Short URL for this page:
"When one beholds this city," says Fénelon, in speaking of Amsterdam, "one is inclined to believe that it is not the city of a particular people, but the common city of all the peoples in the world, and the centre of their commerce." If now after the lapse of two centuries the good archbishop could return to this world and visit the New Amsterdam at the mouth of Henry Hudson's river, how could he better record his impressions than by using the selfsame words? Among great cities New York is especially conspicuous and notable for its cosmopolitanism, and this feature, as we shall have occasion to observe, has belonged to it from the beginning. It is not altogether a consequence of the vast commercial growth upon Manhattan Island, but in great part a direct inheritance from the mother-city at the mouth of the Amstel. The differences in social physiognomy between the Boston and the New York of to‑day are surely not greater and are probably less than between the village of John Endicott and the village of Peter Stuyvesant. The coming of the Dutch to the coast of North America introduced an element of variety that has always been of high interest and importance. They were then indisputably the foremost commercial people in the world, and they seized upon a position marked out by its geography as an imperial centre for trade. Many things in p2 American life are implicated with the fact that New York is virtually the daughter of Amsterdam.
The circumstances, moreover, which brought the Dutch to America were complicated and interesting. They form an important chapter in the history of the process by which the great period of maritime discovery ended in the transfer of commercial supremacy from the Latin to the Teutonic world. It is worth our while to pass briefly in review the career of the people of the Netherlands, and note the steps whereby they achieved their high position, and the vicissitudes by which they were made to bear the brunt of the great struggle for liberty that convulsed the sixteenth century. With the Dutch, as with the English, the beginnings of colonization and of maritime empire were intimately associated with the work of curbing the aggressive power of Spain. The supreme crisis in modern history found the two peoples closely allied.
To us who speak English the people of the Netherlands are especially interesting as our nearest cousins. Of all foreign speech to‑day the Dutch comes closely to ours. If I say that "Sokrates was de wijste onder de Grieken," all can understand me; but that is good Dutch. The chief divergence between the languages arises from the well-known effect of the Norman Conquest upon English; if he had kept on saying chapman instead of merchant and againbite instead of remorse, the divergence would be very slight. If we take the oldest specimens of Flemish and Frisian, and compare them with the English of King Alfred and the Norse that was spoken by the settlers of Iceland, we realize how very close was the kinship a thousand years ago among the people on all the coasts of the German Ocean. The Teutonic conquerors of Britain, with the Angles or English of Sleswick for their right wing, and the Saxon tribes between the Elbe and the Ems for their centre, had their left wing made up of Frisians from the region where long afterward, in the twelfth century, the boisterous ocean broke in and formed the Zuyder p3 Zee, or "Southern Sea." All these learned to call themselves English in their new home, where under various names their next of kin invaded their coasts, and ended by reinforcing their ranks, whether led by Guthorm the Dane, or by Harold of Norway, or by William the Norman. Among all these children of Thor and Wodan the family likeness is strong. Men of stalwart frame, indomitable in fight, at home upon the wave, venturesome, fond of good cheer, fierce sticklers for liberty, prone to encourage individuality and do their own thinking. Of these various cousins, as I said, those who speak Dutch are our nearest kin; and their historic interest for us consists largely in this, that they may be regarded as that portion of our race which has remained upon the continent of Europe, and has thus during fourteen centuries been affected by political and military conditions different from those which have shaped the career of its insular brethren. From the Netherlands we may learn some of the ways in which English history might have been modified in the absence of that silver streak of water which defied Farnese and Bonaparte.
Looking across that narrow bit of sea, the English have always applied in a special sense to their next of kin the name "Dutch," which means "people" or "folks," and is the vernacular name for the whole Teutonic race away up to the Highlands of Austria and the Tyrol. The dwellers in those mountain regions, along with the greater part of the lowland population, we call by a Latin name, "Germans," as if we had first learned about them by reading Caesar's Commentaries. One can see how the popular name "Dutchland" would naturally remain associated that bit of shore with which our forefathers had most to do. For a century after Hengist and Horsa the green island which they were conquering was a "Welshland," or abode of strangers, while the "Dutchland," or home of "the folks," was the half-sunken coast they had left behind them.
The first glimpse we get of the Low Countries is in the p4 year 57 B.C., when Caesar defeated the Nervii in a great battle on the Sambre, not far from the site of Valenciennes. The people of the confederated cantons, whose strength he broke in that campaign, were known as Belgians, and their land was then as now, ethnologically as well as geographically, a border between Germans and Kelts. No people in Gaul offered a more obstinate resistance to the conqueror. To the north of them we find the Batavians, without being subdued, entering into alliance with the Romans and contributing to the strength of their legions. It was a brilliant charge of Batavian cavalry that gave victory to Caesar on the great day of Pharsalia. A century later they seem to have grown restive under the connection. In 69 A.D., a noble Batavian, known to the Romans as Claudius Civilis, took advantage of the struggle between Vitellius and Vespasian to set up an independent confederacy of Belgic and Low German tribes. His superb resistance and gradual discomfiture are described in immortal colours by the greatest of Roman historians, whose narrative fails us in the very crisis of his fate. When Civilis steps out upon a bridge for a private interview with the Roman commander, there the manuscript breaks off in the middle of a sentence, and how it fared with the Batavian hero and his people we are not likely ever to know, unless some of the Egyptian tombs which have given back to us a lost essay of Aristotle and lost poems of Bacchylides should by and by yield up the missing books of Tacitus. Important, however, the Batavians surely remained. On many occasions their cavalry was noted as the best in the Roman service. In the year 357, when the youthful Julian the Apostate overthrew the Franks and Allemans in a tremendous battle at Strasburg, it was once more a resistless charge of Batavians that won the day.
After this we hear little more of Netherlanders under the name of Batavians, but in all probability they were the same as the Frisians, part of whom in the next century joined in the English invasion of Britain, while part p6 remained in their old seats by the delta of the Rhine. Nothing is more common in ages of shifting sovereignty than thus to meet with old friends under new names; as, for instance, with the near neighbour of the Frisians, that renowned warrior, Clovis, whom we know first as a Sicambrian prince, but afterward only as the head of a permanent confederation of Low German tribes known as the "freemen," or "Franks." Where Civilis failed Clovis was successful, and with prodigious results; for his Franks were not only converted to the Catholic form of Christianity, but extended their power throughout the whole of Gaul and a large part of Germany, thus doing much to determine the form which European life should take during the Middle Ages. Many old tribal names on the lower Rhine become lost in the wider designation of Franks. The descendants of the old Belgian tribes who made so much trouble for Caesar were surely included among them. The Flemish language, which to this day is spoken throughout a great part of Belgium, is a form of Frankish speech. It is very much like Frisian, which comes so close to Anglo-Saxon, while between Flemish and Frisian stands the Dutch of literature, the noble tongue in which are written the histories of Cornelius Hooft, the poems of Cats, and the tragedies of Vondel, to whom John Milton has been thought to have owed so much.
It is interesting to consider what a Netherlandish affair the Frankish monarchy was. When the sceptre was ready to fall from the hands of the degenerate descendants of Clovis, it was seized by the so‑called Carolingians, who were a family of Brabant. The Flemish-speaking Pepin of Landen, between Brussels and Liège, was the founder of their fortunes; and his great-grandson, Charles Martel, the saviour of Europe from the Saracens, was grandfather of the mighty Charlemagne. When the powers of this wonderful family had failed, there once more came to the front a man from the lower Rhine, Robert the Strong, ancestor of the p7 Capetian kings who have occupied the throne of France till within the memory of men now living.
Into the Frankish and Christian empire all of the Netherlandish people seem to have entered willingly except the redoubtable Frisians, who insisted upon maintaining their independence and worshipping Wodan and Thor. Delightfully characteristic is the old monkish story of the Frisian chief Radbod. Having been very thoroughly beaten in battle by Charles Martel, the redoubtable Frisian was persuaded to accept Christianity, and Bishop Wolfram was called upon to administer the rite of baptism. Radbod had already thrust one stalwart leg into p8 the consecrated font when a startling query presented itself to his mind, and he suddenly exclaimed, "Where now are the souls of my ancestors?" With a frankness not sufficiently tempered by prudence the bishop replied, "In Hell, with all other unbelievers!" "Very well, then," said Radbod, withdrawing his leg, "none of your baptism for me; I will feast in Valhalla with my forefathers rather than dwell in Heaven with your paltry band of Christians."
The noble missionaries, Willibrod and Winfrid, better known as St. Boniface, proved more persuasive than the Frankish arms. It is pleasant to think of England doing this great service for the Netherland, which in later ages was destined in so many ways to repay it. Before the end of the eighth century the Frisians were a Christian people. They had also, after years of warfare in which we are told that a hundred thousand lives were lost, come to terms with Charlemagne and consented to be ruled by his governors, provided it should be according to their own laws. One of their customs was the free allodial proprietorship of land; and this they succeeded in maintaining throughout the Middle Ages, while most parts of Europe accepted in different degrees the feudal system. The great emperor not only respected the local liberties of the Netherlands, but had one of his favourite homes there at Nymwegen, overlooking the lovely meadows of the Waal and the lower Rhine.
With the memorable family compact of Verdun in 843, by which the Empire was divided among the three grandsons of Charlemagne, we begin to see a foreshadowing of the modern map of Europe, and our Netherland region becomes somewhat better defined than before. The eldest brother, Lothair, takes the centre and core of the Frankish dominion, the whole of Friesland with the left bank of the Rhine, from the sea up to its sources in the Alps, thence going southerly and taking in the whole of the old Burgundian kingdom east of the Rhone, together with Italy. This long strip of territory, from the German Ocean to the p9 Straits of Messina, came to be known as the Middle Kingdom, or more often as Lotharingia. It contained the political capital, which we now call Aix-la‑Chapelle,º as well as the ecclesiastical capital, Rome, and its sovereign, Lothair, was recognized as Emperor of the West. To the east his brother Louis took the lands east of the Rhine and north of the Alps; while the domain of Charles on the west comprised what has since become France, with as much of Spain as had been rescued from the Saracens. Thus we get from France on the left and Germany on the right, with Lotharingia between them, first in point of dignity but least even then in political coherence and military strength. After a quarter of a century this Middle Kingdom is divided between its stronger neighbours; France takes the Burgundian part, but Germany gets Friesland with all the left bank of the Rhine, and not long afterward acquires Italy and the imperial dignity.
This might seems to have ended the Middle Kingdom, but p10 there was a sense in which it continued to live on for ages. While France and Germany waxed in strength of either side of it, this middle region acquired a somewhat chaotic semi-independence. Large portions have remained until the present day a debatable ground between the two great neighbours. The name Lotharingia, called Lothringen by the Germans and Lorraine by the French, still remains attached to a part of the territory which changed hands, possibly not for the last time, in 1871.a The country of Lorraine, with Alsace on the east, the Franche Comté or free countship of Burgundy to the south, and the Flemish-Dutch countries to the north — these have for centuries represented the old Middle Kingdom. Surely it would be difficult to point to a region more full of historical and romantic interest. In journeying through it, all the way from Strasburg to Rotterdam, one is perpetually struck with the general diffusion of intelligence and refinement, strength of character and personal dignity; and there is reason for believing that at any time within the past four or five centuries our impression would have been relatively very much the same. In certain ways the Middle Kingdom has evidently been a favoured portion of the earth. It has had, in particular, two kinds of advantages, first, political, secondly, industrial. Let us devote a few words to each of these.
The ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries were a period of extreme turbulence, though in some ways full of promise. At its beginning no such movement as that of the Crusades would have been possible; but at the end of it we see the armed hosts of Christendom joyously rushing forth to beat back the common enemy, until after repeated spasms of giant struggle we find civilized Europe thrilling as never before with the sense of a religious life in common, the popular feeling that in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries built churches of unspeakable sublimity and carried the Papacy to the height of its power. Now in the turmoil of the tenth century monarchy reached perhaps its lowest extremity of weakness; duchies, counties, and p11 barons did each what was right in its own eyes, and warfare between such small combatants was perpetual. But in the fourteenth century, along with a marked advance toward order and quiet, we find monarchy waxing so strong as to begin to suppress the feudal system. During those four centuries little states grew up in the Low Countries, which as fiefs of Germany were in a measure protected from the aggressions of French royalty, while on the other hand the absorption of German energy in the great struggle between Pope and Emperor was so complete that they were left pretty much to themselves. Thus out of lower Lorraine grew up the Duchy of Brabant; thus the Earls or Counts of Flanders acquired autonomy; thus came into existence the semi-independent Duchy of Luxemburg, the countships of Limburg, Hainault, and Namur, — names heavily fraught with historic associations; thus waxed in importance the bishoprics of Liège and Utrecht, while in the Frisian territory grew up such communities as Zeeland and Overyssel, and in the tenth century a certain Frisian lord, named Diedrich or Dirk, emerged into fame as Count of Holland.
Now in France the growth of such small feudal countships and duchies was overshadowed by the simultaneous growth of the royal power. Either the small communities or a great fief full of them would be added to the royal domain, or where they continued to be governed by their local lords the king's law and the king's officers were always present. The power that could be called forth for the suppression of local liberty was overwhelming. It was far from being so in the eleventh century, but it came to be more and more so. But in the Low Countries, on the other hand, the political and social development of Holland under its count, or Brabant under its duke, went on without any curbing or cramping at the hands of an all-devouring royal power. The force that could be called forth for the suppression of like liberty was itself in the main local and such as could be resisted. Zeeland and p12 Holland and the other Netherlands were indeed fiefs of the Empire, but precious little they cared for the imperial diet at Frankfort. The central power in Germany grew weaker instead of thriving as in France, so that after a while the connection of the Netherlands with the Empire came to be merely nominal. Among their states there was a vast amount of bickering and clashing, but it was the turbulence of health and freedom and seems to have done small harm to the manly qualities of the people. In this way the political circumstances of the Netherlands were favourable.
They were also highly favoured by industrial circumstances. Taken lengthwise, the Middle Kingdom, from Basel to the Zuyder Zee, is the most direct pathway for commerce from Italy and the Levant to the British Islands and Scandinavia, while at the same time all trade between France and Germany must run across it. For example, the city of Bruges in Flanders would take copper and iron, pitch and tar, and lumber from Sweden, hides and tallow and furs from Russia, and send in exchange to those countries nearly all manufactured articles from a spade to a clock. So Bruges would likewise send ale from Hamburg all over Europe, and clothing and blankets of English wool, with cargoes of salted fish from Iceland, and in return would distribute the wines of France, the fruits and oils of the Mediterranean, the ivory and spices, the Bagdad silks and India shawls, that came by way of Cairo and Venice. We may thus form some conception of the brisk commercial life of the Low Countries during the four centuries preceding the Discovery of America. But some further detail is desirable.
The Dutch and Flemish states were scarcely less eminent for agriculture and manufactures than for commerce. The broad alluvial meadows afforded fine pasturage, and Dutch cattle were esteemed the best in Europe. Among the exports of the Netherlands were dairy products; in the Middle Ages the cheeses of Edam and Limburg were famous as now. Hop gardens also flourished in the Netherlands, p13 whence they crossed the channel into Kent, and the first steps in the perfecting of beer by the use of the hop are claimed for the brewers of Holland. It is worthy of note that by the fourteenth century the Low Countries depended largely upon the Baltic trade for their supplies of wheat and rye, but this grain was ground in their own windmills, which they were the first to build in large numbers, and on improved plans for this and other kinds of mechanical work.
The name "Holland" means simply hollow or marshy land. In Old English, as in Dutch, it is a common noun, and the fen country in southern Lincolnshire has been known from time immemorial as "the holland." In its unregenerate state the land of the Dutch was a mere mud-hole over large parts of which the ocean flowed at high tide, while rivers like the Rhine and Scheldt were by no means confined within their banks. The problem of redeeming the country by dikes made the inhabitants expert in hydraulic engineering; an elaborate system of canals and locks was developed, to the manifest benefit of commerce, while the ability to drown specific areas of country at will was of great value for purposes of military defence; in this advantage the northern provinces had a larger share than the southern. In cities like Amsterdam and Bruges one might go from house to house in a boat, very much as in Venice.
With their skill in hydraulics the Dutch of their own accord the lead in drainage, by the use of fertilizers they increased the size and the frequency of crops, they introduced new varieties of vegetables and were the first to use hotbeds sided with boards and roofed with glass. Their preëminence in horticulture was admitted in the thirteenth century, and no one who has read Dumas's famous story, "The Black Tulip," is likely to forget what it was in the seventeenth. Haarlem and Leyden were the first cities in Europe to have botanical gardens, and it was in Holland that Linnaeus found the materials for his great work in classification.
p14 The soil of the Low Countries is favourable not only to gardening but to the arts of the brickmaker and the potter. Immense quantities of bricks were made, while the mere mention of Dutch tiles for roofing or flooring, and of exquisite Delftware for the table, tells its own story. Other industries of prime importance were spinning and weaving. The best cloths of woollen and of linen were made in the Low Countries. Arras was famed for its rich tapestries, Brussels its carpets, Cambrai for its fine cambric, Lille for its thread and the fabrics woven from it. Gingham and galloon were first made in Flanders. The rough frieze, or woollen cloth of Friesland, was noted for its warmth. The bleacheries about Haarlem were so famous that linens from many countries were sent there to be whitened. For centuries the world has been familiar with the fine linen called "Hollands," and the handmade paper prepared from it for printing books is unequalled for strength and beauty.
When we come to mention lace — which at once suggests such names as Mechlin and Brussels and Valenciennes — we arrive at the borderland where industrial art shades into the fine arts, where the artisan becomes the artist; and we are reminded also of the close commercial relations and interchange of ideas between the Netherlands and Italy. Nowhere did the artists of Italy find more apt pupils than among the Flemings and Dutchmen. The names of Hans Memling and Hubert and John Van Eyck show the progress which painting had made in the earlier period of the Renaissance, while in modern times there are, of course, no greater names outside of Italy than Rubens and Rembrandt. But in one department of art, the latest to come to maturity, in the art of music, the Netherlanders were the pioneers and came to be the masters. From the tenth century onward the art of counterpoint was developed by Flemish musicians, until in the fifteenth century and early in the sixteenth we meet with the first two composers of world-wide and everlasting renown. From their names p15 one might suppose that Josquin was a Frenchman and Orlando Lasso an Italian; but these are embellished names, and both men were pure-blooded Flemings, natives of Hainault. From these great masters the sceptre passed with Palestrina to Italy, whence two centuries later it was won for Germany by Handel and Bach.
In an industrial society of such keen intelligence and artistic capacity one might expect also to find high scholarship, along with a general diffusion of the reading habit. A well-known statue and inscription at Haarlem claim for a native of that city, Laurens Janszoon Koster, the invention of printing with movable type, but the claim rests upon insufficient evidence, and the priority of Gutenberg p16 is not shaken.b But in the work of multiplying books the change from parchment to paper was scarcely less important than the change from blocks to type, and here the abundant linen of the Netherlands furnished the needed material. Soon the Dutch presses turned out more work than any others, and had no rivals for excellence save in Venice. Thus their country became a principal centre for the diffusion of the new learning, and for the reproduction of Greek and Latin classics and of the Bible. Under such circumstances we need not wonder that the greatest scholar of the sixteenth century, Joseph Scaliger, made his home at Leyden, where his pupil, Hugo Grotius, became one of the most illustrious of jurists. Vesalius, the founder of modern anatomy, was a native of Brussels; Boerhaave, prince of physicians and botanists, was born a few miles from Leyden. The seventeenth century witnessed the profound philosophical speculations of Spinoza and the discovery of the undulatory theory by Huyghens; and during the same period the telescope, microscope, and thermometer were invented in Holland.
These examples bring us quite out of the Middle Ages and into modern times, but it is needful to cite them as instances of fruition for which the seed was sown long before and under mediaeval conditions. The literary name which before all others in Europe illuminates the close of the Middle Ages is that of the mighty Erasmus, whose birth in 1467 is commemorated by an inscription over the door of a little house in Rotterdam.c One of the profoundest and most widely accomplished scholars of the Renaissance period, Erasmus was master of a literary style scarcely inferior to that of Voltaire. So dreaded was the power of his pen that even the Papacy deemed it prudent to leave him unmolested. The mention of this great style reminds us forcibly that the literary eminence of the Netherlands bears no sort of proportion to their eminence in art and science and scholarship, and this is chiefly because their best writers have so often written in Latin or French. In p17 this respect their cosmopolitanism has perhaps been excessive. Neither Dutch nor Flemish possesses a body of literature which adequately represents the national genius.
One of the most important parts of the work of Erasmus consisted in the editing and textual criticism, and in the translating of the Scriptures, and one of its effects was to make the Netherlands a centre of Biblical scholarship. The first English translation of the Bible was published at Antwerp in 1535, and before that date there had been published more than fifteen editions in Dutch and Flemish. During the sixteenth century the Bible was nowhere else so generally read by the common people.
The great Florentine historian, Guicciardini, whose testimony is of the highest value, assures us that in his day, or before 1540, even the peasants in Holland could commonly read and write their own language. State archives of Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland show that free schools, supported by public taxes, were the subject of legislation at various times during the sixteenth century.
The impression produced by this accumulation of facts is that at the close of the Middle Ages civilization had assumed a more modern type than in any other part of Europe. There are other ways in which we are led to this conclusion, and one of them is closely concerned with the density of population and with the concentration of people in cities. At the present day it is well known that Belgium is the most densely peopled area in Europe, while England comes second, and Holland third. Holland is a trifle larger, Belgium a trifle smaller, than the state of Maryland; the two taken together are less than half as large as the state of New York, and have a population of over 11,000,000, or about equivalent to New York and Pennsylvania together. Rather more than one third of these people live in cities of more than 20,000 inhabitants, and of these cities the largest, such as Amsterdam or Brussels, have about half a million inhabitants. Now in the sixteenth century the Netherlands covered somewhat more territory p18 than now, for France has since then pared off slices from Flanders and Hainault. The population was about 5,000,000, or nearly the same as that of England, and it was much more dense than that of any similar area elsewhere in Europe. France, for example, had then about 9,000,000 people. Of the ratio of urban to rural population in the Low Countries at that time, one cannot speak with precision, but it was probably larger than at the present day. Bruges in its prime was four times as populous as now. Ghent could put into the field an army of 50,000 men. Antwerp, which has lately taken on fresh life and come to rank next after London, Liverpool, and New York, as the fourth seaport of the world, has scarcely yet recovered its old dimensions. On the whole, we may safely conclude that during the later Middle Ages city life played a greater part in the Netherlands than elsewhere; for while Italy had its great cities, the ratio of urban to rural population was certainly less.
Now a civilization characterized by the predominance of great commercial cities carrying on international trade, with manufactures highly developed, with a higher standard of comfort than had ever before been attained, with wealth fairly distributed and education widely diffused, with eager attention paid to scientific inquiry and to the fine arts, — such a civilization was of course comparatively modern in its features. One of its most conspicuous aspects is its bringing into the foreground the solid and sober middle classes. As the typical figure in the England of those days was the country gentleman in his noble hall, the typical figure of the Netherlands was the burgher in his city house, no mere huckster of narrow intelligence and sordid views, but the merchant prince accustomed to manage great enterprises, the magistrate learned and grave. Such types of men, with their strength and shrewdness, their look of comfort, their charming refinement and bonhomie, have been immortalized in one of the world's greatest pictures, the so‑called "Syndics" of Rembrandt. It was indeed characteristic of Netherland art that p20 it took a new departure. While the ancient Greek carved statues of gods and heroes to stand in his public square, while the mediaeval Italian decorated his church with sublime paintings of martyrs and saints, the Netherlander was the first to find in domestic life worthy subjects of artistic treatment; he painted dewy landscapes with sleek cattle, or cosy kitchens and alehouses, or the sports of children on the village green, and in this new departure we see most distinctly the modern character of Netherland civilization.
In order to acquire for the burgher class the measure of freedom which it enjoyed at the close of the Middle Ages, a prolonged and complicated struggle was necessary. The forces engaged were so many and worked so often at cross purposes that it is difficult to make a clear and coherent story of the beginnings of civil liberty in the Netherlands. The contrast with England is very strongly marked. In England, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, we see the royal power so far curbing the great barons as to secure national unity of administration, and to establish the king's peace throughout the land. Then to prevent the crown from acquiring despotic power, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw the rural aristocracy allied with the merchants and craftsmen of the towns securing steady representation through a parliament, with control over the public purse. The result was that, although the power of parliament declined somewhat during the fifteenth century, yet it remained too strong to be overridden by the crown at its strongest. Even Henry VIII could not defy parliament, but was obliged to cajole it or else to pack it by means of rotten boroughs.
In the Netherlands the growth of constitutional liberty was by no means so steady or so sure-footed. The parties were more numerous, the alliances more shifting, and the results more fragmentary and precarious. There were first, the rural squires with the peasantry, but the condition of the latter was better than in most parts of the continent, and serfdom disappeared p21 as early as in England. Secondly, there were the dwellers in the cities among whom we first recall the craft-guilds and merchant-guilds that made the strength and wealth of those communities. Life in the cities was so attractive that many of the feudal aristocracy lived in them, as in the Italian cities, instead of dwelling apart in the country. The cities thus became the scene of struggles, sometimes violent and bloody, between the middle class of tradesmen and artisans and the arrogant folk who prided themselves on doing nothing. But besides this the guilds were often heavily hampered by dissensions between one another, as in Ghent, for example, between the weavers and the fullers. Moreover, there were quarrels between neighbouring cities, as in Italy, though less prolonged and deadly. Thus when the guilds were in control of Ghent and the notable people were in control of Ypres, the men of Ghent laid siege to Ypres; and we are not surprised to learn that the gate was opened to them by a party of their friends within, just as was continually happening in ancient Greece.
Then, as another belligerent party, there was the great local lord or ruler, the Count of Flanders, the Duke of Brabant, the Marquis of Antwerp, the Count of Holland, and so on. The local ruler tried to assert a sovereignty which the cities would not allow. In general they governed the rural districts more despotically than the cities, where their chief opponents were the sturdy guildsmen. Usually the local ruler favoured the notables of the cities as his allies against the guilds; for example, in the affair just alluded to, when the craftsmen of Ghent marched against Ypres, the Count of Flanders sent a party of knights there to defend the notable people.
The last of the belligerent parties was the overlord, either the Emperor or the French king, who laid claim to some of the southern Netherlands as French fiefs. Interference came much more often from France than from the Empire, the energies of which were otherwise occupied. Sometimes the French got the worst of it, as in the great p22 battle of Courtray, in 1302, when Philip the Fair was so badly beaten by the Flemings, one of the first battles that proved the superiority of infantry to men-at‑arms. But sometimes French intervention was highly effective and disastrous, as in 1382, in the famous struggle between Louis de Male, Count of Flanders, and the men of Ghent led by Philip van Artevelde. That popular leader was winning a goodly fight for liberty when he was overwhelmed and slain by the French at Roosebeke. It is such events as this that make all lovers of liberty thank God for the English Channel. In 1264, in the midst of the great war that put an effectual curb on the English crown, a powerful French army was raised to aid the king, but as happened more than once since, it could not cross those few miles of water.
In spite of all untoward circumstances, however, including occasional bloody overthrows, as at Roosebeke, the liberties of the Low Countries grew from more to more. Whether the citizens with lances and cross-bows wrenched from their feudal lords the privilege of being governed according to law, or whether they bought immunities and franchises and paid for them in hard cash, they had succeeded by the fifteenth century in building up a goodly body of liberties. A notable change then occurred in their political condition, which in course of time resulted in one of the world's most memorable revolutions. This change was their gradual absorption into the dominions of the House of Burgundy.
In 1363 King John of France granted the duchy of Burgundy to one of his younger sons, Philip the Hardy, a gift which the next three kings of France saw reason to regret. For this line of dukes began acquiring in one way or another — by marriage, purchase, or usurpation — the different provinces of the Netherlands. The third duke, the versatile rascal known as Philip the Good, by cheating his unhappy cousin Jacqueline out of her dominions of Holland, Zeeland, and Hainault, nearly completed the acquisition. As ruler over so many great commercial and p23 manufacturing cities, Duke Philip was the most powerful sovereign in Europe. At the beginning of his reign in 1419, when in revenge for the murder of his father he allied himself with the King of England, it made the English masters of France; and when in 1436 he quarrelled with the Duke of Gloucester about Cousin Jacqueline, and withdrew his aid from the English, their stay in France was speedily ended. Philip's court was the most magnificent in Europe, and so great was his power that it seemed quite proper that he should be made a king. Controlling the Netherlands, with parts of Alsace and Lorraine, as well as the duchy and p24 county of Burgundy, he might well ask to be recognized as the restorer of the old Middle Kingdom, or Lotharingia.
This ambition shaped the policy of his terrible son, Charles the Bold, and under the rule of these two the Netherlands had a foretaste of the long woes that were to come. The fifteenth century witnessed few more frightful crimes than the massacres at Dinant and Liège, which had ventured to disown the jurisdiction of these tyrants. Such lurid examples showed what honest burghers everywhere might expect should they refuse to contribute to public enterprises in which they felt no sort of interest. For a time it seemed as if Charles the Bold was on the point of succeeding in his schemes and becoming king of a renovated Lotharingia, when his evil star brought him into collision with the Swiss. His death in battle left a young daughter to succeed him, whereupon his duchy of Burgundy was forthwith seized by France, and soon the Lady Mary retained little of her father's possessions except the Low Countries. Her marriage to Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, was followed by her death in 1482, and again we see illustrations of the fact that feudal sovereignty had grown to be too strong over the Netherlands.
The death of Charles the Bold had seemed to offer a golden opportunity to the sturdy Dutch and Flemish burghers. Intent upon putting an end to tyranny, they extorted from the Lady Mary a charter of liberties, known as the Great Privilege. Among other things it provided that no new taxes should be imposed save by consent of the provincial estates, and that no war, either offensive or defensive, should be begun without such consent first obtained. Any edict or command of the sovereign that conflicted with the privileges of a city was to be held invalid. The sovereign must come in person before the estates, to make his request for money, and no city should be compelled to raise supplies which it had not itself freely voted. The sovereign must also be bound by the decisions of the courts p25 of justice; and citizens were to be guaranteed against arbitrary arrest. While such wholesome measures were under discussion at Ghent, an embassy was sent by the estates to the King of France. Two the envoys, Imbrecourt and Hugonet, old servants of Mary's father, so far forgot themselves as to take a secret message from her to Louis XI, craving his aid against her subjects. On the return of the envoys to Ghent the king betrayed their treasonable secret, whereupon they were quickly seized and beheaded in the market-place in Mary's presence, and in spite of her frantic tears and prayers. In the mind of the citizens it was the merited punishment of traitors, but contemporary chroniclers, in whose eyes all burghers were merely a canine rabble, called it a foul murder, and were more shocked by it than by the wholesale massacre of Dinant. The prompt and sharp action of the men of Ghent heralded the time when kings could be brought to the public scaffold for treason against their subjects.
After Mary's death left her infant son Philip sovereign over the Netherlands, his father, the Archduke Maximilian, acted as regent and found many opportunities for revenging himself upon the freedom-loving burghers. Alone he was hardly equal to the task of curbing them, but with an army furnished by his father, the Emperor, he was able to bring them to terms. During eleven years his knavish tyranny was such as England never witnessed in her darkest days. Since the coming of Hengist and Horsa no English king could have behaved like Maximilian and stayed upon the throne eleven weeks. In 1494, shortly after Maximilian had become emperor, the boy Philip entered upon the task of governing the Netherlands, and in taking his oath of office did not even deign to mention the great charter which his mother had granted. Evidently the Netherlands were not so favourably situated as England for defending their liberty. Our forefathers who crossed to the island occupied a better strategic position for that purpose than their cousins who remained on the continent. The chief p26 danger for the latter was that freedom might at any time be overwhelmed by sheer brute force. Such a catastrophe was suggested by the battle of Roosebeke, and far more forcibly by the rule of the House of Burgundy. At the end of the fifteenth century a great crisis was preparing. Young Philip married Joanna of Castile, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the year 1500 saw the birth at Ghent of that Charles who was to be king of Spain and lord over the Netherlands and emperor, with half the military force of Europe at his beck and call, and all the reasons of Mexico and Peru within his reach. What hope could there be for Dutch and Flemish liberties if attacked by such prodigious power? The Low Countries had been the garden of freedom; were they not in danger of becoming its grave?
Thus we come to the great struggle of the sixteenth century in which mightier issues were consciously involved than in any other crisis of history before or since. In considering it we shall find the courses of English and Dutch history running very closely together, and at times intermingling, while we come upon the circumstances that led to the planting of a Dutch colony in North America.
a The area has since changed hands three more times; currently (2008), Alsace and Lorraine — Elsass and Lothringen — are under French domination. Alsace, speaking a dialect of German, was first conquered by France in 1639; historically Lorraine is rather more French, both in its language and in the time parts of it were first attached to France.
c The house where Erasmus was born was destroyed by a German air bombardment on May 14, 1940 — according to the Columbia Encyclopeida, several hours after the city had surrendered.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
in Dutch History
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 10 Dec 16