinist Dutch set them apart. There isn’t an easy equivalent in Catholic music of the era, as their subjects matters were often solemn remembrances of what was being lost since the Reformation.
One additional category would be the proto-nationalistic propaganda pieces. Extolling the qualities (and later, the life) or Prince William of Orange was a common variant, as we will see, but all manner of other events could be adapted into song. The successful defense of the Dutch in the 1622 seige of Bergen op Zoom became a popular song:
“The Willhemus:” The Most Famous of All Beggars’ Songs
Of all the Beggars’ Songs, the “Willhelmus” became so popular it was in time enshrined as the national anthem of the Netherlands (and remains so to this day). Written sometime around 1568, its likely author (according to the folklore surrounding it) was Philips of Marnix, a Dutch noble and statesman in the employ of William of Orange.
While the intricacies and history surrounding the song deserve an article of their own, the high points are as follows. Like many other of the Beggars’ Songs, Marnix wrote his own lyrics to an existing tune – in this case an ironic (unknown if intentional) use of a French Catholic song ridiculing the failed Huguenot (French Calvinists) siege of Chartres in 1568. Its complex structure is comprised of fifteen stanzas. The first letters of each stanza form an acrostic spelling out “Willem van Nassov.”
Links and References
- Wikipedia article on The Willhelmus
- University of Amsterdam Humanities article on the Beggars’ Songs (in Dutch)
- Lyrics to the Beggars’ Songs (from the University of Amsterdam, in Dutch)
- Beggars’ Songs category in the Dutch Song Database (in Dutch)
- Folkhorn – Dutch and Flemish folk music from 1400-1900
- Beggars’ Songs lyrics at the Geuzen Project