- The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century: The Golden Age
Diane Webb's new translation of Maarten Prak's 2002 Gouden Eeuw: Het raadsel van de Republiek is poised to become a standard textbook for the Dutch [End Page 921] Golden Age. The book revolves around the "enigma of the Republic": that is, how such a small and previously unimportant region so quickly became one of the most powerful states in Europe during the seventeenth century. Although the question has often been answered by framing the Dutch Republic as the first modern society, Prak argues that this vantage point conceals its premodern foundations and focuses instead on the context of seventeenth-century Europe. His answer is embedded into the structure of the book. He begins with an overview of the Dutch Revolt and divides the remaining chapters into four parts: war and international politics, economic structures and developments, local and domestic politics, and society and culture.
Readers might be surprised that Golden Age art does not take a more prominent position, but this is essential to Prak's perspective, which centers on economics and political culture. The Low Countries had a loose economic structure resulting from early urbanization and a lack of raw materials, which combined with the loose political structure that emerged out of the Revolt to produce a highly-commercialized culture whose hallmark was its adaptability, especially in responding to market needs. In addition, strong corporate networks — citizenries, militias, guilds, and neighborhoods — provided a tradition of trust and community that helped capitalism flourish. Prak avoids glorifying the inherent creativity or toleration of the Dutch. Strong traditions of science, philosophy, literature, and art, in this version of events, emerged from economic and political developments, which are the driving forces of Prak's story. The economic boom created a middle-class market for painters such as Johannes Vermeer, just as economic collapse in the early eighteenth century dried up that market. The loose political and economic structures that had allowed the Republic to flourish could not compete in the long run with emerging bureaucratic nation-states. Prak's point is that emphasizing the republic's modernity undervalues longterm historical developments that are essential to explaining the republic's success and its decline.
Prak's greatest strength as a textbook writer is his lively writing. He has a particular knack for identifying anecdotes to illustrate his larger point. Most chapters begin with a lively and emblematic vignette that characterizes the central theme. Chapters end by taking a broader perspective, comparing the republic to elsewhere in Europe. At times he even addresses the modern day in order to reconnect with his reader at a more basic level. These rhetorical strategies are remarkably engaging, while grounding Prak's work in a wider context.
With a literature review instead of extensive footnotes, Prak's work draws on most of the best recent scholarship. Specialists will no doubt quibble on small points, especially those outside Prak's own fields of expertise. There are still many topics that are not dealt with — women's experiences are a small part of this history, even though women outnumbered men in cities such as Amsterdam (144). But he includes topics that triumphalists tend to slight, including the role of the Dutch overseas empire in massacring Native Americans or transporting African slaves.
The question of the modernity of the Dutch Republic is not fully resolved by [End Page 922] Prak's approach, however. By explaining artistic creativity or religious toleration, for instance, as results of economic and political changes, Prak threatens to reduce these features of culture to mere materialism. Are we really to believe that Dutch burghers had "no alternative to the sufferance of all religious persuasions" (5)? Elsewhere in Europe a viable option was still persecution, even when it was not an economically sound policy. Likewise, the emergence of a middle class capable of purchasing art cannot fully explain the...