15TH AND 16TH CENTURY The dynamic landscape of Holland, the storms and floods that created new water expanses, the first rapid land subsidence, it all had somewhat stabilized now. Out of necessity, farming had switched to large scale dairy production. With cheese proving to be a perfect non-perishable export article. Towns were steadily growing. By 1500 more than half the population of Holland lived in towns, the highest degree of urbanization in Europe. Holland and its merchant navy was slowly becoming an important factor on the seas. With Amsterdam as main trade centre.
But Holland was by far not yet the most powerful part of the Netherlands. The real big towns were still to be found in the South : Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges. Anyway, the Netherlands did not exist yet as a nation. It was a loose collection of independent states. Each with specific traditions and diverging interests.
Evolution towards unification was very slow. It's only in 1548 that all parts were formally joined in the 17 United Netherlands.
Although there was certainly nothing more than a vague notion of belonging to one country. Prime loyalty still was with the own village or city, and region.
History of the Netherlands - map united 17 provinces of the netherlands For example, during the 15th century Holland and the eastern northern Netherlands were in a very different economical situation. The east had long established trade relations within the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant towns in the Baltic and North Sea coastal areas. Old and proud Dutch cities like Kampen, Deventer and Zutphen were prominent members of the club, and so were Bruges and Antwerp in the southern Netherlands.
They all protected jealously their own privileges, and were not too interested in sharing with those newcomers in Holland. So, Holland, with merging powers like Amsterdam, went largely its own way. Although Amsterdam did eventually join the Hansa, it tried, if possible, to make direct deals in the Hanseatic sphere of influence. Resulting in armed conflict with her Hansa "partners", naturally.
An alert and aggressive new player in the field, that's what Holland was. With success.
The Hanseatic League had dominated since the 13th century, but was now in decline. Holland, and Amsterdam, more than eager to take over. Gradually, Amsterdam was on its way to become the main port of transfer between north-eastern Europe, and the south. The staple market for grain from the Baltic to feed a large part of Europe, and timber from Scandinavia. For Amsterdam, this route of commerce would remain vitally important throughout the centuries. With good reason, it was called "the mother trade". Over the centuries, far more money was made with this trade than in later years with the exotic voyages to the East and West Indies. Less spectacular, sure. But a reliable solid base for business. History of Holland - 17th century militia painting Above : Dirck Jacobsz. (1529) - Below : Cornelis Ketel (1588) - click on image for a high quality view of the paintings on the Rijksmuseum website. Two militia group portraits, about 50 years apart. In both cases prosperous self-assured Amsterdam citizens. But what a difference in appearance and flair ! And what happened with northern restraint and austerity ? Although, somehow if feels like they were not yet fully comfortable in their new surroundings.
When you look at comparable settings of the next century, the "Golden Dutch Century", it is clear that by then they were beyond feigned modesty. (click here for example). History of Holland - 17th century militia painting From early in the 16th century, protest against, and calls for reformation of the almighty Catholic church had been swelling. In Europe, the Netherlands were one of the most populated and urbanized parts, with for the time an exceptionally high degree of literacy. Explaining widespread unrest. Especially in the industrial centers of Flanders, and the big cities in the south.
This to the dismay of the very Catholic emperor of the Habsburg empire. His realm including the Netherlands, and Spain with her worldwide possessions. The situation remained more or less stable under emperor Charles V. He had some credit here, was born in Gent, grew up in Mechlin, spoke the languages.
But when his son, Philip II, decided to move permanently from Brussels to Spain, and rule from there, the gap widened. Making it even harder to carry out a sustained policy of centralization, and if one looks at it objectively, of rational modernization.
Poor communications over this long distance did not help either. In the 1560s a combination of crop failure and famine, recession and political blunders sparked off open revolt against Spanish rule. The start of the Eighty Years' War (1568 - 1648), the cradle of the (Northern) Netherlands as a brand new state. History of the Netherlands - crucial moments The Eighty Years' War had far-reaching consequences for both North and South.
Just a few figures to illustrate the impact on the population. Inhabitants Dutch cities : Mid 1560s > Around 1600 :
North :
Amsterdam : 30.000 > 65.000*
Delft : 15.000 > 20.000
Haarlem : 15.000 > 30.000
Leiden : 14.000 > 25.000 South :
Antwerp : 145.000 > 47.000
Brussels : 50.000 > 45.000
Ghent : 60.000 > 45.000
Lille : 60.000 > 33.000 * by 1650, the Amsterdam population had boomed to 140.000 inhabitants, by 1700 to 200.000.
In the first dramatic stages of that long war of independence, the fate of the free Netherlands hung by a thread. Even those small patches of liberated territory in Holland and Zeeland were under constant attack by Spanish troops. Basically, it were desperate common people using mostly guerilla tactics against the best professional soldiers of Europe. Making the fighting extremely gruesome. Another element that shocked the foreign troops : women in several threatened cities decided that they had enough of being passive victims of the invading armies. They started to participate actively in the struggle.
Like during the siege of Haarlem, in 1572 - 73. Where one woman became famous, right up until today.
See on this website : Kenau, a woman who stood up to fight. to top of pageto top of page
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