The Eighty Years War

I check with the man at the information desk in the Metro station at Amsterdam Centraal.

‘Sprek du Engels?’

He looks at me and then in to the distance, as if he is thinking very hard about a different question, as if I had said to him, ‘Did I meet you at the house of Erasmus in Bruxelles in 1521? In the garden. Do you remember?’

He comes back from some far off place and remembers that he does speak English and he suggests that I put the card to the right of the barrier to open the gate. ‘Otherwise’, he says, ‘the gate to the left will open’. I understand what he means. It was getting late. The train journey was an hour longer than expected. Not through any delays, but from reading the timetable incorrectly. Human error is as difficult to eradicate from railway journeys as any other sphere of human activity.

I am dubious about breakfast the next morning but decide it will be worth at least having a coffee and a croissant or something. But oh to be so pleasantly surprised. I should have realised that there is no way the Dutch guests in the hotel could possibly imagine going out into the day without several plates of scrambled eggs, bacon, boiled eggs, sausages, beans, salami, cheese, yoghurts, muesli, muffins, doughnuts, white rolls, whole meal rolls, waffles (made fresh in a waffle pan), cream, juice, cucumber, tomatoes, rocket lettuce, chocolate milk (in jugs), coffee, tea, apple juice, orange juice and so on. Because that is just some of the food and drink on offer. And jolly good it was too.

Once inside the Rijksmuseum there is a huge poster which says ‘Oorloog 80 Jahr’ and I go in through that door. ‘Is this the place to start?’ I ask one of the attendants. Yes, she replies. Which is a factually correct answer. But all answers really depend on the nature of the question. After about an hour and a half of the early and middle medieval period I am beginning to wonder at the curation of an exhibition on the Eighty Years War which starts by outlining the emergence and domination of Christendom, the use of allegory and myth in religious paintings, the startling introduction of the art of portraiture by artists such as Hans Memling and the influence of the Italian Renaissance on many things, far too many to outline here. I really need to move along a bit faster if I am going to get as far as 1648 by closing time which is still many hours away. To get a better idea of how the centuries might unfold in the rest of the exhibition I decide to have a quick look through some of the other galleries and discover I am in the wrong place. So yes, in some ways it was the right place to start. But not for an exhibition on the Eighty Years War.

As capitalism emerged from feudalism it was not clear to several generations of the participants as to what was actually happening. We see the end product, not the gradual development of capital, the accumulation of capital, the development of science and technology and changes in productive process including their industrialisation. There was a combination of contradictions and tensions, multiple grievances, a myriad of competing and complimentary interests, real wishes and needs and strange subconscious and unconscious dreams and desires. Everything was in the mix; sex, technology, manners, fashions, production, religion, ways of being, the arts of living. The class antagonisms and religious differences clashed in different ways. There are never just two options of historical development, there are always multiple possibilities for the shape of time.

The Spanish authorities which occupied the Low Countries (which included what are now the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of France) were more feudal, more Catholic, more imperial than the regions they dominated by their military, physical and clerical power. Therefore the development of capitalism in the Low Countries was not just an internal conflict between an emerging bourgeoisie and the existing feudal organisation of production and social relations within the region. It was also a clash between the emerging bourgeoisie in the Low Countries and the feudal authorities in Spain, both secular and Catholic. Because some of the feudal power was expressed by Spain, an external power, the development of capitalism (and the bourgeoisie) in the Low Countries was also a war of liberation, which was expressed in the development of a ‘national’ identity. However, the cities of Antwerp, Amsterdam, Brugges and many others were trading cities. The outlook therefore, had to include an understanding of, and theory towards, the movement of goods and people, trading and finance. Thus there had to be a sense of internationalism.

Some elements of the existing ruling class changed and adapted, and other elements did not. A new ruling class was formed, from the artisans and merchants, the ships captains, from within the guilds, from the existing aristocracy, from the burghers and officials of the towns. They became the bourgeoisie, the first capitalist class. This was never going to be straightforward. How could it be? And this all happened within conditions of intense and brutal warfare which flared up, destroyed, was dampened down and then blow up again. It was only at the beginning of the 1600s that Amsterdam and other towns within the Dutch Republic could grow in conditions of relative peace. But even that took two decades from the ‘Alteration’ of 1578. And in the process Antwerp was ruined for many years.

While I was stood in front of Peasant Wedding by Jan Bruegel the Younger, the woman standing next to me turned and asked me something in Dutch. ‘Sprek u Engels?” I inquired.

‘What do you see there?’ she asked.

We stood beside each other in silence.

‘No one looks happy. It is supposed to be a wedding. Look at the woman with tray of food. Look at the guests who seem to catch our eye. The king and queen have arrived, but it looks as if they are unwanted guests and they need the protection of the soldiers in the background’.

‘The people do not look poor’, she adds. ‘They look as if they are well off. Remember, they are supposed to be peasants. Those people look as if they are the poor – the ones standing under the trees’.

I promise her that if I ever visit Hoorn I will contact her. And she promises that she will show me the museum there, ‘which is right next door to my house’.

Amsterdam presents itself as a very cool city. I sit in the freezing cold outside a coffee shop and draw the building opposite. It is a popular street corner. Groups of people, couples, families, all gather there and I draw round them and through them. The coffee is just about finished, the rough sketch is just about done but there is a girl standing in the one gap left. She notices me and realises what’s going on. She smiles and stands back a pace. The window of the shop is revealed. It has two globes on display. Now the sketch can be completed.

I return early on Sunday morning, it’s a chance that the museum will be relatively quiet, which it is. This provides a chance to get lost within the world of Vermeer and Rembrandt and Frans Hals and many others.

It is time to leave, back out again into the winter sun and cold of Amsterdam. Walk across the bridges of the Prinsen Gracht, Keizers Gracht, Heren Gracht and Singel and then up towards Amsterdam Centraal Station. I fall asleep between Rotterdam and Antwerp. From Lille onwards the sunset is accompanied by a large full moon. Somewhere over there, St Omer, the village of Ardres and to the north, by the coast, Gravelines. I need to cycle there again, but the weather must be warmer. The canals and dykes and watery fields are beginning to freeze. The winter feels as if it is only just beginning.