Tony Platt Reviews Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age

Historians in the News
tags: book reviews, Netherlands

Tony Platt is a founding member of the editorial board of Social Justice, and a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar, Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley.

I’ve started to do some general reading about the history of the Netherlands. I’m particularly interested in learning about the emerging nation in the late 16th and early 17th century during a period when modernity, slavery, academia, and the prison co-existed. 

I’m doing this because I’m in the early stages of a possible project on the late 16th century origins of Leiden’s prison. The Netherlands was a pioneer in creating a “house of correction” designed to terrify vagrants and other subverters of mercantile capitalism into industrious labor. Leiden was among the first Dutch cities to create a workhouse-prison, a model that was emulated throughout Europe, an early precursor of the 19th century penitentiary-as-factory. Dignitaries and writers from England, France, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia came to take notes.

An internet search tells me that a good place to start is Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. First published in 1987, it was reprinted in 1997. No changes or preface to the 2nd edition, so I assume that a decade later the author is happy with his first effort. Schama is a biggie in the UK: a public, university-based intellectual who is popular via his BBC pop-history programs. His name trumps the title on the book’s cover.

From what I know of his work, I don’t like his culture-centric approach to “national character.” But I’m a learner reading this book for basic information, so I’ll try to put a hold on critique. At first, I succeed.

I’m encouraged that Schama thinks crime and punishment is a sufficiently important topic to bookend his 700-page tome. The first chapter describes in some detail Amsterdam’s Tughuis, also known as the Raspuis (Saw-House), where, from 1595, a regime of forced labor backed up by punishments of exquisite cruelty were carried out “in dead earnest.” (p. 19) Women were held in the Spinhuis where, from 1597, “vagrants, whores and thieves,” in Schama’s words, “were sent for stiff doses of improvement at loom and wheel.” The Spinhuis’ motto, etched in the entrance, expresses its catch-22 creed: “I exact no vengeance for wrong but force you to be good.” (p. 16)

Read entire article at Good to Go

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