Our Lord in the Attic, Amsterdam

Our Lord in the Attic, Amsterdam

The rise of Calvinism was a result of the Dutch consultation culture and, conversely, Calvinist capitalism left its mark on the Dutch national character. But there were not only Calvinists living in the Republic. The ‘true Christian Reformed Religion’ had a privileged position, but there was still room for other religious orientations, and although Catholics were not allowed to preach in public – a rather elastic stipulation – they did not need to fear persecution. There was moderation on both sides: Dutch Catholics scrapped the definition of heresy from the catechism, very much to the Pope’s displeasure.

Because of this tolerance, it was possible in the nineteenth century for the Catholic architect Hendrick de Keyser to design no less than three Reformed churches in Amsterdam. That the poet Joost van den Vondel (1587- 1679) had Catholic leanings was an open secret. His best-known tragedy, Gijsbrecht, is as Roman Catholic as can be. Catholic folklore continued to exist: the Protestants who considered St. Nicholas’ annual visit as Roman lunacy, had to put up with quite some taunts. It is true that the ban on public preaching forced the Catholics to build secret churches, but everyone knew where these were located. An Italian visitor, who became irritated by the loud, out-of-tune hymn-singing by the Protestant congregation of the Old Church in Amsterdam, felt his humor improve when, continuing along the canal, he overheard the familiar polyphony from a nearby secret church with the charming name ‘Our Lord in the Attic’.

Jews, too, got a warmer welcome in Amsterdam than they were accustomed to. Among other things, they were not required to live in a ghetto. Their situation was not ideal, but they were definitely better off than anywhere else, and they identified with Holland. The fact that they translated the Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus, into Yiddish and called their place of residence Mokum, the ‘first city’, says a lot. However, it must be noted that Amsterdam’s hospitality was not altogether altruistic: it was common knowledge that Jewish merchants had all sorts of international contacts.

The Jewish leader Menasseh ben Israel; portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn.

The Jewish leader Menasseh ben Israel; portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn.

For the same reasons, other religious refugees found a home in Holland: Armenians and Calvinist merchants from Antwerp, for example, but also Lutheran craftsmen fleeing the violence of the Thirty Years’ War in the German Empire, and Huguenots escaping persecution in France. The Hollanders were quick to realize the economic benefits and invited these refugees to come, even conducting a veritable advertising campaign. Furthermore, they were not blind to the fact that refugees constituted a cheap source of labor.

Respect for the socially weak did not limit itself to religion and was not specific for the Golden Age either. An Italian cardinal, travelling through Holland in 1517 /1518, was astonished that women played an active role in small and medium-sized businesses, performing all the necessary tasks. That there was a relaxed relationship between men and women is also evident from the autobiography of the adventurer Giacomo Casanova, who paid a visit to Holland in 1758-1759 and was somewhat taken aback by the fact that young ladies in Amsterdam walked through the streets without a chaperone.

Descartes' House, Amsterdam

Descartes’ House, Amsterdam

It must be said, however, that this freedom did not mean that women were allowed to hold functions in the town administration. Nevertheless, they could sit on the administration of an orphanage, for example, which was inconceivable outside the Republic.

Intellectuals like the French philosophers Descartes and Voltaire published books in Holland that had been banned in their own country. These philosophers wondered why Hollanders had so little trouble tolerating people from different religions; why they did not put their wives in their proper place at the kitchen sink and why they did not suppress subversive ideas. Very quickly they came up with the answer: it had nothing to do with Christian charity and everything to do with commerce. A woman working in a shop generates money while if she stays at home she costs money.

To sum up: there was no place for religious qualms when it came to business. Tolerance in Holland, as foreigners observed, was actually a capitalist excess.

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