The Embarrassment of Riches

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The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age
The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama book.jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorSimon Schama
Illustrator314 period illustrations from various archives
Cover artistJan Steen
CountryUnited States
SubjectThe Dutch Golden Age
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover)

The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age is a book by the historian Simon Schama. It was published in 1987, five years after the bicentenary of the Dutch recognition of the young United States. The book sold quite well and led to an immediate second printing only a few months after its release. It was initially well received and did so well, it was translated into Dutch (Dutch title: Overvloed en Onbehagen:De Nederlandse cultuur in de Gouden Eeuw) and published there in 1988, where it was also well received. The book is credited today with giving new insights into the Dutch poldermodel system of governance.


In his attempt to make a systematic overview of the Dutch Golden Age culture, Schama cites an eclectic list of period source materials from all over the world, including emblem books, period histories and novels, cookbooks, scientific discoveries, bankruptcy files, religious works, and period art including prints, paintings, sculpture, architecture and stained glass windows. He revisits Dutch Golden Age morals, from how they brought up their children, to how they mourned their dead. His conclusion is that through the continuous battle against the waters of the North Sea, the Dutch spirit can be summed up in the motto of Zeeland, scene of many floods from dike breaches, Luctor et Emergo, or I struggle and emerge. The book is easy to read and is more a group of separate essays than a cohesive unit, making it a good candidate for reading in short installments or as a quick reference for various aspects of the subject.

Historiographic background[edit]

The history of the Netherlands has long been colored by local histories financed by various institutions and leading families through the ages. There are several discrepancies to be found in period accounts between the various city archives and the archives of other institutions such as Water Boards or the Catholic church. Many archives have been sadly neglected or worse, destroyed by war or as in the case of the Catholic Church, the beeldenstorm. Authors through the centuries have often used materials from predecessors without questioning the original sources, leading to many conflicting statements.


Historians in the US and in the Netherlands agreed the book was erudite and offered many fresh insights due to its 360-degree approach to the whole period of the Dutch Golden Age, which Schama defines as being from 1570-1670. A small chain of criticisms did pop up about some of the book's statements, especially those having to do with the politics of the Thirty Years' War, or the economics of the period, but many (especially in the Netherlands) were inspired by his book, including professors of history who wondered like Schama why the Dutch seem so embarrassed about their wealthy past. Herman Pleij, a Dutch professor of Middle Dutch literature was inspired to write a whole book in response, called The Dutch Embarrassment.[1] Susan Buck-Morss criticizes Schama for his "selective national history" of the Dutch Republic, "that omits much or all of the colonizing story."[2] "One would have no idea that Dutch hegemony in the slave trade (replacing Spain and Portugal as major players) contributed substantially to the enormous "overload" of wealth that he describes as becoming so socially and morally problematic during the century of Dutch "centrality" to the "commerce of the world.""[3]


Many in the Netherlands were quick to draw the parallel between the relative luxury of the 17th century that Schama admired, to the Dutch welfare state at the close of the 20th century. As the Netherlands disappears into a European melting pot, and in light of the current financial crisis, more attention is being paid to a Canon of Dutch history, and Schama's book has offered new ways of describing the Golden Age period. In many ways, Schama's book today is seen as the first of a series of new historical publications on the Dutch Golden Age.[original research?]


  1. ^ Pleij, Herman: Het Nederlandse Onbehagen, Prometheus, 1991, ISBN 90-5333-068-2, 186 pages
  2. ^ Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Summer, 2000), pp. 821-865.
  3. ^ Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Summer, 2000), pp. 821-865.

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