What does Schama mean in The Embarrassment of Riches when he says “moral geography”?

When Simon Schama says “moral geography” in The Embarrassment of Riches, he means that the Dutch had a tendency to mark a person’s moral standing in society via their location and their condition.

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When Simon Schama uses the term moral geography in his bookThe Embarrassment of Riches , he means that a person’s location was indicative of what kind of lives they were leading. If a person was a beggar, a vagrant, or some kind of criminal, they, and the Dutch citizens...

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When Simon Schama uses the term moral geography in his book The Embarrassment of Riches, he means that a person’s location was indicative of what kind of lives they were leading. If a person was a beggar, a vagrant, or some kind of criminal, they, and the Dutch citizens during this time, would know that their lives were far from virtuous because of where they were.

In the first chapter, which is titled “Moral Geography,” Schama details the theories and beliefs that underpinned the Dutch prison system. Indeed, if a person found themselves in one of these “grim hostels,” they could be sure that Dutch society did not think that they were on the right path.

The “moral geography” of the prisoners was reinforced by their treatment. Due to where they were, they were subject to a range of abuses. They could be whipped and deprived of nutritious food. Prisoners could also be, according to legend, put in a drowning cell, where they were threatened with drowning until they repented of their ignominious deeds.

The drowning cell, for Schama, is symbolic of the Dutch’s “moral geography.” In Schama’s view, the fabled punishment draws on longstanding tropes within Dutch culture. These notions link being wet to being “captive, idle, and poor,” and they affix being dry to being “free, industrious, and comfortable.” As the Dutch did not consider the prisoners to be morally upstanding citizens, they, in turn, did not get to be free, comfortable, or dry. In a sense, if the prisoners aimed to change their geography, they would have to adjust their morals.

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