The Dutch Republic:
Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806

Jonathan I. Israel

Oxford University Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019
The core of The Dutch Republic is a chronological political history of the Republic, from the Revolt against Spain through the Golden Age, roughly the century and a half from 1550 to 1702. Some early chapters "set the scene" before that, while a less detailed continuation to 1806 forms a kind of epilogue; additional material covers art and architecture, society and economics, church and confessional history, and broader intellectual history.

Describing events at different scales, Israel's detailed narrative captures the almost fractal complexity of Dutch politics. The stresses placed on the Republic by its precarious geopolitical situation, between more powerful neighbours. A shifting balance between Republican institutions and stadtholders. The continuous jostling between States and States-General, and the problems created by Holland being so much more powerful than any other of the states. Conflicts within individual states, such as between city and rural "quarters" in Groningen, or between Amsterdam and smaller cities in Holland. Divides along class lines and between economic interests. And, often cutting across these, central religious and ideological schisms: Catholic-Protestant, Remonstrant-Counter-Remonstrant, Voetian-Cocceian and so forth. In this account, foreign affairs and military history are only treated as necessary to understand the main story: the battle of Nieuwpoort gets a whole paragraph, but that is exceptional, as is the quite substantial treatment of the southern Netherlands, under Spanish and later Hapsburg rule.

Some forty percent of the text covers additional topics. Two chapters on art and architecture really are digressions, and could easily be skipped. The remainder is split into three roughly equal parts: a series of chapters on social history, including economics, world trade and the colonial empire; a detailed account of confessional and religious history; and a broader intellectual history, from humanism to the Enlightenment.

When presenting straight economic history Israel never seems inspired — some of it feels almost as if it has been shoehorned into the volume to make it fit into the "Oxford History of Early Modern Europe" series — but this comes to life when it interacts with the political history: the eagerness of Zeeland towns to prevent competition from Antwerp, the role economic upturns and downturns played in driving local politics, and so forth. The Dutch colonies and world trade are, similarly, treated entirely from a metropolitan perspective.

Israel seems more engaged with the intellectual and religious history, much of which is intimately tied up with the political history. He deploys a mass of detail here, following not just national divisions and events such as the Synod of Dordrecht, but local disputes and figures now largely forgotten, with divides between orthodox and 'libertine' town regents often coming to a head in decisions over appointments of ministers and professors. With the intellectual history some of the details of publications and polemics are similarly involved, but much is of broader interest, conveying a feel for the Dutch contributions to the Enlightenment, to modern ideas about religious tolerance, public order, a free press, international law and so forth, and for figures such as Erasmus and Hugo Grotius and Benedict Spinoza.

Israel does assume in a few places that the reader knows French — but not Dutch — and a general background in early modern European history is taken for granted, but The Dutch Republic is broadly accessible. (Though not the most sensible thing to undertake as background reading for a one week visit to Amsterdam, as I did.) Much of the detail may be excessive for non-specialists, but I found myself caught up in the smaller, local stories as well as the larger ones, and it's easy to pick the topics and the level of detail one wants. The early modern history of the Netherlands, neglected compared to its three bigger neighbours, deserves a treatment at this length and Israel has done a sterling job.

January 2019

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%T The Dutch Republic
%S Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806
%A Israel, Jonathan I.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1995
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780198207344
%P 1231pp