In 1563 Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted two versions of the Tower of Babel, one in Antwerp and the other in Brussels, after he had married and moved there to distance himself from his mistress. The move, Michael Pye suggests in Europe’s Babylon, his exuberant history of sixteenth-century Antwerp, changed the artist’s viewpoint. The first painting is a scene of construction, with sheds and cranes, ladders and chutes. Nimrod, the mighty hunter and God-defying tyrant, stands before a recognizable panorama of Antwerp’s wharves, spires, walls, and windmills: “Furious, muddled energy is building a heap which will have the look of a city.” In the second version, Nimrod has vanished. The ziggurat tower-city is finished but ominously quiet. The life has gone out of it—a prophecy in paint.

Antwerp’s citizens had a “choice of fantasy” with regard to their growing city. A tablet in the new commodity exchange was inscribed “SPQA,” after the “SPQR” that signified the Roman people and Senate, suggesting aspirations to classical authority and power. For Pye, however, Babylon, or Babel, seems a more appropriate model for a city alive with different languages, strange accents, chinking coins, rustling paper bills, and whispering of news and secrets—a place denounced by the Duke of Alba, the Spanish governor, as “a confusion and a receptacle of all sects indifferently.” In the book of Revelation, Pye points out, Babylon is described as a city that once luxuriated in its trade in gold and silver, jewels, cloth, and spices, but that now lies in ruins: “And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more.”

Antwerp’s Golden Age lasted only a few decades, from around 1500 to the late 1580s. As a port on the river Scheldt in Brabant, one of the seventeen Burgundian-ruled provinces of the Netherlands, it had old links with England, dating back to a decree of 1338 designating it the only town to deal in English wool exports. English goods were shipped from there to the German states, Italy, and Turkey, while Antwerp traders sold the English “wine, oats, furs, turbot, quantities of grapes, the wood for making bows, hats, empty barrels, live falcons and good wax, among many other things.” As Pye puts it, “The town functioned rather like a department store for the wool traders.” Imports were free of barriers, and safe conducts were handed out, first to English and then to all foreign merchants. When Brabant created two annual fairs in Antwerp and two further north in Bergenop Zoom, more traders flooded in, setting up branches in the city.

The real leap forward followed the death of Mary of Burgundy in 1482, when her possessions in the Netherlands passed to her Hapsburg husband, Maximilian I of Austria, and later to Maximilian’s grandson the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (born in Flanders in 1500) and his son Philip II of Spain. In 1488, infuriated by conflicts with Bruges, formerly the leading trading city, Maximilian ordered all foreign merchants to move fifty miles east to Antwerp. Bruges was already suffering from the silting of the Zwin, the tidal channel that gave it access to the sea, whereas Antwerp’s deep river docks were easily accessible on the tide.

Seizing the advantage, Antwerp made a new deal with London’s Merchant Adventurers guild and welcomed the Portuguese, who set up their feitoria—their great trading headquarters—in the city; the first of their spice ships arrived in 1502. In addition to their established trade with West Africa, the Portuguese were opening new routes to Asia, bringing back pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and diamonds from South Asia and porcelain and silk from China. Portuguese craftsmen, musicians, perfumiers, and confectioners followed the merchants, and many Africans, some of them former slaves, also settled in Antwerp. German merchants arrived to buy Portuguese goods, while Portuguese traders bought German copper and silver to use in the African trade. Scenting profitable loans, Italian bankers arrived. Sugar imports and refining flourished, and from the mid-1500s silver, too, flowed in from Hapsburg territories in the Americas.

Pye’s concern is less with the trading routes than with the impact of the boom on the life of the city. His approach is eclectic. Antwerp’s history is full of the chaotic energy he ascribes to Bruegel’s Babel, and countless documents were lost in a fire in 1576, both of which make it difficult to construct a linear narrative. Instead, as in his fine history of medieval interactions across the North Sea, The Edge of the World (2014), Pye creates a thematic mosaic, drawing on a mass of accounts and original sources, from wills and inventories to doodles and self-help books. The book is dense with stories, often leaping over decades. Although I sometimes longed for a chronology to make the sequence and wider historical setting clear, the crowded pages and vigorous conversational style perfectly reflect Antwerp’s volatile, opportunistic, profit-grabbing ethos, loose ends and all. The city’s wealth is conjured through the inventory of the house of Adriaan Hertsen, a lawyer and alderman, ranging from cupboards, beds, and children’s toys to diamonds, gold, silver, and priceless tapestries. No records survive to illuminate Hertsen’s life, but his goods let us imagine it.


Hertsen was not an exception. Niclaes Jongelinck, who added to his tax collector’s income by organizing lotteries, insuring ships, and raking in profits from his family’s ownership of the mint “that manufactures money,” stuffed his suburban villa with elegant furniture, bronzes, and paintings, including Bruegel’s The Months, the first version of The Tower of Babel, and a valuable Dürer. When Dürer came to town in 1520 to pursue Charles V about his pension and to buy special dyes, he marveled at his first glimpse of Aztec gold. He also went shopping, buying “coral, the shells of a tortoise and of snails, a magnetic lodestone, elk’s hooves, a musk ball from Central Asia, and the Portuguese gave him feathers from Calicut.” His other acquisitions included parrots and a baboon. Everything was for sale. In these years, Pye writes, “music, pictures, language and schooling became commodities, not dependent on patrons but on finding a market: becoming portable, in other words, a matter of exchange.”

The city’s imperial rulers needed the taxes levied on Antwerp’s imports, and the loans they could raise there, to pay for their wars. Despite their devout Catholic determination to crush enemies of the faith, they had to recognize Antwerp’s contrasting need for “a pragmatic kind of tolerance. Its business depended on foreign traders so it had no interest in abolishing the heresies to which so many of those traders were attached.” When Charles V arrived in 1549 to present Philip to Antwerp’s burghers, his future subjects, the citizens and the representatives of the many trading nations dutifully processed in the rain. But the “Joyous Entry,” as it was known, was far from heartfelt. The people of Antwerp put on what Pye calls “a subtle show, fulsomely deferential but still insisting on all their special rights and privileges.”

Throughout imperial and then, after 1556, Spanish rule, the city clung to those rights. This is a story not of deregulation but of a calculated defiance of regulation. Antwerp’s printers were experts at such evasions. Known for their typographical precision and woodcut illustrations, for decades they supplied the English market with grammars, missals, almanacs, and textbooks. When English printers complained of undercutting and imports were banned, their rivals in Antwerp simply changed a line to say the works were printed in England.

Vegetable Market; etching by Peeter van der Borcht, Antwerp

Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘Vegetable Market’; etching by Peeter van der Borcht, Antwerp, circa 1575–1608

The riskiest works to send, until Henry VIII split from Rome, were Protestant texts, particularly the Bible in English, but contraband books were still smuggled across the North Sea in bales of cloth, watertight containers in wine barrels, salt casks, and flour sacks. The city was therefore a natural refuge for the priest William Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament appeared in 1526, the year he arrived in Antwerp. A year later, after protests from the English ambassador, all copies were publicly burned, but printing almost immediately resumed. In his “semi-sanctuary” in the English House, the protected base of British traders, Tyndale persisted with his translation of the full Bible until 1535, when—to the fury of English merchants, who felt their privileges had been breached—he was finally lured out and arrested by the imperial authorities. Convicted of heresy, he was strangled and burned at the stake.

The haven for heretics became notorious, too, as a warren of spies. Secrets were freely bought and sold, kept and betrayed. Letters were intercepted, deals keenly watched—a large purchase of armor or talk of ships gathering might suggest plans for a conflict. The market for information was large and profitable. Thomas More’s Utopia opens in Antwerp, “where a man might hope to hear stories of the world newly opening up to Europe.” Scholars scouted for new knowledge, from the botanical discoveries of Peeter van Coudenberghe to the maps in Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Mundi, the first modern atlas and the century’s best seller. Even occult knowledge was for sale. In 1519 Paracelsus arrived, finding, he said, that he “could learn more at the marketplace than in any German or foreign schools.” Some forty years later, in 1562, the magus John Dee came hunting for esoteric texts, making use of the city’s “particular mix of curiosity, business and dodgy freedoms” for his alchemical Monas Hieroglyphia.

Antwerp was, Pye claims, “the emporium for ideas as well as goods.” Its trade in knowledge and its deals in art, books, and luxury goods were renowned across Europe. Everything that happened here was hot news, good or bad. Gossip about the murder of a fellow trader by the Italian banker Simone Turchi buzzed along the trade routes, spiced up by his use of an ingenious “trick chair with…iron bars that made it into a snare.” In Alsace, George Wickram poured Antwerp stories into his Der Knaben Spiegel (The Mirror for Rascals), taking as his heroes boys who cheat their landlords, drink copiously, have sex with beautiful women, and leave without paying more than a few paltry bills.


Scandals only increased the city’s glamorous reputation as a place where money flowed fast. In 1532 its old exchange was replaced with a new one, the Beurs, “a celebration, almost a hallowing of the ‘community of trade.’” The Beurs was a congenial meeting place, with a wide courtyard, covered porticos, and rows of shops above. When Thomas Gresham, a merchant in Antwerp and Elizabeth I’s ambassador to the Netherlands, designed London’s Royal Exchange in the 1560s, he used “Flemish stone and Flemish builders to put up a facsimile of its Antwerp original,” even shopping there for a statue of Elizabeth to stand over the entrance. The Beurs was the one place in the city where routine was paramount: it was open from ten to twelve, and again from six in the evening. Merchants needed to show themselves there as proof of good credit: “Absence was conspicuous and it started talk.”

The new exchange was a central clearinghouse. The shipping of cash and variations in rates of exchange had often posed a problem, and after Charles V made the Beurs the official site where letters of credit were proved and paid, Antwerp became a hub not only for goods but for money, holding a central place in a web of exchanges across Europe, from London and Paris to Nuremberg and Venice. For the first time, exchange rates and commodity prices were printed in regular news sheets, or “currents”—a quietly revolutionary move.

Pye illustrates the rapacity of this burgeoning money market with the story of the Italian Gaspar Ducci, an expert in the fluctuation of exchange rates and the available money supply. Ducci was violent and arrogant, openly attacking a wealthy engineer, Gilbert van Schoonbeke, in 1545. With no allegiance to a nation or monarch, he dealt in huge, complicated loans, playing rulers against each other; his clients included Henry VIII, Mary of Hungary, and Charles V. When he went too far, cornering all the city’s cash, silver, and gold and stopping trade dead, he was banned from the Beurs for three years, but he soon bounced back. In this “new-fangled trade with no apparent rules,” principles and loyalties had no place. Personal gain was the only guiding light.

Ducci is a flagrant example of the entrepreneurial freedom that drove Antwerp’s growth. “Liberty” became a byword in matters small and large: visitors noted the freedom to carry weapons in the street and the relaxation of Lenten rules. They commented, too, on the ease with which girls talked to boys. At a school run by Peter Heyns, the daughters of civil servants and merchants from all over the Netherlands learned conventional feminine skills, yet many went on to lead unconventional, independent lives as “women who took over businesses from their late husbands, or started firms in their own right, or set up as art dealers or painters.” The law may have rendered women legally incapable—“they needed a male guardian to do anything”—but once married, a wife could stand in during a husband’s absence, make all decisions, and, with his agreement, set up as a trader on her own. A degree of financial independence continued for widows after their husbands’ deaths.

Antwerp needed workers, and women stallholders and shopkeepers amounted to one in ten of the city’s merchants. Among those Pye mentions are a printer, a moneylender, a seller of armor, and two surgeons, as well as dealers in the spice trade and marine insurance. The artist Catharina van Hemessen worked for Mary of Hungary, became a member of the Guild of St. Luke, and painted “the first known signed self-portrait of a working artist, a woman insisting on being seen.” At the start of the sixteenth century Heylwijch Swandeleeren was working as an art dealer, and when the new Beurs was built many women followed her, selling paintings in the smart shops on the second floor.

As trade ebbed and flowed, Antwerp remained a boom town for publishers. In 1548 or 1549 the young French printer, bookbinder, and humanist Christophe Plantin, “the lodestar of the Northern Renaissance,” moved there from Paris. Within ten years he was the most respected publisher in Europe, selling his works at the Frankfurt Fair and producing everything from Bibles and emblem books to texts on theology, travel, anatomy, botany, and history. In Pye’s words:

The same factors that made the city unstable and defiant, the clandestine flow of information, the reluctance to impose uncomfortable imperial laws, the weakness of local guilds, the availability of money and the influence of foreign merchants in an empire which otherwise put a high value on every kind of orthodoxy, all this allowed Plantin his career.

For a long time he negotiated all obstacles, until he ran into trouble in 1562, when his journeymen printed a Calvinist work while he was away in Paris. Although his presses were shut down after this offense, he returned with a new company, making loud, strategic avowals of his Catholic orthodoxy.

The tides of religion, so difficult to navigate even for the skillful Plantin, provide Pye’s most telling examples of the possibilities and limits of Antwerp’s “liberty.” One arresting illustration, of both the city’s trading power and its slippery relations with its Hapsburg overlords, concerns the Iberian Jews. After Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492, thousands fled to Portugal, later converting under pressure to Catholicism and becoming known as conversos or novos cristãos. Seeking to escape to a place where they could openly practice their Jewish faith, many chose a route through Antwerp, traveling up the Rhine and over the Alps to the friendly Italian states of Ferrara and Ancona, or beyond to Istanbul.

The Ottoman Empire was the keenest rival to the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V, and Antwerp was in a delicate position, “quietly tolerating a wholesale defiance of heresy laws” while balancing valuable Ottoman trade against the demands of imperial power. In 1532, when Charles V arrested Diego Mendes—lender to empires and brother to Francisco, leader of the largest family trading and banking group in Europe—for “heresy and living as a Jew,” there were howls of outrage, from both merchants and the Portuguese crown. Arguing that the case was out of imperial jurisdiction, the city took over. Mendes was bailed out, at a cost of 50,000 ducats. Two years after Diego’s death in 1535 his brother Francisco’s widow, Dona Gracia, arrived in Antwerp, becoming the powerful head of the House of Mendes, and a decade later took her family to Ferrara and eventually to Istanbul.

The glory years were slowly undermined by international tensions, religious zeal, and the start of the Netherlands’ long, brutal struggle against Spain. First, after a dispute with Philip II over imports of Spanish silver, the Merchant Adventurers moved the valuable English wool trade to Emden. Then a Calvinist uprising in 1566, marked by violent iconoclasm, lost Antwerp the “secular advantage” that came from its easy tolerance of religious beliefs. The Calvinist dominance of the city in turn provoked Philip II, whose new governor, the ruthless Duke of Alba, had no qualms about trying Protestants for heresy. Alba was also fighting rebellion across the Netherlands orchestrated by William the Silent (William of Orange), but when his funds from Philip II ran out in November 1576, his angry, unpaid soldiers mutinied, sacking Antwerp, demanding money, attacking merchants’ houses, burning entire districts, and filling the streets with corpses.

The Spanish were driven out within a year and some calm returned: in the early 1580s there was even hope of a sensational new Ottoman trade deal. But the Spanish relentlessly regained control, besieging Antwerp, now the center of the Dutch Revolt, for fourteen months and blockading and sealing off the Scheldt. When the starving city eventually fell in 1585, Calvinists and other Protestants fled to the Netherlands’ northern states. With them went the printers, booksellers, and publishers. Amsterdam took over as the hub of trade and art, “feeding off the corpse of Antwerp.” With a powerful feeling for the loss of the bustling, heterogeneous city he describes so vividly, Pye imagines Antwerp in the early seventeenth century, almost silent in its Baroque beauty, with grass growing in the streets—the city of Rubens, but a shell of its former self.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the title of George Wickram’s story collection Der Knaben Spiegel and misstated the setting for the opening of Thomas More’s Utopia.