CHAPTER XII. LETTERS, SCIENCE AND ART

The epithet "glorious" - roemrijke - has been frequently applied by Dutch historians to the period of Frederick Henry - and deservedly. The preceding chapter has told that it was a time of wonderful maritime and colonial expansion, of commercial supremacy and material prosperity. But the spirit of the Holland, which reached its culminating point of national greatness in the middle of the 17th century, was far from being wholly occupied with voyages of adventure and conquest on far distant seas, or engrossed in sordid commercialism at home. The rapid acquisition of wealth by successful trade is dangerous to the moral health and stability alike of individuals and of societies; and the vices which follow in its train had, as we have already pointed out, infected to a certain extent the official and commercial classes in the Dutch republic at this epoch. There is, however, another side of the picture. The people of the United Provinces in their long struggle for existence, as a free and independent state, had had all the dormant energies and qualities of which their race was capable called into intense and many-sided activity, with the result that the quickening impulse, which had been sent thrilling through the veins, and which had made the pulses to throb with the stress of effort and the eagerness of hope, penetrated into every department of thought and life. When the treaty of Muenster was signed, Holland had taken her place in the very front rank in the civilised world, as the home of letters, science and art, and was undoubtedly the most learned state in Europe.

In an age when Latin was the universal language of learning, it was this last fact which loomed largest in the eyes of contemporaries. The wars and persecutions which followed the Reformation made Holland the place of refuge of many of the most adventurous spirits, the choicest intellects and the most independent thinkers of the time. Flemings and Walloons, who fled from Alva and the Inquisition, Spanish and Portuguese Jews driven out by the fanaticism of Philip II, French Huguenots and German Calvinists, found within the borders of the United Provinces a country of adoption, where freedom of the press and freedom of opinion existed to a degree unknown elsewhere until quite modern times. The social condition of the country, the disappearance of a feudal nobility, and the growth of a large and well-to-do burgher aristocracy in whose hands the government of the republic really lay, had led to a widespread diffusion of education and culture. All travellers in 17th century Holland were struck by the evidences which met their eyes, in all places that they visited, of a general prosperity combined with great simplicity of life and quiet domesticity. Homely comfort was to be seen everywhere, but not even in the mansions of the merchant princes of Amsterdam was there any ostentatious display of wealth and luxury. Probably of no other people could it have been said that "amongst the Dutch it was unfashionable not to be a man of business[6]." And yet, in spite of this, there was none of that narrowness of outlook, which is generally associated with burgher-society immersed in trade. These men, be it remembered, were necessarily acquainted with many languages, for they had commercial relations with all parts of the world. The number too of those who had actually voyaged and travelled in far distant oceans, in every variety of climate, amidst every diversity of race, was very large; and their presence in their home circles and in social gatherings and all they had to tell of their experiences opened men's minds, stirred their imaginations, and aroused an interest and a curiosity, which made even the stay-at-home Hollanders alert, receptive and eager for knowledge.