The Embarrassment of Riches

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Dutch nation was an anomaly in seventeenth century Europe. It was a republic in a world of monarchy, governed by a bourgeois elite and nurtured by a very middle-class society. Against all odds, the seven loosely confederated provinces of the northern Netherlands made good their claim of independence from imperial Spain, fought wars against England and France as well as Spain, and became the leading commercial nation of Europe. The necessity of war and trade further disciplined the Dutch people, already long accustomed to struggling against the sea. Their success in trade brought them great riches, the highest standard of living in Europe, and a vibrant culture that was the envy of their aristocratic neighbors. Who were the Dutch, what did they believe, and what made them a separate people? Looking at the United Provinces at the zenith of its political, economic, and artistic powers, Simon Schama answers these questions in truly masterful fashion. Relying largely on travel accounts, popular literature, paintings, and prints, Schama succeeds in illuminating that complex of core values which gave the Dutch their distinctive identity. With his use of paintings and prints, he has put together a model of creative scholarship, valuable not only for its historical craftsmanship but also for its literary excellence.

The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age is a long book, divided into four parts, eight chapters, an epilogue, four appendices, and a wonderfully complete annotated bibliography. It is beautifully, and very meaningfully, illustrated and gracefully written. Its 698 pages read easily and quickly. Schama’s focus is largely on Holland, particularly Amsterdam, but his knowledge of popular literature, the graphic arts, custom, and folkways takes him into the countryside and hinterlands of the Netherlands. His analysis is impressionistic, but it is informed by encyclopedic knowledge and keen intellect and is very convincing. Although concerned largely with Dutch thought and sensibility, Schama necessarily describes basic social institutions and the material artifacts of Netherland culture. He refers only obliquely to political and economic history, concentrating instead on the psychology and emotions of the people.

Part 1, on the emergence of the Dutch nation, emphasizes the relationship of the people and the sea. As Schama so artfully points out, the moral geography of the Dutch was defined by their diligence in maintaining dykes, building new ones, and draining off water to redeem more land from the sea. In part because they literally made so much of their land themselves, the Dutch, unlike most other Europeans, never experienced the full rigor of feudalism. During the Middle Ages, the authority of the dukes of Burgundy rested lightly on the Netherlands, limited by customary freedoms of villages and towns. The local nobility, primarily the Houses of Orange and Nassau, found it in their interest to resist any effort to limit traditional freedoms. Hence, the centralizing efforts of Philip II met with a remarkably unified response from Netherlander burghers, lords, and farmers. In fact, Philip’s attack upon the ancient freedoms endangered the customary methods of holding back the sea; the Dutch themselves would break the dykes to foil the Spanish and other invaders. The war for independence fed their sense of separateness and aided the spread of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, and that in turn joined with an already strong Hebraic tradition in Christian Humanism to lead to a popular identification of the Dutch people with the children of Israel. Yet religion, especially militant Calvinism, was moderated significantly by Humanism, pragmatic materialism, and local government. Hence, despite the Reformed predikants, religious toleration prevailed in practice, downplaying religious and ethnic differences in the interest of economic and political advancement.

Part 2 looks at the style of Dutch life. It is here that Schama fully develops his central thesis of the Dutch republic as a remarkably communal society, based largely upon familial economic ambitions. Caught between the Spanish and the sea, as it were, the Dutch thrived in terms of commerce and manufacturing. They reveled in material success, for it signaled the vitality of the republic, of Dutch society as a whole. Still, there were deep anxieties, produced as much by the Christian humanism of Desiderius Erasmus as the Reformed faith of John Calvin, both of which warned of the...

(The entire section is 1852 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, May 1, 1987, p. 1331.

History Today. XXXVII, December, 1987, p. 51.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, April 15, 1987, p. 626.

Library Journal. CXII, May 15, 1987, p. 83.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 14, 1987, p. 12.

The New Republic. CXCVII, August 24, 1987, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, July 5, 1987, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIII, September 14, 1987, p. 130.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, April 3, 1987, p. 62.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, June 28, 1987, p. 1.