Pater meus agricola est: The early years of Alexander Agricola

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The circumstances of Alexander Agricola's birth and early years, as revealed by newly discovered documents in Ghent, were not especially happy. He and his brother Jan (who was almost certainly a musician as well) were the illegitimate children of Lijsbette Naps, an independent businesswoman in her forties who, according to all indications, had been taken advantage of by their natural father, Heinric Ackerman. The latter emerges as an unreliable and unscrupulous individual, an expert in what we now call creative accounting, who apparently sought to make his fortune by marrying or handling the affairs of wealthy women. In 1444 he seems have set his sights on Lijsbette Naps, with whom he had traded on behalf of another woman early that year. Lijsbette was wealthy, independent, and by all accounts not a person who could easily be duped - least of all by Heinric, in whom she clearly had little trust. Yet she was also vulnerable: unmarried, without family or other social networks in Ghent, and, as a non-citizen, not entitled to a range of civic privileges and legal protections. Given what the documents reveal about Heinric's previous dealings, it is not hard to guess what might have happened next. This essay presents the most likely scenario in light of the available evidence, and discusses the consequences and implications for the composer's youth and upbringing in Ghent during the 1450s and early 1460s. The circumstances of his birth, as it turns out, lend considerable irony to the scriptural passage which Agricola selected as the title for one of his musical settings: 'I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman' (pater meus agricola est; John 15:1). By the standards of his own time, Alexander was neither a 'true' vine, nor had his father proved himself a caring husbandman. The musical fruits he bore as a composer are to be credited in large part to Lijsbette, who chose to raise her sons as a single mother while running a profitable business and maintaining her social and economic independence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-390
Number of pages16
JournalEarly Music
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Music


  • Alexander Agricola
  • Heinric Ackerman
  • Lijsbette Naps


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