Drownings in the Dark: The Politics of Secret Executions in Antwerp, 1557-1565


  • Isabel Casteels KU Leuven




Antwerp, executions, secrecy, public sphere, religious dissidence


Between 1557 and 1565, the Antwerp city council carried out almost all of its executions of religious dissidents by drowning them in secret. This presents a puzzle to current historiography, as historians of capital punishment have identified the public and spectacular nature of early modern executions as their defining elements. To understand these secret executions, this article traces contemporary notions of secrecy and openness using a wide range of sources, including chronicles, martyrologies, correspondences, and bailiff accounts. It argues that in this period, the concept of secrecy had more to do with closing off space than with hiding knowledge, and that both hiding and showing were important strategies in the performing of executions. The authorities did not control these; rather, by negotiating the dynamics of hiding and showing executions, the central authorities, local magistrates, and the religious groups whose members were being executed constructed their meaning and effect. As such, the case of the secret executions in Antwerp nuances the current paradigm of executions as public events orchestrated by authorities to display sovereign power.


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Author Biography

Isabel Casteels, KU Leuven

Isabel Casteels studied history at the University of Amsterdam and is currently a research fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders. Her research interests combine the fields of cultural and anthropological history and the history of knowledge in the early modern Low Countries. She has published on religious rituals in merchant guilds in Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis (2019) and on knowledge circulation in Enkhuizen in Tijdschrift Holland (2019). She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on the agency of audiences attending executions during the Dutch Revolt under the supervision of Violet Soen and Johan Verberckmoes at the Early Modern History Research Group of the KU Leuven.





How to Cite

Casteels, I. (2021). Drownings in the Dark: The Politics of Secret Executions in Antwerp, 1557-1565. Early Modern Low Countries, 5(1), 75–97. https://doi.org/10.51750/emlc10008