Markendaalse Church, Prinsenkade, 4811 VB Breda, Netherlands
Maria van Antwerpen (January 17, 1719 - January 16, 1781), who was tried twice in the eighteenth century for marrying women, described in her autobiography how, as the soldier Jan van Ant, she courted servant girls and widows so as to remove any doubt about her masculinity. She enlisted three times as a soldier and married a woman twice, in 1748 in Coevorden under the name Jan van Ant to Johanna Cramers, and in 1762 in Zwolle as Machiel van Hantwerpen to Cornelia Swartsenberg.
Maria van Antwerpen was born into a large Catholic family. She was the aughter of Johannes van Antwerpen (1667-1732), brandy distiller and 'kraankind', and Johanna de Swart (1682-1731). Her father was initially a small entrepreneur with some property, but ended up as a 'crane child' (a kind of dock worker) in the service of the city. The financial hardship must have been a reason that Mary was given at a young age to an aunt, who treated her badly. After the death of her parents shortly after each other – Maria was thirteen at the time – she worked for various Breda families as a maid. At the end of 1745 she was employed as a maid in Wageningen. There she was discharged in the middle of winter, and because she could not find work anywhere else, she made the radical decision to dress up as a man and enlist as a soldier. As 'Jan van Ant, born in Arnhem, sixteen years old, she signed a six-year contract with the army in Grave at the end of January 1746. A good year and a half later, he married Johanna Cramers, a sergeant's daughter, in Coevorden. After a few wanderings, the regiment of Jan was stationed in Breda. There Mary was recognized by the daughter of a family where she had once worked as a maid. She was arrested and in May 1751 sentenced by the court-martial to exile from Brabant and Limburg and from all garrison towns.
After this verdict, Maria, now dressed as a woman again and after some wanderings, settled in Gouda. She also lived in Rotterdam for several years. She made a living sewing. In Gouda she met Cornelia Swartsenberg. Cornelia was unmarried and pregnant, knew Mary's history, and persuaded her to live as a man again and marry her. Maria again assumed a male identity, this time as Machiel van Hantwerpen, and went to Zwolle, where she again enlisted as a soldier in 1762. Cornelia followed, and they married that same year. Two years later, Machiel resigned after a conflict and moved to Amsterdam with Cornelia. Cornelia was pregnant again – the first child was stillborn – according to Maria as a result of a rape. This second child was baptized as Willibrordes in the Roman Catholic church De Posthoorn in Amsterdam, but died after seven weeks.
In 1766 Maria became a soldier for the third time, now in the service of the city of Amsterdam. In 1769, this second period of travesty also came to an end. Machiel was recognized during a trip in Montfoort by someone who had known her as a woman in Gouda. Cornelia managed to flee, but Maria was arrested and tried in Gouda. The alderman's bank sentenced her to exile from Holland and West Friesland. Then Mary disappears from view.
Maria's life (until 1769) can be reconstructed on the basis of the extensive interrogations that the Gouda court took from her at her second arrest. In 1751, De Bredasche Heldinne, or remarkable life-cases of Maria van Antwerpen, her autobiography, recorded by Franciscus Lievens Kersteman, was published. The Bredasche Heldinne is modeled, embellished and supplemented after the genre of the schelmenroman, but Kersteman must have recorded the story from Maria's own mouth, in the prison of Breda, where he was imprisoned for fraud at the same time as Maria. The basic data is consistent with other sources. Finally, a so-called news song has also been written and distributed about her: An entertaining song of a manly woman, who has served the state of Holland for five years and six month as a grenadier within Breda. However, this no longer has much to do with the historic Maria of Antwerp.
Mary's decision to live as a man was in line with a tradition of female transvestism that was known throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century. She herself stated that she had been inspired by earlier examples, and indeed, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, two other famous women living as men reportedly lived in Breda: Elisabeth Someruell (Lys Saint Mourel) and the English ex-pirate Mary Read. Dressing up as a man was a good way to find work, because soldiers and sailors were always in demand. Maria's biography shows that her transvestism had at least an economic reason. The motives must have been more complex – she herself mentioned patriotism in wartime and help to a friend in need. The question remains why she officially married a woman twice, the first time even to a woman who did not know that her husband was a woman. The judges asked if she was a tribade (lesbian) – there were very severe punishments – but Maria managed to convince them that she had only lived as sisters with her wives. Moreover, as Mary insisted for a long time, she was actually really a man. Physical examination showed that she was anatomically a normal woman, but she herself stated: I am a man person in nature, but outwardly a woman person. This indicates transsexuality, the feeling of being born in the body of the opposite sex.
For a woman – albeit not an ordinary woman – from the common people of the eighteenth century, the life of Mary of Antwerp is remarkably well documented. Her biography provides information not only about the life of a female soldier, but also about that of a woman at the bottom of society, a life she will have shared with many. She was an early orphan and had been working as a maid since she was thirteen. Later she lived mainly from sewing work – also as a man she earned extra money as a tailor – but also from 'squabbling' as a trade in second-hand goods and selling Orange ribbon at Oranjefeesten. She often moved, moved from city to city, lived in boarding houses or rented rooms, such as in Amsterdam in the Jordaan. As a woman she was single, but she knew many people and often shared her shelter with a 'comrade'. Her basic network remained her extended family: she usually lived with a relative nearby. Her family also knew about her transvestism; at the baptism of her 'son' was a brother of her baptismal witness.
Eventually she also returned to her hometown Breda. There she was buried 'of the poor' in 1781, in the back part of the cemetery of the Markendaalsekerk.
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