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From a rich foundation of material and an exquisite writing style, Schama guides us through the formative years of the Dutch Republic. The politics of that creation, however, he leaves to others. Instead, he addresses the underlying conditions of Dutch society of the period. At the outset, he decrees he will avoid Culture in favour of culture. This welcome departure makes this book a treasure of information. However, it isn't a volume for the novice. Much background history in Enlightenment Europe in general and the Dutch role in particular, is required before tackling this book.
That a beached whale can become a cultural artefact seems aberrant at first glance. The Dutch, as Calvinists, could find a moral message in a wide disparity of events. Whale beachings proved no exception. Pamphlets, articles, even books could make use of cetacean corpses to invoke metaphors of nationalism, extravagance, profit, indulgence and divine messages. Schama shows how easily the besieged Protestant nation at the edge of Catholic Europe found means to justify and define their existence. This form of thinking and expression gave the Dutch strength to sustain a novel experiment in society and nationhood. It also refutes the suggestion that the Dutch were governed by a dogmatist Calvinism. Flexibility and tolerance, no matter how often challenged, remained the foundation of Dutch culture. Against all odds, the Republic survived and flourished.
The flourishing becomes the pivotal point in Schama's account. The influx of riches from global trade challenged aspects of Calvinist values. Extravagance was condemned, but not impaired. The lure of commerce was strong and the accumulation of wealth too rapid to be hampered. Calvinist ministers might rail at the influx of gold, but their wrath was constrained by a society manifestly stable. Excesses remained rare as the burghers pursued their wealth soberly. Ostentation, Schama notes, didn't mean extravagance.
As Schama clearly describes, flourishing trade opened minds as well as purses. Opinions flourished with bank accounts and the Dutch Enlightenment attracted exiles from more dogmatic societies. He pulls together many threads in weaving his tapestry of Dutch culture, enhanced by numerous illustrations conveying the wealth of allegorical images used to influence social and national mores. The varieties of thinking meant that the Dutch Republic came into existence without an underlying ideology or dogma. Even the Republic's borders remained too fluid to establish a certain national identity from them.
If there are faults in Schama's sweeping account, they are few, but significant. An introductory chapter on the chronology of events would ease the novice's entry to this weighty narrative. His focus, while a needed supplement to general histories, is a bit tight. He spends many pages recounting the history of a single midwife as exemplary. On the other hand, the role of immigrants is given short shrift. Jewish contacts in Iberia and the New World were an important facet of economic growth. Trade with the Far East is granted only marginally more attention. As the roots of "the embarrassment of riches" one would expect more attention be given them. He ignores many major thinkers, perhaps slotting them into his disdained Culture. Yet many major figures of the era go begging for ink space in his book - Spinoza, Descartes and others were not writing for themselves. Even posthumously, their opinions affected the thinking of literate Dutch - and in a burgher society, there were many of those. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 30 March 1999
This is narrative, factually dense history at its best. Schama demonstrates an immense range of knowledge and insight in this analysis of the rise and fall the 17th century Dutch Republic. Using art particularly, but Dutch culture of the Golden Age as a whole, he shows the heart of the nation with all its neuroses and religious idiosyncracies. A fantastic tour de force. One of the best history books I've read.
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on 8 November 2000
A fascinating insight into the origins of one of our closest neighbouring states. Wonderfully readable, superior in this respect to many other bestselling history books. The themes are often surprising (the popularity of breakfast paintings, for example) but help to demonstrate how widely distributed was the wealth of the nation in that era. It's interesting to consider the confluence of trade and democracy in such a centrally-located country, when all around was despotism, and to reflect on its importance in sowing the seeds of liberal democracy to its neighbours in succeeding centuries.
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on 4 December 2014
Not for the first time, the difference between Schama the TV presenter and Schama the historian is laid bare. Frankly I prefer the former. This book is full of dense thickets of facts and anecdotal detail but is all but unreadable. I find his prose style florid and self-indulgent. It is full of contemporary observations but there is no sense of a coherent narrative. He keeps skitting about: "so-and-so said in 1644 ... a view repudiated in 1647 when ... just as, ten years earlier, so-and-so commented ... " you lose any sense of whereabouts in time you are, or who's views you are reading, or why you should care. OK, history isn't a coherent narrative but that's what I want the historian to make of it! The book is lavishly illustrated, but, in the paperback edition, in black and white; reasonalbe enough for a small engraving or pamphlet, but reducing an entire painted ceiling to a two-inch grey-and-white square seems pretty pointless.
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on 18 May 2012
This is a very intensely researched academic book on the 17th century in Holland. It is a mine of information about just what made the Dutch what they were in the Golden Age. It covers all aspects of life in the Low Lands, history, religion, and the social and cultural context. He delves into art, business, gastromy, the penal system and the lives of children, amongst many others aspects of life in a country which had achieved success in regaining control over their own destinies.

It has an abundance of engravings, drawings and paintings which illustrate the people, places and customs of this fascinating period of Dutch history. It is very well annotated and has apendices.

For anyone interested in the history or art of the period it is an ideal book for enjoyable reading and reference.
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on 25 November 2012
Intimate details of the Dutch obsession with hygeine and their indulgent attitude to children, brought this book alive for a modern reader. The author's style is reminiscent of his quirky TV appearance. I could almost see him as I read his wonderful book. It kept me captivated from start to finish. I was reading to research for my own book,(John Lofting available on Amazon),but it stood in its own right as a real gem for me, and now takes pride of place on my bookshelves for dipping into again later.
John LoftingJohn Lofting: 1
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on 2 January 2015
Having had Dutch family members (ex-sister-in-law, guardians), I realised how much we have got from them (or copied) & I enjoyed this book. It was incredibly informative, frank & thorough about whole way of life & the art. The photographs were particularly good. I'd read it again as it's the only book I know of its type. He whizzes along with serious, important information rather like on tv. I think this is the best of his books that I've read (Rough Crossing & History of Britain). I will certainly be reading more of Simon Schama's - maybe on more art.
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on 22 November 2009
I purchased this excellent book as a reference for my BA (hons) degree dissertation which I am in the process of writing. The book was recommended by my tutor as part of my reading material. I keep dipping into the pages and I must say that those areas that I have used for my research, so far, have been most helpful and enlightening I shall not be using the book to read from cover to cover(700 pages),for it is not intended to be a novel but will use it as a reference to assist me in theorising my subject. The book is well written and extremely well researched. The bibliography is endless and the references are numerous. Michael Schama's enthusiasm for his subject is obvious. The book also contains an abundance of images helping him to make his point.
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This is a review of the paperback edition of 1991. The book comprises eight chapters arranged into four parts: 1. ‘Becoming’; 2. ‘Doing & Not Doing’; 3. ‘Living & Growing’; and ‘Watersheds’. The book also relies on many illustrations, but all are reproduced in monochrome. These largely comprise engravings and woodcuts anyway, but it is a shame there are no colour plates of the paintings Schama garners as evidence, for example by Willem van de Velde the Younger, or of the St Elizabeth’s Day panel in the Rijksmuseum. And, alack and alas, the black-and-white reproduction of the colour tapestry of the relief of Leiden is so small as to be virtually useless as a guide to Schama’s commentary.

Having got that issue out of the way, it should also be pointed out that Schama’s book received many plaudits when it was published in 1987. His ‘Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age’ focusses on the view from below rather than from above; a focus on the quotidian rather than high politics. This is important for potential purchasers of the book, for lest there be any misunderstanding, in his preface Schama writes, “… when I write of culture I don’t mean Culture. There is nothing here about theatre or poetry or music, and if there are images in abundance, they are summoned as impressions of mentality, not vessels of Art.” Rather, his is “… a manner of sharing a peculiar – very peculiar – space [the Netherlands] at a particular time … the product of the encounter between fresh historical experience and the constants of geography.”

He goes on to suggest in his introduction that his work is a “book of essays” that sets out “the cultural peculiarities of the Dutch in the springtime of their nationality” (note already the literary leanings) and repeats that the contents will say “a good deal more about pipe smoking and washing the stoop than about the Synod of Dordrecht or the economic origins of the Anglo-Dutch wars.” (But that is not to say these are not covered, such as in chapter four, ‘The Impertinence of Survival’. Schama asserts that, “Despite this attention to the commonplace, I have tried to avoid the estrangement between social and political history.”) In short, of what Schama writes is exactly what is missing from Jonathan Israel’s quasi-comprehensive history of ‘The Dutch Republic’: life as it is lived.

So what about the detail? In his first chapter – ‘Moral geography’ – Schama comments on trial by water as a formative experience “in the creation of Dutch nationhood.” It is not explicitly argued, of course: Schama, as is his wont, takes the reader along a number of pathways both of time and topography to arrive at his underlying conjecture here that “there is some historical basis to the geographical roots of [later] republican liberty. For it had been the perennial threat of flood, … which, as early as the eleventh century, had prompted their respective lords … to offer the inducement of semifree tenurial states to any farmers prepared to colonize and settle the region.”

Chapter two asks, “When a citizen of the Republic consulted the Mirror of the Times, what did he see reflected?” in other words, what was it that made the Dutch think of themselves as separate and distinctive? Further examples of the scope of his coverage are provided by a chapter that deals with the paradox of practising Calvinist humility in the bosom of capitalist riches, leading into a consideration of smoking and drinking habits. Hollandophobia by other nations is also explored, and Schama can hardly escape also attending to the renowned Tulipmania. His final chapter assesses who was inside and who was outside Dutch culture and how, after the Golden Age, “at the top and bottom of society … the Republic became less remarkable and more commonplace in Europe.”

Schama is a great enthusiast for his subject. But one often has the feeling that Schama never knows when to stop. For instance, after a sub-chapter headed ‘This Indigested Vomit of the Sea’, the author produces thirty pages of how the English and French disdained and insulted the Dutch and vice-versa. It’s all highly interesting, if not entertaining – and Schama has the literary skill that prevents the iteration of insults becoming a dry-as-dust list – but why use ten words when one will do? Thus, when Schama describes the Dutch housewife’s cleaning regimen as “a whole department of human activity specified in relentless detail”, one might say the same about his book. Relentless detail abounds, but it never bores (or hardly ever).

As a postscript, it seems contradictory for this reviewer then to complain that some obvious questions go unanswered: for instance, were the Dutch renowned for cleanliness before the Reformation? But such criticisms are minor carps biting at the body of a huge whale of evidential argument. For anyone wanting to know what makes the Dutch different and why, this book starts to provide answers. Equally, for anyone wanting to know the early modern history of Europe, then the Dutch cannot be ignored, and you need to know what made them tick and why. The embarrassment of riches may refer to the Dutch experience in the seventeenth century itself; it equally applies to the book that Schama has written. (Except of course that he need not be embarrassed.)
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on 6 January 2000
This is a work of erudition and painstaking research. So much so that I suspect it presents a dense thicket of quirky historicism to the average reader. Schama seeks out the collective self image, the self identity of the Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries. His tool is metaphor; in this case it is dyke building by the Dutch in their reclamation of land. Holding back the waters has a dual biblical and political significance which defines the mentality of the Dutch federacy. Schama's preoccupation is assembling evidence in support of the existence of a collective national consciousness and its evolution and dialogue with daily life and commerce. If one disagrees that such phenomena exist, or even if they do, that they can be exhaustively analysed in Schama's terms, then this work may be difficult to endure. There is a vast amount of information in the work; some astounding, some funny, but mostly dry unless Dutch history is your forte. As a non historian, I found this work prolix, pedantic and ultimately self indulgent. However, I would have nothing but admiration for the scholarship involved in the work.
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