Anna Bijns  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Anna Bijns (1493 in Antwerp, Belgium – 1575 in Antwerp) was a Dutch writer, schoolteacher and nun who taught until she was 80 years old.

Biography

The elder daughter of a tailor and rederijker, she opened a school in Antwerp with her brother Martin, following the death of her father and marriage of her sister. Anna Bijns was one of the rare women to be part of the brotherhood of instructors. The Franciscans encouraged her to publish her work, Chambres de Rhétoriques (French, literally chambers of rhetorics). She is subsequently recognized by the Renaissance Humanists, who consider her the best-selling Dutch author of the 16th century after Erasmus. Her work consists of religious and moralizing poems, polemic refrains against Martin Luther, whom she considered an instrument of evil, love poems and various satires. As a woman, she was unable to become a member of a chamber of rhetoric like her father, but is possibly the young maid who recited a poem at a drama festival in Brussels in 1512. Her first published work was in 1528, entitled This is a pure and beautiful booklet of refrains by the honorable and ingenious maid, Anna Bijns. It was reprinted 5 times and translated into latin in 1529. Like Erasmus, her career thanks mostly to the success of the printing press. Considered the spearhead of the Counter-Reformation in the Netherlands, "she really initiated that modern speech which Filips van Marnix adopted and made classical in the next generation".

Anna Bijns’ Opposition to Marriage

During the Middle Ages, women in society had the freedom to join guilds, practice professions, learn skills, etc. They were considered almost as equal to men. However, things started changing around the beginning of the 14th century when women’s economic and social status began to dwindle. They were not allowed to work crafts, and a woman’s main work was reduced to maintaining the household and serving her man. Fortunately, things started shifting around the beginning of the 16th century when the number of single women started increasing rapidly, and many writers began showing the real image of marriage. A lot of them pointed out that in order for a marriage to be happy there should be mutual affection and respect between partners. However, the fact that tradition forbade a woman from choosing her own spouse easily led to her being subordinate to him. Therefore, according to those writers, happy marriage was nothing more than a mirage.

One of the most ardent defenders of the idea that a woman should not be subservient to her man was Anna Bijns. What is unique about Bijns is that she was among those women of her time who never got married and, most importantly, never felt the need to do so. Seeing how unhappy her sister’s marriage was, she firmly opposed society’s pressure to tie the knot. What is more, she even wrote a poem in which she urged young girls to remain single and showed them reasons why not to marry. This poem appeared in an anthology which was published at the end of her life.

“Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.” This is the message Anna Bijns is trying to convey through her controversial poem. Although at certain points the writing sounds quite obscene and crude, it cannot be denied that the poem is a very courageous attempt to go against the ossified views of the 16th century society, which tended to ostracize a woman if she did not marry. Anna Bijns readily criticizes the old saying “Where’s your spouse? Where’s your honor?” She sees marriage as a burden which prevents a woman from flourishing and slowly leads her to physical and mental death. In the author’s opinion, while the married girl becomes a slave to her husband, the single one “is lord as well as lady”. The latter, Bijns points out, has control over her own life and does not depend on anyone. Moreover, the single lady has the freedom to act as she pleases and not try to live up to someone else’s expectations. “Freedom is such a blessed thing,” Bijns says. By equalizing marriage to “betrayal” and “condemnation to a very awful fate,” the author continuously tries to convince her female readers that if they want to be happy and prosperous they should stay away from marriage and avoid getting easily allured by men who promise to build “airy castles” for them.

“Cruel marriage!” is the expression Anna Bijns uses to describe the act of holy matrimony so zealously revered by others. She openly derides those naïve, in her opinion, girls who jump into marriage without putting much thought into their actions and easily calls them “sluts” and “tramps”. Back then married women were regarded as role-models by society. However, in Bijns’ views they were embodiment of frivolity and stupidity, and the author does not hide her disrespect for them. Even bigger is her detestation towards the men in society who, in her views, do nothing but drink voraciously and needlessly abuse their wives. With her poem Anna Bijns gives a very sober look on family life. She firmly opposed those moralists and religious leaders of the 15th and 16th century, who agreed that marriage was the best opportunity for both men and women to find fulfillment and happiness. Unlike them, Anna Bijns saw marriage as nothing more than constant yelling and fighting.

Anna Bijns’ poem stands out among the other texts of that time dealing with unhappy marriages, because the author does not fear to attack even the most delicate matters. Although some may criticize her for the fact that she goes against something she has never experienced herself, Bijns’ work undoubtedly gave impetus to the resurrection of women’s rights and freedom.

Sources

  • This is a pure and beautiful booklet of refrains by the honorable and ingenious maid, Anna Bijns.(Antwerpen 1528).
  • Refrains, three collections of poems by Anna Bijns published in 1528, 1548 and 1567.
  • Refrains, A. Bogaers e.a. ed. (Rotterdam 1875).
  • New Refrains, W.J.A. Jonckbloet e.a. ed. (Gent 1886).
  • Unpublished poems, A. Soens, ed. Leuvensche Bijdragen 4 (1902) 199-368.
  • Schoon ende suverlijc boecxken, L. Roose ed. 2 delen (Leuven 1987) [facsimile editie].
  • Women's work (’t Is al vrouwenwerk). Refreinen, H. Pleij ed.(Amsterdam 1987).
  • A few poems by Anna Bijns translated into English by Kristiaan Arcke (p 160) in Women's Writing from the Low Countries 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology on Google books, by Lia van Gemert, Hermina Joldersma, Olga van Marion, Dieuwke van der Poel, Riek Schenkerveld-van der Dussen, ISBN 9789089641298




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