The Lost Moments of History

The lost moments of history—I owe that phrase to the most stimulating and original historian of ideas, the late Dame Frances Yates. It comes in her book on the Valois tapestries, the great series of tapestries, now in Florence, which were woven about 1580 for Catherine de Médicis, queen mother of France, the tormented France of the Wars of Religion. They were woven in the Netherlands, then in revolt against Spain, and Dame Frances believed that they were presented to the Queen by William of Orange, the leader of that revolt. In this she seems to have been mistaken, but that, for my purpose, is irrelevant. What is relevant is that, whether those tapestries directly recorded it or not, there was at that time a great “moment,” that is—for the word is used here in its strict classical sense—a great turning point, in the history of Europe: a point at which the struggle in the Netherlands seemed to be resolved. That moment followed the conclusion of the so-called Pacification of Ghent in 1576.

If that pacification had been confirmed, and had lasted, if the Erasmian William of Orange had been able to establish a French prince, the Duke of Anjou—married (as was hoped) to Queen Elizabeth of England—as protector of the still undivided Netherlands, how different the history of Europe might have been! The tide of religious war might then perhaps have been turned back or drained away; the old Burgundian unity of the Netherlands—the economic and cultural heart of northern Europe—might have been preserved; the ecumenical ideals that had been damaged but not yet destroyed might have been realized. A process might then have been begun which, if continued, if favored by luck and skill, could have transformed history and perhaps spared Europe the terrible experience of the Thirty Years’ War.

Of course it did not happen thus and we can presume nothing. History is full of surprises, and if we lose the capacity to be surprised by it, we have lost the sense of it. The Pacification, so hopeful at the start, foundered. But in considering what actually happened in history we must not forget the ideas, the hopes, perhaps the illusions that are also part of its substance. “That lost and forgotten hour of history,” as Dame Frances called it, marked the last serious and perhaps practical attempt to restore and continue the historic unity of the Netherlands. When it had failed, the struggle of parties was resumed, the great powers of Europe became more deeply involved in the war, the polarization of religion was sharpened, and, in the end, from the wreckage thus caused there emerged two new states, distinct and antithetical: so distinct, indeed, that when, in 1815, in the great reorganization of Europe that followed the defeat of Napoleon, they were reunited, it was too late. The union, which had once been natural and organic, was now found to be artificial, and fifteen years later the two …

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