The legend of the nun Beatrijs is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Middle Dutch literature. The story lies hidden in a collection of edifying-didactic texts, including De Dietsche Doctrinael and Jacob van Maerlant's Heimelicheit der Heimelicheden. The luxurious execution of the manuscript, the high quality of the vellum, the beautiful script, and the decoration - fairly unusual for Middle Dutch manuscripts - suggests that it was intended for a prominent lay person, or for a prospective nun as a present upon entering the convent.
The legend of Beatrijs, sacristan of her convent, tells the story of a nun who, overwhelmed by love, has herself abducted from the convent by a young man whom she had known from childhood. They live happily for seven years and have two children, but when money runs short, the young man deserts her. Beatrijs now has to provide for herself and her children as a ‘ghemeen wijf’, a woman of the streets. For seven years she manages to do so, faithfully praying to the Virgin Mary and reciting the Hours of the Virgin every day. Overcome by remorse she then sets out with her children, begging her way to the region of her former convent. On her arrival she is told that the sacristan is still at the convent, and in three successive visions she is urged to resume her former duties: for all those years the Virgin had been taking her place.
The legend of Beatrijs probably dates to the beginning of the thirteenth century, and has come down to us in many Western European languages. However, comparison with the other versions of the legend reveals the superiority of the Middle Dutch version and the genius of its creator. Due to its well-balanced structure, excellent choice of words, lively dialogue, and vivid descriptions of nature the legend has great literary value. In addition, the human element in the narrative and the considerable psychological understanding of the poet make it stand out from the other versions. The Middle Dutch version dates probably to the end of the thirteenth century. The manuscript in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the only one in which this legend has come down to us, is a later copy from about 1374.
Translations and adaptations
The story of Beatrice is first found in the Libri octo miraculorum, a collction of legends and examples by Caesarius of Heisterbach (c.1180-1240). Another version of the Beatrice legend is found in a second collction by the same author, the Dialogus miraculorum. Both versions are in prose. The story is passed down in almost all Western European languages.
A Middle Dutch translation of the prose text survives in a number of manuscripts, among others KB Ms 70 H 42. The rhymed version in Ms 76 E 5, the version presented in this website, is unique.
After the Middle Ages, the genre of Marian legends became forgotten in protestant countries, but in Antwerp in 1659 a book appeared, the Tweede deel vande wonderbaere mirakelen vanden H. Roosen-crans (‘Second part of the wondrous miracles of the Holy Rosary’), in which the story of Beatrice was once more told in verse.
It was not until the nineteenth century that the Middle Dutch rhymed version was redicovered by W.J.A. Jonckbloet. His edition of the poem, the first, dates from 1841. The poem´s qualities were soon aknowledged and ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, Beatrijs has been part of the canon of Dutch literature.
The story of Beatrijs was made popular in the twentieth century in an adaptation by the poet P.C. Boutens. This adaptation appeared in 1908 and was reprinted no less than 49 times, the last reprint appearing in 1984. Boutens´s adaptation is rather free; the original text is over 1,000 lines, and Boutens’s retelling is less than 400. This may explain the immense popularity of the adaptation, although the rhythm and choice of words have undoubtedly contributed as well. Boutens himself wrote:
This is the tale of Beatrice
I wrote it down on few leaves
In a pure and simple way
That children will understand.
Translations in Modern Dutch and other languages
Mainly for educational purposes, many Dutch translations and adaptations of Beatrijs have been published. The first appeared in 1916: Beatrijs. Het middelnederlandse gedicht in proza naverteld door R.J. Spitz. Of the modern translations we mention those of H. Adema (1982; sixth impression 2002). Other translations include those by Gabriël Smit (1979) and Karel Jonckheere (1980). For this website, the most modern and accessible translation was used, the one by Willem Wilmink (1995).
On a number of occasions, Beatrijs was adapted for the stage. Based on the legend, Herman Teirlinck wrote the play Ik dien (‘I serve’, 1924). In 1925 there followed a mystery play with music by Willem Landré on texts by Felix Rutten. Three years later, Ignace Lilien’s opera Beatrijs appeared on a libretto by Herman Teirlinck after his play.
As early as 1870 a ‘hochdeutsche, metrische Übersetzung’ appeared by Lina Schneider (under the pseudonym Wilhelm Berg). Harold de Wolf Fuller translated the story into English (Cambridge, 1909). A second German translation, by Friedrich Markus Hübner, followed in 1919, with engravings by Felix Timmermans. Another English version was published by Pieter Geyl in 1927 (The tale of Beatrice). Twelve years later, P.C. Schoonees’ Afrikaans translation was published (Beatrijs: ’n middeleeuse juweel), and in 1944 the third English version by A.J. Barnouw (The miracle of Beatrice).
A facsimile edition of the manuscript (Zellik, 1986) contains a French, English (by Barnouw, see above) and German translation. In the KB collection there are further translations in Frisian (by Klaas Bruinsma, 1993), in Esperanto (by Gerrit Berveling, 1986, 2nd corrected edition 2010), and one in the dialect of the Dutch villages of Bunschoten-Spakenburg and Eemdijk (by M. Nagel, 2005).