7.3

Gable stone showing the sale of ribbon (Amsterdam)

Gable stone showing the sale of ribbon (Amsterdam)

Amsterdam is sometimes called the ‘Venice of the North’. But actually, in that poetic image, chalk is compared with cheese. Of course they were both powerful trading towns, just like Florence, Genoa, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. But Amsterdam was different. A new type of economic structuring originated there: capitalism. In this system the price of goods and services is, generally speaking, determined by the interaction between supply and demand (and not by tradition, as had been the case in earlier commercial centers). Venice and the other towns represent an earlier stage in the economic evolution, differing from Amsterdam in the same way that the guild brothers differed from the capitalists or handicrafts differed from industry. There were two causes for this difference: firstly, the town on the Amstel was Calvinist and secondly, it controlled a greater part of the market than its predecessors.

Around 1580, the economy of Amsterdam crossed a critical demarcation line where quantitative growth swung around into qualitative improvement. It was the beginning of Holland’s Golden Age, which was to peter out after 1690. In the numerous warehouses there were such huge amounts of goods stored that for the first time ever, price stability could exist. This meant that wage earners were able to enjoy a greater degree of security in their lives than was the case elsewhere, which, in turn, increased demand for goods and services. In fact, demand was so great that only entrepreneurs with business interests in all regions of the Netherlands could meet it. For example, wool was no longer processed in the countryside of Holland but in Brabant and Drente, the low-wage countries of that time. The guilds offered no opportunity for this kind of business venture and, besides, in capitalist Amsterdam, the guilds only played a very modest role.

The Amsterdam town hall

The Amsterdam town hall

Unlike rich Catholics, Calvinists did not flaunt their wealth with beautiful buildings. In the Golden Age, Amsterdam only built one imposing building, the city hall on the Dam, which is now a royal palace. In the same period Rome, which was a little smaller in size, saw the construction of dozens of prestigious buildings. The mansions on the canals in Amsterdam were certainly not humble abodes, but compared to the homes of the European elite, a wealthy Amsterdam resident had only a simple home. Foreigners frequently mentioned this sobriety. The English ambassador, Sir William Temple, reported that not even the most powerful administrators, magistrates and officials invested their money in jewels, lackeys and expensive houses. They made their money productive again by buying shares with it, investing it in their own companies or spending it on municipal building projects. Amsterdam was a capitalist town, but this was still a Calvinistic form of capitalism. As a consequence, workers did not demand very high wages, nor did employers enrich themselves unduly. Of course they made a profit, but that was, at least in theory, not for their own material gain. By working, everyone showed respect for God.

Gable stone showing a peat cutter (Amsterdam)

Gable stone showing a peat cutter (Amsterdam)

And this is where Dutch entrepreneurs differed from the merchants and officials in neighboring countries. The Dutch employers and employees attended the same church, where, as we have already seen, there was quite a democratic mentality. Both parties were convinced that they were equal in the eyes of the Almighty. Christ had said that the last shall be first, and therefore in an ideal situation it was possible that, as an elder of the Church, a poor employee could have a more responsible position than his rich employer. And this was not infrequently the case in practice: a superior in the Netherlands was usually prepared to listen to the opinion of his subordinate who, for his part, was very likely to offer it, even if unasked.

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