This is a paper I wrote for my history class a couple weeks ago. It's actually an evaluation of single source so you may find something historically incongruous (feel free to mention it), but I talk a lot about the culture of alcohol and tobacco use in the Dutch golden age, which is pretty impressive, and you may enjoy it. Parts of this were written while drunk, in the spirit of things. I received an A.
In The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama attempts to present a view of Dutch Culture during its Golden Age. He argues that this society had sufficient excess so that the bulk of the citizenry, the middenstand, benefit from it and take part in it, even though they may not have created it. Chapter Eight opens with a question: “Can these bits and pieces of a culture be put together to make a coherent whole?” I argue that he has indeed made a case for a coherent, unique Dutch culture, complete with intra-culture struggles over such issues as consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and myths of identity and origin. Cultural conflict and myth are ubiquitous in cultures past and present, but their natures are unique and help define the culture of which they are a part. The Dutch are no exception, with their simultaneous love of consumption of all things, and their theology of strict Calvinist restraint and moderation.
The first teetotaler probably arrived around the same time as the first drunk, spurred to object upon seeing his or her friend apparently poisoned, seemingly insane, and possibly insensate. This conflict, obviously, has not cooled down since, even when one side or another is subject to legislation. Golden Age Netherlands had no such official proscription, so the argument does not take on the urgency of a debate on legal freedom, as one might experience in a modern drug legalization movement. Instead, it was gentle finger-wagging admonition from spiritual objectors and reasoned caution from sober humanists1. More strident objections, like more destructive consumption, was relegated to the extremes of the bell curve2.
But let us not deny that alcohol was an important product for the Dutch. The pub to publican ratio in 1613 Amsterdam was 1:2003; by contrast, notorious pub town Dublin sports a ratio of perhaps 1:1,600. Despite this, a mere one third of yearly beer intake was consumed in the pub; the lions share was drunk in the home4. Of course we have to recall that there was no municipal water supply at this time, so beer, being boiled and then preserved with an effective antiseptic, was the smart way to get water into your body, especially when compared to the canals of Amsterdam, which were recognized even then for their “notorious foulness5.” The appropriateness of beer went beyond sanitation concerns; it was considered a healthy part of the diet for all Dutch, including children6 and sailors7.
Alcohol was big business in the Low Countries, aiding the economic development of the Republic and softening the teeth of teetotalers, as the government could not help but continue on in the trade, in the name of profit8. A great proliferation of breweries arose early this era- 180 in 1590s Amsterdam9. The Dutch took pride in the quality of their beer as well, a tradition which is carried on there and particularly in modern Belgium. A culture of friendly competition over whose ale was indeed the finest completes the mirror image of modern brewing culture. Alcohol employed a large number of people in a wide variety of occupations. Breweries themselves employed 7000 in the late 17th century10, and contributing industries employed many more. Brewing requires grain and hops, which must be grown locally or imported. It requires barrels for packaging, peat or wood for fuel, and a construction/fabrication industry to provide buildings and equipment. But the Dutch did not only produce and consume- they also made great fortunes carrying wine from one end of Europe to the other11. To facilitate shipping you need ships, crews, and merchants operating in foreign ports. Finally, sale of beer within the low countries provided substantial income to the state via excise taxes12.
Even the law had to step lightly around alcohol production. We expect laws on licensure of pubs, for example, Problematic consumption, which, in this context, is to say drinking to the point of losing control and causing a disturbance, did get the attention of the authorities. Amsterdam banned taverns from certain areas of the city where this had become a problem.13 This is not prohibition, but a reminder that alcohol use was accepted by the Dutch, as long as it was done in moderation.
What constituted moderation, of course, may have depended on the side from which you were viewing things. Nederlanders acquired a reputation for excessive intake of both alcohol and tobacco, if we are to believe accounts of foreign visitors. William Brereton, observing a feast in 1634, comments on the universal, and animated, drunkenness14. Dutch hero Cornelis Tromp was reported to have drunk himself into unconsciousness at an Oxford tavern in 167515. Schama notes we cannot take too much stock in these descriptions, as they could harbor bias (Cornelis Tromp was a Dutch hero for his actions against the British Navy after all) or simply be idiosyncratic. But assuming it is true in general, this tendency has historical roots reaching back to “the great medieval guild feasts of Flanders and the country Kermissen (Carnivals).16” Before the rise of the Republic, Italian Lodovico Giurciardini described Dutch overconsumption as “abnormal”17. For a people with such a propensity for celebration, it is likely that what seemed like excess to outsiders was quite normal for insiders, as Schama says: “...what foreigners took for besotted addiction passed in the Netherlands as homely custom.”18
Tobacco use was similar in consideration to alcohol in a lot of ways: it was seen to cause inebriation like alcohol, and it was indulged in rather heavily, for example. It was also big business, like alcohol, and so resisted legal banishment in much the same way: value as a commercial product. The Dutch grew, exported, imported, and processed tobacco19, but, most pertinently, they smoked it. Again the reasoning here is similar to alcohol: it was a habit, a social activity in taverns, a way to while away the time, and was even considered to have some healthful properties. Like beer it was crafted with an eye toward quality, and so a great variety of 'sauces' were developed and mixed with the cut leaf. To the church it held danger in its foreignness, and it's association with fire and, thus, the devil.20
The general acceptance of alcohol and tobacco use is perhaps best demonstrated by their simple ubiquity. It seems to be something that is involved in nearly all aspects of Dutch life, among nearly all Dutch people. Schama reminds us that, despite differences in prosperity which did exist between citizens across the republic, “They all sat down at more or less the same time to a breakfast consisting of more or less the same ingredients,” including alcohol. Already mentioned is the tendency to feast any of a wide variety of seemingly mundane reasons. Informal deals were made over the ceremonial glass of beer, and merchants were sometimes required to complete drinking rituals to be allowed to trade21. As long as people exhibited moderation, the vices of alcohol and tobacco were considered “socially innocuous.”22 While some humanists, like Scriverius, declared tobacco addictive, others treated it more lightly. Visscher merely regarded it as a passing trend that should be avoided by the proper moderate citizen, and Jacob Cats somewhat sheepishly noted its suitability as an alternative to wine23. Alcohol, considered much like food, was often treated like it. Cookbooks contained brewing recipes in great variety, using all sorts of ingredients24. Like festivals, the reasons for a drink were many and varied, and Schama notes that it could seem unpatriotic to take part in one25.
This ubiquity is perhaps what made it so difficult for Calvinist temperament to reign in. Instead, the opposing forces were forced to accept the presence of the other, and work out some sort of consistent theology. But it would not be easy. In 1618 the Synod of Dordt convened, with the intent of shaping the Calvinist direction for Europe at large26. Of course the ensuing religious conflict eventually led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, but more importantly for our purposes, the ascendancy of Calvinism set the religious tone in the Republic for the Golden Age27. Indulgence in mind-altering substances, and indulgence in general, runs up against some core tenets of Calvinism. This conflict could play out in many a European land, but, given the Dutch standard of indulgence and their general affluence, it is perhaps most unique here.
John Calvin formed his theology from a legalistic reading of scripture, and came to some general conclusions regarding man and his relationship to God. Notable is the idea that all people are depraved sinners due to the Fall, therefore God is justified in damning all people. However, the manifestation of his love was Jesus' sacrifice, and so some people can be saved. But not all. And since God knows the results of all of his works, those souls which will be saved are predestined to be so. These chosen souls exhibited signs of their fate, namely piety, purity, industry, sobriety, moderation, and other typical Christian attributes. Therefore, if one exhibited these signs, one could be among the chosen. If one exhibited sloth, greed, drunkenness or gluttony, on the other hand, it could be a sign of their impending doom. It is easy to see how the cause and effect relationship of this arrangement could get turned around, and actions which are meant to reflect ones destiny become instead consciously committed to try and alter fate.
In any case, it is clear that the conspicuous consumption so loved by the Dutch runs into conflict with the new religion of the land. In the minds of many, the fate of the Republic itself, not just the souls contained within, rested on the morality of its citizens. Schama attributes this to the Dutch relationship with the sea and particularly floods28. By mastering the flood waters, the Dutch nation became reborn, all its previous sins literally washed away, like humanity after Noah's flood. The occasionally repeated wrath of the oceans only served to reaffirm this notion, as certainly any convenient moral outrage could be blamed for the cleansing act of God. For example, in 1672, under threat from Louis XVI's armies, Amsterdam passed a sumptuary law banning festivals. The law cited financial reasons, but the clergy clearly blamed ill fortune and impending danger on “...the wanton style of life that had invaded the great cities of Holland.”29 Other sumptuary laws were proposed after the Synod of Dordt, but were generally ignored by the legal authorities, whose humanist leanings would prefer to let the people regulate themselves. Failing in the legal route, moralists still had the pulpit at their disposal. Here Calvinist preachers decried festivals as pagan ceremonies, or Baal worship (Baal being a demon of Satan in this context), and painted alcohol and tobacco as the “Devil's food.”30 Addiction was the tool by which demons snared unwary souls, and clergy saw themselves engaged in a literal battle for Dutch souls31. No wonder, when taverns and brewers often chose names associated with the devil. This tradition persists, particularly in Belgium, where cartoon devils adorn a good percentage of beer labels.
In light of this perception of events, it is perhaps the casual ubiquity, mentioned earlier, which bothered the Church the most. This could be particularly vexing when it extended to members of society who should probably be sober. Schama lists schoolmasters, sheriffs, constables, undertakers, even a militia captain and two quarreling burgomasters as among those whose indulgence could, as a bad example to the public, contribute to the decline of the Republic32. Worse yet was when members of the clergy were found to be partaking in defiance of their stated moralities. This hypocrisy added fuel to the fire of the opponents of Calvinism, contending that those most vociferous in their condemnation of alcohol were indeed those who sought to hide or deny their indulgence in it.
What impact does this have on the overall question? For what purpose does Schama play out this conflict of vice and virtue, especially when he seems to want to portray the Dutch culture as something coherent and unique? No nation or culture is ever of one mind over everything. This conflict can be ruinous, as in the American civil war. But it does not always have to be so, and the Dutch republic is a good example of a national conflict in a sense defining the nation. The Synod of Dordt was the guiding Calvinist principle for wider Europe. At the same time, the Dutch have a reputation for overindulgence that impresses or offends wider Europe. And yet these two things not only exist in harmony, but they produce a wildly successful nation during the period in question. For the majority of Dutch, who were simultaneously spiritual and fans of moderate substance use, it is easy to see how one could get the impression that it is a perfectly workable balance.
Viewing the conflict in light of another Dutch virtue, that of moderation, is also enlightening. Prohibitionists and dead drunks are ever the minority compared to casual users and those who advise, but do not demand, restraint. The conflict here is no doubt more genial and relaxed than at the edges, as may be seen by the mild humanist objections noted above. A moderate Dutch appetite, regardless of what moderation may mean to other people in Europe, was not at odds with moderate Dutch religion. It is also hard to argue with precedence, which in this case is the long history of Dutch feast and festival. These were a people given to parties, and a new, strict religion was going to have a hard time getting rid of that entirely. Of course, it did not, and parity was reached instead of triumph by either side.
In recounting this conflict, Schama gives a human element to the historical subject. Nobody is without conflict in their lives over what they want to do and what they need to do, even if those two things are different than drinking or smoking and being virtuous. It is indeed remarkable that Dutch culture, which was “The property of all sorts and social conditions,” was as successful as it was, when many of her contemporaries were handling the same issues with so much less aplomb. The Dutch could be comfortable that their unique culture would be successful not despite the conflicts within, but because of them, since the conflicts were of a nature not destined to divide the people to the point of catastrophe. The decline, when it came, was more due to a loss of commercial fortune, lack of growth, and mounting war debt, than a violent wiping away by the watery hand of God. So in the end the Dutch way of leisure and consumption was vindicated, and Schama's book succeeds in giving us a coherent picture of a unique and fascinating culture.