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History of Holland > Dutch writers and scientists
Dutch writers and scientists
When the obscurity of the dark ages began to disappear with the revival of letters, Holland was not last among the countries of Europe in coming forth from the darkness. The cities of Flanders were early distinguished for the commercial activity and industrial skill of their inhabitants. Bruges reached the height of its splendor in the beginning of the 15th century, and was for some time one of the great commercial emporiums of the world, to which Constantinople, Genoa, and Venice sent their precious argosies laden with the products of the East.
At the close of the 13th century Ghent, in wealth and power, eclipsed the French metropolis; and at the end of the 15th century there was, according to Erasmus, no town in all Christendom to compare with it for magnitude, power, political institutions, or the culture of its citizens. The lays of the minstrels and the romances of chivalry were early translated, and a Dutch version of "Reynard the Fox" ("Reynaerd de Vos"), was made in the middle of the 13th century. Jakob Maerlant (1235-1300), the first author of note, translated the Bible into Flemish rhyme, and made many versions of the classics; and Melis Stoke, his contemporary, wrote a rhymed "Chronicle of Holland."
The most important work of the 14th century is the "New Doctrine," by De Weert, which, for the freedom of its expression on religious subjects, may be regarded as one of the precursors of the Reformation.
Towards the close of the 14th century there arose a class of wandering poets called Sprekers, who, at the courts of princes and elsewhere, rehearsed their maxims in prose or verse. In the 15th century they formed themselves into literary societies, known as "Chambers of Rhetoric" (poetry being at that time called the "Art of Rhetoric"), which were similar to the Guilds of the Meistersingers. These institutions were soon multiplied throughout the country, and the members exercised themselves in rhyming, or composed and performed mysteries and plays, which, at length, gave rise to the theatre. They engaged in poetical contests and distributed prizes.
The number of the rhetoricians was so immense, that during the reign of Philip II of Spain more than 30 chambers, composed of 1,500 members, often entered Antwerp in triumphal procession. But the effect of these associations, composed for the most part of illiterate men, was to destroy the purity of the language and to produce degeneracy in the literature. The Chamber of Amsterdam, however, was an honorable exception, and towards the close of the 16th century it counted among its members distinguished scholars, such as Spieghel, Coornhert, Marnix, and Visscher, and it may be considered as the school which formed Hooft and Vondel.
The invention of printing, the great event of the age, is claimed by the cities of Mayence, Strasbourg, and Harlem (Haarlem) in the Netherlands; but if the art which preserves literature originated in the Netherlands, it did not at once create a native literature, the growth of which was greatly retarded by the use of the Latin tongue, which long continued to be the organ of expression with the principal writers of the country, nearly all of whom, even to the present day, are distinguished for the purity and elegance with which they compose in this language.
The Reformation and the great political agitations of the 16th century ended in the independence of the northern provinces and the establishment of the Dutch Republic (1581) under the name of the United Provinces, commonly called Holland, from the province of that name, which was superior to the others in extent, population, and influence. The new republic rose rapidly in power; and while intolerance and religious disputes distracted other European states, it offered a safe asylum to the persecuted of all sects. The expanding energies of the people soon sought a field beyond the narrow boundaries of the country; their ships visited every sea, and they monopolized the richest commerce of the world.
They alone supplied Europe with the productions of the Spice Islands, and the gold, pearls, and jewels of the East all passed through their hands; and in the middle of the 17th century the United Provinces were the first commercial and the first maritime power in the world. A rapid development of the literature was the natural consequence of this increasing national development, which was still more powerfully promoted by the great and wise William I, "William the Silent", Prince of Orange, (1533-1584), who in 1575 founded the university of Leyden (Leiden) as a reward to that city for its valiant defense against the Spaniards. Similar institutions were soon established at Groningen, Utrecht, and elsewhere; these various seats of learning produced a rivalry highly advantageous to the diffusion of knowledge, and great men arose in all branches of science and literature.