A much read and influential text about the Netherlands and their inhabitants was ‘A brief character of the Low Countries’ by Owen Felltham (c 1604-1668). Little is known of the author himself; Felltham was chiefly known for his short edifying essays published under the title ‘Resolves: divine, moral, political’. He worked as a steward for Barnabas O'Brien, sixth earl of Thurmond, on the latter’s estate Great Billing, north of London.
‘A brief character’ was probably written in 1623 after a journey the author made to the Netherlands as a young man. There were already numerous handwritten versions of the booklet in circulation before it was first published in 1648 in an unauthorized and abridged form by the rather unscrupulous printer William Ley. In 1652, the printer Henry Seile brought out the full, authorized text; in the foreword Seile lashed out at his predecessor, whom he accused of having reduced the booklet to ‘minced meat’. Seile’s edition appeared at a good moment. Anti-Dutch books were in great demand as the First Anglo-Dutch War had broken out.
No fewer than eighteen impressions were published up to1709, after which the booklet sank into oblivion. The first translation into Dutch appeared in 1653, anonymously, under the title Engelsche Printe, waarin alle de Nederlanders, voorneementlijck Hollandt, naacktelijck (quansuys) werden ontleedet (English publication in which all Dutch people, principally the inhabitants of Holland, were stripped [as it were] to the nude). The translator, the printer and the place it was published are unknown. Felltham’s booklet is not a genuine travel diary. He does not say anything about his itinerary and the places he visited and does not mention any specific details of his journey. It is not a travel report, but a satirical character sketch of the Dutch, interlarded with some pieces of historical information, in particular about the Eighty Years’ War. The text is less based on personal observations than on literary sources: other travel reports, such as the popular Beschrijvinghe van alle de Nederlanden (Description of all the Netherlands) by Lodovico Guicciardini, but also writings dealing with history and politics.
Felltham greatly influenced the image the English had of the Dutch in the seventeenth century, partly because many later authors themselves used data from his book. In the context of the many conflicts between England and the Netherlands during that period, these authors often selected those aspects from ‘A brief character’ that enabled them to draw the blackest possible portrait of the Dutch. Other authors borrowed exclusively the passages emphasizing the positive traits of the Dutch, as in ‘A late voyage to Holland, with brief relations of the transactions at the Hague, also remarks on the manners and customs, nature, and comical humours of the people’, that describes the journey William III made to The Hague in 1691, after his victory over the army of James II.
Felltham calls Holland “a swampy moor, een algemeene stinkende of grondeloose kuyl (a common stinking or bottomless hole)” and elsewhere “een groene kaas, rondom in de pekel (a green cheese, pickled all round)”. According to him, “Holland consists half of water and half of mud”. He claims “an advantage of the country lying so low, is that the Dutch are already conveniently close to hell when they die”, adding that this was probably why people professing all sorts of unorthodox religions went to the Netherlands: it brought them a bit nearer to their eventual destination: hell.
Felltham’s booklet includes two parts: the first one deals with the undesirable traits of the Dutch, the second with their virtues. This division is not always well-defined and the emphasis is on the negative aspects. The many bad characteristics outnumber the couple of good qualities they have as well. “The Dutch are thick-headed and coarse and their level of civilization is low. In their view, money and their liberty are the most important things and they misuse both as soon as they have them. They do not give a damn about laws. They are unable to eat or drink moderately. They are gluttons and drunkards (but the English are even worse), inclined towards exaggerated showing off, conceited and quick to take offence”.
1623 was the year of the Ambon murder, when English merchants suspected of conspiring against Dutch rule on the island, had been tortured and executed by the Dutch. From that time on, cruelty was an important part of the stereotype image the English had of the Dutch. Felltham, who had probably written his report before the news of the Ambon murder reached the West, cites another example of Dutch cruelty, one taken from the Eighty Years’ War. After the Dutch had seized the Leiden sconce, there was a soldier who ripped open a Spanish captain, took out the heart that was still beating to set his teeth in it and tear it in small pieces, which he then spat at the soldiers. As a matter of fact, Felltham’s Dutch translator made a note in the margin that righteous Dutch people loathed this action as well.
Felltham, himself a devout Anglican, thought the freedom of religion to be excessive in the Netherlands. In his opinion, “This is motivated by indifference. Pretty much every religion may be practised without let or hindrance. Democracy too is something they exaggerate; rules and respect for authority are lacking. The maid behaves on a footing of equality with the master and mistress of the house, and a teacher cannot exercise his authority over his pupils by giving them a well aimed cuff, because if he does, the boy’s father is immediately there to teach the teacher a lesson”.
“The main virtues of the Dutch are their frugality and their assiduity at work and also their aptitude in conducting war. This is what enabled them to become such an important trading nation and military power”. Felltham is also positive about their intellectual achievements, the universities and also the care they took of the poor and needy. He sees some of their virtues as vices: for instance, “Their cleanliness and tidiness is at the cost of more important matters. They keep their house cleaner than their body, their body cleaner than their soul.” according to Felltham.
At the end of his booklet, Felltham himself remarks that when put together, the Dutch virtues and vices make up a rather contradictory picture. “Look at yourself”, says Felltham. “In every individual, menigherley humeuren (many different temperaments) fight to gain precedence. And there is no beast more dreadful than man on earth”.
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