1650: Hard-won Unity
Life and society in the Dutch Golden Age: An excellent introduction to seventeenth-century society
This ambitious study presents the latest views on society during the famous Dutch Golden Age. No other general work treats the most important themes of Dutch culture so systematically. The book is more informative, more soundly researched and less speculative than Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches (1987). It is also an outstanding complement to Jonathan Israel’s great work, The Dutch Republic (1995), with its predominantly economic and political approach.
Although 1650 is the central year, the subject is examined in a much broader time frame, which makes the book an excellent introduction to seventeenth-century society in general. The national and international political situation is used as a backdrop for an analysis of such major centres of power as the stadtholder’s court and the municipal councils. Even more strongly, the book lays stress on the intellectual, professional and religious networks of which citizens could be members, and on the important role of family connections. Philosophy, religion and the arts are treated at length, and particular attention is paid to the ‘instruments of culture’, that is, to the institutions and media responsible for the dissemination of culture, including language, education and the printed word.
The book makes it clear how widely the inhabitants of the Netherlands differed – in origin, religion and social status – and how broad their range of cultural expressions was. In this connection, the authors mention numerous centrifugal forces, such as the differences between the seven provinces, the attitude of Orangists to those opposed to the stadtholder, competition between various towns, the clash of political factions inside them, and, of course, the different religious denominations. However, the book also suggests that a kind of ‘united sense’ gradually developed, not least thanks to a shared language and the predominance of Calvinism.
At the same time, characteristic patterns of the Dutch emerged, amongst them the open nature of society, the role of the ‘sense of honour’, and the tendency to settle disputes by discussion rather than force. In the Netherlands there was no absolute source of power comparable to that present in the European monarchies: horizontal relationships and the ‘division of power’ were more important than any vertical hierarchy. The Dutch mentality is summed up in this monumental synthesis as a ‘passion for consensus’.