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The invention of the Dutchman

The Dynamics of Identity in the Low Countries, 1300-1600.
Towards a Comparative Perspective
Leiden, 29-31 March 2007

International colloquium organised by
the History Department of
Leiden University

If you are Dutch, you usually also feel Dutch. No one experiences that feeling all day long; and, besides many people also feel they are  a Limburger, a European, a Moroccan, or a world citizen, but it seems obvious that such a thing as a national Dutch identity exists.

National identities are not self-evident, as they have evolved within certain historical circumstances and have often been imposed resolutely from above. These processes have been studied by historians for some thirty years. How and when did the Dutch national identity come about? To answer this question the Leiden historians Dr Robert Stein (middle ages) and Dr Judith Pollman (16th and 17th century) are organising an international colloquium as the conclusion to a research project in which they have studied the mechanism of identity formation in the Low Countries in the Middle Ages and in early modern times.

Foreign oppressor
Pollman is conducting research on the late sixteenth and seventeenth century, which includes the revolt against the Habsburg regime under William of Orange. Pollman: 'The idea that the Dutch identity is linked to this revolt is not so strange. Historians have always connected the two. For a long time, the Dutch were considered to have rebelled as they were protesting against a foreign oppressor but in recent decades the idea has arisen that the origin of the ' Dutch Identity' evolved as a result of that rebellion rather than having been its cause, and there are more and more pointers towards this theory.

The Low Countries under the Dukes of Burgundy, circa 1450.
The western territories, the so-called core territories, are red, the other Burgundian areas are grey.

A Dutch Identity was invented as the result of a successful propaganda campaign by William of Orange and his followers, Pollman relates: ' William of Orange actively propagated the existence of such a concept as a Dutch fatherland. The 'beloved fatherland' had to be defended against foreign oppressors. The territory he was referring to had only recently been consolidated by the Habsburgs themselves, and there was even uncertainty as to its precise borders.

Religious war
One of the major reasons for William of Orange to propagate this sense of patriotism was to avoid giving the impression that the revolt was a religious war. Pollman: 'It was a rhetorical trick befitting the media war that was being waged in the sixteenth century. William of Orange was unwilling to say that this was a war between Protestants and Catholics, as he would get the Calvinists on his side but not the Catholic majority. Presenting the conflict as a war of freedom against a foreign oppressor was far more effective. This trick was copied in part from the French. During the French religious wars exactly the same had occurred. We are doing this for France and not for the sake of religion,' the French Protestants had proclaimed. In Germany, too, the Lutheran princes had claimed they were defending German freedom against a foreign, Spanish emperor.'

'Good Dutchmen'
However, the 'beloved fatherland' had hardly been instilled in their hearts, before it disintegrated, forming the Northern Netherlands in the North and the Habsburg territories in the South. Pollman: Both parties clung to the idea that they belonged to each other, but, on the other hand, the enemy was also living among his own people. I am very interested in comparing the ideas on 'Dutch identity' in the Southern and the Northern provinces. In the South the enemy were defined as 'Hollanders' or 'Beggars'. This exonerated other Northerners, while in the North it was thought that the 'good Dutchmen' in the South were waiting to be liberated. Anyone who did not want to be liberated had become 'Spaniardised' and was not a true Dutchman. Both in the Northern and the Southern provinces, the fantasy was kept alive that the other side was waiting for liberation and reunification.'

Medieval scholar Robert Stein: The 'border between North and South which we still consider to be so significant, was by no means so obvious before the revolt. It is more appropriate to divide the Low Countries into East and West, the key being the reunification of the core territories Flanders, Brabant, Holland, Zeeland and Henegouwen by the Dukes of Burgundy in 1425-1433. During the fourteenth and fifteenth century a common culture and economy developed in the Western provinces. The more you look, the more evidence you find for this. For example, a common new coin was introduced, 'the Vierlander' for the four territories of Holland/Zeeland, Flanders, Brabant and Henegouwen. I always compare it to the euro: a monetary union as a step towards further unification. A crucial factor was that the rapprochement came about of their own free will. The North and the South were only reunited with the others a century later as a result of conquest. As a result, Guelders and Brabant were united under one ruler, even though the two duchies had been enemies for centuries.

Stein has more difficulty than Pollman in searching for a Low Country identity in the Middle Ages . Firstly, he always has to defend himself against 19th and 20th century historians who claim that it is impossible to speak of a national identity before 1800. And more importantly, the Netherlands as an entity simply did not exist in the fifteenth century. In 1450, the Low Countries was a union of people, a mosaic of territories, counties, duchies and domains, united by a sovereign endowed with a lot of titles. The region didn't even have a generally accepted name. It was only during the middle of the 16th century that the name 'Seventeen Provinces' or 'Seventeen Netherlands ' became generally accepted.

Communication policy
Isn't it rather like self-inflicted torture to look for an overall identity in such a mess? Stein:' Modernist historians would be totally against it, but the more you delve into the Middle Ages, the more you can conclude that identities were quite important. You can also see that rulers employed a conscious communication policy to stimulate territorial loyalty and identity, if only to have a reason for their subjects to contribute to the cost of wars. The Burgundians were active in implementing this policy.

The 'Seventeen Netherlands' in Ludowico Guicciardini's Description of all the Low Countries (Antwerp 1581). Leiden University Library 1013 A3

In the middle the royal coat of arms and Brabant. Clockwise, starting at the bottom left: Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, Antwerp, Luxemburg, Namur, Groningen, Utrecht, Overijssel, Limburg, Mechlin, Zutphen, Friesland, Guelders, Henegouwen, Artois


The 'Seventeen Netherlands' according to Jan van der Noot , Ode to Braband- Hymne de Braband (Antwerp 1580), p. 25. Leiden University Library 1367 C28, p. 25.

In the middle: Brabant. Clockwise from the top left: Luxemburg, Guelders, Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, Artois, Namur, Henegouwen, Overijssel, Friesland, Valenciennes, Utrecht, Mechlin, Doornik (city), Doornik (territory), Rijsel.

Projecting identity backwards
You have to be wary of the pitfall of theological thinking,' Stein adds hurriedly. 'There is a significant difference between English and French research. French historians tend to think very theologically and to project the roots of 'our France' as far back as possible, into the 13th century. The English take a very different approach. They consider the processes more, looking at how mechanisms worked in the territorial units which then existed. We work in the same way. By paying more attention to these things, you tend to look differently at these Middle Ages. The identity of Brabant or Guelders, which can be clearly seen in the 13th century, was by no means the precursor of the later Dutch identity. And the Netherlands as portrayed on the map in 1580 was not already presaged in the 1450 map.

At the level of principalities, there was already in the 13th century, a national identity avant la lettre and in the fifteenth century Burgundian princes tried very hard to instill an overall Burgundian identity. But in his lectures on the budding communal culture of the Western territories, Stein is usually very careful in avoiding the 'i word'; 'It was a cultural area with supra-territorial networks. You can see rhetoric festivals, there was a tendency towards a monetary union, and you can detect a rapid spread of iconoclasm, whereas in the East this occurred to a lesser extent or much later. The University of Leuven, the oldest University of the Low Countries, constituted a fascinating phenomenon: around 1500 ninety-five percent of the students came from the Low Countries and eighty- four per cent came from the core territories. Does that indicate a common 'west country' identity? I don't think so; these figures are more likely the expression of a common culture.'

Cultural and economic solidarity does not necessarily result in a common identity, but Pollman also thinks it is certainly worth examining the late Middle Ages with the concept of 'identity' in mind: 'Something was brewing in the fifteenth and sixteenth century and the British historian Alastair Duke shows that there were attempts to unite the countries under one common denominator. Terms develop for the more stable territories, and they become more recognisable.'

The term 'Seventeen Provinces' that became popular in the course of the sixteenth century, fits with this development. 'There is something strange about the number 17,' says Stein. 'It was a symbolic figure and Huizinga was the first to have seen it. There simply were no 17 provinces. Nationalistic historians from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries kept on counting and recounting, but could only reach that number by means of all kinds of tricks. But even in the sixteenth century itself, about eight different interpretations exist as to what constituted the 17 provinces. It was only in 1580 that one interpretation came to predominate. The number 17 had already been in existence as a symbolic figure for a long time. It had been used in the fifteenth century to denote the Burgundian dukes' possessions and even then different interpretations circulated. As early as the ninth century Friesland was said to have been divided into seventeen territories. I will go further than Huizinga, who saw 17 predominantly as a small, imprecisely defined number. But seventeen, being the sum of 10 and 7, isn't just any number. In early Christianity it already had important positive connotations: the unity of Christianity, the union between the Old and the New Testament, the link between law and mercy. But a lot more research will need to be done to link these connotations with the Dutch Republic.'


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