The little town of Thorn looks quaint and tranquil today with its cute white houses and buildings. Known as the “witte stadje” (white town), it has a thorny past and an elitist pedigree.
Located in the province of Limburg, a stone’s throw from Belgium, the Abbey of Thorn was highly regarded in the German Empire for centuries for its independence and for its powerful women.
The Abbey was a medieval tax haven ruled by wealthy, single, noblewomen who were thought to have been a group of religious nuns, dedicated to an ascetic, religious way of life and helping the poor. Not quite. They were not like the nuns from The Sound of Music.
Thorn was born
It all started around the year 990. It’s unclear which wealthy patrons founded the Abbey of Thorn. There are two theories surrounding its birth, the first being that it was established by Countess Hilswind in 902 for herself and her daughter. The second theory is that it was founded by Bishop/Count Ansfried of Utrecht and his wife Hereswint in 925 for their daughter who became the first abbess of the convent. Depending on which story you believe, the daughter’s name was either Beatrix or Benedicta.
This is probably the same basic story that became befuddled over time. Another take is that a Benedictine order built a Romanesque church in 992, indicating the year the Abbey was founded. That story, allegedly, is based on falsified documents from the Middle Ages. A Monk’s monkey business, no doubt.
Until the 10th century, the area around Thorn was mostly marshland. A Roman road ran along the soggy fields from Maastricht to Nijmegen making the Abbey accessible to commerce. In 1007, Thorn was granted the right to charge market and customs duties by Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, also known as Saint Henry the Exuberant or Jolly Henry.
In the 12th century, the ladies broke away from the Benedictine religious order and became a free secular ladies’ abbey. They even stated in a 1310 document that they were actually never part of that religious order, although they did enjoy the Benedictine’s alcoholic beverage made from a variety of herbs and spices.
Thorn developed into a miniature convent ruled by an abbess and up to 20 ladies of noble birth. The female gentry brought with them money and all their earthly possessions. The abbey became an elitist ladies club. No poor women allowed. The convent accepted only young women whose parents and grandparents up to the great-great-grandparents (on both sides) were of noble birth. Therefore banning impoverished nobles and aristocrats.
In theory, these canonesses were allowed to stay during the day in their homes and at night were required to sleep in the convent. Soon this rule was abandoned and the ladies stayed in their comfortable homes 24/7, where they also kept servants. The abbess lived in a castle.
Not any old abbey, a city-state
“Imperial immediacy” was bestowed on the abbey in 1292 by King Adolf of Nassau. Adolf was King of the Germans and King of the Romans within the Holy Roman Empire that included most of western and central Europe. He was also Emperor-Elect of the Empire, but not Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire because he was not crowned by the Pope. Why go all the way to Rome when you can be crowned by the Archbishop of Cologne in nearby Aachen? Besides, he already had enough titles.
The recognition of “imperial immediacy” turned this ordinary abbey it into an imperial abbey within the Holy Roman Empire. This takes a little explaining: “Imperial immediacy” was a privileged constitutional and political status rooted in German feudal law under which the Imperial estates of the Holy Roman Empire such as Imperial cities, prince-bishoprics and secular principalities, and individuals such as the Imperial knights, were declared free from the authority of any local lord.
Instead, they were placed under the direct (“immediate”) authority of the Emperor, and later under the authority of the institutions of the Empire such as the Diet (Reichstag), the Imperial Chamber of Justice and the Aulic Council. Got it?
Now that the abbey had this imperial recognition and had obtained city rights in the 13th century, this band of sisters were on a roll. They formed their own government and became a sovereign miniature principality, the smallest independent state in the German Holy Roman Empire. The convent with its powerful women accrued a large amount of land, scattered in today’s provinces of North Brabant, as well as chunks of Belgium and Germany. With their wealth and city rights, the canonesses were able to lease out the land to farmers and enjoy huge profits.
In 1310 this group of women libbers wrote to the Pope requesting that they change their attire to reflect their updated social standing. They simply wanted to get rid of their nunnish appearance — which included a black tunic with a white wimple — and go haute couture. The bold request took 180 years, until 1490, to be granted by a Pope. Nothing has changed, bureaucracy works at a snail’s pace. Also, it was claimed that the request went to the bottom of the pile in the inbox. With their new modern attire, they attracted suitors who were not discouraged. Although, they had to be wealthy nobles — no riffraff.
Wielding women’s power
The Peace of Westphalia treaty, signed in 1648, ended the Thirty Years’ War, a group of religious wars in Europe between the Catholics and Protestants. The war killed between 20%-30% of Germany’s population, approximately eight million people. The treaty gave anything with “imperial immediacy” status additional territorial authority or sovereignty. Additional perks included the right to collect taxes and tolls, hold a market, mint coins, bear arms, and conduct legal proceedings. And they could also administer capital punishment, which was gruesome in those days.
As an aside, from the Peace of Westphalia treaty came the concept of “Westphalian Sovereignty.” It is a principle in today’s international law that each state, no matter how large or small, has an equal right to sovereignty over its territory. This principle is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, which states that “nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
In the 16th century, the Abbey of Thorn’s abbess had already one seat on the district council of Westphalia. Westphalia was a historical region encompassing west-central Germany, east of the Rhine River. By the 17th century, she also had a seat in the Imperial Diet, which was the deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire that included rulers of the imperial estates.
This was a big deal, especially for a woman. Although Thorn was a super tiny imperial abbey, it still played an important role within Europe. It was able to remain neutral during all the wars throughout the centuries, which was remarkable since there were so many conflicts. Because of its status as an imperial immediacy, it was an independent city-state in the Middle Ages, and a unique one, given that it was ruled by a group of accomplished women.
A medieval tax haven
During the peaceful years, the ambitious abbesses and their followers brought prosperity to Thorn and its inhabitants. The lands were farmed out to peasants who just paid rent on their leased property. No taxes were levied in Thorn, something that was unthinkable in the Middle Ages.
Thorn was not without scandal, however. Piousness was not ingrained in these free-thinking women. In the 16th century, the abbey had its own mint, but it turned out that they were falsifying the coins with a lower silver content than the standard, so the mint was quickly closed by the Emperor’s Treasury Department.
In the 17th century, when Spain occupied the Netherlands, the Spanish sought to restrict the privileges designated to the imperial immediacy of Thorn. The independent group of women resisted these attempts successfully and were not about to have their rights overturned.
In the 18th century, the abbess adopted the title of Princess. Several abbesses, now called princesses, were simultaneously head of Essen Abbey more than 100 km (62 miles) away and led a comparative lifestyle. It was a heck of a commute in those days, so the princess didn’t hit the road often, yet there was a kinship. Essen Abbey was also a monastery of secular canonesses for women of high nobility from Essen, Germany.
They did not take vows of perpetual celibacy and were able to leave the abbey to marry. They lived in comfort in their own homes and wore secular clothing, except when performing clerical roles. Who did not want to be a canoness or an abbess in those days? Especially women who wanted to free themselves from the constraining male-dominated norms of the day? Under the guise of a religious order, women could feel liberated.
According to Dutch historian Joost Welten in his book, De vergeten prinsessen van Thorn (1700-1794), these women lived in great luxury, were self-aware and enjoyed life to the full. Their life in Thorn was comparable to court life in Vienna and Versailles. They spoke excellent French, only wanted a man of noble standing, wore dresses in the latest Parisian fashion, ate gourmet dishes and, if possible, travelled by carriage.
Thorn was all about the nobility, it had nothing to do with religion. There is plenty of evidence that these free-spirited women were no Sister Teresas taking care of the poor. “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (Let them eat cake). One princess contracted venereal disease after some sexual escapades, and the last Abbess Princess spent much of her time remodeling and decorating her palace in Thorn. Life was great fun until the French arrived.
From powerhouse to witte poorhouses
Another war, now with France, ruined the comfortable lifestyles of the princesses of the Abbey of Thorn. French Revolutionary troops captured the area in 1794 and the noble ladies quickly left town, scattering back to their ancestral estates.
The French military did not appreciate the la belle vie of these secular canonesses, even though they spoke French. The revolutionary forces believed in “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which did not include affluence and rich people, especially women. Images of Marie Antoinette must have spurred them on.
France officially annexed the region and most of the rest of the Netherlands in 1795. Thorn was decimated by the French occupation, mainly by imposing taxes, which it had never done before, and by demolishing most of the religious buildings that were part of the Abbey. The French were anti-Christian but not anti-money. The tax haven turned into a tax opportunity. The palace of the Abbess Princess was put up for sale, but it was demolished in the absence of a buyer, even though it was listed on Funda. Only the church, an outbuilding and a garden wall remain of the once immense complex.
After the wealthy women departed with their belongings, a great number of poor people moved into town and started occupying the vacant homes and buildings that were left behind. These were large, expensive dwellings with lots of windows. The ingenious French introduced a tax based on the size of the windows.
The poor could not afford to pay those taxes, so to lower their tax rate, they bricked up the windows. To hide traces of their remodeling, they whitewashed their houses. The white paint hid the difference between the old and new bricks. That is how Thorn came to be known as the witte stadje (white town).
Shrunken but not forgotten
The abbey officially closed in 1797 during the Age of Enlightenment — also known as the Age of Reason which dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. This was followed by the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1803. Holy Romans and Christianity were no longer chic. The French troops left in 1814. After Napoleon met his end at Waterloo in 1815, the Congress of Vienna divvied up his empire and awarded the territory around Thorn to the Kingdom of the United Netherlands.
Thorn’s abbey church became just another run-of-the-mill parish church. The original 13th-century parish church was mostly demolished in 1817. The heavily damaged church was renovated in 1860 by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, the architect of Amsterdam Central Station and the Rijksmuseum. He is also famous for designing more than 100 churches and restoring a bunch of monuments. He was born in Roermond, down the road from Thorn.
This unique, tranquil town with its white houses became popular with artists and tourists. When the province of Limburg was divided along religious lines in 1839, after the Belgian Revolution in 1830, Thorn stayed with the Netherlands, although many, including Dutch historians, had never heard of the place.
During World War II, Thorn was liberated by the Piron Brigade on September 25, 1944. The Independent Belgian Brigade called the Piron Brigade was a Belgian and Luxembourg military unit in the Free Belgian forces during World War II. It was commanded by Belgian Jean-Baptiste Piron.
Commonly known as the Piron Brigade, it saw action in Western Europe and participated in the Battle of Normandy, the Liberation of Belgium, and the liberation of the province of Limburg in the Netherlands during 1944-1945. In honour of Piron, a bridge in Thorn was named after him. A nearby major highway, N273, is named Napoleonweg and Piron gets a bridge named after him. Doesn’t seem quite equitable.
Worth a stopover: a tale of feminism
This little whitewashed town is definitely worth a visit, especially because of the independent, influential women who lived here for so many centuries. When the world always thought that women in the Middle Ages had positions as a wife, mother, peasant, artisan, and nun, Thorn shows that they also held some important leadership roles, such as abbess or queen regnant. Many did not conform to the male-dominated Feudal system of the day. Under the pretext of religion, many lived independent, liberated lives. This was centuries before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s.
Walking around Thorn is like strolling around an outdoor museum. Within the 1.5 kilometre walking tour on cobblestone streets there are around 100 Rijksmonumenten (Dutch heritage sites). Many of the women’s old residences still exist. Sights include the picturesque Gothic Abdijkerk Thorn (monastery or parish church) with its Baroque interior.
You can also visit the Gemeentemuseum (City Hall Museum) Land van Thorn. Here, you will find excavations and a range of historic objects from the town’s long history. The showpiece is the Panorama Thorn, a painstaking 3D painting of Thorn’s incomparable centre.
As you wander around the quaint, quiet streets, alleyways and squares lined with whitewashed buildings and houses, let it sink in that this place was once one of the most powerful little towns in Europe for almost 500 years. On top of that, it was ruled by a group of strong, independent women.
Have you visited Thorn yet? Did you know about its amazing history? Let us know in the comments below!
Feature Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied.