Dutch History

23 April 2013
Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Fourteen years ago, I published a small Dutch book, Hollands glorie, which offered a history of the Dutch consensus culture, from its very beginnings to the latest developments, covering more or less the millennium that was, in 1999, coming to an end. Reprinted several times, it was completely revised and republished in 2005, this time called Polderdenken.

The text, which I have decided to call Consensus and Crises, has been translated by my friends Marie Smit-Ryan and Bill Thayer, and I have made a web version, which you can find here. Parts of it have been adapted, because I cannot reasonably expect foreigners to know Dutch topography. Most illustrations are from Amsterdam – I’m an Amsterdammer after all, and proud to be one – but I hope to add photos from other towns as well.

The text is about 35,000 words and tries to explain why the Dutch political system is currently in crisis, but this precise theme has not prevented me from digressing on things I found interesting.

Again, you can find it here. I hope you will enjoy it.

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Wall stones from Amsterdam

2 August 2011

Wall stone - one of about eight hundred

This is a blog about ancient history, but I take the liberty for a small digression. The stone to the right is a gevelsteen from Amsterdam. The translation “wall stone” is not really accurate, but is the best we have. Gevelstenen are small pieces of sculpture that decorate houses. In this way, houses could be identified. The person who ordered the gevelsteen to the right to be made, called his house “In Emmaus”.

The oldest I know (this one; the girl is typically Dutch) dates back to the sixteenth century, but the tradition still exists, even though houses now have addresses.

Almost every stone tells a story. This refers to the Dutch version of the story of Polycrates’ ring, this is an old coin and this is a new one, this is of course a pharmacist, here is Saint Luke as a painter, here‘s a dentist, our beloved patron saint is here and a war hero can be seen here, children smile at this one, this one‘s for a confused person, here is Julius Civilis, someone detested Frederic III of Prussia, and this one reminds us of the commercial foundations of Amsterdam’s prosperity, although some people just look tired. They are all works of art, like this Saturn, but you will never see them in art books, which show only old masters.

Before I forget: take a look at that Emmaus again. The painter really did his best to make the landscape look authentic. He even added… a mosque!

The whole story is here; and here‘s a map with some 250 markers. The overall number is 800.


Johannes De Laet and Hugo Grotius

28 July 2011

Johannes de Laet:
Notice his beard, which is part of the 'controversy'.

This seems a better place than elsewhere to report a small new item on my American history site: a transcription of a journal article in the Catholic Historical Review (October 1917), “Origin of American Aborigines: A Famous Controversy”.

The paper is not so much about the origin of the native peoples of the American continent as about the quarrel between two eminent 17c Dutch savants. In the author’s view, the less-known De Laet (whose geographical work places him, however, among the top scientists of his time in that field) comes out on top, for both his historical insight and his personal and professional courtesy.

That said, the various theories then held about where the American peoples might have come from do get enumerated; and all the candidates still in the running today — for genetic studies haven’t completely settled the question — were already being discussed, with here and there some surprisingly modern arguments (Acosta on animal migration, De Laet on linguistic drift).

The paper is of additional interest in that it touches on Dutch religious controversies, which the principals themselves more than hint at: Catholic vs. Protestant — although the writer could have dug more and presented a more interesting and affirmative result.


Apeldoorn

30 April 2011

The excavators

Exactly two years ago, the town of Apeldoorn suddenly and sadly caught the world’s headlines, and as a former inhabitant of that quiet city, I am glad that this year, I can blog about something more trivial but also nicer: the discovery of several iron melting ovens from the Roman age.

It was already known that in the Merovingian age, people were producing and melting iron ore, but the activity appears to have started earlier. So far, six or seven ovens have been found, and it turns out that some unidentified remains discovered several years ago, also belong to the Roman age. The place where charcoal was produced, has been identified as well; last month, a farm was discovered. Apeldoorn suddenly has an important Roman past.

The finds are unexpected, but they fit a more general pattern: the Romans were able to exploit the natural richness of the country beyond the Rhine, even though they must have done so indirectly.


Mercury in Amsterdam

30 April 2011

Mercury

Between 1600 and 1800, somewhere around ten thousand European ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Persia, the Indies, China, and Japan. Half of these came from Holland. Of the vessels that sailed from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, two-thirds flew the red, white and blue flag. Another ‘triumph’ for the Dutch entrepreneurship was the 45 per cent market share they had in the slave trade.

At that moment in time, Holland owned seventeen hundred ships, more than the fleets of France and England put together. It should also be borne in mind that the Holland flute ship could be manned by fewer sailors than ships from other countries, making for a much higher profit per ship.

Holland was responsible for sixty per cent of the Gross National Product of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and within Holland, Amsterdam produced the lion’s share. So, it comes as no suprise that if there is an ancient god who is almost omnipresent in Amsterdam, it is Mercury.

I put some photos here.


A House Full of Flowers, Again

22 April 2011

The award, made by Carla Rump

Some time ago, I had the honor to be given an academic prize (this one), and I could blog that my house was suddenly full of flowers. Ever since, I’ve bought a bouquet every week, because I liked the scent.

Now history appears to be repeating itself, because yesterday evening, the NKV (a well-known, large association of people in the Netherlands and Belgium interested in classics) gave its annual award to De rand van het Rijk, a book I wrote with my Livius colleague Arjen Bosman. Again, my house is full of flowers.

The chairman of the jury, Mr Van Reeth from Antwerp, delivered a speech about the nominated books that made the Dutch people in his audience realize that the art of speaking in public is better preserved in Belgium than in the Netherlands. His speech is probably what I will remember best.

What I also liked was the bronze statuette we received. It represents a dancing Muse and is made by Dutch sculptor Carla Rump, who “creates images because they do not exist in reality”. That is a most unclassical point of view: in Antiquity, art was meant to represent reality (mimesis, imitatio), and it was only in the nineteenth century that artists decided to create images that did not exist. Not imitatio but creatio. The statuette is a modern approach to an ancient subject, exactly as we must necessarily approach Antiquity.


How Amsterdam Became A Roman City

2 September 2010

Cover of “De rand van het Rijk”

Today, my new book on the Romans in the Low Countries (this one) was officially presented. Livius Onderwijs, my employer, organized two lectures, one on Roman Tongeren and one on Roman Velsen: a city in Belgium and a naval base in Holland. The second speaker was Arjen Bosman of Gent University, my co-author.

One of the points he mentions in our book is that there was probably no gap between the two bases at Velsen. Until now, it was believed that Velsen 1 was used from 15 to 28, and Velsen 2 from 41 to 47. But Arjen has found evidence for continuous occupation, like a dendrochronological date in 37.

In an interview with an Amsterdam newspaper we told the kind journalist that Arjen’s discovery – in itself not terribly important – meant that people living in what would later be called Amsterdam would have seen Roman ships every day. The man or woman who lost a fibula that was excavated in the 1970s, belonged to the Roman Empire.

The journalist sent us the interview, we corrected a sentence or two, and gave the text our imprimatur. I knew that the paper would also publish a brief summary to make people curious about the main article, which was fine with me.

I should have asked if I could check the summary as well. I was surprised, this morning, by a phone call from a radio station: could I please tell a bit more about those excavations and that new foundation date of Amsterdam? I was surprised, because there’s no excavation (Arjen is reinvestigating old finds) and we hadn’t said anything about the foundation of the city. We had only said that this part of the world had been within the Empire, and that is also what the journalist had written down. The radio reporter told me she had read it on the website of the newspaper. I went on the air and told that the claim was exaggerated.

It was only later that I saw that webpage. It contained the summary of our article and was free of factual errors, although “investigation” had been changed into “excavation”, and it was not immediately clear that it dealt with Velsen. The real problem, however, was the headline: “Amsterdam inhabited for 2,000 years”, from which a careless reader might indeed deduce that the Romans had founded the city.

When I bought the newspaper itself, I noticed that this piece was on the frontpage. When I returned home, I found several e-mails from people who had been led to believe that Amsterdam had been a Roman town. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence for this. There must have been people living over there (someone must have lost that fibula), it was part of the Roman Empire, there are careless summarizers and ditto readers, and yours truly has failed to check a summary. That’s all.

[To be continued]