Netherlands, Language and Literature of

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Netherlands, Language
and Literature of

During the Renaissance, the Dutch language and literature developed against the backdrop of the Netherlands' struggle for independence. The nation waged a long battle to overthrow the rule of Spain and its king, Philip II. Philip was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, one of the most powerful political families in Europe in the 1500s. By the 1580s, war with Spain had divided the Netherlands into northern and southern territories.

After the Spanish recaptured the city of Antwerp (in what is now Belgium) in 1585, a number of merchants, intellectuals, craftspeople, and artists left the southern Netherlands to settle in the north. These talented and educated immigrants contributed to a "Dutch golden age" marked by new growth in the economy, arts, and sciences. By 1588, people in the north had formed their own Dutch Republic, which officially gained its independence in 1648. The southern Netherlands remained under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty for almost another 150 years.

Language Developments. Under the Habsburgs' rule in the 1500s, the people of the Netherlands did not all speak the same language. Instead, they used several related dialects known as "Diets." In the second half of the 1500s, Dutch scholars sought to strengthen the Netherlands' written language and create a national literature. They worked to create standards of grammar and spelling and to remove foreign words from the vocabulary. In 1584, the poet Hendrick Laurensz Spiegel published the first Dutch grammar book. Other Dutch scholars developed new scientific terms and produced books on rhetoric*.

The Netherlands based its new national language on a dialect from the northern province of Holland—the political, economic, and cultural center of the Dutch Republic. However, the language developed too slowly for some. In the winter of 1622 a group of poets began to hold regular meetings on the subject of language and literature. They sought to create standards for such language issues as word order and spelling. They put their new rules into effect in 1625 in a Dutch translation of a play by the ancient Roman author Seneca.

One of the most important events in the development of the Dutch language was the publication of the State Bible in 1637. This Dutch translation—based on the teachings of the French Protestant reformer John Calvin—became the chosen Bible of the Protestant population. This Dutch Bible has influenced the country's language for more than 300 years; many Dutch words and phrases come directly from the State Bible.


Dutch Renaissance Literature. During the 1500s, the literary life of Dutch towns took place mainly in the chambers of rhetoric. These theatrical and literary organizations helped to spread the ideas of humanism* throughout the Netherlands. Poets, artists, and intellectuals met at these chambers, or halls, and practiced using the newly formed national language. They also discussed one another's writings and staged plays. The chambers played a significant role in the public cultural life of Dutch towns. After 1585, the city of Amsterdam, the present-day capital, became the Netherlands' primary literary center.

One of the first Dutch authors to bring classical* influences into the national literature was the poet, dramatist, and historian Pieter Cornelisz Hooft. In his youth Hooft wrote a number of love sonnets* in Dutch. He later introduced to Dutch literature a form of tragic drama based on ancient Greek models. Hooft also wrote a widely acclaimed vernacular* history of the Netherlands.

Works by a number of the Netherlands' other literary figures also helped to establish Dutch as the official language. Although he did not belong to one of the chambers of rhetoric, Jan van der Noot wrote the first collection of Dutch poetry to reflect new Renaissance ideas. Noot introduced a number of new poetic styles to Dutch literature, including the ode*. The dramatist Joost van den Vondel began his career writing tragedies based on ancient Greek drama, then later turned to the Bible as the source for most of his material. As a tribute to his work, actors performed one of Vondel's plays each New Year's Day in Amsterdam until 1967. A collection of poems in Dutch, written by the poet and scholar Daniel Heinsius, also showed that the language was fit for use in high-quality literature.

Only a few female writers in the Netherlands published their work before 1650. These included the sisters Anna and Maria Tesselschade Visscher, who enjoyed the praise of other poets in their circle. However, their poetry did not become available to the reading public until the 1800s.


Popular Literature. In the early 1600s, songbooks—collections of songs and poems—became one of the most popular forms of Dutch literature. The publishers intended these pieces for performance by the young sons and daughters of wealthy families. The verses of many Dutch poets, such as Hooft and Gerbrandt Adriaensz Bredero, first appeared in songbooks. Many of the songbooks focused on poems about love. After the rebellion broke out, politics and religion became common themes as well.

Another popular form of Dutch literature in the 1600s was the illustrated emblem book. An emblem is an allegorical* picture containing a verse or motto that presents a moral lesson. Three types of emblem books became popular in the Netherlands. Love emblem books featured light romantic poems written in the style of the Italian-born poet and scholar Petrarch. Another form, religious love emblem books, became especially popular with Jesuit* priests in the southern Netherlands. Jesuits used these religious picture books as an aid in educating the young and spreading the faith. The third type, the realistic emblem book, took its subjects from everyday life. Realistic emblem books, which first appeared in 1614, offered advice on every stage of life from infancy to old age. Leading artists created the pictures for most of these books, which added to their appeal.

Various other forms of poetry became popular during the Dutch Renaissance as well. Country house poems, for example, praised life in the country and the estates of the well-to-do. The poems paid tribute to everything from houses and gardens to libraries. In 1655 the Dutch poet Jacob Cats wrote Garden Thoughts in honor of his country home in the town of Zorghvilet.

Poetry served a variety of purposes in the Dutch Renaissance. Almost every poet wrote religious poetry, with many members of the clergy publishing volumes of songs for the people in their churches. Poets also wrote popular verses to celebrate public and social events. In 1655, Vondel wrote a long poem praising the town hall in Amsterdam, which effectively made him the official poet of that city. Poets also used their poems to criticize Dutch society and to ridicule the customs and manners of the time.

(See alsoArt in the Netherlands; Netherlands. )

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* ode

poem with a lofty style and complex structure

* allegorical

referring to a literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* Jesuit

refers to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540

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