The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century
History of the Low Countries: Episodes and Problems
As an historian, Pieter Geyl has two claims to distinction. The first is as the author of a major reappraisal of Dutch history in the heroic period of the late sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, and the other is as a shrewd and pugnacious commentator on the methods of other historians, alive and dead. He is, for example, the most damaging, though not the most acidulated, critic of the metaphysical speculations dressed up as history put about by Arnold Toynbee, concluding with a wealth of supporting evidence and argument that “the whole imposing work is a travesty of the scientific method.” The books under review are the last two of his three-volume history of the Netherlands (first published in Dutch thirty years ago and now fully translated into English), and a collection of essays on select topics of Dutch history over the past four hundred years, including, for reasons which will appear in a moment, an attack on the philosophical attitudes of Mr. E. H. Carr.
Some years ago Geyl wrote: “History cannot be conceived, and it cannot be written or communicated, except from a point of view conditioned by the circumstances of the historian. One can even argue that, humans being what they are, history can benefit by a close contact of the historian’s imagination, or awareness, with contemporary life.” The thirteen months Mr. Geyl spent in the Buchenwald concentration camp are ample testimony to his involvement in current issues, and it was a passionately held belief which inspired his major reassessment of the history of the Netherland over the last four hundred years.
Geyl is a European, to whom the grandiose visions of proponents of universal history like Geoffrey Barraclough are both meaningless and unhistorical. The key to his achievement lies in the fact that he is a Flemish nationalist, who finds it impossible to accept as natural or inevitable the political division of the Dutch-speaking peoples. This basic premise allowed him to look at the sixteenth-century evolution of the Netherlands in quite a new light. In the middle of the sixteenth century the accident of dynastic marriage and inheritance had placed under the Spanish crown a loose agglomeration of provinces and cities, some French-speaking and some Dutch, collectively known as the Netherlands. A few years later an armed revolt began which eventually resulted in the division of the area into Belgium and Holland as we know them today. As interpreted by Geyl, this revolt of the Northern Provinces against the rule of Spain ceased to be a heroic struggle for political independence and religious freedom by a people in arms, as it had been to historians like Motley and Fruin. It became the work of a tiny but resolute minority imposing its views upon an inert or hostile majority.
For reasons of geographical convenience, a band of Calvinist desperadoes—mostly exiles from the south—chose to set up their headquarters in the north behind the river barriers. There they dug in, held down the Catholic majority by …