Tuesday, March 23, 2004

On Dutch Courage

"The Dutch reputation for hard drinking went bak to at least the early sixteenth century, when Lodovico Giucciardini noted it as 'Abnormal.'" One of the marvelous books I've read lately was Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches. It provides a lengthly look at Dutch culture in the 17th century. Since Moriah had asked about the origin of "Dutch Courage", I figured I'd share a little. One of the tensions of the culture in that time was between the official church preaching on moderation and, in the case of alcohol, abstinence, and the prevalence of overindulgence in food, alcohol and tobacco on the part of the population generally.

For example, in 1613 there were around 518 alehouses in Amsterdam, one for every 200 people. All these references, BTW, are from the book, pages 189-220. The named phrase itself was apparently common throughout Europe as a description of how the Dutch strengthened their spirits in the navy, though rendering themselves "riotous, brawling and incontinent on land. At Oxford in 1675 it was reported with barely disguised disdain that the great admiral (Cornelis) Tromp, the scourge of the ocean and terror of the taverns, had succumbed so completely to Oxford porter that he had to be trundled back to his lodgings in a wheelbarrow." (p 190)

A great little quote on smoking pipes, apparently popular at the time: " . . . A Hollander without a pipe is a national impossibility, akin to a town without a house, a stage without actors, a spring without flowers. If a Hollander should be bereft of his pipe of tobacco he could not blissfully enter heaven." (p 198)

Most commercial deals at the time were apparently being negotiated in taverns and sealed with a tankard of ale. Toasts were important social rites. Painter Jan Steen showed the celebration of Prince William III with a toast written in the foregroud

"To the health of Nassau's little boss
In the one hand the sword, in the other the glass"
[it rhymes in Dutch]

Much more of this, and many other things (Drowning cells!) can be found in the book, as can plenty of pictures. Check it out sometime.

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