The Van Deyssel mini-theatre, affiliated with the Frascati Theater, overlooks an inconspicuous street with houses in Nieuw-West, named after Anna Bijns (1493 – 1575). A striking location, because this late-medieval Antwerp poet devoted her life to the arts at a time when this was still considered to be purely a male affair.
Anna was born to a tailor who possibly owes his surname to the Hainaut town of Binche; Bijs in Dutch. One poem by her father has survived and he is known to have entered rhetoric circles. Anna may have inherited his love for poetry from him and some biographers think that as a young woman she may have participated anonymously in poetry competitions in the chamber of rhetoric. This happened more often, but always in secret: women were not allowed to join the organization.
Bijns worked as a teacher until at least her 80th birthday, but is best known for her ‘choruses’, which were often moralizing in nature, with room for humor and irony. Bijns came of age just before the Reformation and the struggle between the Catholic Church and reformer Martin Luther. In the latter, as a devout Catholic, she saw a representative of heresy and the decay of faith, which she fought fiercely in many of her polemical poems. The Lutheran idea of reading the Bible as a Christian was seen by Bijns as popular hubris “Scripture is now being read in the tavern, / In d’een hand d’evangelie, in d’ander den pot” – of which we can guess what was in that jar.
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The Counter-Reformation could use the well-readable, rhythmically rhyming poems as a means of war against the Lutherans. Both the Franciscans and the newly emerging humanists during the Renaissance praised her work. Literature scholars have admired her keen sense of language, technique and rhyme for centuries and Bijns was also called ‘the Brabant Sappho’.
Anna Bijns remained unmarried and wrote critically (and humorously) against marriage, very remarkable in the time in which she lived. She called women who chose marriage stupid and one of her best-known poems is called ‘It is good lady syn, much better lord’, in which she calls on her female contemporaries to remain especially ‘unbound’: ‘Stay unbound then; / oh! freedom must be syn benedyt. / Women, wie ghy syt, al crychdy a good Jan: / untied best, weldich wyff without man.”
The Anna Bijnsstraat has apartments on one side and terraced houses on the other and ends in a modest lawn. In 1953 the street got its current name. From 1985 to 2014, the Anna Bijns Prize was awarded annually to a female poet or prose writer.