A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment

Cunegonde’s Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of the Enlightenment
Benjamin J. Kaplan
Yale University Press  312pp  £19.99

Micro-history is now vital to shedding light on the historical world of conflict and deviance and the subject really flourishes with the benefits of this approach. Characters come to life and individuals involved in such histories speak and debate issues that historians blandly assume they know about or take for granted. This is one such micro-history and what an enthralling and resonant story it is. Benjamin Kaplan has recreated a lost, yet utterly compelling, world from scouring very obscure archives in pursuit of a narrative with wide-ranging implications. It concerns a serving woman, Cunegonde, who is in some manner mentally handicapped. This makes her the tool of some vested interests who are persuaded to challenge the religious status quo in the German-Dutch borderlands of 18th-century Europe. As such, the story undermines received historical wisdom about the reach of religious toleration some way into the supposed Age of Enlightenment. Local and familial arrangements to religiously ‘live and let live’ become destabilised and contested by one incident that sparks off the nearest western Europe comes to a regional religious war in the 18th century. From a situation where Catholics and Calvinists lived peaceably, the story uncovers some individuals who wanted to reignite conflict and claim supremacy for their own religion, precisely at the time when many antagonisms had been supposedly settled. 

Cunegonde was persuaded to snatch a baby that was the issue of a mixed marriage and to carry it back over the border from Calvinist Vaals in the United Provinces to Catholic Aachen so that it could be baptised in the ‘true’ faith. This act infuriated Dutch Calvinists in the area and Cunegonde was herself arrested and returned to the United Provinces. From here, a rescue mission was staged to snatch her back. The story of kidnapping and counter kidnapping spread like wildfire, provoking various violent incidents that left both Catholics and Calvinists on both sides of the border scared and uneasy in areas where they were a minority. While those most responsible for the episode appear to have escaped justice, poor Cunegonde was exhibited in the pillory by the Dutch authorities. This may have assisted with ending the incident, but Kaplan makes it clear that those more culpable for this challenge to tolerance should be judged more harshly by history.

Micro-histories are valuable tools to think with, not simply about wider historical concepts but also about our own times. Benjamin Kaplan’s enthralling book makes us think deeply about borders, what they meant to early modern individuals and what they mean to us. In an age when these are both challenged and malleable, this book tells us how 18th-century people used them as ways of thinking about their neighbours, about ideas of danger and safety and ways of doing justice. Yet these were also capable of being arbitrarily crossed and transgressed in pursuit of aims and goals both laudable and questionable.

David Nash is Professor in History at Oxford Brookes University.

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