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Nurturing a new republic
on 29 August 2005
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]