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Plain Lives in a Golden Age: Popular Culture, Religion and Society in Seventeenth-Century Holland.

Plain Lives in a Golden Age: Popular Culture, Religion and Society in Seventeenth-Century Holland. By A. Th. Van Deursen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. viii plus 408 pp.).

This excellent study, written by an eminent historian of the Dutch Republic, is not a new book. The Dutch edition was published more than ten years ago, not in one but unfortunately, in four miserable looking volumes which did the contents anything but justice. Indeed, it is not unlikely that Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches would have found a far smaller audience, had Van Deursen's book been published properly. In that case the sales figures might have justified an English translation not long after. As it is, it was probably the enormous success of Schama's Embarrassment (dismissed by Van Deursen as a 'brilliant failure'), that finally brought us (in one nicely edited volume) a second edition in Dutch and the present, quite impressive translation by Maarten Ultee.

The 'plain lives' staged in this book are the lives of the 'popular classes': the lives of petty shopkeepers and wage earners, peasants and craftsmen, soldiers and sailors, beggars and vagrants (and their families of course) in the period between, roughly, 1572 and 1648: the period of the war with Spain. In fact, the title is somewhat misleading, as the second half of the seventeenth century is not dealt with at all. Another important restriction is that the book covers only one of the seven provinces of the Dutch Republic, the province of Holland. It is not a study of the Republic as a whole. In all these respects, Van Deursen's objectives are quite different from those of Schama.

The book is divided in four parts, ranging as it were from the 'cellar' to the 'attic', from 'Daily Bread' to 'Hell and Heaven'. An introduction to the material conditions of the popular classes is followed by a description of popular culture. In the third part, the author deals with the relations between people and government; in the fourth with their striking religious diversity. Based on an intimate knowledge of the sources (ranging from court and church records to sermons, popular novels and farces, pamphlets, diaries and travel reports), Plain Lives offers a fascinating 'history from below'.

As in other countries, most of the urban artisans were badly paid in this period. Belonging to the popular classes meant that both husband and wife had to work, while at the same time working conditions were far from perfect. Still, the guilds offered protection against competition from immigrants, either from other countries or from other parts of the Dutch Republic. It was a life without many prospects, but compared to the lives of soldiers and fishermen, the urban workers, like the peasants and farm hands in the countryside where life was relatively cheap, had a reasonable existence. Most of the immigrants, however, had to put up with an underpaid job or even to fall back on begging, the pawnshop, the municipal banks or on poor relief.

In the same period church and state tried to discipline popular culture (a definition of the concept is lacking). Marriage was given a firmer base by a stronger control over all 'whoredom', all extramarital sexuality. The many inns, where the common folk would gather for a drink, for smoking, singing or gambling were another source of anxiety, especially during the local kermis, when fighting was rife. Still, no kermis was ever forbidden for these reasons, nor were other popular festivities, such as christenings or weddings. Only in combating 'popish' holidays, such as the Feast of Epiphany or Mardi Gras, did the magistrates come to the aid of the Calvinist church. Other chapters in this part deal with the upbringing and schooling of children, with popular reading and with the spread of pamphlets, prints and ballads, sold by passing peddlers.

Part III takes us somewhat surprisingly into governmental policy, including the collecting of taxes and the incidence of class justice and corruption. What Van Deursen tries to recover are the attitudes of the lower classes toward their superiors. For the regents the role of the masses was understood: "People must be quiet"; and most of the times they were. Of course, there was always some murmuring or tongue wagging about magistrates in taverns and inns. Sometimes a tax revolt broke out, for example in Delft in 1616. As the author puts it, that was the only form of protest a seventeenth-century worker could imagine.

In the fourth and perhaps the best part of his book Van Deursen first tackles the question whether one of the three main denominations--the Calvinist, the Catholic, or the Mennonite church--may have had a special appeal to the lower classes in its connection to popular beliefs. The answer is a balanced one: "Just as Calvinism had extra worth in a century that lived in the consciousness of the reality of God's wrath, and just as Catholicism inspired confidence for its help in the struggle against Satan and his thousands of minions, so the lively interest in prophecies, predictions and inspirations worked to the benefit of the Mennonites." I doubt if many historians would agree with the author's definition of popular belief as "not inspired by love, but driven only by fear." Yet his insight that in the province of Holland (and probably in the Republic as a whole) popular convictions may have differed from church to church is a useful one. Such differences in popular culture have hardly been explored until now. The remaining chapters offer a short social history of each of the three churches. Like the rest of the book these last chapters are a delight to read with their pointed descriptions and felicitous quotations.

Reading this new edition, however, I was a bit disappointed that the author has not found the time to update his book with some new research done within the last decade or so. In fact, a younger generation has added new research to many of the topics discussed in Plain Lives, for example on the family and sexuality, on prostitution, criminality and riots, on prophecy, sorcery and witchcraft, on popular novels and reading and writing abilities, and on the social history of the various denominations. Of course, to have asked the author to offer a full treatment of this new research would have been to condemn him to another book, but it is important to know that in the meantime quite a number of Dutch historians have followed in his footsteps. A second comment relates to the author's use of pictorial evidence. Certainly in the 1970s, when this book was written, relations between historians and art historians were almost nonexistent. Since then, however, several approaches, including the iconographical one made famous by Eddy de Jongh and other art historians, have made such headway that it is hardly permissible now to use the pictures of Van Ostade, Van de Venne and other genre painters as 'snapshots' of popular culture, and ignore all the moral clues or elements of caricature. On that point, Schama displayed a more happy integration.

Herman Roodenburg P. J. Meertens-Instituut, Amsterdam
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Roodenburg, Herman
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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