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The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall Paperback – 4 Jun 1998
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This is a magnificent doorstop of a book ... As an account of what made possible one of the most dazzling "Golden Ages" in European history it is unlikely to be bettered. (Sunday Telegraph)
Israel has produced a classic ... Any scholar would be delighted to write a book of such learning, vigour and confidence. Very few indeed have done so, and no other has matched Israel on his topic. (THES)
About the Author
Jonathan Israel is Professor of Dutch History and Institutions at the University of London. He is the author of many well-respected books in European and particularly Dutch history.
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But the core of the book covers the hundred years between 1572 and 1672, a period that takes up 627 of the 1130 pages. Indeed, in his preface Israel says his aims are to set the Dutch Revolt and the Golden Age in a wider context: they “only begin to make sense if we place them in their full setting. This means going back to the Burgundian period, on the one hand, and forward to Napoleonic times, on the other.”
This is undoubtedly true, but gaps remain. For instance, while often demonstrating how the nation’s overseas trading system had shaped its “population distribution, urbanization, employment, prosperity, poverty, and urban vitality” Israel’s chronicle of the collapse of many Dutch industries in the eighteenth century leaves much unexplained. Whilst European rivals may have caught up, that would only explain relative not absolute decline. Israel gives hints – that investment and profits went abroad, into VOC shares and state bonds rather than into industry itself – but the collapse remains for me a mystery.
Israel has no objections to the consensus that the Habsburg Netherlands were not automatically destined to split into two states: although north and south had separate political and economic aims, their culture was largely integrated. But the 1572 Revolt was a decisive breakpoint: “By introducing a Calvinist Reformation in the north whilst, in the south, the Catholic Counter-Reformation triumphed, the Revolt severed what had been one culture and replaced it with two warring, antagonistic cultures.”
And yet reading his opening chapters the cultural differences between the lands above the delta and those of Flanders/Brabant below are quite evident: the often stark economic, social, and political differences must have resulted in an underlying difference of attitude. Israel himself writes, “the Revolt against Spain was to confirm the underlying separation of north and south”; and later “the needs and priorities of the Netherlands north of the rivers were fundamentally different from those of the south”; and again, “that the response to the Revolt of 1572 was so different in the north from the south resulted from basic differences in social structure, the religious situation, and economic life reaching back not just years or decades, but centuries.” So much for integrated cultures!
This is not the only example of inner contradictions, but space precludes me from detailing those concerning the 1566 Petition of Compromise or of the Dutch not being bothered by theological controversies. I do not want to harp on the negative. One of the positives is that Israel has taught me that the Golden Age relied on migration from below the delta and on the trading policies of the Spanish just as much as on the Dutch genius in commerce and shipping. I also learned that the Revolt against Spain was not the heroic action of a united people but a messy chaotic affair with areas like Friesland and Over Ijssel often more concerned with pressing their own provincial independence from a Greater Holland.
Indeed, a feature of the book is the provincialisation of life, Israel reviewing aspects of a wide range of issues that affected disparate parts of the country differently, so what might be acceptable in The Hague, might not be so in, say, Groningen or Maastricht. A corollary of this is that the Dutch reputation for tolerance in actual fact had severe and frequently testing limits; not just inter-provincial antagonisms, but also religious affiliations and republican-monarchist contentions were often virulent and led to state-sanctioned executions (Oldenbarnevelt) and murder (de Witt). The federal approach emphasised by Israel is quite alien to, say, English history. However, a downside is that it can also lead to a dry list-like structure taking over the narrative at times.
And despite its attempt to be comprehensive, the book often lacks a strong human element. What I lamented was the lack of the quotidian, of changes in landscape and townscape. Moreover, the names of the great and of the not-so-great pass in front of the reader with no penetration: Oldenbarnevelt, de Witt, de Ruyter, even the leading members of the house of Orange are all rightfully treated as players in the game of history, but they come with no characterisation: instead, ideas and the intellectual life often take precedence. (Israel is no Schama.) Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that twice (at least) a union of England and the United Provinces was proposed. Another benefit is to read 1688 from a Dutch viewpoint and realise what an amazing – and lucky – achievement it was.
And whilst the book’s subject is the Dutch Republic, Israel widens the frame to include pertinent events in the south and also the neighbouring German territories to the east. His chapters follow a broadly chronological course, with Israel inserting into the flow chapters that concentrate on particular themes, such as ‘The Early Dutch Reformation’ or ‘Society before the Revolt’. The former details the progress of the separate Protestant movements; the latter covering such topics as land use and civic institutions. There are also chapters on ‘Art & Architecture’ and on ‘Intellectual Life’.
One downside of this broad chronological-cum-thematic approach is that it is easily possible to lose the larger thread. For example, the Habsburg war with France is treated separately from the inner Habsburg war of Dutch unification, and references to people and institutions in the general chronology are only later set in full context in chapters relevant to their specific themes. For instance, the chapter that sets out the development, composition and relationships between the Council of State and the States General appears long after these concepts are introduced to the reader. The book therefore needs to be read twice to gain full advantage of its comprehensive content.
This is especially true when trying to come to grips with the secular ruling bodies and their elites: vroedscaps, regents, drosts, ridderschaps, the Gecommitteerde Raden are just some of these. In the religious sphere one must contend with Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants, Gomarists, Voetians, Cocceians, Anabaptists, Jansenists, Mennonites and Socinians (amongst others!)
The book ends with fifty-eight pages of impressive bibliography. Alas, the index is deficient: for example, it lists ‘Max’ before ‘Maurits’ and references to Remonstrants occur only after 1619.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The condition of the book is very nice.
The price is also reasonable.
I highlyrecommend it.