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Eighteenth-Century Life 24.1 (2000) 62-87

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Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid and the Speculative Bubble of 1720:
A Bibliographical Enigma and an Economic Force

Frans DeBruyn *


The South Sea Bubble of 1719-20, the first truly international speculative crisis in the history of financial capitalism, was, in the view of P. G. M. Dickson, "the most dramatic financial storm" of the eighteenth century. 1 Historical accounts of this upheaval have painted a sometimes paradoxical picture. From the long-term perspective of the economic historian, for example, the outcome of the Bubble in Britain was considerably more beneficial than observers feared at the time. Despite the corrupt execution of the South Sea Scheme, its ostensible aim, the restructuring of the national debt, was ultimately achieved, and the country's public finances were thereafter placed on a more honest and efficient footing. 2 As an event in social and cultural history, however, the Bubble was every bit as disruptive and consequential as the popular imagination has subsequently figured it. To this day, the Bubble remains the paradigmatic instance of speculative madness in the history of capitalism, and its memory is reinvoked whenever a new financial storm threatens on the horizon.

In recent years, literary and cultural historians have begun to give the events of 1720 the careful scrutiny they deserve, analyzing the outpouring of artistic, literary, musical, and visual representations prompted by the speculative fever. 3 Yet, amidst this renewed critical attention, the largest and, arguably, most important Bubble text of all, the Dutch folio Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid [The Great Picture (or Scene) of Folly] remains conspicuous by its absence from the discussion. Between the opulent covers of this book are gathered a broad range of printed documents witnessing to the speculative activity in the Dutch Republic. These include the "Conditien" or legal terms of subscription for the numerous Bubble companies floated in Dutch cities; a sampling of polemical pamphlets anatomizing these projects; and a collection of the satirical plays, poems, and prints inspired by the frenzy of speculation. In the opinion of Arthur H. Cole, whose bibliographical essay has stood hitherto as the only substantial English-language study of Het groote tafereel, neither England nor France produced anything to match "such a stout and extravagant piece as this Dutch volume." 4

Het groote tafereel is important for more substantial reasons than simply [End Page 62] its size and the variety of its contents. The Bubble was an international phenomenon, with speculative activity in Britain, France, and the Netherlands spilling across national borders; and the reaction it provoked in the press was correspondingly international in character. The chief Dutch contribution to this international discourse was a thick sheaf of satirical engravings (an art at which the Netherlands had excelled throughout the seventeenth century), of which more than seventy were ultimately collected in Het groote tafereel. Many of these prints circulated outside the Dutch Republic, finding their way to England, France, Germany, and elsewhere. In London, a substantial proportion of the Bubble prints that appeared were simply reversed copies of Dutch originals: printers adapted them for the domestic market by replacing Dutch-language captions and references with appropriate English substitutes. Equally importantly, Het groote tafereel furnishes the richest, most concentrated extant compendium of the literary, satirical, and rhetorical resources deployed internationally to mock and denounce (as the book's title declares) "this execrable and fraudulent trade" [deezer verfoeijelyke en bedrieglyke Handel].

In the past, the sprawling, heterogeneous character of the book has proved a formidable impediment to readers who attempted to assess and to make sense of its dazzling variety--or even to account for its very existence. When Cole published his pioneering study in 1949, the existing conceptions of what constitutes a literary text and the available strategies for reading texts were poorly suited to the task of unravelling the complexities of Het groote tafereel. The derivative character and questionable aesthetic quality of many of the engravings prompted art historians to dismiss the book as well. 5...


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