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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 dramatic episodes of the recent war against Spain to produce the image of the Dutch as a new chosen people. The first generation of the seventeenth century, Schama writes, “invested the struggle against Spain with the global importance of thwarting the Spanish Counter-Reformation…. The last generation saw their own sacrifices of purses and blood as part of the divinely ordained war against Catholic tyranny.” But the essential feature of the national myth was its versatility. “By synthesizing the ‘ancient’ seventeen-hundred-year-old history of Batavian freedom with the notion of a national birth through ordeal, exodus and redemption, it was able to avoid the kind of moral exclusivism that had brought other countries to civil war in the period.”

Schama puts a great many different activities and attitudes under scrutiny to demonstrate just how capacious and versatile Dutch society was. If the reader has thought of the Dutch as abstemious, the chapter “Feasting, Fasting and Timely Atonement” will correct that error. Great feasts were part of the religious calendar but were also staged as the occasion arose. Thus, to take an extreme case, a wake held in a small Frisian town in 1660 offered the guests a menu of 20 oxheads of wine, 70 half-casks of ale, 1100 pounds of meat, 550 pounds of sirloin, 28 breasts of veal, 12 whole sheep, 18 great venison in white pastry, and 200 pounds of chopped meat. Drinking and smoking nicely complemented the gluttony:

The smell of the Dutch Republic was the smell of tobacco. In the middle of the eighteenth century the French traveler Grosley counted three hundred smokers in a single modest inn at Rotterdam…. Foreigners were especially repelled by the spectacle of women blowing smoke from between tar-blackened teeth.

Then, as now, beer was a staple of Dutch life and economy; indeed, producers and consumers were happily locked in a bibulous embrace. “It is known, for example, that in 1613 there were as many as 518 alehouses in Amsterdam alone, or one for every two hundred inhabitants.” The moralists moralized while the drinkers drank and the smokers smoked, albeit with somewhat troubled consciences, ready to practice bad habits until periodic disasters—waves of illness, for example—seemed to deliver the dire promises of retribution.

Another casualty of Schama’s account is the frugal Dutchman. “Despite prevailing stereotypes, then, the Dutch economy in its prime did not turn on the habit of thrift. There is as much reason to describe it as a spend-and-prosper economy as a save-and-prosper economy.” The author takes us through the Dutch patrician’s house, bursting with expensive furniture, imported carpets, and quantities of plate. Even in the popular lotteries, which were civic occasions usually held for charity, the prizes were luxury wares, including “fine tapestries and bedsteads with velvet draperies, all preciously embroidered.”

There is, too, or was, the prudent Dutchman, the proto-capitalist. Examine him closely, Schama suggests, and you’ll find a protectionist, not a free-marketeer; or you’ll find a gambler, not an investor. Writing of the Trip family, once regarded as the quintessential Dutch entrepreneurs for their international dealings in iron, munitions, tar, and other commodities, Schama quotes the study of P.W. Klein, who notes that the Trips “always made every effort to avoid [market] risks,” preferring monopolies over imported products and dealings within their own commercial network to free enterprise. The Dutch also discovered that the difference between the stock exchange and the gambling casino was largely a matter of interior decoration. The tulip mania of 1636–1637, when speculation drove up the price of a single bulb to several thousand dollars, is still famous in the annals of commodity markets. Less well known is the practice called “trading in the wind,” whereby a speculator hopes to turn a quick profit on a stock he never pays for. Yet in the financial world, as elsewhere in Dutch society, Schama finds a restraint for every excess that kept things on course if not exactly on an even keel.

In the third and most cohesive section of the book, Schama describes the intimate life of the Dutch by guiding the reader through a sociological house tour. The obsessive cleanliness of the Dutch is not a fiction; the Dutch truly believed that the road to salvation was washed once a week, like the pavement in front of their houses. They also invested cleanliness with patriotism:

To be clean was to be patriotic, vigilant in the defense of one’s homeland, hometown and home against invading polluters and polluted invaders. The Dutch could not help brandishing their brushes in the faces of grimier, heathen folk.

A well-regulated routine in home life was the “irreducible primary cell” of the social body, where the sustaining values of the society were observed by the old and inculcated into the young. Presiding over this tidy, privileged place was the housewife, the subject of a fascinating account on the lives of women in Dutch society:

While obedience was required from a wife, it was not unconditional. “If the man is the Head, then the woman is the neck on which it rests,” said one work, somewhat bleakly. That neck, though, was not to be stretched in meek submission. Violent, drunken or otherwise unwholesome conduct in the husband had to be lovingly corrected by the loyal wife through pious example and respectful admonition. Wives who had the misfortune to discover the stain of vice in their spouse only after they had wed were consoled by the commonplace that many a reprobate who had dissipated his life in “wijnte en’trijnte” (i.e., in wine and women) had been reformed after his marriage through the firmness and love of a good woman…. If, in spite of all these efforts, the delinquent was deaf to his wife’s entreaties and truly incorrigible, his faults could be brought to the attention of either the church council or the magistrates or both. And it was not uncommon for despairing wives to bring their own husband’s case before the kerkraad in the hope of chastening his way of life before ruin descended on their house…. At no time was a wife expected to be tyrannized by her spouse.

Yet, as Schama’s law dictates, for every good there was an evil, in this case the demimonde of illicit love inhabited by seductive prostitutes and unfaithful husbands.

In the “republic of children” we meet what the Dutch affectionately called the “little perishers.” Taking issue with the theories on the history of childhood advanced by Philippe Ariès, who saw children during this period as miniature adults, Schama assigns to children an important place in Dutch society. Dutch children, he finds, behaved like children:

Their repertoire of naughtiness is all too real: not just face pulling, dish banging, cackling, yowling, howling, bellowing pandemonium, but gleeful pulls on pipes, swigging jars of ale and roemers of Rhenish.

Yet children were also regarded as the future of the young republic and thus became metaphors of nationhood. Their games provided not only amusement but also moral instruction.

All of this makes fascinating reading, not least because Schama writes with a verve that occasionally borders on the self-indulgent. After 612 pages of verbal pyrotechnics some readers may start to weary of the display, especially since the thesis of the book is constantly reiterated. But exhaustion is a small price to pay for the pleasure of reading him, say, in the meaty passage in which he contrasts the moral qualities of the national dishes of England and the Netherlands:

Roast beef was the man of action’s heroic dish, commingling muscle and blood, energy and power. The great stews of the Netherlands were more to the taste of ruminative humanism: patiently assembled, eclectic in content, moderately spiced, slowly cooked and even more deliberately eaten.

The Dutch hotpot, he continues, repeating his general thesis yet again, was “copious rather than gluttonous, modest rather than mean: the national stew was the perfect way to sanction abundance without risking retribution for greed.”

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