Els Agten about Her “Jansenist Gene” and Where it Led to

07 May 2021

We warmly congratulate the winner of the REFORC Book Award 2021: Els Agten. We had a talk with Els to get to know her a little better and to learn more about her research on vernacular Bible reading by Catholics in the Low Countries in the broad seventeenth century.

Els, thank you for your willingness to have a talk. Tell us a bit about yourself and the book that was awarded.

Who is Els Agten?

I am 35 years old and married to Joris. I am currently full-time employed as staff member family ministry at the Diocese of Hasselt, and I combine this job with an 10% appointment as collaborator for the Junior College project at the Faculty. The Junior College project is a university-wide programme in Dutch that aims at familiarizing students of the third grade of secondary education with academic research and education. I make online course material, that is put at the disposal of teachers, to stimulate the reflection on religion by means of concrete, topical examples and case studies. Once a year in January, the students and their teachers are invited to Louvain to attend lectures on various topics. At present I am working on a module on grief and loss. Occasionally I write a contribution on a topic that relates to my dissertation. In addition, I teach a short course of church history at the Diocesan Institutes of Antwerp and Hasselt. In my classes I try to connect church history with the concrete pastoral practice. It is my mission to demonstrate that church history is very logical and not boring at all. In my spare time I like reading, cooking, gardening and playing the clarinet. For over 20 years now, I am member of the local wind band. I am also engaged in the local parish.

The combination of pastoral work ‘in the field’ with academia and my church history classes is an interesting one because I am involved in almost all echelons of society. I meet volunteers in local parishes, I consult with priests and pastors, I help couples for wedding preparation, I advise parents and children for baptism, first communion and confirmation, I teach future pastoral workers and teachers, I develop teaching material for adolescents of 17-18. I loved research, but not enough to continue doing it full-time. In an ideal world, I would combine practical pastoral work at a local level with teaching. Both worlds complete each other well.

Tell us about the book, how did it come about?

My book [The Catholic Church and the Bible: From the Council of Trent to the Jansenist Controversy (1564–1733), ed.] deals with the question whether Catholics in the Low Countries were allowed to read the Bible in the vernacular in the broad seventeenth century, and, if so, which Bibles they read. At that time, the debates on vernacular Bible reading and translation were dominated by the discussions between Jansenists and anti-Jansenists. The book represents a revision of my doctoral dissertation written under the supervision of prof. dr. Wim François and prof. dr. Mathijs Lamberigts and submitted to the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven in 2014. It was only by mere coincidence that I ended up with the topic of Jansenism for my doctoral dissertation, but at the same time ‘it was meant to be’. I first studied Romance languages (French/Spanish) at KU Leuven, earning a Master degree in 2006. My thesis dealt with the development of scientific vocabulary in French at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Then I started to study Theology, and because I knew Spanish and was interested in church history, I focused in my bachelor’s and master’s thesis on Spanish humanists in Louvain and the vernacular Bible. My final MA- thesis dealt with French Bible translations in the Low Countries, including Jansenist translations. This way, I was able to combine my knowledge of Romance languages, my love for philology, and my interest for the (ecclesiastical) history of the Low Countries. And then I got the opportunity to start working on the project that led to my dissertation. You should know that my grandmother’s cousin, Lucianus Ceyssens OFM (1902-2001), was a famous ecclesiastical historian, who was born and raised in my home town and was specialised in the history of Jansenism. In one way or another, I must have received the ‘Jansenist gene’ of Ceyssens through my grandmother’s lineage of. In my book I also examined further some of the issues that Ceyssens already briefly mentioned in his legacy. Thanks to Etienne D’hondt, honorary librarian of the Maurits Sabbe Library, I received part of the rich book collection of Ceyssens, for instance his copy of the Summa Theologica and printing proofs of some of his books on Jansenism with annotations in the margins. I met Ceyssens a few times during my youth at big family gatherings, and I remember him as a very modest old man. And I find it quite remarkable that my grandparents (96 and 91 years old) can perfectly define Jansenism. So, a combination of my interests and some coincidence led to my publication.

What is the most fascinating insight you would like to share?

There were only a few studies on the debates between Jansenists and anti-Jansenists on vernacular Bible reading and translation, and a more comprehensive study was missing. The main importance of my book is that I have tried to fill this gap. In addition, I focused on the translation character of the New Testament translations. I made a philological analysis to determine whether it was right to label these Bible translations as Jansenist-inspired.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Jansenist circles in the Netherlands were ahead of their time when they stated that everyone, women and children included, should be able to obtain free access to the (vernacular) Bible. A nice example is a 1721 reprint of a Bible translation that was specifically destined to the Krystelyke Jonkheit (Christian youth). This edition contains an elaborate preface in which the author first argues in favour of biblical education for children. Second, he inserts a Berigt aen de ouders (Message to the parents) in which he enumerates twelve points as a guideline for proclaiming the Gospels to their children. The first prerequisite is the most important one: every household has to possess at least one edition of the New Testament. The twelfth and last point underlines the importance of vernacular Bible reading. If children are not good, they are unworthy to read the Bible and the writer therefore recommends to forbid the reading of the Gospels regularly by way of punishment. The guidelines for the parents are followed by two prayers that both aim at encouraging vernacular Bible reading: one prayer for weekly use in order to invoke the help of Christ before reading Scripture, the other, specifically destined for the children, for daily use before reading the Gospels. In other words, children were allowed to read the Gospels every day of the week. And also the Messieurs of Port-Royal were in favour of vernacular Bible reading for women. Pasquier Quesnel for instance pointed out that it was an illusion to think that women did not have any knowledge of the mysteries of religion through the reading of the sacred books. Indeed, the abuse of Scripture and the rise of heresies were not the outcome of women’s simplicity, but of the proud knowledge of men.

Any idea what you are going to do with the prize?

Like many scholars, I am an avid reader and book collector with tons of books. The bookshelves in my home office are now bulging. I would love to use the prize to design a beautiful, custom-made bookcase so that my books, and those of Lucianus Ceyssens’ books in particular, would be showcased beautifully.


Thank you very much for the interview, Els! We wish you good luck in your research and work.