October 2012

"If you have to wear out a pair of fool's shoes in order to become wise" Jacob Cats proverb hardly seems a formula for a Golden Age, but as Benjamin B. Roberts convincingly argues the peace, prosperity, technology, colonalism of the 1620s and 1630s produced a generation of long-haired hangjongeren clad in brightly colored silks and satins whose anti-social behaviour was not simply tolerated but valued as a incipient maturity and successful socialisation and who were responsible for the Dutch Golden Age of the mid-17th century.

A mind expanding section on the drugs, these young men experimented includes tobacco, poppy seeds, belladonna, mushrooms, black herbane seeds, thorn apples and hemp. But because clean water was so rare, alcohol was not only necessary but physically and psychologically healthy- Bacchus was afterall a god! Marking the transition to university, membership in certain guilds and manhood in general. Drunkenness was not only a matter of private health or morality but encouraging public order and workplace productivity through a regulatory tolerance, the way public holidays were ways of channeling and redefining violence as mischief. The same is true when it comes to sex during this period, when the economics of marriage left most young men single until their late 20s.  Tolerant attitudes towards prostitution, masturbation, and sometimes even homosexuality became a virtual necessity.

Roberts has an amazingly resourceful sense of evidence in poems, drinking songs, diaries, court cases, prints and paintings, books of moral instruction and proverbs. But the variety becomes a problem when he relies on material from across Europe and even across other time periods. Nonetheless, in addition to taking an important step forward in the understanding the generation of young men who created the Dutch Golden Age. Roberts offers a lesson for the Dutch today when asocial seems to have permanently trumped gezellig. Education and moral instruction are the only tools left if we don't want to give up on the commitment dating from the Golden Age, to giving up on externally-motivated control in favour of self-restraint, shame in favour of guilt.

By Jonathan Gill

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