In the summer of 1822, the blind writer Petronella Moens came to live in Utrecht. Together with Antje Camphuis, she first settled on the Oudegracht, later on the Oudkerkhof, before moving into a few upper rooms in 1836 at Nieuwegracht 30 – around the corner from Herenstraat. Moens died there on January 4, 1843, six months after Antje’s death. Both women ended up in the same grave at the Soesterberg cemetery on Gansstraat.
Traces of lesbian life in the past are hard to find. Women have rarely been convicted of sodomy, although that “crime” included sex between women. In practice, mainly men were prosecuted, but in the 1790s thirteen women were convicted in Amsterdam for ‘unnaturally dirty activities’.
An additional complication is that the labels lesbian and gay were only invented in the 19th century. Many historians therefore wonder whether it is possible and desirable to stick those labels on people from a more distant past, such as Petronella Moens. She maintained deep friendships with women during her life, but can or should we call them lesbian or queer? That question will probably never be answered, but it is clear that Petronella was ‘different’.
Petronella Moens was born on November 16, 1762 in Kubaard near Bolsward in the north of the country, as the second daughter of Maria Lyklama à Nijholt and the reformed minister Petrus Moens. In 1764 father Moens was employed in Aardenburg and the family moved to this town in the southwest province Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.
When Petronella was 4 years old, her mother died in childbirth. Baby Baukje Maria survived, but not much later Petronella contracted smallpox and became almost blind. Nevertheless, she learned to write. Her father wrote the letters in her hand, after which Petronella practiced the letterforms with pins on a pillow.
Father Moens was a child of the Enlightenment. In Aardenburg he was involved in a local predecessor of the Maatschappij tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen (Society for the Benefit of the General), founded in 1784. Moens himself had an extensive library from which Petronella was read. She became acquainted with the works of the Church Fathers, classics from Dutch literature and contemporary writers, such as Aagje Deken and Betje Wolff – also known as ‘Beemster Sappho’.
As a teenager, Petronella wrote her first poems that were transcribed by her father or her sisters. In 1785, when she was 23 years old, she won the gold medal of an Amsterdam Poetry and Letterloving Society for her poem De waare Christ (The true Christian).
Around this time Petronella moved to Bergen op Zoom, where she wrote Esther, in vier boeken (Esther in four books) (1786) with her best friend Adriana van Overstraten. With this they won a gold medal from the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Together they published even more, but Moens was also successful solo. Her Eerkrans voor Aardenburg (Honor Wreath for Aardenburg) (1788) was awarded a silver prize from the Zeeland city.
During her stay in Bergen op Zoom, Petronella radicalized, partly thanks to her acquaintance with preacher and patriot Bernardus Bosch. Inspired by the French Revolution, the patriots also demanded democratization in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, starting with the departure of Stadtholder William V, Prince of Orange-Nassau. In 1794, with the help of the French, the government was overthrown and the Batavian Republic (1795-1801) was proclaimed.
Together with Bosch, Petronella supported the patriotic cause with propaganda literature, but Moens also wrote contributions to radical magazines such as De Menschenvriend (1788-1797) – for women’s suffrage and against the slave trade, among other things. Later, in the novel Aardenburg, of de Onbekende volksplanting in Zuid-Amerika (Aardenburg, or the Unknown Settlement in South America) (1817), she pleaded for an enlightened Christian, humane organization of colonial plantation society.
Around 1800 Petronella started to make a name for herself as an author of children’s books. She earned her own money writing, but still lived dependent on others. She lived with her sisters in Aardenburg and The Hague. When she was almost 60, however, she decided to live independently: in Utrecht.
In the Dom city, Petronella, with the help of her ‘writing assistant’ annex housemate Antje, mainly wrote work about and for women, such as Legaat aan mijne vrouwelijke landgenooten (Bequest to my female compatriots) (1829). Like many of her contemporaries, Petronella believed that motherhood was the vocation of women, but at the same time she believed that women should also be enlightened. She therefore pleaded for better education and everyday convenience such as practical clothing.
During her years in Utrecht, Petronella befriended the Lutheran pastor Johannes Decker Zimmermann. On March 16, 1843, more than three months after her death, he organized a ‘Corpse Festival’ in honor of Moens in the Evangelical Lutheran Church on Hamburgerstraat. His memorial speech was published together with the memoirs of the writer-poet Willem Hendrik Warnsinck, who was friends with Petronella, as the biography Petronella Moens (1843).
Although her work has not stood the test of time, the name Petronella Moens remained known. As late as 1950, the national circle for visually impaired and blind intellectuals and artists was named after her: Academic Society Petronella Moens. Half a century later, in 2001, she was given a statue in Aardenburg.
In Utrecht, Petronella has been included in the Wandelgids Sporen van slavernij in Utrecht (Walking Guide Traces of Slavery in Utrecht) (2012) because of her efforts to abolish the slave trade. Location 19 reflects on her house at Nieuwegracht 30 and recalls the poem Bij de afschaffing van den slaavenhandel door de Fransche natie’ (On the abolition of the slave trade by the French nation) (1798) and the novel Aardenburg, of de onbekende volksplanting in Zuid-Amerika (Aardenburg, or the unknown settlement in South America) (1817).
‘De blinde verlichte. Petronella Moens’ in: Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen e.a. (red.), Met en zonder lauwerkrans. Schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd, 1550-1850, van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar (Amsterdam University Press, 1997) 742-754.
Esther Captain mmv Hans Visser, Wandelgids sporen van slavernij in Utrecht (Universiteit Utrecht / Centre for the Humanities, 2012).
Myriam Everard, Ziel en zinnen. Over liefde en lust tussen vrouwen in de tweede helft van de achttiende eeuw (Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 1994).
Theo van der Meer, ‘Evenals een man zijn vrouw liefkoost. Tribades voor het Amsterdamse gerecht in de achttiende eeuw’ in: Gert Hekma e.a. (red.), Goed verkeerd. Een geschiedenis van homoseksuele mannen en lesbische vrouwen in Nederland (Amsterdam 1989) 33-44.
Ans J. Veltman-van den Bos, Petronella Moens, 1762-1843 (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2000).
Ans J. Veltman-van den Bos, ‘Utrecht, waar ik onderscheiden vrienden bezit, verkoos ik tot myn woonplaats’, Tijdschrift Oud-Utrecht (juni 2020) 23-25.
Margaretha Cornelia Boellaard, Portrait of Petronella Moens, n.d. Collection Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Source: https://hdl.handle.net/21.12130/collect.C51D8ADB-F864-4A43-9F51-68A812A324E9
Margaretha Cornelia Boellaard, Portrait of Petronella Moens and Antje Camphuis, 1836. Collection Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Source: https://hdl.handle.net/21.12130/collect.1A9BDCA9-29D6-4FF2-A6DF-EDAF400E9687
Statue of Petronella Moens placed in Aardenburg in 2001, made by Ineke Ekkers. Source: Wikipedia, https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petronella_Moens#/media/Bestand:Aardenburg_-_Borstbeeld_Petronella_Moens.jpg
Nieuwegracht 30. Photo: Anna Kooij. Source: Traces of slavery website in Utrecht, https://sporenvanslavernijutrecht.nl/sporen-in-utrecht/de-kerk-en-abolitionisten/petronella-moens/