With this rather unconventional but fairly straightforward piece of information, the anonymous author of Mariken van Nieumeghen created one of the most magnificent literary works in the Dutch language. The author may have been a rhetorician. The ode to rhetoric that is found in this work is in a typical rhetoric genre, namely the refrain. Mariken probably appeared in the early sixteenth century. In any case, the oldest known text is an Antwerp publication from around 1515.
The most striking quality of Mariken is its wide-ranging, lively and colourful narration. Within the confines of a little over 1,100 verses, 35 years pass and the action moves from Nijmegen to Antwerp, Cologne, Rome and Maastricht. Along the way, we witness fights, quackery, quibbles about geometry in an inn in Antwerp and a pageant play in Nijmegen. The main character is thrown high into the air and then collected from the cobblestones alive and well, and we visit the pope in Rome. This is a true story, we are assured at the end. The author keeps us intrigued through an ingenious succession of narrative prose passages and dramatic verses.
But it is above all the portrayal of the characters that gives Mariken its depth and that makes it so enduring: the evil but also charming Moenen; the loyal and lovable uncle Gijsbrecht; his hysterical sister; and, of course, the protagonist herself. Mariken’s primary function in the story is as an example of the power of repentance. However, the author has also given her a psychological complexity and evolution that far exceeds the conventions of the exemplum – the genre to which this text belongs.
Mariken is an innocent young girl as the story begins. She is living in sin with Moenen but she also develops into a confident young woman who wants to learn the seven liberal arts and all the languages in the world. After seven years, she realises her sin and wishes to do penance. She will be granted forgiveness in the end but at a high price. Mariken lives for a quarter of a century with heavy chains around her neck and wrists in a convent in Maastricht. Two years after the chains have finally fallen off, she dies. The thousand verses that precede this conclusion to the story of Mariken van Nieumeghen testify a little too much to the fullness of life for this ending to feel truly comfortable.