Pain and Longing: The Hidden Terrors of Helene Nolthenius

Nolthenius in the 1950s

The Dutch medievalist Helene Nolthenius (1920­–2000) has a curious, split reputation.  The division is not between fans and detractors but rather between those who appreciate her for a small set of specialist publications, mostly in medieval music history, and then a much larger audience that loves her for popular non-fiction and fiction, usually set in the distant European past.  She began her career in 1951 with a tremendously successful work on thirteenth-century Italy, Duecento (English translation: Duecento: The Late Middle Ages in Italy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968; published in Britain as In that Dawn: The Thirteenth Century in Italy, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1968).  It’s still a lovely introduction to Italian culture on the eve of the renaissance, though it shows its age and, especially in the original Dutch, stylistically bears the mark of Johan Huizinga’s “historical sensation” – concept: it’s all very exciting, even a little breathless.  Imagine Huizinga, having fallen in love with Umbria, sitting down for work in the morning with an espresso and a shot of grappa, and then letting loose (hard to imagine, I know).

This is rather unkind of me because there are times when I really like the book, and in some ways it broke new ground: Nolthenius was interdisciplinary long before anyone knew what the term meant.  But she would have been the first to admit that Duecento did not go very deep and did not aim very high: the goal was to thrill, to please, to find a new audience for a history and a place with which she had fallen in love during her dissertation research on the musical culture of early Franciscan Laude in central Italy. It was the source of an enduring passion that compelled her to retire from her professorship in Utrecht at the age of fifty-six and move to an old farmhouse in Cavriglia, some 20 miles south of Florence, in 1978.  The dream turned out to be less than satisfying, and she went back to Holland in 1981, another illusion richer (or poorer).  The experience characterizes her life, dominated by a longing for a high culture of love and beauty impossible to attain in the modern world and increasingly sought in the past and within—or perhaps with her husband, Willy Wagenaar, a kind and erudite esthete, and with her family.  A strain of deep sadness and pain runs through much of her fiction work, which I always found difficult to reconcile with the mood of eager delight in Duecento.  Even her lighter work, like the mystery novels centered on Lapo Mosca, a medieval monk and sleuth,

A Spanish translation of two Lapo Mosca mysteries, 1996

can be bleak.  She started the series in 1977; a year later Umberto Eco began work on his novel about a medieval monastic detective, The Name of the Rose, which of course became an international bestseller.  (Nolthenius’ Lapo Mosca-mysteries did well in the Netherlands; some were translated into Italian, Spanish and German.)

Above all, there is guilt, and shame.  In her final novel, Voortgeschopt als een steen [“Kicked like a Pebble”, only available in Dutch], published a year before her death, when she was already suffering from Parkinson’s, the central character, Leonidas of Taranto (a real historical figure, aka Leonida di Taranto, author of Greek epigrams, probably active in the third century BC) traces his life of endless vagrancy to the day when, at the age of twenty-five, he leaves his homeland to seek adventure, serving cruel Pyrrhus and many other dubious patrons to whom he sold his pen as a second-rate poet.  ‘An artist is a divided human being: the protective hide of his homeland provides the foundations of his art, but he will always seek the muses on the far side of the horizon” (p. 17, my translation).  Leonidas looks back in shame: he failed himself for not living up to his own high standards of art, but he also failed his father, who had named him after the famed Spartan king and martial hero in the hope of a glorious future; and he has failed his home, Taranto, sacked by Pyrrhus.

Nolthenius thought of herself as a lonely wanderer in a senseless world.  Throughout her life and career as a historian and writer, she harbored an identification with St Francis of Assisi, the subject of her last historical work for a wider audience,

Giovanni Bellini, St Francis in Ecstasy, c. 1480 (New York, Frick Museum)

De man uit het dal van Spoleto: Franciscus tussen zijn tijdgenoten [The Man from Spoleto Valley: St Francis Among his Contemporaries, 1988; translated into Italian and Spanish, but not in English), in which she juxtaposes fragments from historical narratives about political and cultural events written in the days of St Francis, with a meticulous reconstruction of the saint’s life, which produces an odd effect of profound melancholy: it reminded me of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, in which the painter foregrounds a farmer plowing the land and a shepherd glancing up at the sky as if worried by inclement weather, totally oblivious to the drama in the background of young Icarus plunging to his death.

A new biography by Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering. Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 [Reason and Ecstasy: H.N.] (Nijmegen: Vanthilt, 2009) reveals that this brilliant loner kept some long and deep scars in her psyche carefully hidden behind a forbidding persona, unfathomable to her colleagues and intimidating to her students—though they remember her even more for her inability to look them in the eye.  When Helene was four or five, in the mid-1920s,

Nolthenius, age 5 (photo: Mulder, HN)

her father Hugo abandoned his career as a cellist because of stage fright and became a high school teacher of Latin and Greek.  His great learning inspired immense admiration in the young girl, but his pomposity in the classroom also embarrassed her.  He, in turn, cut short her promise as a singer, insisting that her voice “just wasn’t good enough”. Adolescence brought even greater tension with her father.  Helene never forgave him for leaving her mother (and her) for another woman, and broke off all contact with him in the early 1950s.  Mulder identifies “letting go” as a key value in her life.

I am intrigued by her sense of failure, affected no doubt by the troubled relationship with her father but also by traumatizing events during and shortly after the Second World War, which shaped her view of herself and her main subject, Franciscan culture.

Her formative teens and early twenties involved numerous crises and transitions for herself and for loved ones.  She idealized her aunt Frida, a history teacher in Indonesia; after Frida’s suicide in 1927, Mulder testifies, she “put on [Frida’s] clothes and read her books”, including Johannes Jørgensen’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi (orig. publ. 1907), setting into motion a lifelong fascination with Francis and her conversion to Catholicism, formally completed when she turns 21—truly an act of rebellion against her pantheist/atheist father; Mulder publishes Nolthenius handwritten Apologia for her faith, found among her papers after her death—complete with her father’s critical notes in the margin!

At that point, Holland is laboring under five years of Nazi occupation, of course, and they bring tragedy.  In 1943, the Nolthenius family decide to shelter her Jewish friend Hanna de Beer in their home.  They manage to hide Hanna safely for months, then move her to a friend’s house when the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) closes in.

Hanna (“Hans”) Hammelburg-de Beer in 1947 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

Finally, in January 1944, the SD arrests Nolthenius; under pressure, she divulges Hanna’s new hideaway.  Hanna and her parents are rounded up. Nolthenius is further interrogated but her father’s astonishing courage saves her: he convinces the German authorities that he is the ringleader of the underground circuit and that his daughter is innocent.  Dachau is his fate (he survives, weakened).  Hanna and her parents are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the elderly de Beers are immediately killed.  Hanna, a medical student, survives by claiming to be a doctor.  Nolthenius is freed.

Meanwhile a young Jewish man, Samuel Vecht, also in hiding, has fallen in love with Nolthenius, now 24 years old, smart, talented, beautiful, with a dominant personality. She acts as a mentor to Samuel, five years her junior,

Nolthenius (sitting, left) and Samuel Vecht (sitting, right), with Gerard and Willemien Brom (standing), 1946 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

tutoring him in Greek and Latin, while introducing him to the study of St Francis (I wonder if Jørgensen’s own, important mentorship of a Jewish friend was not without influence here).  With no news about his family deported to the camps, and utterly besotted by Nolthenius, Samuel even converts to Catholicism. In the end, Nolthenius marries another man, Willy Wagenaar; Samuel declares an intention to enter the Franciscan order, then commits suicide.  His father, the Vecht family’s sole survivor of the camps, spits Nolthenius in the face upon meeting her.  For the rest of her life, Nolthenius never talked about Samuel.

What did she try to find in St Francis and medieval culture?  Not confirmation of her faith: she abandoned Catholicism shortly after 1950 and never again ascribed to any religious belief system.  Nor did she idealize Francis as a social activist: although she had become a member of the Dutch communist party in her late teens (for her, communism was the logical consequence of true Christian faith!), she cancelled her membership because of the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact in yet another instance of “letting go,” and refrained from all political activity after that. Mulder suggests she admired Francis and his world for doing exactly that which she no longer could do: to give oneself for an ideal, to commit with passion.

Parkinson’s clouded her latter years; she became forgetful, confused.  Wagenaar relates to Mulder that shortly before her death, fifty-five years after the war, she would wake up at night convinced that she was living in an extermination camp.  In the end, she herself had become “Jewish.”

Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering: Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2009). 319 pages.  ISBN 9789460040214.

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