World » Europe » Netherlands

The best books on The Dutch Golden Age

recommended by Maarten Prak

The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century by Maarten Prak

The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century
by Maarten Prak

Read

The Netherlands witnessed a flourishing in the late 16th and first half of the 17th century, leading the world in technology, commerce and the arts, particularly painting. Historian Maarten Prak recommends five books to help you understand why the Dutch Golden Age saw the invention of stock exchanges and why it produced Rembrandt, too.

Interview by Benedict King

The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century by Maarten Prak

The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century
by Maarten Prak

Read

Before we get to the books, a general question: what was the Dutch Golden Age?

The Dutch Golden Age was a period in Dutch history but it was also an episode in world history, as a newly formed country became the leader of the world economy in the first half of the 17th century, more or less overnight. It produced a lot of riches for the Dutch. It is perhaps best remembered for producing a lot of art that you can see still see in museums around the world, because not only was it high quality, it was also produced in huge volumes.

The term has become contentious in the Netherlands because it was also a period of slavery. Some people claim—I think not entirely borne out by the evidence—that the Dutch Golden Age was also the result of slavery. In fact, much of the growth of slavery happened after the Dutch Golden Age came to an end in the second half of the 17th century. The Dutch remained very rich. Even at the beginning of the 19th century, the Netherlands was the richest country in the world on a per capita basis. Those riches were very unevenly distributed but including the colonies is problematic because colonization proper only started in the 19th century. Before that, the Dutch colonial empire was really a string of trading posts. Yes, colonial exploitation was part of the whole story, but it only became very significant in economic terms in the 18th century, rather than in the 17th century.

I’d like to add that there are a number of surveys or general textbooks on the Golden Age. The biggest and best-known was written by Jonathan Israel. I wrote one myself, which is shorter. I have selected only English language texts for the conversation we are going to have, because of the nature of your website. There are numerous titles in Dutch on this topic, but most of your readers will not be served very well by the inclusion of Dutch language works.

In his history of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel talks about the birth of the radical Enlightenment, which was in large part a Dutch phenomenon. He says that it’s a huge problem in the historical profession that not all historians of the early modern period can read French, and that hardly any of them know Dutch. If you don’t know French and Dutch that gives a huge skew to your research, giving the English-speaking world—and the moderate Enlightenment—a completely unjustified prominence in the central debates of the Enlightenment.

Jonathan and all the historians that we’re going to talk about are exceptional in that they were able to read Dutch source materials. So one of the wonderful aspects of Jonathan’s survey book about the Dutch Golden Age is that it actually includes a lot of material that you will not find anywhere else because he did a lot of work in primary sources. He could also read the Spanish source material. So insofar as this is a story about the Dutch Revolt, he could look at it from both sides. That produces a nice bridge to the first book.

Let’s move on to that, Geoffrey Parker’s book on The Dutch Revolt. I think this was the standard text on the subject when I was at university 30 years ago.

It still is the standard text. There is a Dutch book, which has been translated into English, but I still think this is the go-to text. One of the reasons, maybe the most important, is that Geoffrey came to this from the Spanish side. He was not originally a historian of the Netherlands. He was a historian of Spain and the Spanish colonial empire—like Jonathan Israel, by the way—who then became interested in Dutch history, learned the language, and was able to look at the story from both sides.

Another important aspect of the book is that he looks at the Low Countries—and not at Belgium or the Netherlands—because the great majority of texts about this episode are written from some sort of national perspective, with the authors trying to explore the origins of the country they live in. Parker is interested in this as a part of European history. And the fact that it all happens in the Low Countries is secondary to that larger interest.

“Even at the beginning of the 19th century, the Netherlands was the richest country in the world on a per capita basis”

The other aspect that is very new and fundamental is that he sees this as part of a bigger struggle for hegemony not only in Europe, but also on the world stage. So, the whole story in his book is embedded in that larger global and European framework. And that framework is military. Traditionally, the story of the Dutch Revolt is told as a story about religious toleration and national freedom and independence. That’s not what Parker is interested in. He is primarily interested in why the Dutch were able to win a conflict where they were so obviously the underdogs, and where Spain was the equivalent of the United States in the 16th century, the world’s great military power. This is really a story like Vietnam fighting the United States in the 1970s, and winning against all the odds.

To what does he ascribe the Dutch success in the war?

The core message of the book is that the Dutch didn’t win, Spain lost. Spain had interests around the globe. For the Dutch, this was the only show in town, this was the conflict into which they threw all their resources. But for the King of Spain, this was one of a handful or even a dozen conflicts that were demanding his attention all the time and, more importantly, that required financial commitments.

Parker describes an army that, in itself, was capable of achieving a lot, but was structurally underfunded. So all the time they win battles and sieges and so on, and then they give up the gains because the money runs out. Either they can’t afford to go on or—more likely, and another discovery of Parker’s work—the Spanish soldiers mutiny. They give up their conquests and go after money because they are structurally underpaid. In the process, they upset a great number of citizens—loyal Catholic citizens—in the Low Countries who support the King of Spain’s overall programme, but who hate the way he is trying to achieve his objectives. The rebels don’t have that many supporters in general, but their support is increased by the way that Spain and its officials and soldiers go about their business in the Low Countries. That’s what creates support.

Like the Duke of Alba’s repression…

Absolutely, the bloody way Alba goes about the business, but also the way he rides roughshod over existing procedures, legislation, and political traditions. All of that is ignored in an overall attempt to suppress the Revolt. People just didn’t like that. The parallel with Vietnam is obvious because most Vietnamese were not Communists. But the way they were treated by the regime in Saigon and by American soldiers pushed them into the arms of the other party.

Does he explore or suggest why the Golden Age had its origin in this war?

No, that’s not really a topic of the book. There are more technical works of economic history that do that, but they are not as accessible as this one.

Let’s move on to The First Modern Economy by Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude.

This is the closest we have to a book by two Dutch authors because Van der Woude was Dutch and De Vries was also born in the Netherlands, but migrated with his parents to the US at the age of four. One of the interesting anecdotes about this book is that it was written in Dutch and English simultaneously. Van der Woude wrote his chapters in Dutch, and De Vries then translated those into English, while De Vries wrote his in English, which Van der Woude then translated into Dutch. As a result, the Dutch edition was published two years before the English edition, actually. Still, we need to read the English language edition because it has references and the Dutch does not.

There is a big debate about the economic origins of the Dutch Golden Age. The debate is about whether it was the result of Antwerp merchants moving to Amsterdam, and taking Antwerp’s ‘golden age’ with them in their bags, or whether things had been happening already in the Dutch economy before 1600 that helped launch the Dutch Golden Age. This book comes down on the side of the latter opinion.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Interestingly, these two authors started their work as agrarian historians. So, whereas traditionally the Golden Age was seen as the product of international trade, these two authors look at agriculture and industry as sources of growth as well. I think it’s fair to say that this is now the standard opinion among economic historians. The Golden Age was not the result of trade only, but of much broader processes that integrated developments in agriculture, industry, as well as trade into a very successful economy. And a ‘modern’ economy, because this book has a polemical title, claiming that the Netherlands in the 17th century was the first modern economy and not Britain in the 18th. They are also making the point that the first modern economy was launched not as a result of the invention of the steam engine, but by a combination of institutions, markets, and an integrated approach to economic processes.

To prove this, they go into a lot of detail. It takes them 722 pages, 106 tables and 38 graphs to make their points. They dig deep. But at the core of their argument is the centrality of free markets, high agricultural productivity, technology in organizations and a state conducive to growth. They claim that all of those together helped to produce this outcome in a unique way. The Dutch Golden Age was the outcome of an endogenous process and not imported from abroad.

Do they see it as totally separable from the Dutch Revolt? Or were the circumstances of the Dutch Revolt central?

Parker doesn’t have much to say about the economy and in this book the authors don’t have that much to say about the political context.

I can imagine that the Netherlands, given its limited surface, might have developed sophisticated methods of agriculture prior to countries nearby, like France or England, which had more abundant agricultural resources. But what was behind the broader commercial development and innovation in the Netherlands?

The basic background to all of this is that in the western parts of the Netherlands, the soil became increasingly unsuited for grain production. So, already in the 15th and 16th century—and increasingly so—the Dutch were importing basic foodstuff, initially from France, and then increasingly also from the Baltic. To do so, they had to develop their transport because transporting bulk goods across long distances was expensive. So what you get is a shipbuilding industry that builds increasingly efficient ships. The pinnacle of that development is the first so-called fluyt-type boats, built at the very end of the 16th century in Holland. That allows Dutch skippers to become the transporters of Europe, which in turn brings a lot of trade to the Netherlands. Already in the 16th century, the Netherlands has the largest merchant navy in Europe and in the 17th century, the merchant navy of the Netherlands is larger than those of England and France combined, even though those countries are much larger, not only in terms of territory, but also in terms of population.

This obviously had an impact on the shipbuilding industry and wood technology becomes much more sophisticated as a result. You get the development of the sawmill, which replaces hand-cut timber. There’s a whole mechanisation process going on there. The international trade brings all kinds of new products to the Netherlands, which boosts commerce, but also industry because there are new industries established—sugar and tobacco are exported to the rest of Europe. It’s a self-feeding process during much of the 17th century and, because of the federal state structure, ‘the state’ is not standing in the way of all these economic initiatives. Rather, they are stimulated by the local governments, who benefit from trade and industry.

Let’s move on to The Dutch Moment: War, Trade and Settlement in the Seventeenth Century Atlantic World by Wim Klooster.

This book is interesting from a Dutch perspective because in the Netherlands the focus, insofar as Dutch world trade was concerned, was always on the East Indies (what is now Indonesia) and at Asia more broadly, because the Dutch East India Company, the VOC, was very successful whereas the Dutch West India Company was a bit of a constant headache. It went bankrupt in the 1670s and had to be re-established, and never became a significant success.

The main reason for that was that Spain and Portugal were already well established in the Atlantic, and the English were increasingly active in the Atlantic. So, for the Dutch, it was difficult to get a foothold in the Atlantic realm. They had to invest a lot of money, mostly on military operations, and the rewards were relatively meagre.

But the Atlantic was seen by everyone in the 17th century as a sort of dream space. It’s difficult to imagine that now. In particular, with all the silver that was mined in central and southern America, people went a little bit crazy, dreaming of an Eldorado.

So there were many, including in the Netherlands, who were obsessed with the Americas. They saw, of course, all these plantation crops that were coming to Europe. So a lot of people were willing to throw lots of money and effort at the Atlantic trade.

This book manages to capture the new importance that the Atlantic world has gained in global history. European historians have tended to be more focused on Asia, because Asian countries and cultures looked the match of European ones. As a result, European historians were asking themselves all the time, ‘how did Europeans manage to get a foothold in Asia and to exploit those parts of the world?’ The answer to that question seemed much more obvious when it came to the Americas, because the indigenous people in the Americas were clearly no match for European military efforts. But in Asia, they were.

Therefore, from a Dutch perspective, this book captures that new interest, and demonstrates that the Atlantic empire of the Dutch—and it also applies elsewhere—was first and foremost a military operation. Before you could make money, you had to really fight for your place in the sun.

“For the Dutch, it was difficult to get a foothold in the Atlantic realm”

What is also really interesting about this book is that it looks not only at the people who went to the various places that the Dutch, sometimes successfully, tried to colonise in the Americas, but also at their connections with the people who were already there. What would in the past have been called ‘the natives’ have a big place in the story, because they were sometimes subjugated by the Europeans, but also were often their allies. These people were not only the victims of the Europeans, they have agency in this story. The book shows very clearly how the success of Dutch efforts, for example in colonising Brazil, were dependent to a significant degree on collaboration with indigenous peoples. The Portuguese were unwilling to be recruited for this project and were fighting the native populations. Therefore the Dutch and the native population built alliances to fight the Portuguese.

Another thing I like about this book is how it discusses the lives of the soldiers and the sailors who were involved in this whole project, and not only the merchants who benefited from it the most. The author has done a lot of archival research. It’s not just a general story of what was going on, he also brings a lot of new material to the table.

When did the Dutch lose their last foothold in the Americas?

They never did. There are still a number of Caribbean islands that are officially part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Suriname became independent only in 1975. So it took a very long time. But, New York, or as it was then, New Amsterdam, was lost to the British in the 17th century. Brazil was reconquered by the Portuguese in the 1650s. So the big projects, at least from our 21st-century point of view, failed in the 17th century. Having said that, New Amsterdam was not important in the 17th century, it was a rather poor community. It only became important as New York under British rule, and even then, it was not obvious it was going to become as important as it did until the 19th century. It’s easy to get the wrong picture, if you look at those places from our own modern perspective.

Let’s move on to Calvinists and Libertines: Confession and Community in Utrecht, 1578-1620 by Benjamin Kaplan.

This has a very different scope to the previous study because it’s a local study. That’s one of the reasons why I chose it. Because, in the Netherlands, or the Dutch Republic as it was known in the 17th century, towns played a very important role. To be fair, Utrecht was not the most dynamic of towns in that period. It had been the most important city during the Middle Ages, but the centre of gravity shifted to the west during the 16th and 17th centuries. But still, it was an important place in the 17th century.

I selected this book because it gives a very detailed, but also a very intimate picture of another aspect that has made the reputation of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, and that is its religious toleration, or presumed toleration, we should perhaps say.

Normally, the story that you get about toleration is that the Dutch Calvinist, or the Dutch Reformed Church as it was known in the 17th century, was a minority church and therefore it could not impose its ideas on the rest of the population. What is interesting about this book is that it adds an important dimension to that story, namely that the Calvinists were internally divided into two major groups. The Calvinists in the title of this book were the people who wanted to adhere very strictly, and if necessary by shedding a lot of their potential support, to the teachings of Calvin. For them, orthodoxy was more important than popularity. The Libertines, on the other hand, were a group of people, also within the Calvinist church, who said, ‘if we want to persuade substantial numbers of our fellow Dutch men and women, we need to be more liberal, if you will, and perhaps not insist on every tiny detail of Calvin’s teachings.’ They favoured a much more open and popular church in the Netherlands, to which they were hoping a majority of the population might eventually adhere.

“Toleration is a dirty word in the 17th century”

We have to understand the situation around 1600. There was, next to the Catholics and the Calvinists, a large group of people who were simply indifferent, who identified as Christians, but who did not want to commit to one or the other faith, because they perhaps didn’t really understand all the fine details of theology that the others were fighting about. Or, even if they did, they were not interested. These people wanted to see a sort of broadly defined Christianity put in place, and they wanted the fighting to stop. In their minds, the fighting was the result precisely of people digging too deeply into all these fine theological details.

So there was a constituency up for grabs, as it were, and the Libertines in Utrecht, mainly from the upper classes, were saying, ‘let’s do this.’ Those people were also interested in that broad outcome from a public order point of view, because they were aware how in many countries, including Germany and France, religious conflicts very easily evolved into outright civil war. To some extent the Dutch Revolt, too, was a civil war. They had had enough of that, and they didn’t want any more.

What the book demonstrates is that in this conflict the Calvinists win the battle, but the Libertines win the war, because the settlement that grows out of it is one in which there is a certain amount of toleration because the state is reluctant to persecute people. The Catholics would have been sceptical about the concept of toleration in this context, but still, they more or less could do what they wanted to do.

Catholics were allowed to worship in their own chapels, were they?

They had to do it as a sort of ‘open secret’. It’s a little bit like the so-called coffee shops in the Netherlands nowadays. Soft drugs are illegal, but everybody knows the coffee shops are tolerated. They even pay taxes, even though they officially cannot buy cannabis anywhere. No questions are asked about how they get it. Something similar happened with Catholicism in the Dutch Republic. You could be a Catholic openly because there was freedom of conscience. They weren’t allowed to come together in churches that were visibly churches. But everybody knew where the hidden churches were.

That’s a lot better than the status of Catholics in England at the same time.

Absolutely. In England in the 17th century, you could expect a knock on the door if you didn’t come to the Church of England services regularly. Louis XIV kicks all the Protestants out of France in 1685. Already in the Middle Ages, Jews are forced to convert in Spain, and so on, and so forth.

That’s not the case in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, there are two very open synagogues. And actually the informal head of state, Stadtholder William III of Orange, who becomes King of England a little later, participates in the opening ceremony of one of those synagogues. The invasion of England in 1688 is funded by Jewish bankers. He has a lot of Jews in his entourage.

And was this toleration in the Netherlands almost an accident?

Yes. Toleration is a dirty word in the 17th century. Nobody wants that.

There wasn’t a great pride in this system?

No. It was seen as the least harmful scenario. Only gradually do people say, ‘well, maybe it’s not so bad’—particularly in the merchant community. They are in favour of it because intolerance is bad for business.

And, of course, there was Spinoza.

Spinoza is a very exceptional person in the 17th century, whose views are actually not acceptable. His works are banned. But interestingly, his publisher is at the same time the official city publisher in Amsterdam. And, of course, people were aware of this. He pretends that Spinoza’s books are printed in Hamburg. But it’s an open secret in Amsterdam that he is the actual publisher.

Let’s move on to Rembrandt’s Universe: His Art, His Life, His World by Gary Schwartz.

The best remembered aspect of the Dutch Golden Age is the paintings. Although we don’t know how many were painted, the consensus now is that it was a lot. And when  I say ‘a lot’, it’s at least a million, possibly several million. Among the hundreds of painters active in the 17th century, there were some very good ones and I think it’s fair to say that Rembrandt was the very best. One of the reasons why it is good to read this book is because it’s a biography of a really interesting, albeit not necessarily very pleasant, individual.

There are dozens of books about Rembrandt, hundreds, actually, but Gary Schwartz’s book stands out for me, because it is an attempt to see Rembrandt for the genius that he undoubtedly was, but in the social context in which he operated. For me, as a social and economic historian, what is also interesting is Schwartz’s interest in what you might call the ‘business model’. How does Rembrandt earn an income? What impact does the fact that he loses many of his patrons in the course of his career have on the work that we now have? Rembrandt comes to Amsterdam in the early 1630s. He paints portraits for a living. But painting portraits is not going to make your reputation, even though Anthony van Dyck became a very famous portrait painter. What you really want to be as a painter is an autonomous producer of what is called history painting—scenes from antiquity, proper history, the Bible. Those are the subjects that are going to make you a great reputation.

“You could pick up a Rembrandt for very little money in the early 18th century”

We know that Rembrandt wanted to be in that upper league because, at some point, he changes his signature from Rembrandt van Rijn to just ‘Rembrandt.’ The signal is, ‘I’m in the same league as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.’ Because he was a difficult character, he lost a lot of his Amsterdam clients in the course of his career, and he even went bankrupt. But for painting, this was actually a great bonus, because after that, he had to shut his workshop, move to a smaller house and become the independent artist he always wanted to be and produces works that were, at the time, increasingly controversial.

Increasingly he shuns detail, he puts the paints on in thick layers. It’s almost impressionist, the way he works, and people did not like that. They were upset about it because the fashion was for more detail, finer work, and very smooth layers of paint, so that you could hardly see the brushstroke. But in Rembrandt, the brushstrokes are in your face. And, as a result of that, he is not forgotten by any means, but his work goes out of fashion.

You could pick up a Rembrandt for very little money in the early 18th century. He only becomes fashionable again in the 19th century. The book gives you a lot of insight into the way Rembrandt worked. It is also one of the very few that has all the accepted Rembrandt originals in colour in the book, which is a sight to see.

Did that later, more fluid style get picked up by any other major painters of the period?

Most of the other painters did something very different, including several of Rembrandt’s own pupils. They started out imitating the master, but very quickly moved in a different direction.

Is there a reason why the Netherlands became such an astonishing centre of painting during this period? Was it a continuous tradition from 15th-century artists like van der Weyden and van Eyck?

They were in the south, in what is now Belgium.

So what happened in the northern Netherlands? You’d have thought that with the Reformation, the authorities would have decided that they didn’t need any painting.

The most common explanation is the emergence of an art market, which had already emerged in the southern Low Countries, so in Flanders and Brabant, as a result of urban wealth. You got these substantial communities where people had money to spend on luxuries. A group of painters emerged, including van der Weyden and van Eyck, the best of whom were producing for courtier audiences, but still operated in urban environments, and also had an urban clientele. Think of van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait in the National Gallery in London. You see that happening in Ghent and Bruges in the 15th century, in Antwerp in the 16th century, and then in Amsterdam, and other towns in Holland in the 17th century. So there were large painter communities, most of whose members have been forgotten because their work was mediocre. But there was also a substantial market for expensive works—and a group of painters supplying that. Because the court was so unimportant, these painters were more experimental and their works innovative. That’s the basic explanation.

Interview by Benedict King

October 19, 2022

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Maarten Prak

Maarten Prak

Maarten Prak is emeritus professor in Social and Economic History at Utrecht University. His areas of interest include citizenship, urban history, craft guilds and apprenticeship. His books include Citizens Without Nations: Urban Citizenship in Europe and the World, c. 1000 to 1789 and The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century.

Maarten Prak

Maarten Prak

Maarten Prak is emeritus professor in Social and Economic History at Utrecht University. His areas of interest include citizenship, urban history, craft guilds and apprenticeship. His books include Citizens Without Nations: Urban Citizenship in Europe and the World, c. 1000 to 1789 and The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century.