High Point in Low Countries

The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age

by Simon Schama
Knopf, 698 pp., $39.95

The Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century struck the foreign visitor as a society set apart from the rest of Europe. On a continent of beleaguered monarchies, the Dutch had founded a solid republic, and created a prosperous society. While Catholics and Protestants destroyed each other in bloody sectarian war, the Dutch provided an atmosphere of tolerance, if not equality, for people of many creeds. But like every other golden age, the Golden Age of the Republic did not last long. The Northern Netherlands began its revolt against the Spanish crown in 1566, and by 1598, after immeasurable hardship and struggle, had not only secured its status as an independent state but had become a major European power. Barely seventy-five years later, the soldiers of Louis XIV invaded Dutch soil and effectively reduced the nation to the secondary status it has occupied ever since.

When historians puzzled over the origins of this marvelous anomaly, an odd mixture of power, prosperity, and tolerance, they eventually centered their attention on the mercantile character of the Dutch. The wealth of the Dutch was derived from trade, and they were famous as the middlemen of Europe. Thus enriched, they formed what is often regarded as the first bourgeois capitalist society. For Max Weber the mainspring of this society was Dutch Calvinism, which, supposedly by discouraging consumption, promoted the process of capital formation. Or, as Simon Schama puts it in a characteristically colorful way, “Usually [the Dutch] are allotted the role of third-leg baton carrier in the race that took capitalism from medieval merchant venturers through Renaissance banking to the Dutch international staple economy and onwards at a sprint to the finishing line of British industrialization.”

Schama’s book is skeptical of single explanations of the “Dutch miracle.” He finds at the center of Dutch society not bourgeois complacency but the “anxieties of superabundance” and the “moral ambiguity of good fortune.” These caused the Dutch to rejoice in their fabulous prosperity while fearing that the pleasure they took in it was the very invitation to disaster. In Schama’s view Dutch society experienced a continual tension between the liberating ideas of humanism espoused by Erasmus and his followers and the narrow strictures of Calvinist preachers; between the flexible morality of commerce and the rigorous dictates of faith; between restraint and prodigality. To put it crudely, Schama’s typical burgher was a “binger,” whose bouts of materialistic overindulgence were followed by pangs of spiritual guilt; the tension between the two created a dynamic equilibrium in his social behavior.

Schama is first concerned to show how the Dutch defined themselves as a nation. Lacking common ground in a king or a creed (only 55 percent of the population was Calvinist), the Dutch invented a national mythology that served both to hold together the somewhat accidental agglomeration of people who inhabited the seven united provinces and to raise their self-esteem. The mythology combined the events of a legendary history, centered on the ancient Germanic tribe of Batavians, with …

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