Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age

Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age

Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age

Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age


In the 1630s the Netherlands was gripped by tulipmania: a speculative fever unprecedented in scale and, as popular history would have it, folly. We all know the outline of the story- how otherwise sensible merchants, nobles, and artisans spent all they had (and much that they didn't) on tulip bulbs. We have heard how these bulbs changed hands hundreds of times in a single day, and how some bulbs, sold and resold for thousands of guilders, never even existed. Tulipmania is seen as an example of the gullibility of crowds and the dangers of financial speculation. But it wasn't like that. As Anne Goldgar reveals inTulipmania, not one of these stories is true. Making use of extensive archival research, she lays waste to the legends, revealing that while the 1630s did see a speculative bubble in tulip prices, neither the height of the bubble nor its bursting were anywhere near as dramatic as we tend to think. By clearing away the accumulated myths, Goldgar is able to show us instead the far more interesting reality: the ways in which tulipmania reflected deep anxieties about the transformation of Dutch society in the Golden Age. "Goldgar tells us at the start of her excellent debunking book: 'Most of what we have heard of [tulipmania] is not true.'... She tells a new story."- Simon Kuper,Financial Times


Sometime in the late 1630s or early 1640s— we don't know exactly when—the Haarlem market gardener Pieter Ja Cobsz was talking to his brother-in-law, Abraham Louwesz. They were talking about weighty matters, matters of great import. They were talking about t ulips. Louwesz recalled the conversation in 1645.

“Before the death of my brother-in-law Pieter Jacobsz,” Louwesz said, “I was at his house, and he let me see a little bulb and put it in my hand, and he said to me, that is a Gouda. Upon which I said to my brother-in-law, then that must certainly have cost you a lot of money. Whereupon my brother-in-law said to me in answer, That is true, but it still isn't paid for.”

“That must have cost you” and “it still isn't paid for”: these, in essence, are the themes of tulipmania. Although Jacobsz was in an unusual position, having actually received a bulb for which he had not paid, it was the high prices, and the breaking of contracts, that characterized this famous yet puzzling event. Long after Pieter Jacobsz had promised to buy his Gouda bulb, the seller was still in pursuit of his money, chasing Louwesz now that Jacobsz was dead. He was far from alone.

In the mid-1630s, Holland famously went wild about tulips. Nowadays the flowers seem intertwined with Dutch life; windmills, clogs, cheese, and tulips define the Netherlands in a sort of generalized repertory of national stereotypes. the Dutch flower industry today is world-renowned, with a market share of 70 percent of the international production of flowers and 90 percent of the trade; and of these flowers tulips are by far the most im-

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