New College of the Humanities

Plain Lives In A Golden Age

A new publication on 17th-century Holland

Jacob Harskamp | Published in
  • Plain Lives In A Golden Age: Popular Culture, Religion And Society In Seventeenth-Century Holland
    A. Th. van Deursen - Cambridge University Press, 1991 - 408 pp. - £50

As a young student of literature and history, I was often somewhat puzzled by the ways in which the Dutch seventeenth century – the 'Golden Age' as it is known to all schoolchildren – was portrayed. The tone, in many ways, was set by Max Weber and taken up by R.H. Tawney. Calvinism (Puritanism) was linked with the commercial spirit and the capitalist organisation of industry. Such socio-economic interpretations were based upon a psychological profile of the Calvinist. Tawney's image is the most telling: like a man who strives by unresting activity to exorcise a haunting demon, the Puritan, in the effort to save his own soul, sets in motion every force in heaven above or on earth below. He makes his very business a travail of the spirit, for that too is the Lord's vineyard, in which he is called to labour.

My problem was to relate this, the so-called Protestant ethic, to the life 'from below' as it was expressed in contemporary literature and painting. Popular songbooks, plays and poems, the paintings of Adriaen van Ostade and others, give us a very different picture, one of erotic licence, adultery, drunkenness (the beers were strong and enjoyed for breakfast), poverty and violence.

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