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Refreinen (I) (Refrains)
Anna Bijns

1528, poetry
Bijns Cover Refreinen

The now common practice of poets to collect their poems and publish them to sell to readers only began in the 1560s in Dutch literature, more than a century after the invention of the printing press.

It was the literary innovators of the “early renaissance”, Lucas d’Heere, Jan Baptist Houwaert and Jan van der Noot, who were the first to publish their own volumes in this period. 

Nevertheless, the first Dutch-language collection appeared during the lifetime of a poet in 1528. The title of this book, published in Antwerp, reads: This is a clean and pure little book / containing many beautiful artistic refrains […] / very well made by the honourable and ingenious maiden Anna Bijns […]. The poet in question was, thus, a poetess, Anna Bijns (1493-1575), and the 23 poems that comprise the book are, bar one, all “refrains”. The refrain was the most important form of poetry at the time and was systematically practiced by the poetry and theatre companies that dominated the Dutch literary scene in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the so-called “Chambers of Rhetoric”. With its per strophe identical last line, which could express the poem’s theme concisely, the refrain worked perfectly as spoken word art to be read out in the chambers before a listening public. Refrain texts were also collected by enthusiasts for their own use and copied in manuscript form.

Approximately 2,300 refrains have survived from this period, including 220 by Anna Bijns. This Antwerp schoolteacher utterly mastered the rules of the genre. Her refrains are among the best ever written due to the expressive use of language, the musicality of her rhymes and rhythms, her personal engagement and affective rhetoric. With so much talent, Anna Bijns would have made the perfect artistic leader of one of these chambers. But in the male-dominated world of the rhetoricians, she would have been denied an official position. But Anna Bijns proved herself to be a true rhetorician at the last. Thanks to the printing press, she was the most famous among them.

The compilation and printing of one’s own poetry was considered by the Chambers of Rhetoric to be a form of self-glorification at the expense of the companies. Since she was not allowed to be a member of one, this was not an impediment for Anna Bijns. Furthermore, the poet received much admiration for her work from the friars of her local monastery. Unlike many rhetoricians, she took a clear stand against the emerging Reformation. The friars, who knew their way around a printing press, did not let this opportunity pass. They published three refrain collections by Anna Bijns in, respectively, 1528, 1548 and 1567. These only contained her religious and moralising poems and constitute, therefore, merely a selection from a wider oeuvre that included excellent romantic and comic refrains. The first two volumes in particular were intended as a fierce defence against Luther and his “heretical” followers. Employing terrifying images and devastating comparisons, Anna Bijns painted Luther and his accomplices as the devil’s henchmen and put the blame for the conflict squarely at their feet. The three collections were reprinted until sometime in the seventeenth century. A Latin translation of the first appeared in 1529, which brought Anna Bijns fame beyond the Netherlands.