Home > Uncategorized > Jeroen Bosch, Marten Luther and the shifting boundary of market exchange

Jeroen Bosch, Marten Luther and the shifting boundary of market exchange

I visited the ‘Jeroen Bosch died 500 years ago‘ exposition (go!). Some musings.

At present, there is quite a bit of uneasiness about the limits of the market. Should everything be for sale? Such uneasiness is not new. Jeroen Bosch and Marten Luther, contemporaries, were creative, talented and pious men and shared comparable ideas about devotion, good and evil and, probably, even about the limits of market exchange. Remarkably, the works of Bosch were embraced by the powerful while the ideas of Luther were condemned – even though, not much later, the catholic counter-reformation also rolled back the boundaries of (religious) market exchange – just what Luther wanted. Why this difference? And why did people pay such a lot of attention to the limits of market exchange around 1500?

Lucas_Cranach_(I)_workshop_-_Martin_Luther_(Uffizi)      Bosch  XCF263510 Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) c.1490-1500 (oil on panel) (detail of 29114); by Bosch, Hieronymus (c.1450-1516); 73.5x59.1 cm; National Gallery, London, UK; Netherlandish, out of copyright

The portrait of Jeroen Bosch is a detail from his ‘The mocking of Christ‘. Not everybody is sure if this is a self-portrait. The ‘dog collar’ he wears is a dog collar and was used to prevent dogs from attacks from other, malicious, dogs. The oak leafs on his hat  are probably a sign of a Christian society (the ‘our lady’ brotherhood of which Bosch was a member?) as the whole picture also shows a Muslim and a Jew. The spikes on the collar are look alikes of the thorns: as I see it the very thorns driven into the flesh of Christ are protecting the Bosch from evil.

In 1516 Jeroen Bosch, the famous painter, died in his native city ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In 1520, already, some works of Bosch were sold to the Cardinal of Venice (new high-tech high-resolution reproductions here). Somewhat later, his paintings would adorn even the sleeping room of the mightiest king of Christendom, Phillips II, in the Escorial.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In 1521, already, Luther would, at the Diet of Worms, confront the mighties king of Christendom and father of Phillips II, Charles V as well as nobility from all over the Holy Roman Empire, Luther and his ideas were totally denounced and he had to flee to save his skin.

The difference between the fate of the work of Bosch and the work of Luther is not entirely logical. Bosch and Luther both were devout men who lived in a comparable mental world centered on heaven and hell. The 95 theses of Luther are almost exclusively about the afterlife, purgatory and heaven and hell – just like many of the paintings of Bosch. And the famous devils and monsters painted by Bosch were part of the world of Luther, too: ‘Since his childhood Luther was pestered by devils, evil spirits, and deamons…. Both were medieval men entering a modern world and mastering and inventing a new language. A modern world characterized by a rapid expansion of global and local markets. Only one example of this: the history of tobacco which was already popular in Spain around 1500. Markets increasingly became one of the main organizing institutions of European civilization (though the first 1492 European contact with tobacco was by gift exchange, not market exchange).

Also, both men seem to have shared the idea that personal salvation was not for sale. Around 1500, the sale of indulgences had become a commodified mass market and the main theme of the 95 theses is of course that this was immoral, impious as well as outright inconsistent and stupid (Luther sometimes writes a bit like a ‘Brulljesmacher’). You can’t buy salvation. The church might grant an indulgence – it can’t sell them. An idea consistent with the post 1540 counter-reformation Catechism of the Catholic Church. During the counter-reformation catholic church implicitly conceded (imvho) that Luther was right about this and rolled back the boundaries of the market, at least in religious life. Luther was, before 1517, by the way not the only one to criticize the selling of indulgences. And Jeroen Bosch seem to have shared this mindset at least to an extent. He was an honest member of the devotional Brotherhood of Our Lady (Illustre Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap, since 1318) and did for instance not charge for his work in the cathedral of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the building of which was started in 1366 but which was only finished during the life of Bosch. Do not misunderstand this: it was not the act of providing great art for free which was important, but the mindset and piousness which lead to such work which count. Not everything is and should be driven by the ‘propensity to truck, barter and exchange’, to quote Adam Smith (protestants of course state that even pious works are not enough). In a world of expanding markets, the tension between non-market behavior and market behavior must have increased, surely when, as in the case of indulgences, mass marketing and commodification of religious practices became the norm. Bosch as well as Luther actively resisted this marketization. As the catholic Church itself would do too, quite soon. The boundaries of market exchange were clarified and rolled back.

Which lead to the question why (the work of) Bosch was very rapidly canonized while the work and the person of Luther were excommunicated.

This is where, while preparing the blogpost, the jaw-dropping started.

The brotherhood of Our Lady still exists. The present Dutch king, Willem Alexander (protestant) and his wife Maxima (catholic) are members, just like all dutch kings and queens back to about 1810 (it has been a ecumenical brother- and sisterhood since 1629). A distant relative of Willem Alexander, William of Orange, the most important Dutch aristocrat of his time and leader of the Dutch Revolt against Charles V and Phillips II, was a member too. He even owned one of the masterpieces of Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights. Full disclosure: during his teenage years in Brussels William of Orange grew up together with Phillips II; he even named his first son after Phillips. When William chose the protestant side in the Dutch Revolt (while staying catholic) Philips II forfeited his belongings and seized among other things the Bosch painting, which was directly brought to Spain. At this time, the brotherhood of Our Lady has become very popular and had next to core members from, mainly, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch also ‘peripheral’ members (15.000, among whom many people from the entourage of the Habsburgs) who donated an amount of money to become a member and who received an indulgence is return. Exactly the kind of exchange criticised by Luther. The money was used to help building the cathedral of ‘s-Hertogenbosch – but the counter-reformation would put an end to this and the brotherhood would become a local affair, once again. Luther criticized the powerfull. Jeroen Bosch stressed individual piousness – but did not attack the powerful in an explicit way. Which made all the difference.

Fast forward: during the last decades neoliberal policies led to the marketization and commodification of  ever more markets (privatization, the labor market, financial markets). At the same time, for instance European capital markets were and are denationalized to quite an extent (pension savings!) while China became a dominating player in the international goods markets. In Japan, you even can rent a friend (the ‘sharing economy’?). The list is much longer. As in the time of Bosch and Luther, there is a backlash against the extreme extension of the market: young people are voting en masse for pre-neoliberals like Sanders and Corbyn. Big Pharma seems to have had its heyday. Financial markets are re-regulated. Rightly or wrongly, central banks – public institutions! – are counted upon to guide the economy. According to Mark Twain, ‘history rhymes’. It might well be that soon, neo-liberal institutions like the IMF will enact their own ‘counter-reformation’ and for instance start to (re-)emphasize the importance of government investment (look here for the IMF). Which is important: one lesson from the above is that institutions like the church and even brotherhoods often have life spans which are much longer than those of states. No modern Luther has yet risen to the fore while people like Sanders and Corbyn are facing Luther like excommunication. But boundaries are starting to shift.






  1. March 29, 2016 at 4:56 am

    Historical perspective is not popular today for economists or most other social scientists for that matter. How what’s happening today can be assessed and understood without it seems impossible to me.

  2. March 29, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for this, Merijn: very interesting. It is good for the history of continental Europe to get a hearing here, for it doesn’t, much, in Anglo-American circles. I have valued discussion of Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation for much the same reason.

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