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  • Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age
  • Steven Paul Matthews
Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. By Harold J. Cook. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. 576 pp. $25.00 (paper).

In Matters of Exchange, Harold J. Cook (of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine) examines the role of Dutch economics and commerce on the development of modern empirical scientific method during the Dutch Golden Age (a period coterminous with what we have, retroactively, named the "scientific revolution"). The trade culture of the early modern period required a critical knowledge of things, and this practical focus of the merchants came to be reflected in the empirical study of the things of nature. What we now call "science" and commerce were thus united by objectivity: "It is therefore possible to speak about objectivity as a kind of knowledge being cultivated in the early modern period: a knowledge appertaining to a detailed acquaintance with objects" (p. 17). After establishing the connection between trade and the new science in chapter 1, Cook's second chapter, "An Information Economy," presents knowledge itself in terms of a commodity: "Matters of fact, like objects traveled with people, who moved about exchanging goods and information" (p. 81). In subsequent chapters Cook marshals case studies in support of his thesis. Throughout the book, Cook establishes the social, political, and economic context that undergirds the development of Dutch trade and empiricism. The result is a sweeping view of the Dutch Golden Age, covering the tangled politics of Holland and the narrative of Dutch expansion, while ranging geographically from the Americas to East Asia. The author's years of research have produced a book deservedly called "magisterial." It serves both as an effective introduction to colonial era Holland and an important reintroduction of Dutch contributions to the "scientific revolution," which, in recent English-language publications, have too often been ignored.

For readers of the Journal of World History the most significant chapters will likely be those in which Cook explores the interaction of the Dutch with non-Western cultures in the development of trade and natural philosophy. Chapter 5, "Truths and Untruths from the Indies," [End Page 336] focuses on the Dutch East India Company and especially on the brief but productive career of the physician and naturalist Jacobus Bontius. Bontius's life and accomplishments are set within the broader, tragic narrative of the short, violent lives of the sailors, soldiers, and traders, particularly among the Bandanese. The interests of the merchants and the naturalist are shown to overlap, as Bontius's medical curiosity brings about the production of natural histories as a commodity for intellectuals in Europe. Errors were imported by the Dutch along with sound knowledge, and the chapter ends with a description of how confusion and misinformation developed in the marketplace of ideas. Chapter 8, "Gardens of the Indies Transported," examines the new trade and interest in exotic plant and animal specimens, and how natural knowledge itself could not, at this level, be separated from commerce. Chapter 9, "Translating What Works," is an excellent introduction to the consideration and influence of East Asian medical theory and ideas to the Western world, an exchange that has not yet taken its proper place in West-centered narratives of the "scientific revolution."

For all the significant contributions of this book to the history of science, the history of international trade, and the historiography of the early modern Netherlands, there are also significant limitations to the study that must be mentioned, and at least one major weakness. First, the discussion of science itself is limited to medicine and the related subject of "life sciences" as it appeared then in natural histories of plants and animals. This is not surprising given the author's field of expertise, but it also serves Cook's thesis well, since there was, in the Dutch market towns, a genuine market for medicines and cures (which he describes in chapter 4), as well as a market for exotic specimens and foods or spices. When drawing connections between trade and science it helps to focus on a science that had such...


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pp. 336-339
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