Historical story

Golden times for the Golden Age

The Golden Age is in the spotlight at Kennislink. And not just with us:the NTR/VPRO broadcasts a series about the famous seventeenth century, which is also linked to a book and an exhibition in the Amsterdam Museum. Maarten Prak talks about his role as an advisor for the television series.

It all started with a problem. As a historian, Maarten Prak, professor of Economic and Social History at Utrecht University, knows better than anyone how to describe the seventeenth century vividly. He has written several books and articles about it, for both a wide audience and colleagues. But television is different. You need moving images for that and that is simply not from the Golden Age. There were two options to be able to make television about that period.

Maarten Prak:“The choice was to re-enact scenes from the seventeenth century or to use a raging reporter. It was the last, with Hans Goedkoop. He went in search of interesting people who, moving in images and in places that played an important role, told about this period. In addition, the link that the series makes to current events is very important."

“Take, for example, Ben Knapen, former State Secretary for European Affairs and Development Cooperation, from the third episode. He has written a book about Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and he can tell about the contemporary European Union. By interviewing him on both topics, you had a natural transition.”

What else did you do besides bringing in experts? “I had to check if everything was actually correct. The creators of the series are historians but not period specialists. I talked a lot with the editors about the topics and my book Golden Age. The riddle of the Republic has been used by them as a reference work. It actually feels a bit like my book has been made into a movie,” Prak grins.

“The structure within the episodes also received a lot of attention:this makes the information stick better. The series also has a didactic function and therefore the structure was very important. I've watched each episode at least three times and commented on it, among other things. My wife was watching and she sometimes didn't understand. Too little internal cohesion.”

Does the series give a good picture of the 17th Century? “This is the best image we could create based on our knowledge and budget for the people we want to reach:it will be broadcast on prime time so the series is for a large audience. But what you can never convey on TV is how uncomfortable the seventeenth century was. Remember that people lived in a Little Ice Age:it was a lot colder than now."

“In addition, they were a lot less able to resist that than we are now, on the couch in our heated and insulated houses. The houses of that time, also of the rich, could hardly be heated. Most people's clothes and shoes were of poor quality. If you got ailments, that meant endless pain or an unanaesthetized treatment at the surgeon.”

“And how about the stench from that time? That would be unbearable for us now. The canals were the open sewers of the houses that stood on them. Faeces were sold to local farmers by poor people who had no sanitary facilities in their small slum. But until then, it often smelled for days in a bucket in the corner. People lived on and through each other, along with the vermin. Straw mattresses full of bugs, lice on your head and rats everywhere.”

“The seventeenth-century people themselves also smelled because they rarely bathed. This was true for both rich and poor people:bathing was thought to be unhealthy. The houses, those of the rich, were cleaned from head to toe. But the clean houses couldn't stop the stench from outside, especially in the summer. The heat made the canals smell even worse and the better-off moved en masse to their country houses outside the city.”

“You can compare it to the unpaved and busy streets in today's India. That comes closest to a Dutch city in the Golden Age. For us it is unbearably filthy and smelly, but you can't convey that on television. Just like the noise. That too must have been deafening. Everywhere carts drove and horses, dogs and other animals walked, which also left behind rubbish and excrement. So no fun."

What do you think is the best moment in the series? “The best moment? Mmm, that is the emotion of people when it comes to the Golden Age. For example, the re-enactment group that portrays battles in episode 3. The man who 'plays' Maurits is very serious about this and says emotionally that he cannot even stand in the shadow of the big man. Beautiful! You cannot convey that feeling through history books at school.”

What do you really have with the Golden Age? Where does the fascination come from? “Well, that's actually two-part. First, the current problems already existed in the seventeenth century. Think of the migration with accompanying strange religions and strange customs. Did these disbelievers have to integrate or not?

“The second generation no longer understood the original language and wanted church services in Dutch. Now the same is happening with Muslims, which is what makes the Golden Age so interesting. Also recognizable is the discussion about benefits:who is entitled to them? And don't benefit recipients get lazy? Secondly, what we recognize today as typically Dutch, often started in the seventeenth century.”

“Take the tulip:the Netherlands is internationally known as a tulip country. This is due to the tulip speculation in the Golden Age. The tulip was suddenly everywhere! Farmers started to grow them, special Delft Blue vases were designed to be used one by one, and so on.”

“The tulip was already known in the Netherlands around 1560, but it took a while before it really caught on. At first people didn't know what it was and what to do with it. They thought it was some kind of onions and used it for cooking. Until someone buried a few bulbs and beautiful flowers came out of the ground.”

“Now 90 percent of the world flower market is in Dutch hands. 90 Percent!! That is very special for such a small country. Another good example is the ring line in the Randstad, which also started in the Golden Age, with the pull canal. The barges had a regular and reliable timetable (including departure and arrival times booklets) so that you could plan a trip very easily. You traveled from city to city in a comfortable boat instead of a bumpy carriage, crossing the Randstad at lightning speed. This really fascinated foreigners.”

Do you think the 17th century is a breaking point? “In a way, yes. The Netherlands literally and figuratively became a new country. Entire areas were drained and added to the agricultural arsenal, the canal belt of Amsterdam was created then, the period is brimming with appealing buildings and great painters. Iconic things that the Netherlands is known for go back to the 17th century and we like to go back to that time.”

“Take Elsevier Publishers, for example. In the seventeenth century there was also a company with that name. When the current Elsevier was founded in the 19th century, they decided to take a name from the illustrious Golden Age to give the new company extra cachet.”

In this way, the Dutch continue to hark back to the Golden Age and this successful period of our history is still immensely popular.

Maarten Prak is professor of Social and Economic History at Utrecht University and specializes in the Golden Age.

His book Golden Age. The riddle of the Republic from 2002 has now been re-released, with added chapters on Literature &Letters and Science &Philosophy and in several languages ​​(for the enthusiast even in Chinese). The book is written for high school students, students and anyone else who wants to know what it was like in the Golden Age.