A Bishop’s Tale

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Publisher’s Synopsis

This absorbing book takes us back to the busy, colorful world of a Netherlandish Catholic bishop and his flock during the age of Reformation. It is drawn from a rare journal, one of many kept by Mathias Hovius from 1596 to 1620 while he was Archbishop of Mechelen (part of modern Belgium). Elegantly written, the book focuses not only on the life of Mathias Hovius but also on key events and characters of his time; it portrays “lived religion,” so that we see people from all sides getting involved in the constant negotiation of what it meant to be a good Catholic. The authors recreate the eventful life and times of Archbishop Hovius—a world in which other-believers were outright heretics, the nagging fevers of old age were the result of unbalanced bodily humors, and a corruptible earth rested motionless at the center of the universe while God sat exalted on a throne just beyond the fixed stars. The authors also tell the stories of monks, nuns, priests, millers, pilgrims, peasant women, saints, town and village councils, and ordinary parishioners; each story, fascinating in its own right, illustrates a major theme in the history of the Catholic Reformation. In the end Harline and Put have painted a picture teeming with life and energy.

Author’s Note

You don’t expect to write a book starring a bishop if what interests you most is the religion of ordinary people. But it’s not easy to find documents about those sorts of people, and so on my first research trip to Belgium it hit me that maybe a good place to look for clues about their sort of religion was in the papers of some busy bishop, at least the new Counter-Reformation bishop who if he was doing what he was supposed to be doing should have been rubbing shoulders with more sorts of people than anyone else in his world was.

Sure, bishops had been studied forever, but what if they were studied not so much for their own sake but as a way to get at everyone else around them? And so I started sniffing around various busy-bishop-containing archives with my new Belgian friend, Eddy Put, who kindly showed me the way, including to the archive of the archdiocese of Mechelen, which was rumored to have all sorts of promising documents but also an archivist who had perfected the art of the closed-door policy. But because the archivist knew Eddy, he reluctantly let me in too, and asked what we could possibly want.

Eddy told him, which prompted a mumble about why in the world an American needed to come study a Belgian bishop, but he obligingly disappeared behind a door and brought out a big pile of documents—including the undisputed champion of the pile, a fat journal kept by Mathias Hovius between 1617 and 1620. We were awestruck. It was just the sort of thing I was looking for, full of information about people great and small. But I felt guilty too: Eddy had gone to all the trouble of showing me around and now here I was the beneficiary. So right on the daring spot, I found myself asking Eddy, whom I still hardly knew, whether he’d maybe like to write something about the bishop together. And he just as daringly said yes.

That rash decision turned out to be one of the best I ever made. We worked together just fine, maybe most especially because we had different native languages—so whenever we disagreed, we could simply write things the way we wanted in our particular version of the story: I in English, and he in Dutch. But we ended up mostly agreeing, and the process of hashing everything out like that made the book(s) better than if either one of us had written alone. And by the way, the full story of the archivist is recounted in the book’s “Word After.”


An Editor’s Choice Book at, for 2000

Honorable Mention for the Roland H. Bainton Prize, Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, 2001

“The most amazing book since Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages.”

-Heiko Oberman, late Regents’ Professor of History, University of Arizona

“The authors have given us a book of actual history that reads like the very best historical fiction. Harline and Put’s A Bishop’s Tale is the history book of the year—and perhaps simply the book of the year.”

Weekly Standard

“An extraordinary work of historical biography… Here’s a book to take you out of your skin and show you what it’s like to be a kind of person you may never have imagined before….written in a style that is as detailed and compelling as the best historical fiction.”, Editor’s Choice 2000

“Recalls landmark works of narrative history such as The Cheese and the Worms and The Return of Martin Guerre…. Practically every page is as encrusted with detail as a jeweled medieval reliquary.”

Boston Globe

“Delightful…. I know of no other book which conveys so vividly and, in the end, so reliably, the sheer range and rigor of the Northern European Counter-Reformation in its most militant phase,…but the learning is carried lightly. I read this book on a series of gruesome long-haul plane flights, and was sorry when I turned the last page. Few works of church history could hold my attention in such inauspicious circumstances.”

-Eamon Duffy, Commonweal

“A brilliant view of his life and times…on the level of Natalie Zemon Davis, Steven Ozment, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie… riveting… compelling…. Highly recommended; general readers, all student levels.”


“Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath has proved a surprising bestseller. This work, also published by Yale, and similar in subject is, if anything, even better.”

BBC History Magazine

“The characters alone…make this book a delight. But the authors have done more than prepare a diverting comic tale. They have succeeded in bringing to life a place and a period that are in many respects utterly strange, and making both comprehensible and humanly familiar…. It is elegantly written, beautifully made, and will be of use to the student of the period, just as it is engrossing for the general reader.”

Catholic Herald (UK)

“Fascinating…. It reads like a novel but is supported by over fifty pages of sources, mostly unpublished, and is an absolute delight.”

The Expository Times (UK)

“The reading of this estimable book should not be confined to historians…. The book, overall, stands comparison with Dr Eamon Duffy’s great work, The Voices of Morebath. One cannot give higher praise than that.”

Mentor Magazine

“As absorbing and digestible as a novel, but also a work of professional scholarship…. One is entertained as well as educated about details of the history and the mores of the age of church reformation.”

-Key Reporter, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa

Leaves “all of us the richer in understanding.”

First Things

“What kept me glued to the pages was the realization that I was looking into a mirror.”

-Bishop William Swing, Diocesan Newspaper

“An exciting narrative…marked by wit and a fast pace…. The stories entertain as they educate…. A historical feast.”

Christian Century

“Good academic histories too often make for amazingly dull reading. To the short list of exceptions for early modern Europe…add A Bishop’s Tale…. Although their account may read like a hard‑to‑put‑down historical novel, the source notes demonstrate that Harline and Put are thoroughgoing archive rats…. It proves by example that a good academic history can also tell a good story.”

Wilson Quarterly

“Superb writing…. A truly captivating and lively tale.”

Library Journal

“A particularly vivid picture of the ecclesiastical life of early seventeenth-century Mechelen…. A remarkable task of reconstruction.”

Heythrop Journal (UK)

“A wonderful account…. The work’s prose is impeccable. Its beauty is due at least in part to the plain, crystalline way in which the authors tell their tale.”

Word & World

“An elegantly written and absorbing microhistory….It brings to mind The Return of Martin Guerre and The Cheese and the Worms….Truly remarkable.”

-Carlos Eire, Yale University

“A lively and engaging book…. They set each scene deftly, spin their yarns well, and keep the pace moving…. No other book of which I am aware takes one so immediately into the life of a seventeenth-century bishop or the world of early modern ecclesiastical politics and administration…. Enjoyable and illuminating…eminently readable…sparkling.”

American Historical Review

“An important and fascinating biography…. A masterfully fascinating account of what might easily have been a dry tale of conflict…. This is a work of the highest value. The authors have succeeded in telling an engaging story, something increasingly rare among writers of history.”

Sixteenth Century Journal

“A lively book, bursting with memorable characters reminiscent of a Bruegel painting, and solidly grounded in archival and published scholarship…. The reader is treated to a rich tableau painted with exquisite skill.”

Catholic Historical Review

“Mesmerizing…deserves a wide readership not simply because the stories illuminate the social and religious history of an understudied region of early modern Europe, but because Harline and Put tell them with such care and vibrancy.”

Renaissance Quarterly

“This absorbing volume provides the reader with the eyes and ears and the cultural and religious sensitivities of a participant in the colorful life of the Netherlandish church of another age.”


“Without a doubt this is the best book I’ve ever read on such a topic. It reads like a novel. The authors have that rare ability to bring images alive.”

Canvas Television (Belgium)

“Le Roy Ladurie and Ginzburg: those great names keep coming to mind while reading this book…and I assure you that the comparison is no exaggeration. For A Bishop’s Tale is a monument of narrative history, a sweep-you-off-your-feet reconstruction….an irresistibly lovely book…a full-bodied Bruegelesque fair.”

De Volkskrant (Netherlands)

“This documented historical study reads like a novel… Extraordinarily evocative.”

Tijdschrift voor Theologie

“This is a wonderful book, beautifully written, insightful and often moving. Students and scholars, clergy and lay people can learn from it and enjoy it…. One puts down this book with a sympathetic understanding of an early modern bishop and the challenges that he faced.”

Journal of Ecclesiastical History