December 28, 2008

Holland: the Geographical Foundations of the Netherlands

When I was a kid, I used to make the mistake of calling the Netherlands, Holland. Its a mistake often made- though of course Holland is the largest province within the Netherlands. Its a mistake though, now I learn as (belatedly) I read Jonathan Israel's history of the Dutch Republic, that is excusable- not because the mistake is any less greivous but because historically Holland was the principle duchy which drove the unification of the Netherlands. What is more interesting when analysing the formation of the Netherlands is a simple question- why did the low countries split (effectively) in half in the sixteenth century. Why was it that Holland and its surrounding provinces went one way, whereas Flanders, Brabant and the south turned into what is now modern Belgium?

Israel's answer to this question is interesting- and it rests upon two principle observations about the geographical foundations of medieval politics- the first local, the second multinational. The first observation has to do with the local interior geography of the low countries. Faced with a map of the low countries, the natural boundary constituted by the Waal and Maas becomes instantly visible. This boundary of rivers was the boundary north of which the Flemish and Brabantian forces did not cross. In general both Flanders and Brabant were more concerned about maintaining thier southern border against France than about the natural frontier to the north- thus their influence permeated Artois to the south in a way that it never penetrated Utrecht to the north. With the exception of Zeeland- the Waal Maas line remained the line beyond which the state of Holland could expect to exert little influence and furthermore that they could expect little threat from. This was supported by the fact that according to Israel trade within the Netherlands ran East-West- up and down rivers towards the coast- rather than north south, along the coast, suggests an adequate reason why the southern states never projected their power northward, allowing Holland to develop its primacy in the Northern Netherlands. (It is important to note that even though Holland was conquered by the Burgundians and inherited by the Habsburgs- both kept the older geographical boundaries within the Netherlands as administrative units.)

The second geographical phenomenon that explains the rise of Holland within the north Netherlands is the great rise in irrigation in the late Middle Ages. As Professor Israel documents, the Dutch reclaimed vast tracts of land from the water as early as these centuries- and by doing so they extended the limits of their own land. This created new bases of power- favouring the maritime coastal states whose land increased- and also whose opportunities for trade increased. It is worth thinking at this point about the major challenge to Holland in the Northern Netherlands- which came not so much from the south as from the east. It was the Hansa cities of Northern Germany worried about the Baltic trade who attempted to fund opposition to Holland in the Northern Netherlands. And that bears testament to the second geographical process- which is the long range trade of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, whereby Holland found herself a potential entrepot in trade running down the Baltic Sea out into the North Sea and from there down the Rhine or further down the English Channel. That kind of trade helped fortify the Netherlands later on in history- but even in this early period it led to the German city states seeing Holland's primacy over the Northern Netherlands as a potential competitor to be disuaded.

Professor Israel's work is a distillation of the research work of others- how could it not be covering so many centuries and he is not an expert in the medieval period. But I find his insights into the geographical foundations of the Dutch story interesting and persuasive- it may not be that the details of this are precisely right- but that the story of the Netherlands involves two central facts- the East West boundary of the rivers and the importance of trade from the Baltic seems to me to be undeniable.


goodbanker said...

Does Israel say anything about the importance of financial innovation in the early modern development of the Netherlands? Perhaps this is an extension of the point about being at the cross-roads of key trade routes. Yet this factor applied to (relatively nearby) Antwerp and Hamburg, as it did to Amsterdam. Yet there was something different about Amsterdam: the Wisselbank, as a genuinely solid exchange bank; the markets and exchanges that Ferguson has written about; the more sophisticated management of risk and development of insurance products - for the most part, around this time, the Dutch seem to have been ahead of the rest in financial innovation; and this in turn gave them the ability to punch above their weight (at least for a while). What lies behind this? Was it just coincidence??

Gracchi said...

I know this is a bad excuse but I'm not quite there in the book yet! Will perhaps write something when I get there :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, wrong again: The biggest province is Noord Brabant. This is is also the industrial base of the country.
Hollanders are really Kaaskoppen, Cheese-heads; they hardly ever learn from history or facts.

goodbanker said...

Given your prolific output (which James Hamilton has also recently alluded to), there's no question of you're "don't know" being a "bad excuse".

By the way, if Israel is moving from geographical foundations to social / economic factors, does that put him in the Braudel school of history?

Gracchi said...

Anonymous- that may be true today, I'm discussing the 15th and 16th centuries and geography is not the same as population or wealth.

Goodbanker possibly- its an interesting one- I suspect that Braudel's influence rather than 'school' is in Israel's mind here. The insight that geography has something to do with history is something that I think later historians have picked up on- without neccessarily adopting the full agenda.

Anonymous said...

Gracchi, thanks for the reply, it clarifies your statement some. However: If you want "bigger" to refer to wealth, there is a host of better words in the Englisg language. How about "wealthiest"?
As for population, wrong again. Brabant,independent and under Bourgogne, is the old heartland of the modern Netherlands and has always been the most populated. Note that now I speak of Brabant as a whole, including Leuven, Brussel etc., not of modern Noord Brabant and (Belgian) Brabant. When discussing Dutch history, the difference between then and now is vital, of course.
So let's try to settle on another term, since in those days there was no Netherlands as a state. The states in question were Spain, France, The Republic Of The Seven Provinces, of which indeed Holland was the most influential. But do not underestimate the wealth and power of Middelburg and Vlissingen in Zeeland; New Zealand is not for nothing called that and not New Holland.
Most of Brabant was a colony of said Republic and those colonial times are still felt as grievous here, as they are so felt in most old colonies from the Hollanders. Religious repression from the North, as we simply call it, was dreadful and economic exploitation of Brabant and the other colonies sheer robbery.
These are direct factors contributng to if not simply making the "size", read: wealth and power, of Holland.
This is why I find it unseemly to just mention Holland as "the biggest'. without further ado.
--Greetings from on anonymous Brabander.

Gracchi said...

I think two things are going on here- firstly I'm referring to the Netherlands beyond the Maas and the Waal- ie Israel's division in his study.

Secondly lets look at some figures- in the Northern Netherlands: here for example are towns with a population over 10,000 in the Northern Netherlands, figure for Holland in brackets

1375 2 (0)
1475 9 (4)
1500 10 (5)
1550 11 (6)
1600 19 (12)
1650 19 (12)
1700 20 (12)

Between 1540 and 1548 the three largest provinces were Flanders, Brabant and Holland in terms of tax contributions, Flanders contributed 33.8% of the tax receipts, Brabant 28.76% and Holland 12.69%. The next highest contributor was Artois who contributed 5.65%.

In terms of population and these are figures for 1477- again we have Flanders with 660000, Brabant 413000 and Holland 275000 with the next provinces Artois, Hainault and Liege all hovering in the 120-140000 mark.

I'm not disputing that Brabant and Flanders were bigger- but according to my figures north of the Waal and the Maas I would maintain that Holland was the biggest province.

I'm really discussing the earlier era though before say the Republic even existed- when you saw the consolidation of the Northern Netherlands into a possession of the Burgundian and Hapsburg crown- that excludes the southern Netherlands by definition. The argument is that north of the Waal, Maas boundary- Holland exerted a pull on all the states- Gederland, Utrecht, Drenthe, Friesland, Groningen- for example before the Burgundian conquest political factions in Utrecht were using names (Hoek and Cabeljauwen) derived from political conflicts in Holland. Holland operated pretty independently in the north- fighting with its own resources a war against Lubeck in the mid fifteenth century and the north had separate demands in the revolt of the late 15th Century.

I'm not disagreeing with you that Brabant and Flanders were bigger than Holland within the wider Netherlands- the argument though is that early on you have a division in the Netherlands between the North and South. With North of the Waal-Maas line Holland dominating- and having separate interests to those of rulers south of that line. That situation persisting under both Burgundian and Hapsburg rulers and being an interesting dynamic at play in the revolt of the 16th Century.

I do not mean to disavow either any suffering in the Southern Netherlands at all- or anywhere else- this was a limited post, I can't cover everything (the blogger's protest!)

Gracchi said...

Ooops I also should have said Anonymous- thanks for your follow up comment and for reminding me about that darker side of the Republic's history! I shall definitely follow it up.

Rumbold said...


I would also recommend Pieter Geyl's 'Orange and Stuart, 1641-1672', if you haven't already read it.