The Golden Age
Het raadsel van de Republiek
The enigma of the Republic
The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was the land of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals, where Descartes and Spinoza were also able to work out their ideas in peace and tranquillity. The economic and cultural flowering of this small country bordering on the North Sea has been an endless source of fascination down the ages. Until now there was no modern, concise and thorough history of this complex and intriguing state. That lacuna has now been filled by Maarten Prak’s The Golden Age.
Prak answers the question of how this ragbag collection of provinces – wealthy through trade, powerful due to an efficient army, and politically successful thanks to its intelligent statesmen – was able to throw off the yoke of the Spanish Habsburgers. And how the Netherlands developed into a world power which ruled the seas and, not without reason, was described as the ‘the envy of some, the fear of others, and the wonder of all its neighbours.’
The Netherlands was a paradoxical land. As a state, it consisted of seven sovereign provinces which were dominated by the cities, first and foremost Amsterdam. But within those cities there was no unity, due to conflicts between local political factions. Prak guides the reader through this maze of conflicting relationships. Due to the small scale of these urban communities, people knew each other and this meant that in spite of conflict there was an atmosphere of mutual trust, a concept which plays a key role in this book. Thanks to that trust, the Dutch burgher was easily persuaded to participate in communal projects – such as the country’s colonial ventures – and to lend the government money, enabling it to finance costly wars against its powerful neighbours.
Prak demonstrates that the country’s power, prosperity and cultural vigour were the result of the loose political structure, the general tolerance, the great freedom enjoyed by the burghers, and a mentality which was more inclined to solve problems by discussion and compromise than by musket shots and cannonades. The Golden Age combines sweeping analysis with detailed stories of individuals and events. These include ‘ordinary people’ from all the various strata of Dutch society, the career of the painter Johannes Vermeer, the position of Jewish immigrants within Dutch society, and the rise of the tulip.