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Last Reviewed on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

As its subtitle suggests, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age can be understood as a cultural history. Schama is concerned first and foremost with what he describes as "elusive quarry," or a "collective or common conscience" shared by Dutch people. He acknowledges that his work focuses on elite Dutchmen but denies that it is a history of bourgeois Dutch culture. This is because ordinary Dutch people held many of the same beliefs—especially Calvinism—as Dutch elites. In order to sketch out a picture of the Dutch mentality in the seventeenth century (the "golden age" of Dutch commercial power), Schama looks at a number of different aspects of Dutch life.

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The first part of the book is devoted to what he calls the "moral geography" of the Dutch, which is the key to his analysis of Dutch culture. The low-lying Netherlands were always under threat of inundation by ocean waters. The Dutch also gained independence from the Spanish Empire, a fact that meant they had to constantly be on guard against foreign enemies as well. In analyzing Schama's argument, scholars have noted that he drew some ideas from the Annales school of historical study, which emphasized the connections between fleeting aspects of culture and long-term forces, such as geographic realities. Schama posits that the constant external threat to Dutch independence and viability led to an anxiety that was unique to the Dutch. They feared "drowning in destitution and terror" in equal measure with "drowning in luxury and sin."

This existential anxiety, according to Schama, was at the heart of Dutch culture in the seventeenth century, and he uses it as the central motif of his book. He finds it in patriotic literature, in the structure of the Dutch republic, in the home lives of Dutch people, and in Dutch art, which provides much of the evidence for his argument. On the level of political thought, his argument draws on the importance of "republicanism," an ideology that emphasized the constant vigilance required to maintain republican government. However, Schama takes his analysis further, emphasizing how the dynamic tensions created by these anxieties at the heart of Dutch culture help explain not just Dutch politics, but also Dutch art, architecture, family life, and many other aspects of Dutch society. The Embarrassment of Riches is perhaps best understood as a synthesis of several different historiographical techniques in order to understand a society that was unique in its historical moment.

The Embarrassment of Riches

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1852

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...

(The entire section contains 2324 words.)

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