restricted access Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (review)
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Reviewed by
Anne Goldgar. Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007. xx + 426 pp. + 13 color pls. index. illus. $30. ISBN: 978–0–226–30125–9.

The early seventeenth-century Dutch passion for tulips, which led to a notorious wave of speculation in bulbs and a resulting crash in their prices in 1637, has long been the stuff of legend. Over the past several centuries, the tulipmania of Holland has inspired numerous popular and even scholarly retellings, all focusing in one way or another on the moral lessons to be learned from the episode about the dangers of unrestrained speculation. Indeed, during the last decade alone, several books written for a popular audience have been published on the topic (for example, Anna Pavord's The Tulip [1999] and Mike Dash's Tulipomania [1999]), introducing more eager readers to these narratives. [End Page 220]

What Anne Goldgar does in her provocative and lively new book is convincingly cast all of these existing narratives into question. Drawing on extensive research in a wide range of archives, and investigating sources completely ignored by earlier authors, such as notarial records and those of small-claims courts, she shows that the tulip boom, far from representing a case of mass irrationality, was actually the product of intellectual, familial, and commercial networks among a relatively small and prosperous subset of Dutch burghers. Painstakingly reconstructing these networks, using methods honed in a previous work on educated sociability during the early Enlightenment (Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 [1995]), Goldgar reveals the close ties that existed between buyers and sellers of tulip bulbs, many of whom belonged to the substantial Mennonite community in Holland and shared a common descent from immigrants from the southern Netherlands.

The tulip trade, Goldgar shows, was something that grew organically out of the networks of earlier liefhebbers (connoisseurs) of exotic plants, such as the famous botanist Carolus Clusius, who had exchanged rare specimens with each other. This had had a commercial element, as she demonstrates, from the very start. The further commercialization of tulips proceeded gradually during the first half of the seventeenth century, as buyers and sellers continued to enjoy their opportunities, in taverns and around dinner tables as well as in gardens, to show off their expertise and acquire new knowledge of the exquisitely colored and patterned ornamentals. In fact, the trade in tulips shared considerable affinity with that in art, and readers from all backgrounds will be fascinated by the chapter in which Goldgar analyzes the aesthetic, as well as financial, interconnections of the two markets. Here, as elsewhere in the book, she skillfully deploys the book's thirteen color plates, as well as its seventy-one black-and-white illustrations, to support her nuanced analysis of these interconnections.

Throughout the book, Goldgar treats the reader to a series of delightful quotations from her archival sources. In the book's later chapters, as Goldgar begins to examine the series of events that led up to the 1637 tulip price crash, her examination of individual buyers-and-sellers' quarrels about tulips leads her to uncover still more rich material. As her analysis of individual transactions reveals, the true crisis caused by the collapse of tulip prices in February 1637 was not, in fact, a financial one, but rather one of honor. Under normal circumstances it had previously been customary in Holland for a buyer or seller, upon breaking a contract, to pay a small amount of grieving money to the other party, a sort of fine for having gone back on a previous agreement. Only if this were paid could both parties' honor be satisfied. But amidst the rapid drop in tulip prices over the course of February 1637, buyers began to reject their contracts en masse, and to reject as well the idea that they had any responsibility to pay their symbolic fine, creating in the process enormous strains within the tight-knit community of buyers and sellers. This, then, is why so many pamphlets ended up being published at the time, as well as by subsequent moralists —because, as Goldgar convincingly demonstrates, the...


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