This valuable and interesting study is the first genuinely scholarly investigation of tulipmania. It uses archival and other contemporary records rather than the usual, mostly scandalized contemporary pamphlet literature, which often verges on anti-tulipmania propaganda. Goldgar shows [End Page 279] that the Dutch tulipmania of the 1630s was a highly complex social, cultural, and mass-psychological phenomenon concerned with taste, fashion, and connoisseurship and bolstered by intense discussion among close-knit communities of enthusiasts. She provides an opportunity to study in microcosm the problem of how, in a rapidly burgeoning commercial society, men and women struggled to relate fast-changing material values to time-honored social conventions. Thus, her work has much to teach about that highly dynamic intersection where early modern art, science, commerce, and religion converged.
Goldgar identifies the main body of the tulip fanciers as men of the prosperous middle strata of society, especially mid-level merchants and highly specialized master craftsmen. She shows that they tended to form closely interweaving networks in particular cities, notably Haarlem, Utrecht, Middelburg, and Amsterdam, and—what is especially significant—that they often belonged to Mennonite or other fringe Protestant congregations and often came from immigrant families originally from the southern Netherlands.
Tulipmania is probably most well known for the steep rise in prices of certain categories of tulip bulbs in 1636/37 and the financial crash and accompanying scandal that followed; the crash reputedly bankrupted or caused heavy losses to vast numbers of investors. Yet, in actual fact, few were bankrupted, and hardly anyone was reduced to beggary. The reports claiming the contrary were tied to the fierce denunciation of the tulip craze and its participants, by respectable, primarily Calvinist, critics in subsequent years. The case of Jan van Goyen, the great landscape painter, who is known to have conducted several costly deals in tulip bulbs on the very eve of the crash, has often been cited as confirmation of the supposedly devastating effects of the craze. Goldgar, however, shows that the bulk of the artist’s massive debts, totaling 18,000 guilders at the time of his death, were due much less to investing in tulips than to his frenetic dealings in land and other forms of real estate. The general effect of the crash on the Dutch economy was undoubtedly slight.
There is much to be appreciated in this book. One general criticism, however, is that Goldgar makes little attempt to locate either the feverish spate of investment in tulips or the ensuing crash within the wider context of Dutch commercial history. The 1630s were a time of rapidly improving prosperity and rising wealth in Holland, especially from agriculture and industry, at a time when possibilities for investment in overseas trade remained severely constricted primarily because of the Spanish economic embargoes from 1621 to 1647. This commercial scenario was almost bound to fuel domestic investment crazes. Unfortunately, Goldgar makes little contribution to what has been said before about this important aspect of the subject. [End Page 280]