A Delicious Satisfaction with the Material World

Peter Burke

  • The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age by Simon Schama
    Collins, 698 pp, £19.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 00 217801 X

One of the most lively debates currently engaging the attention of historians, more or less the world over, concerns the so-called ‘revival of narrative’. Ought written history to concentrate on the story of great events, or is the description or analysis of structures an equally important part of the historian’s business? At a time when the pendulum seems to be swinging back to narrative, it is encouraging to find a scholar as gifted as Simon Schama moving in the opposite direction. His first book, Patriots and Liberators, published in 1977, told the story of a major episode in Dutch political history, the revolution of the late 18th century, in a fluent narrative divided into 12 chronological chapters. The new book, on the other hand, is not so much a story as a portrait. It offers, as the subtitle proclaims, ‘an interpretation of Dutch culture in the golden age’ (more or less the 17th century). The author seems to have experienced a conversion to cultural history. Not, as he is quick to point out, the history of Culture with a capital C – ‘theatre or poetry or music’. His concern is to describe and interpret what he calls the ‘social beliefs and behaviour’ of the Dutch, their ‘physical and mental bric-à-brac’, their cultural ‘furniture’. In other words, he is interested in culture in the wide, anthropological sense, or, as he sometimes puts it, in the ‘national personality’ or collective mentality’. A confessed eclectic, Schama has drawn some of his inspiration from social anthropologists (from Emile Durkheim to Mary Douglas), some from Freud, and some from the history of mentalities – the Dutch word is mentaliteitsgeschiedenis – as currently practised in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Schama focuses neither on events nor on institutions but on a variety of loosely-defined socio-cultural themes. These themes include what he calls ‘moral geography’ – the relation between the culture and its watery environment; the sense of identity of the Dutch nation, or, as it was often known in this period, the United Provinces, the cultural foundations (and consequences) of what historians have sometimes seen as the Dutch ‘economic miracle’ of the 17th century; and the place of the home and the family in Dutch culture. In order to make the description more vivid and concrete, each of the themes is represented by or embodied in more precise case-studies which concentrate on the material culture of the Republic. Schama’s concern with furniture is literal as well as metaphorical, and some of his most lively and perceptive pages are devoted to the reconstruction of the contents of Amsterdam houses, the better to reveal the attitudes and values of their former inhabitants, including the ‘embarrassment of riches’ which gives the book its title. The case-studies range from cheese to children, from the symbolic associations of food (together with drink and tobacco) to the distinctively Dutch attitudes to childhood and the home, including a detailed analysis of what Schama calls the ‘cleanliness fetish’ – ‘the Dutch obsession with defilement and purification’.

There can be little doubt that The Embarrassment of Riches is an outstanding piece of history. Outstanding above all for the exuberance, the fluency and the colour of the writing, for the author’s vivid imagination and profusion of ideas. The book originated as a course of lectures at Harvard, and retains much of the immediacy and the informality of the spoken word. An observer at once detached and sympathetic, never at a loss for a striking phrase or a bold hypothesis, Schama offers his readers an unforgettable guided tour of Dutch culture. Like a good Durkheimian, he is a particularly acute observer of rituals. In the frenetic atmosphere of the Stock Exchange, he is at hand to describe how the traditional handshake to confirm an agreement ‘degenerated into a manic display of wild and speedy hand-slapping’. In the halls of the schutterij, the famous militia companies who took their banquets at least as seriously as their shooting-matches, Schama emphasises the importance of the rituals of carving the meat and pouring the wine, the ‘rules and ceremonies for getting drunk’ which not infrequently irritated foreign visitors but are described with due solemnity in an 18th-century treatise, Kornelis van Alkemade’s Nederlandse Displegtigheden. These rituals are part of the cultural context of the group portraits of the schutterij by such artists as Bartholomeus van der Helst or Frans Hals. To the modern eye, Hals may appear to be satirising the militia, presenting their officers as knights of the knife and fork rather than the sword, better-equipped to do battle with the roast beef than with the Spaniards. I would not care to dismiss such an interpretation out of hand, for by the later 17th century, if not before, there were critics of the militia companies who saw them as existing primarily for the sake of their feasts. All the same, the gestures of the officers, forks and glasses in hand, will seem less self-evidently absurd to anyone who has read van Alkemade or Schama and is aware of the importance of festival rituals in 17th-century culture. This example is very far from being the only one in which Schama juxtaposes the evidence of contemporary writers with that of artists. Indeed, abetted by his publisher, who has provided no fewer than 314 illustrations, he has taken the decision to privilege visual sources. He draws on a wide range of contemporary images, from cheap woodcuts to the expensive sculptures decorating the town hall of Amsterdam (now the royal palace), from Pieter de Hooch, the painter of interiors, to Romeyn de Hooghe, the printmaker. These images add a great deal to the immediacy of this attractive book.

Description, however, is not the only aim of this study. We are also offered a general interpretation. Schama places his emphasis on the ‘fit’ between Dutch culture and its physical environment; on the creation, during this period, of a distinctively Dutch identity; and on the harmony of opposites, ‘the peculiar co-existence of apparently opposite value systems’ – thrift and self-indulgence, tolerance and discipline, the tradition of Erasmus and the inheritance of Calvin.

The ‘moral geography’ of the Netherlands is the subject of some of the most original – and speculative – set-pieces in the book; and, among them, perhaps the most notable is Schama’s interpretation of the ‘drowning cell’. In the 17th century, the Amsterdam House of Correction was a model prison, visited and described by travellers from all parts of Europe. According to these visitors, any prisoner who failed to work hard enough, sawing brazilwood to supply the dyeworks, would be confined in a special punishment cell which was gradually filled with water so that the prisoner was forced to pump for his life. Whether the drowning cell was more than a traveller’s tale is difficult to say, and Schama is judiciously inconclusive in his review of the evidence. His main purpose in retelling this story is to present it as a re-enactment of ‘the Dutch primal experience: the struggle to survive rising waters’.

Geography may have been a necessary condition of the Dutch national identity; it can hardly have been a sufficient condition, since, as Schama points out, the sense of nationhood ‘was the result, not the cause, of the revolt against Spain’. Of the 17 provinces of the Netherlands which rebelled against Philip II in the 1560s, only the seven northern provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen and Overijsel) were able to resist the Spanish armies, making good use of their waterlogged terrain for a guerrilla war of combined operations. The result of what the Dutch call their ‘Eighty Years’ War’, 1568-1648, was the creation of what it is reasonable to describe as the first new nation. Like the United States, the United Provinces was a paradoxical new nation, united by its very resistance to unification. The defence of provincial and municipal privileges played a considerable part in the revolt, and an ingenious piece of research into the matriculation registers of Italian universities has shown that until the 1560s students from the Netherlands thought of themselves as ‘Frisians’, ‘Zeelanders’ and so on. It was only after the revolt had begun that they came to identify themselves as Netherlanders. Like other new nations, the Dutch needed to invent a tradition for themselves, and they did this with the assistance of two myths, the myth of the chosen people and the myth of the ancient Batavians. The Dutch identification with the myth of the chosen people is clearly revealed in the popular songs of the Eighty Years’ War, which describe Philip and his viceroy the Duke of Alba as Herod and Pharaoh. This view is obviously associated with the interpretation of war as a struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, true religion and false. The myth of the Batavians, on the other hand, is associated with the secular interpretation of the war as a struggle between liberty and tyranny. In Vondel’s play The Batavian Brothers, or Rembrandt’s Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, the Dutch could see themselves and their beloved liberties reflected in the mirror of a primitive past.

Schama’s discussion of the formation of Dutch identity is at once central to his interpretation of Dutch culture and a fair example of his achievement. The idea that the Revolt of the Netherlands led to the Dutch nation, and not the other way round, is not exactly a new one. This inversion of the conventional wisdom of the 19th century goes back at least as far as The Dutch Nation, a little book published in 1944 by that perceptive and witty historian Gustaaf Renier, who is somewhat underrated nowadays but deserves to be remembered, in this country at least, for another essay on national identity with the engaging title The English: are they human? The history and significance of the myth of the Batavians were explored a generation ago by H. van der Waal, while Dutch identification with the chosen people has been discussed in a fine recent study by G. Groenhuis. Schama’s contribution to this discussion is to suggest, as social anthropologists have done in the case of other parts of the world, that particular cultural traits became cards or badges of identity for the inhabitants of the new republic. His examples include smoking, drinking and, above all, the Dutch devotion to cleanliness, which he interprets in the manner of Mary Douglas as ‘an affirmation of separateness’ from their dirtier neighbours. The contribution of this section of The Embarrassment of Riches, as indeed of the book as a whole, is not to offer new evidence (despite the author’s occasional forays into archives) or a radically new interpretation, apart from the idea of a specifically Dutch harmony of opposites, which will be examined below. What Schama has done is to weave a skilful and perceptive synthesis out of recent research, and to enrich it with fresh examples and speculative comments. It may be instructive to compare this new book with an earlier essay in synthesis, the work of the great cultural historian Johan Huizinga, whose Dutch Civilisation in the 17th Century was first published in the 1930s. In some ways, the books form a dramatic contrast: Huizinga concise and sober, Schama copious and flamboyant. In other ways, the books resemble one another: notably, in their use of visual evidence and in their conception of culture – Huizinga, too, was interested in anthropology and he, too, saw Dutch cleanliness as a historical problem. What the comparison reveals most clearly, however, is the volume of recent research on Dutch cultural and social history. Schama is able to draw on the work of art historians and on the studies of social history and the history of mentalities produced at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and elsewhere.

Many of the details to be found on Schama’s broad canvas are familiar: the selection and the links between them are his responsibility. His work does suffer from a number of weaknesses. Although this study has clearly been long in the making, the final version still bears the marks of haste, from repetitiveness to inaccuracies of detail and mistakes in the transcription of Latin. The handling of sources does not always inspire confidence. I am not suggesting that Schama is uncritical: his discussion of texts shows an exemplary sensitivity to stereotyping. It is his handling of images which sometimes makes me uneasy. Iconography is a notoriously controversial art. The confidence of the age of Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind has given way to doubt and conflict. In no area is this latterday dispute between iconoclasts and iconodules so vigorous or so sharp as in the field of 17th-century Dutch art, long taken to be a paradigm case of descriptive realism. It was the achievement of Professor E. de Jongh of the University of Utrecht to show that in the Dutch Republic, as in Renaissance Italy, an illusionistic surface frequently conceals a symbolic meaning, which can often be decoded with the help of an emblem-book. It was perhaps inevitable that some art historians would go too far in this direction, loading every painting with a heavy weight of concealed symbolism, and a reaction against the iconographers has now set in. Although he makes only the briefest of references to them in his text, Schama is well aware of these problems and disputes. His own theoretical position is that of a sensible middle-of-the-roader, drawing on the work of the iconographers but remaining aware of the danger of ‘an overenthusiastic dedication to unearthing meaning’. In practice, though, he is sometimes betrayed by the quickness of his intuitions and his confidence in teasing general cultural conclusions out of pictorial evidence.

Take, for instance, Schama’s description of what he calls ‘a poem to the Dutch leisure ethic’ – in other words, a painting by Ludolf de Jonghe now known as Farewells before a Country House.

Amidst lengthening afternoon shadows, an unhurried au revoir is in progress. A handsomely gilded and studded coach awaits its passengers before the gate of a Dutch country house. An elegant skirt is gathered as its wearer prepares to mount the carriage steps, leaving his companion with an expression of disconsolate reluctance. Men loiter over their farewells, an affectionate arm slung over a departing shoulder. Business may impend, but like the serving boy waiting uncertainly with a jug of last refreshment, it forbears to intrude ... A delicious satisfaction with the material world saturates the canvas.

The description, like the painting, is so enticingly sensuous that reflections on historical method feel as out of place as a dark suit at a picnic. All the same, Schama is drawing historical conclusions from his description, and doubts arise. Are reluctance and uncertainty written so clearly on those faces? Come to that, how does Schama know that we are witnessing departure rather than arrival, lengthening shadows rather than shortening ones? Is he jumping to conclusions from a title which may not be contemporary with the painting? From the historian’s point of view, the crucial assertion is the one about the leisure ethic, the suggestion that ‘such innocent pleasures evidently became fashionable among the well-to-do by the 1660s.’ A single painting can hardly establish a trend, and in any case it is dangerous to use the painting in this way without knowing more about the people represented – whether they were merchants or nobles, Calvinists or Catholics.

Books have to be judged as much on the basis of what they leave out as what they put in. This book virtually omits two topics central to the discussion of Dutch mentalities in their golden age: witchcraft and literacy. In the 17th century the Dutch were, relatively speaking, highly literate and highly numerate, and it is likely that these skills coloured if they did not shape the distinctive attitudes and values of the culture, including punctuality. Dutch canal-boat timetables of the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have performed a cultural role analogous to Bradshaw in 19th-century Britain. The relative immunity of the Dutch from the so-called ‘witch-craze’ of Early Modern Europe deserves discussion in any study of the distinctive qualities of their culture. Schama must also be faulted for omitting references to some books and articles of direct relevance to the topics he did choose to discuss. For instance, the work of Willem Frijhoff, one of the leading historians of mentalities in the Netherlands, does not rate a mention in the notes or the bibliography.

Any survey of Dutch culture is bound to leave out themes and illustrations which another writer would have emphasised. If I insist on a few of them here, it is partly because Schama’s six-hundred page cornucopia includes a good deal of material of considerably less direct relevance to his avowed topic. It is far from clear, for example, why a general interpretation of Dutch culture should include a detailed account of the topography of prostitution in Amsterdam (however fascinating the subject), or a narrative of the events of the French invasion of 1672. Cultures are not precisely bounded units, but all the same, Schama’s reluctance to define his terms is a weakness in his book. ‘Humanism’, for example, is a concept that is employed frequently, but its meaning is elusive, oscillating between a familiarity with Classical scholarship and an admiration for temperance and liberty. Again, Schama is really rather vague about the beginning and the end of the Dutch ‘golden age’ and of his own book. On occasion, he tells the reader that his subject is the century 1572-1672, or the period 1570-1650, but in practice he moves back and forth at will between 1500 and 1800. The phrase ‘uncertain boundaries’, which Schama uses to characterise the Netherlands, might equally well be used to describe his own study. Although he makes good use on occasion of comparisons and contrasts (with the Venetians, for example), he does tend to make rather sweeping generalisations about the ‘singularity’ of the Dutch, and does little to convince his readers that, for example, the importance of symbolism in their culture was any greater than it was in 17th-century Spain or Italy. This lack of definition is associated with a relative lack of concern with change over time. He has some excellent points to make about the formation of Dutch culture in the later 16th century and, somewhat more controversially, about its disintegration in the 18th century, but the 17th century, which takes up most of the space, is presented almost as if it were static. He is more concerned to describe cultural traits, such as the ‘cleanliness fetish’, than to date them. The trouble is that his explanations sometimes depend on assumptions about dating. If the northern Netherlanders were already compulsive washers and polishers in the 15th century, long before the creation of a Dutch nation, the explanation of cleanliness in terms of separateness is weakened.

Associated with the lack of definition (and definitions) is Schama’s reluctance to make distinctions between different social groups or subcultures. Phrases like ‘collective mind’, ‘the Dutch mentality’ and ‘the national personality’ are often deployed, and I found myself on more than one occasion muttering Huizinga’s ‘From anthropomorphism, Good Lord deliver us.’ The failure to differentiate between groups within a given society might be described as the original sin of the history of mentalities, as practised in the early 20th century by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre. It was part of their Durkheimian heritage. More recently, historians of mentalities have been trying to avoid these dangers, but Schama continues to follow the Durkheimian model, acknowledging a ‘bias towards emphasising those social and mental traits that tied Dutch men and women together rather than separated them’. Such an emphasis seems reasonable enough, but a six-hundred-page description of Dutch culture ought to find room to consider cultural variations within the republic, and here Schama disappoints us. He devotes a few pages towards the end to the more visible (indeed, picturesque) sub-cultures – criminals, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other outsiders – but he fails to engage with the major problems of regional, religious and social variation. There was a strong contrast between the culture of the maritime provinces, Holland and Zeeland, which dominate Schama’s study, and that of inland provinces such as Groningen and Overijsel. Again, although Dutch culture was split by differences in religion, Schama discusses attitudes and values as if the country were uniformly Calvinist, ignoring the large Catholic minority and the presence of the Mennonites (not to mention the fragmentation of the Calvinists into Arminians and Gomarists, Voetians and Cocceians). As for social variation, it is perhaps sufficient to say that The Embarrassment of Riches has little to say about the nobility, about the peasants or about popular culture, despite the recent work done by Professor van Deursen and others on the ‘copper money of the golden age’. The culture of the brede middenstand, the better-off townspeople of Holland and Zeeland, is made to stand for ‘the’ culture of the emerging Dutch nation, which is rather like identifying American culture with that of the WASPS.

Anticipating criticism, Schama observes that some recent works of history have made too sharp a distinction between élite and popular culture. True enough: but other works, including some of the most perceptive, have found room to discuss the interactions between the two. In a similar way, a study of Dutch culture in general would be more persuasive if it began by acknowledging the variations and went on to show what was shared by different social, religious and regional groups. As Schama himself suggests, ‘it is a mistake ... to reify culture as if it proceeded wholly independently of the social groups that comprised it.’ Yet he goes on to talk about the harmony of opposites in Dutch culture without seriously considering whether or not the opposed tendencies to order and disorder, thrift and prodigality, were ever embodied by different social groups. He begins by rejecting the hypothesis of a culture dominated by the bourgeoisie, only to find later on that he cannot do without phrases like ‘an authentically bourgeois neurosis’ or ‘a commercial culture’, phrases which are no substitute for a serious social analysis.

If I had to describe this massive book in a single word, that word would be ‘impressionistic’. Impressionistic in the pejorative sense of a certain lack of system, lack of definition, lack of rigour. It is soft-centred. However, the book is also impressionistic in a positive sense. It is full of personal impressions of the Dutch in their golden age that might almost suggest that Schama had just returned from a visit to the 17th century. Few living historians are such a delight to read.