Here’s a secret: Just because someone studied history at university doesn’t mean they know everything about everywhere during every time period. In fact, most of us have specialized in a specific time period or region. For example, I concentrated on Modern History. Specifically, I was obsessed with social history with regard to the rise of the Nazi party and the fall of the Russian Empire. Dutch history, however, was mostly unknown to me when I arrived in the Netherlands.
The only historical information I knew about the Netherlands was that the country: (1) was neutral during the First World War, (2) was the place to which Kaiser Wilhelm II was exiled after the war, and (3) was occupied during the Second World War. (Did you notice the emphasis on Modern History there?)
Although I was somewhat familiar with Dutch artists (a name like Van Gogh can only be Dutch and who doesn’t know Vermeer?), I wasn’t aware of the depth and influence of Dutch artists on the art world. To be honest, the Dutch Golden Age when Dutch art flourished isn’t my cup of tea. Give me a Van Gogh or Monet any day! Yet somehow, I found myself attending a series of classes on the Dutch Masters.
In a history class a long time ago in another country, I basically learned the Eighty Years’ War happened sometime in the 16th Century when the Dutch were occupied by the Spanish. At least, that’s all I remember. *hides face in shame* Living in the Netherlands, I gathered tidbits of information about the war itself. Such as the independence of the Northern Provinces long before the Southern Provinces.
During my classes on the Dutch Masters, however, I gained more information about the war than I had in any previous history class. For example, Antwerp was devastated during the war, and artists fled to Haarlem, which led to a blossoming of art in Haarlem. (If you ever get a chance, the Frans Hals museum in Haarlem is definitely worth a visit.) Also, fighting was not continuous and mostly only occurred in the summer months.
By far the most interesting historical tidbit I learned was that the Eighty Years’ War and the Dutch Golden Age overlap. What??? How can the golden age – when the Netherlands dominated the seas and the art scene – overlap with a war? My surprise and disbelief were colored by my view of modern warfare – which is utterly devastating and is definitely not limited to a battlefield. The Eighty Years’ War was not a continuous period of eighty years in which war prevailed over the Netherlands. The Northern Provinces were liberated fairly early and could carry out daily life without the threat of invasion or bombs. Also, the fighting in the south was not continuous but seasonal in nature. There was also a 12-year true in which the Dutch Republic achieved de facto recognition. So, yeah, it was possible for a war and the Golden Age to overlap. Now, I know.