When did the Golden Age of the Netherlands begin? An article by Bas JP van Bavel and Jan Luiten van Zanden in the August 2004 edition of Economic History Review argue that the boom of the 17th century actually had medieval roots.

The Egg Dance by Pieter Aertsen

Holland in the early 14th century was nothing like what it was in the early modern period. It was rather underdeveloped, still quite agrarian, without any of the urban characteristics that it would later acquire, and less urban and developed than surrounding regions.

“In the thirteenth century Holland still had all the features of a newly reclaimed region with a strong agrarian character.”

The economic system which existed in the mid-sixteenth century, when the start of the boom is normally dated, evolved over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, an era normally characterized by various crises and epidemics.

“In all respects, the Holland economy thus appeared to have undergone fundamental growth and to have developed various modern traits before the sixteenth-century. Thus, in order to explain its rise and development, attention should shift to an earlier period and … to endogenous factors.”

In those two centuries, Holland urbanized and developed industries. Agrarian labor diversified its economic activities, taking on secondary labor in industrial production. And exports increased: bricks, beer and textiles throughout northern Europe, herrings to England, and cheese to Rhineland.

Development in Holland was disproportionate with trends in Europe. The urban population increased without significant migration either from the countryside or from afar. The countryside did not become depopulated even though the amount of arable land shrank. Moreover, the rural industries that developed required the highest production costs (not the natural entry point for industrialization).

The authors suggest a number of factors that made Holland exceptional. The feudal system was weak. Peasants had stronger claims on land, and the rate of ownership was higher than elsewhere in Europe. Although small holdings, fragmentation, and loss of arable land forced peasants to consider alternative sources of income, they were more likely to make the best of their situation and stayed put. Land drainage supported their activities by providing peat for fuel for brick production and support for fishing industries. The weak distinctions between rural and urban allowed rural industry (I am shying away from calling this proto-industry) to evolve without interference. Cities and their corporations had no interests in controlling rural production.

“As a result of the weakness of feudal elements in Holland, the emerging cities here did not acquire privileges, market force, or non-economic power over the countryside to an extent comparable to cities in other highly urbanized parts of Western Europe. This contributed to a relatively open institutional framework, both in production and in marketing, allowing for flexibility and rapid development.”

Much of their article deals with the trope of economic crisis, which they insist is doubtful but which colors all interpretations of Dutch history. I wonder whether or not it is possible to extend this criticism to other “late medieval crises”. If the economy was able to evolve creatively and dynamically, could the same have been true of medieval culture and society, in particular the courtly society that Huizinga describes as coming to an impasse?