In the Spotlight: Michael Pye, author of 'Antwerp: The Glory Years'

  • December 2, 2021

In this feature in our monthly newletter we present an inspirational person who has crossed our paths and has a professional link with Flanders . This month:

Michael Pye, novelist, journalist, historian and author of 'Antwerp: The Glory Years'. 

Hello Michael, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. You have written a number of successful books and we hope you have a few more left in your pen. Can you tell us what has made you decide to branch out from journalism and writing columns to becoming a fully-fledged writer?

That’s not quite right, I have always been a writer in some way. I started writing in school when I was about 16.
I was then trained in history at Oxford, where I discovered I had a great interest in learning about other people’s history. We learnt about the Sun King and the Court of Versailles – fascinating stories lived by other people. That interest in ‘otherness’ leads to remarkable narratives.
I have always had an interest in the 17th century. In that particular period, you can’t separate the history of the Low Countries and the history of England. Whether it’s a question of the English interventions in the war against the Spanish, or the thriving trade between the two regions… there was a lot going on. Trading relations were very well-established in that time. From Antwerp, wool went one way towards England, and English money went the other way in return.
This is all well-known, well-described history from the 17th century. You can find many publications in which this period is talked about.
But to my surprise, I found that there was an enormous gap in our popular knowledge of the history of Antwerp in the 16th century. I found this strange: in that century, Antwerp was the hub of the world! It was being described as “Emporium Mundi”!
It held that status for a good few decades, but we really don’t have a clue about what happened in those glory years, which lasted for about fifty or sixty years. I should clarify that there is plenty of academic discussion about this part of Antwerp’s history, but it hadn’t yet been discussed in book form, in a more accessible way, accessible to the broader public.
Also, I am a foreigner. I wanted to know how foreigners wrote and thought about Antwerp in its glory years. There is plenty of excellent academic work available in Flanders, at the University of Antwerp, for example. People there study sources drawn up in Flanders, about Antwerp.
But if you were a Venetian ambassador in the 16th century, how did you see Antwerp? How did you describe Antwerp? How did you explain how it worked to your government back home? These kinds of accounts that we have, describing Antwerp from the outside, gets us this wonderful two-dimensional view.
There is so much of this stuff to be found! There are archives in Lisbon, in Zurich…and it’s all about Antwerp!

You have written “Antwerp”, and previously “The Edge of the World” – both books with a focus on the Low Countries. What inspired you to write about the region? Do you have a personal connection (other than living there nowadays)?

Talking about my most recent book: Antwerp was a world city! The world was really seriously interested. People all over Europe wanted to know about the murders, sex scandals… all these stories passed across Europe on trading missions.
I described just now how it was a piece of missing history, if you will. Such an important city, with such little contemporary visibility… for a long time I knew that it was a story that had to be told at some point.
And why are people interested in this period? Well…the period has a certain glamour! People want to know about secrets from the past. They want to know about the other side of history. These stories haven’t been told!
And more and more historical evidence is appearing, which reveals very interesting things. There are archaeological projects going on in Friesland, for example, revealing the sites of major battles. All of this new evidence teaches us things which we might not have known up until now.

You talked about being a foreigner looking at a story from the outside…how does that affect your ability to research effectively? How do you deal, for instance, with language issues?

It is certainly true that archives sometimes don’t come in the language you expect! Latin, Portuguese archives…those I can deal with. I have some experience researching sources written in those languages. For Dutch, I have research assistants.

In view of the current discussions on climate change: do we have an idea about what the climate was like during the period you describe?

Certainly, yes. We know of a case where people were planning to set sail on some tourist trips to the Holy Land, from Antwerp. They were frozen up in the Scheldt for months and couldn’t get away until late February, early March! There are little scraps of evidence of those kinds of things happening. There was, as some describe it, a Little Ice Age going on at that time. But it doesn’t actually look as though that interfered very much with the traffic to and from Antwerp. Also, many of the things that were traded with Antwerp, spices for example, had to go through different ports first. Much of the trade passed through Lisbon first, and were then distributed from Antwerp, so you could choose when the goods were shipped from Lisbon to Antwerp, to avoid any adverse weather.
Basically, Antwerp was in a good position because most of the trade routes it relied on didn’t freeze over, and traders could also choose when they would ship their goods. With those two things going on, it means that they didn’t get frozen out of business.

On to the lighter side of business: if someone were to ask you for any suggestions about visiting Flanders and Belgium, what would you recommend to them?

I would say to them: go to Antwerp! Because it has something, in a strange way, of the character of the 16th century city. It is such an interesting place because of fashion, it’s a place where cultures meet, it has good food… it is a place that fits a lot of my prejudices!
Also, as an example, if you go to Venice, you will immediately see a past that makes sense. You will have read about the history of the city, and you will have a feel of what has happened there throughout the centuries. In Antwerp, you need to do a little bit of work. You have to look round corners, you have to search. And when you do that, you’ll find the most extraordinary houses simply hidden away. Of course, you can find Rubens, you can find baroque churches, there are many of those in Antwerp. But if you’re interested in what came before that, then you have to work at it. I think that’s fascinating. Antwerp is a city to explore, not a city to do.
Take the Vleeshuis, for example. You’ll visit it as a museum of music, and it’s a very fine museum of music. But explore the building a bit more…upstairs you’ll find the old meeting rooms with gilded wallpaper and marble fireplaces and all the grandeur you could possibly want. Then leave the building and go into the cathedral, and remember what the cathedral was, as well as being a cathedral! It was also the main labour exchange in the city. It was where people met in the mornings to get their jobs for the day. Look around and see the chapels that were built by the individual guilds…they are some kind of summary of the whole business life of Antwerp. You can read the city in different ways, and it’s fascinating.
As a writer, we have to ask you this question: which books, recent or otherwise, would you recommend to our readers? 
There is one book that I was surprised Belgians didn’t really seem to know about. I remember people coming up to me and saying, there really should be a book about this person called Simon Turchi, a ‘killer banker’, one of the many I describe in my own book. It turns out Hendrik Conscience already did that! I recommend you read Conscience’s “The Amulet”. It takes place in Antwerp, in the 16th century, and it’s a story of great power and deep interest.

That’s interesting! He sounds like an intriguing character. Would you ever want to see a historical figure shown in a Hollywood blockbuster, and who would that have to be?

Dona Gratia, no doubt. I always come back to Dona Gratia. Thanks to the Italian sculptor Leone Leoni we know a lot about her. During his time he went around the archives of Europe collecting every document he could find about Dona Gratia and Antwerp. And it turns out she is simply an extraordinary woman! She was simultaneously dealing with the great powers of Europe, who all owed her money. At the same time, she was running an underground network for getting persecuted Jews out of Portugal. This network stretched from Portugal, usually passed through England, went through Antwerp, and from Antwerp fanned out across Europe. And we know how this network worked! We know which inns people stayed at, what instructions people were given… for example: don’t wear a fine hat, because if you do, people will assume you’re rich and they will steal your passport. Another one: if you want to travel with your wife over the Alps, make sure that your horses come from the same stable. Because horses like to travel as a family, too. 
All those extraordinary details that we know about now, I think that’s a fascinating story well worth making a film about. It’s all about secrets. We know, for example, that it was perfectly legal for Dona Gratia’s family to have their own chapel in their own house. What nobody knew at the time was that this chapel wasn’t a chapel, it functioned as a synagogue!

Well, if Dona Gratia’s story ever reaches the big screen, we’ll certainly be watching! Michael Pye, thanks very much for your time.