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.

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