The Dutch were charged by their rivals with undue commercialism, a fever of money-making, and the coarseness of manners sometimes connected with absorption in economic life. Dutch historians amiably admit these allegations.89 And yet can we call a culture commercial that so loved cleanliness, tulips, music, and art, that set up a school in every village and wiped out illiteracy, that created an intellectual atmosphere electric with controversy and ideas, and allowed such freedom of thought, speech, and press as soon made Holland the international refuge of rebel minds? “There is no country,” said Descartes, “in which freedom is more complete, security greater, crime rarer, the simplicity of ancient manners more perfect than here.”90 And in 1660 another Frenchman wrote:

There is not today a province in the world that enjoys so much liberty as Holland…. The moment a seigneur brings into this country any serfs or slaves they are free. Everybody can leave the country when he pleases, and can take all the money he pleases with him. The roads are safe day and night, even for a man traveling alone. The master is not allowed to retain a domestic against his will. Nobody is troubled on account of his religion. One is free to say what he chooses, even of the magistrates.91

The basis of this freedom was order, and the clarity of the mind was mirrored in the neatness of the home. Courage, industry, and obstinacy characterized the men; domestic assiduity and mastery marked the women; calm temper and a bluff good humor were in both sexes. Many Dutch businessmen retired after making a reasonable fortune, and gave themselves to politics, literature, golf,IV music, and domestic felicity. The Dutch “hold adultery in horror,” wrote Lodovico Guicciardini. “Their women are extremely circumspect, and are consequently allowed much freedom. They go out alone to make visits, and even journeys, without evil report…. They are housekeepers, and love their homes.”93 There were many women of fine culture, like Maria Schuurman, “the Minerva of Holland,” who read eleven languages, spoke and wrote seven, practiced painting and sculpture well, and was adept in mathematics and philosophy. Maria Tesselschade’s poetry was almost as beautiful as her person; she translated Tasso’sGerusalemme liberata to universal praise; she painted, carved, and etched; she played the harp and sang so well that half a dozen notables, including Constantijn Huygens, Joost van den Vondel, and Gerbrand Bredero, laid proposals at her feet; she married a sea captain, became a devoted housewife and mother, and left behind her a tradition, still dear to Dutch memory, of intelligence, accomplishments, and nobility.94

The love of music was even more widely spread than the appreciation of art. Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck of Amsterdam, the greatest of Dutch organists, taught Heinrich Scheidemann, who taught Johann Adam Reinken, who taught Johann Sebastian Bach. Along with all this excellence went some corruption in Dutch commerce, much drunkenness, many brothels, and a taste for gambling in all its forms,95 even to speculation in the future prices of tulips.96

Haarlem was the center of the tulip culture. The bulbs had been imported from Italy and South Germany toward the end of the fifteenth century. Paris too made the flower a fashion and distinction; in 1623 one fancier refused 12,000 francs ($30,000?) for ten tulip bulbs.97 In 1636 nearly the entire population of Holland took to speculating in tulips; special bourses existed where one could buy or sell tulip crops or futures; tulips had their own financial “crash” (1637). In that year an auction of 120 precious bulbs for the benefit of an orphanage brought 90,000 florins; credat qui vult.

Into this genial atmosphere the refugees from Flanders, France, Portugal, and Spain, and foreign merchants from half the world, imported a stimulating variety of exotic ways. The universities of Leiden, Franeker, Harderwijk, Utrecht, and Groningen gathered world-famous scholars, and produced others in turn. Justus Lipsius, Joseph Scaliger, Daniel Heinsius, and Gerard Vossius were all professing at Leiden in the first half century (1575–1625) of its career; by 1640 Leiden was the most renowned seat of learning in Europe. Among the general public of the United Provinces literacy was probably higher than anywhere else in the world. The Dutch press was the first free press. The Leiden weekly News and the Amsterdam Gazette were read throughout Western Europe because they were known to speak freely, while elsewhere the press was at this time governmentally controlled. When a king of France asked to have a Dutch publisher suppressed he was astonished to learn that this was impossible.98

Men of letters were many in Holland, but it was their misfortune that they wrote either in Latin, which was dying, or in Dutch, which narrowed their audience; the Dutch could not make their language, like their marine, a common carrier. Dirck Coornhert and Hendrik Spiegel upheld the lusty vernacular as a literary vehicle, and struggled to free it from uncongenial accretions. Coornhert—artist, writer, statesman, and philosopher—was the first and most virile figure in the cultural blossoming that crowned the political revolt. He drew up, as city secretary at Haarlem, the manifesto of 1566 for William of Orange, was imprisoned at The Hague, escaped to Cleves, earned his living as a skilled engraver, translated The Odyssey, Boccaccio, Cicero, and the New Testament. Back in Holland, he labored for religious toleration, and symbolized the intellectual history of the next—seventeenth—century by losing the faith that he saw so mangled in bloody disputes. He became an agnostic, confessing that man will never know the truth.99 His principal book, Zedenkunst (The Art of Well-Living), proposed a Christianity without theology, a system of morality independent of religious creeds. By some oversight he was allowed to die a natural death (1590).

It was characteristic of Holland that businessmen often mingled literature with their material affairs. Roemer Visscher, wealthy merchant of Amsterdam, gave help and hospitality to young writers, made his home a salon rivaling those of France, and himself wrote poetry that won him the title of the Dutch Martial. Pieter Hooft made his Castle of Muiden, on the Zuider Zee, a haven for the Dutch Renaissance; into his Muiderkring, or Muiden Circle, he welcomed poets, scientists, diplomats, generals, and physicians; and he himself, in his last twenty years, wrote the Nederlandsche Historien, telling the story of the Netherlands revolt in prose so strong and beautiful that Holland celebrated him as its Tacitus.

Three among a hundred poets brought the vernacular to its literary peak. Jacob Cats, for twenty-two years grand pensionary of Holland, expounded proverbial wisdom in popular verse, salted with spicy anecdotes; for centuries the works of “Father Cats” were in every literate Dutch home. Joost van den Vondel climbed over misfortunes and enemies to the supreme place in the literature of Holland. His father, a hatter, was banished from Antwerp for Anabaptist opinions, and Joost was born in Cologne. In 1597 the family settled in Amsterdam, where the father, going from one extreme to the other, opened a hosiery shop. Joost inherited the business, but left its operation to his wife and son while he made up for lack of formal education by studying Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and German. His twenty-eight plays were formed on Greek and French models, carefully obeying the unities. His satires ridiculed predestination and the debates among the Protestant sects. He felt the aesthetic appeal of Roman Catholic ritual, and of Maria Tesselschade, who was both Catholic and beautiful. After her husband died (1634) and Vondel’s wife died (1635), the two poets entered into close friendship. In 1640 he was received into the Catholic faith. He continued to flay religious animosity, economic chicanery, and political corruption, and won a warm place in Dutch hearts by singing the courage and glory of the Netherlands. In 1657 the hosiery business, which his son had mismanaged, went bankrupt. The son fled to the East Indies, the poet sold all his modest possessions to satisfy the creditors, and for ten years he earned his bread as a pawnbroker’s clerk. At last his government pensioned him, and he spent the last thirteen of his ninety-two years in peace.

The most attractive figure in the literature of the Netherlands in this age was Constantijn Huygens, a Dutchman with all the versatility of the Italian Renaissance. His father, Christian Huygens, was secretary to the Council of State at The Hague; his son, Christian Huygens, was to be the greatest of Continental scientists in the age of Newton; between them Constantijn well maintained the family’s remarkable progression of ability. He was born at The Hague in 1596. There and at Leiden, Oxford, and Cambridge he received an ample education. He wrote Latin and Dutch poetry, excelled in athletics, and became a good musician and artist. At twenty-two he joined a diplomatic mission to England, played the lute before James I, and fell in love with John Donne, whose poems he later translated into Dutch. At twenty-three he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Venice; on his return he nearly lost his life scaling the topmost spire of the Strasbourg cathedral. In 1625 he became secretary to a succession of stadholders; in 1630 he was appointed to the Privy Council. Meanwhile he issued several volumes of poetry, distinguished by grace of style and delicacy of feeling. His death at the age of ninety (1687) marked the close of the Netherlands’ most brilliant age.

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