COORNHERT, Dirck Volkertszoon

(1522-1590)
Dirck Volkertszoon Coornhert was a Dutch humanist, scholar, engraver, and vigorous proponent of religious tolerance. His life and writings were intimately bound up with the political and religious struggles that dominated the Nether­lands during the second half of the sixteenth century.
Although Coornhert was born into a prosperous Amsterdam family, he lost his inheritance after a marriage that his parents refused to accept. He then moved to the nearby city of Haarlem, where he earned his living as a skillful etcher and engraver; he also associated with the Haarlem school of painters, a group that had been influenced by the Italian Renaissance. In Haarlem Coornhert linked himself to the ruling patriciate, first as a notary and then in 1564 as secretary for the city. It was in this context that he came into contact with William of Orange, the leader of the Dutch revolt against Spain. Because of his involvement with the revolt, Coornhert spent most of the period from 1568 until 1576 in exile in Germany; he then returned to his native land and lived much of the rest of his life in conflict with the orthodox Calvinist ministers of the Netherlands. He died in Gouda in 1590.
Largely self-taught, Coornhert was deeply influenced by the humanist tradi­tion of the Renaissance. His literary production included translation, poetry, plays, polemical works, and moral and religious treatises. Early in his career Coornhert translated classical authors such as Cicero and Seneca, and his first major work was a verse translation into Dutch of the first twelve books of the Odyssey; this translation (1561) can be considered a significant product of the early Dutch Renaissance, and throughout his life Coornhert remained a strong advocate for the Dutch language. Coornhert's writings also demonstrate his pre­occupation with moral and ethical issues, as can be seen in his major prose work, Zedekunst, dat is Wellevenskunst (Ethics, or the Art of Living Well), produced in 1586. In this treatise on moral philosophy, which reflects the clas­sical tradition, Coornhert places a strong emphasis on virtue and the fact that virtue, or the good life, can be achieved through the guidance of human reason. One sees in Zedekunst both Coornhert's rejection of the Christian doctrine of original sin and his emphasis on human perfectibility.
Another major theme in Coornhert's writings—and that for which he is best known—is his strong defense of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. Coornhert was opposed to all forms of religious persecution and believed that religion consisted largely of ethical teachings. He rejected all doctrinal systems and the need for external religious institutions. Both Catholic and Protestant reformers were suspicious of his religious beliefs, but in Holland he primarily attracted the attention and anger of the Reformed church. Coornhert especially rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and was not above the strong use of invective to attack his opponents, a strategy that cost him some of his support. In the end, the influence of Coornhert's highly individual religious beliefs is difficult to trace; however, his commitment to tolerance and religious freedom is undeniable.
Bibliography
H. Bonger, Leven en Werk van D. V. Coornhert, 1978.
R. P. Meijer, Literature of the Low Countries, 1971.
Michael A. Hakkenberg

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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