The (not so) Golden Age


[Friday evening, 26 April, 2013]  Recently the Netherlands national television aired a series of documentary programs about the ‘Golden Age’  (roughly the 17the century) in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I did not see all 13 programs, but those that I had a chance to see were superb. However, there is also another side to this period of prosperity and grandeur, and that side is portrayed in a beautiful book that I read last week. The title is (translated): People of Little Means—Small Change of the Golden Age, written  by the well known Dutch historian A. Th. Van Deursen. Earlier I dedicated a blog to two of his other books that I immensely enjoyed (31 October 2012). I also read this book with great interest.

In his book about the Golden Age van Deursen does not focus on the elite and the rulers, as was the case in the television series, and he does not write about rich merchants and Rembrandt and other master painters of that period, which brought our country so much international fame. He discusses the plight of the ‘common’ people: the workers, and the soldiers and other men and women of the lower classes. He tells us about the housing, and working conditions, the education of the common people (or the lack thereof), and informs us how the various institutions (such as the justice system and taxation, etc.) affected the great masses.

It is good to also know something about the less positive aspects of this glorious period in Dutch history. Even though one of our ex-prime ministers made an appeal to the Dutch citizens to re-awaken the VOC-spirit, it must be admitted that there were also many things in this VOC-period of which we cannot be proud.

Some things struck me, in particular, as I read this fascinating book. In the first place, it is good to see the relativity of many things. Foreign visitors of the Netherlands at that time often had much praise for the living condition in Dutch society in this time of great prosperity. They stated that these were a lot better than elsewhere in Europe. But this does not take away from the fact that, when measured against our norms (and when compared with the opulence that another part of the population enjoyed), these conditions were utterly miserable. It just depends on one’s perspective.

I was amazed to read about various aspects of taxation in this period. To have private entrepreneurs care for the gathering of taxes, and to permit them to put in their own pockets what they succeeded in getting in tax payments from the people over and beyond the amount that the government had estimated as reasonable, was hardly a method that promoted fairness and equal treatment. There were some kinds of taxes that we still know today, but some other taxes seem very strange to us. There was, for instance, an extra tax on  the wearing of costly garments by common people. The fact that commoners wore fine clothing was deemed undesirable, since it tended to obliterate the differences between the classes. This extra tax was not levied from the elite; in their case costly apparel could not be considered a luxury, but was ‘normal’!

There are numerous other things that struck me, but, in particular, the fact that many problems of today’s society seem to have a long history. People of the Golden Age were complaining bitterly about the behavior of ‘today’s youth’. And many felt that they were living in a time of intense moral decay. Is sounds like the refrain of many a litany of our time and age.

It must also be admitted that church life in the Golden Age could be far from peaceful. Maybe I should keep that in mind in the coming days. A few hours ago I arrived in a congress center near the French city of Lyon, where I will attend, as a special guest, the quinquennial session of the organization of Adventist churches in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. I recently ended my official church involvement in Belgium and Luxembourg, but I appreciate the fact that I have been invited to attend. The session faces some rather critical issues and I expect that things might become a little hot from time to time—to use euphemistic language. If that should be the case, I may be able to relativize matters somewhat by the information in van Deursen’s book about the frequent ecclesial troubles in the Golden Age. But, who knows. I may be wrong and this meeting in the coming days may turn out to be surprisingly peaceful!