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Dutch Literature and Language


DUTCH LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. From the end of the twelfth century onward, the Dutch language developed into a literary medium in chivalric romances, didactic poems (Jacob van Maerlant [12351300]), mystical works (Jan van Ruusbroec [12931381]), plays, and songs. The dialects of the wealthy southern provinces of Flanders and Brabant prevailed in literature. Around 1600 linguistic hegemony shifted to Holland in the north as a result of important changes in the political and cultural landscape after the Dutch revolt against the Habsburg regime. In the course of the seventeenth century, a standard language was established that was based on the dialect of Holland with Brabantic influences. Grammar and orthography were regulated, and an active purist movement fought against loan words from Latin and French.


The rederijkers, 'rhetoricians', dominated public literary life in the vernacular from about 1450 to 1620. The groups originated in Flanders early in the fifteenth century and were inspired poetically by the French arts de seconde rhétorique. The rhetoricians aimed at an ornate language with a preference for the use of sonorous French loan words, a tendency mocked later by more purist poets such as Bredero. The rederijkerskamers or 'chambers of rhetoric' were urban organizations that played an important role in religious festivals, offered entertainment for their fellow citizens, and provided a public relations service for their towns by means of interurban contests in performing and reciting. Scholars differ in their opinions about the goals of these chambers: Did they, as Herman Pleij believes, represent an attempt of the urban elites to impose a civic morality on the citizens, or did they give voice to a common culture? In addition to collections of ballads (refereinen), nearly 600 of the rhetoricians' plays have survived; they are mostly allegorical moralities and biblical stories but include historical and mythological dramas. The plays contain a great deal of arguing on ethical and religious issues intermingled with lively scenes from daily life. In Brussels a cycle of the Seven Joys of Mary was performed from 1441 to 1559. The best-known plays of the rhetoricians, Den spyeghel der saligheyt van Elckerlijc (c. 1496; The mirror of salvation of everyman), the source of the English The Summoning of Everyman (1510), and Mariken van Nieumeghen (c. 1500), about a young woman seduced by the devil, are exceptional. Mariken van Nieumeghen is actually a prose text with extensive inserted dialogues to be read aloud, whereas Elckerlijc once won a prize at a dramatic contest in Brabant. But neither can be connected with a specific chamber of rhetoric. Nor did the most interesting "rhetorical" poet belong to a chamber: as a woman, the Antwerp schoolmistress Anna Bijns (14931575) was excluded from membership. Three collections of her ballads were printed under the protection of the local Franciscans. Bijns wrote in a pungent satirical vein against the rising tide of Lutheranism, but also on the subjects of love and marriage.

Given their interest in religious disputes, the chambers got into trouble when the Reformation gained a foothold in the Netherlands. During the repression of Protestant movements, several rhetoricians were executed on the charge of expressing heretical ideas, and most of the chambers' activities were forbidden by the (Catholic) authorities in the 1560s. But from about 1580 most towns in the province of Holland, having liberated themselves from Habsburg rule, allowed the chambers to perform again, putting aside the objections of the Calvinist consistories against all theatrical performances. In Catholic Flanders and Brabant, the chambers flourished anew from 1609. Longstanding tradition and the conformity that was intrinsic in the collective production of literature delayed the acceptance of new Renaissance modes and granted the chambers a long life among the lower middle classes.

The Dutch Revolt, which broke out in 1568 and resulted in an eighty-year war against Spain, was accompanied by a large production of songs of protest and propaganda and others that gave accounts of military actions. The martyr songs, touching reports of the intrepidness of Anabaptist martyrs at the stake, are a special category. Calvinist polemics are found at their extreme in Den Byencorf der H. Roomsche Kercke, published by Philips van Marnix van St. Aldegonde in 1569, which was written in an exuberant Rabelaisian style and directed biting sarcasm at all aspects of Roman Catholicism (it was translated as The Bee Hive of the Romish Churche by George Gilpin in 1579). The humanist Dirck Coornhert (15221590), who earned the reputation of "the apostle of tolerance," can be seen as Marnix's counterpart. His main work, Zedekunst dat is Wellevenkunste (Ethics, that is the art of living well; 1586), aimed at the training of human will-power led by true knowledge that was provided by reason. Coornhert's ideas, related to the Neostoicism of Justus Lipsius (15471606) (De constantia, Leiden, 1584; English translation, 1594)whom Coornhert in some respects vigorously opposedhad a strong hold on the next generation of Amsterdam dramatists such as Hooft and Bredero.


From about 1560 elements of international Renaissance literature were introduced into Dutch literature. Sonnets and odes gradually replaced the ballads and rondeaux of the rhetoricians, and the morality plays slowly gave way to tragedies and comedies. Petrarch and the poets of the Pléiade became models for the lyric poets, and Seneca, and later Aristotle, exerted an influence on drama. Freed from the relative anonymity of the rhetoricians, individual authors came to the forefront. The "Golden Age" of Dutch literature began with the generation of writers born around 1580, some decades before the birth of painters such as Rembrandt, Steen, and Vermeer, whose works represent the Golden Age of Dutch art. An earlier supporter of the new Renaissance ideals was Jan van der Noot from Antwerp, who adapted the style and themes of Pierre Ronsard for works in his mother tongue. A Calvinist refugee, van der Noot published Het Theatre (a collage of translations and his own prose and poetry) in London in 1568, followed by a French and then an English translation (partly by the young Edmund Spenser) in 1569, and a German translation in 1572.

After the surrender of Antwerp to the Spanish army in 1585, a massive emigration of highly qualified Protestants took place. Many of them settled in Amsterdam, which took over Antwerp's role in book production. One of the specialties of the time was beautifully illustrated emblem books. In this very popular genre, image and text together expressed a deeper meaning in tripartite form: motto, image, and explanation. The emblemata amatoria, with their sophisticated erotic concetti, were introduced by a young Leiden Latinist, Daniel Heinsius, in 1601. The most successful specimen of this genre was Silenus Alcibiadis, sive Proteus (1618) by Jacob Cats (15771660). In each of his emblems a scene taken from daily life or the animal world contained a hidden meaning in erotic, moral, and religious matters respectively. It was explained in Dutch, Latin, and French epigrams and a prose commentary. Still more popular was Cats's Houwelick (Marriage), a compendium of family life for the Dutch Calvinist burgher. It was published in 1625, and 50,000 copies were sold by 1655. An interesting development of the amatory emblems was the amoris divini emblemata in which the omnipresent Cupid was transformed into a personification of divine love. Such emblem books were particularly popular in the Catholic southern Netherlands. Pia desideria (1624) by Herman Hugo became a European bestseller; during the seventeenth century Jesuits in Flanders and Brabant produced almost 250 religious emblem books.

In Holland the talented engraver and poet Jan Luyken (16491712) composed several fine emblem books pervaded with pietistic mysticism around 1700. He was one of the multitude of religious poets, Calvinist preachers, and dissenters who flocked to the Dutch book market in the seventeenth century. Many were simple rhymers for a nondiscerning public, but there were also outstanding poets, among them Dirck Rafaelszoon Camphuysen (15861627), Jacobus Revius (15861658), Stalpart van der Wiele (15791630), Jeremias De Decker (16091666), Heiman Dullaert (16361684), and Jodocus van Lodensteyn (16201677). The minor poet Jacob Steendam (1616c. 1672/73) was rescued from total oblivion by being one of the first European poets on American soil.


Holland, the wealthiest and most powerful of the seven United Provinces constituting the Dutch Republic, was the breeding ground for the new poetry. Hooft, Bredero, and Vondel in Amsterdam, Heinsius in Leiden, and Huygens in The Hague set the standard. Hundreds of minor authors followed, stimulated by the demand of the most prosperous and most literate community of that age.

Pieter Hooft (15811647), son of an Amsterdam burgomaster, began his literary career as a member of the chamber of rhetoric called "De Eglentier" but soon outshone his fellow rhetoricians with his brilliant lyrics and "modern" tragedies. His love emblems, charming songs, and perfect sonnets, first published in 1611, played with variations on Petrarchan motifs; in his serious dramas, Geeraert van Velsen and Baeto, based on themes from Dutch legendary history, he tackled current political issues. In the last decades of his life Hooft turned to historiography, writing a voluminous history of the Dutch Revolt in the mode of Tacitus.

In the span of his short life, Gerbrand Bredero (15851618) was a prolific writer of popular lyrics and dramas. Best known for his farces and comedies, Bredero had a perfect ear for everyday language and promoted its use in literature. His masterpiece is Spaanschen Brabander (The Spanish Brabanter) of 1617, based on the story of Lazarillo de Tormes but set amid the bustling city life of Amsterdam.

Joost van den Vondel (15871679) used a classical disguise in his Palamedes (1625) to condemn the execution of Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, who had been the leading statesman of Holland for more than thirty years. Vondel wrote a number of satirical poems and songs around that time. It was, however, his poetic output in later years that earned him the reputation as one of the greatest poets of the European baroque. A lasting success on the stage was Gysbreght van Aemstel (1637), which was performed yearly in the Amsterdam theater until 1969! His immense oeuvre comprises twenty-four original dramas, translations of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the complete works of Virgil, and several classical tragedies, poetic reactions to all of the major events of his lifetime, long panegyrics on Amsterdam trade and building activities, a religious epic, didactic poems in defense of Roman Catholic orthodoxy (the Mennonite Vondel converted to Catholicism around 1639), and thousands of occasional and devotional poemsin short, all poetic genres except love songs. Vondel's mastery of language is astonishing on all levels, from light verse to the most sublime poetry; the profoundness of his handling of religious and ethical dilemmas in his tragedies has challenged successive generations of critics to new interpretations. Vondel's biblical dramas such as his trilogy Lucifer, Adam in Ballingschap (Adam in exile), and Noah deal with the great themes of Christianity. Other plays have Joseph, David, and Jephthah as their protagonists.

Constantijn Huygens (15961687), secretary to three successive princes of Orange, accomplished courtier, virtuoso on the lute and the clavichord, amateur scientist, polyglot (writing poems in Dutch, Latin, French, Italian, and English), a strict Calvinist, and father of the mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens, presented his literary activities as modest "cornflowers" betwixt the wheat of his professional duties. He must have made the most of his free moments, for he left us thousands of epigrams and a collection of longer poems. An admirer and translator of John Donne, he strove in his poetry for density and a certain obscurity of expression despite the conversational tone in most of them. His most important poem is "Hofwijck" (1651), an idealized description of his estate near The Hague. Its design mirrored the harmony of macrocosm and microcosm and led the poet to reflections on human life and death. This hofdicht ('country-house poem') had a lot of followers, especially in the eighteenth century. As a devotional poet Huygens wrote a string of sonnets on Christian holy days in which he expressed his deep sense of sinfulness. However, he also wrote a bawdy farce, Trijntje Cornelis not meant for public performance.


In the elite circles of Huygens and his friend Hooft, women played a prominent role but were regarded more as an adornment of refined society than as poets in their own right. Anna (15841651) and Maria (15941649) Tesselschade Visscher, daughters of Pieter Roemer Visscher, a respected poet of an earlier generation, received much admiration. Nevertheless, although several of their poems were published during their lifetimes, their names never appeared on any frontispiece. Anna, the better poet, put the learned eulogies of her masculine fellow poets in perspective with some self-mockery. Huygens and Cats also showered Anna Maria van Schurman (16071678) with compliments. One of the most learned women of her time and a scholar of Oriental languages, she at least got the chance to publish a dissertation (in Latin) about the capacity of the female mind for science and letters (1641; English translation 1659). In Flanders and Brabant, writings of religious women were published by Catholic priests for devotional purposes. Most remarkable is the autobiography (pub. 1681) of Maria Petyt (16231677), in which she gave a mercilessly honest account of her spiritual development. In the eighteenth century, women obtained a place on the Dutch Parnassus in their own right. Recent research has saved from oblivion more than 150 female writers of the years between 1550 and 1850, gleaning specimens of their work into an extensive anthology edited by Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen.


A lot of prose, for instance the extremely popular travel literature, appeared during the seventeenth century. However, almost no original novels were written, although many foreign novels were read in Dutch translations. A minor but curious exception is a group of ten "libertine" novels from the last quarter of the century that occupy a special place in the international history of pornography. Several were translated into French, German, or English, among them The London Jilt, or Politick Whore (London, 1684), after D'openhertige juffrouw, of d'Ontdeckte geveinsdheid (The candid damsel, or hypocrisy revealed). The Dutch title is more explicit about the philosophy of the book, which focuses on plain truth and fighting hypocrisy. Recently, these novels have been associated with the early "Radical Enlightenment" of the Dutch Republic. They may be regarded as well as a reaction against the prudery and the pursuit of virtuousness of the classicist movement of those years.


In 1667 a group of Amsterdam intellectuals, with the Spinozist Lodewijk Meyer as one of their spokesmen, founded a literary society under the name "Nil Volentibus Arduum." Their ambition was to raise the level of Dutch poetry, particularly in drama, by conforming it to international standards, which they found in French classicism as put forward by Pierre Corneille. They also shunned all kinds of indecency on the stage (which was a characteristic of the popular farces by Bredero and his followers) as well as any matter that could lead to political or religious controversy. They were not successful in every respect, but a spirit of regulation and pedantry gradually replaced the more exuberant, varied, and popular aspects of seventeenth-century poetry. It is, however, chiefly the lack of outstanding talents that is responsible for the mediocrity of the huge poetic and dramatic production between 1670 and 1770. Of course, there were some exceptions, such as the comédies de moeurs by Pieter Langendijk (16831756) and the elegant poetry of Hubert Poot (16891733).

For something new and fresh we must turn to prose. An interesting example is Hendrik Smeeks's Beschryvinge van het magtig Koningryk Krinke Kesmes (Description of the mighty kingdom Krinke Kesmes; 1708) about an imaginary continent where people discuss Cartesianism and religious tolerance. More important is nonfiction prose, especially in periodicals. Here we meet an animated climate of discussion on philosophical, political, religious, moral, and aesthetic matters. Following the example of The Tatler and The Spectator of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in England, Justus van Effen (16841735) founded the first journal of this kind on the European continent, Le misantrope (in French), in 1711. More important is his De Hollandsche Spectator (17311735), in its time the talk of the town. It generated more than forty imitations before 1800. Others tried to find a market for more satirical or scandalous papers, such as those of Jacob Campo Weyerman (16771747), who ended his life in prison. A lot of experimentation was taking place in fictional prose, but the novel was still not regarded as something worthy of serious attention. In the second part of the century, a change occurred when the novels of Samuel Richardson became better known in Holland. In the revolutionary 1780s political and literary discussions reached their peak. The main issue was the miserable condition of the once so successful Dutch Republic, including that of its literature. Hieronymus van Alphen and Rijklof Michael van Goens suggested remedies, pleading for originality and a new anticlassicist aesthetics, whereas the works of two collaborating female authors, Betje Wolff (17381804) and Aagje Deken (17411804), contributed effectively to recovery. In 1782 they published their epistolary novel Historie van Mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, a lively account, drawn with empathy and humor, of the coming of age of a young woman in an Amsterdam merchants' milieu.

See also Amsterdam ; Anabaptism ; Antwerp ; Calvinism ; Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; Huygens Family ; Netherlands, Art in the ; Netherlands, Southern ; Oldenbarneveldt, Johan van ; Patriot Revolution .


Primary Sources

A good selection of literary texts in Dutch is available on the Internet at Some translations:

Aercke, Kristiaan, ed. Women Writing in Dutch. New York, 1994. See especially the sections on Anna Bijns, pp. 93146; Anna and Maria Visscher, pp. 147184; Anna Maria van Schurman, pp. 185230; Maria Petyt, pp. 231272; and Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken, pp. 273296.

Bredero, G. A. The Spanish Brabanter. A Seventeenth-Century Dutch Social Satire in Five Acts. Translated by H. David Brumble III. Binghamton, N.Y., 1982.

Elizabeth's Manly Courage. Testimonials and Songs of Martyred Anabaptist Women in the Low Countries. Translated and edited by Hermina Joldersma and Louis Grijp. Milwaukee, 2001.

Hooft, Pieter Cornelisz. The Tragedy of Gerard van Velsen. Translated with notes and an introduction by Theo Hermans and Paul Vincent. In: Dutch Crossing 45 (1991): 105183. The journal Dutch Crossing regularly publishes translations of Dutch literature.

Huygens, Constantijn. A Selection of the Poems of Sir Constantijn Huygens (15961687). A parallel text translated, with an introduction and appendices by Peter Davidson and Adriaan van der Weel. Amsterdam, 1996.

Mariken van Nieumeghen. A Bilingual Edition. Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Therese Decker and Martin W. Walsh. Columbia, S.C., 1994.

Smeeks, Hendrik. The Mighty Kingdom of Krinke Kesmes (1708). Presented by David Fausset, with a translation of the Dutch text by Robert H. Leek. Amsterdam, 1995.

Vondel, Joost van den. Gijsbrecht van Amstel. Translated, with an introduction and notes, by Kristiaan P.G. Aercke. Ottawa, 1991.

. Lucifer. Translated and adapted by Noel Clark. Bath, U.K., 1990.

Secondary Sources

Donaldson, B. C. Dutch. A Linguistic History of Holland and Belgium. Leiden, 1983.

France, Peter, ed. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, pp. 563566. Oxford, 2000.

Leemans, Inger. Het woord is aan de onderkant. Radicale ideeën in Nederlandse pornografische romans 16701700. Nijmegen, 2002.

Manning, John. The Emblem. London, 2002. Discusses Dutch love emblems.

Meijer, Reinder P. Literature of the Low Countries: A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium. 2nd ed. The Hague and Boston, 1978. Outdated, but at present the only comprehensive survey in English.

Parente, James A. Religious Drama and the Humanist Tradition: Christian Theater in Germany and in The Netherlands 15801680. Leiden 1987. See especially Chapter 3, "The Biblical Tragedies of Joost van den Vondel."

Pleij, Herman. Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life. Translated by Diane Webb. New York, 2001.

. "The Rise of Urban Literature in the Low Countries." In Medieval Dutch Literature in its European Context, edited by Erik Kooper, pp. 6277. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994.

Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen, Maria A., ed. Met en zonder lauwerkrans: Schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 15501850: van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar. Amsterdam, 1997.

Schenkeveld, Maria A. Dutch Literature in the Age of Rembrandt: Themes and Ideas. Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1991.

Spies, Marijke. Rhetoric, Rhetoricians, and Poets: Studies in Renaissance Poetry and Poetics. Amsterdam, 1999.

Stouten, Hanna, Jaap Goedegebuure, and Frits van Oostrom, eds. Histoire de la littérature néerlandaise (Pays-Bas et Flandre). Paris, 1999. A version in English of this handbook, edited by Ton Anbeek and Theo Hermans, is forthcoming.

Eddy K. Grootes

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