The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age

by Simon Schama

Hardcover, 1987



Knopf (1987), Edition: 1st, 698 pages


Schama explores the mysterious contradictions of the Dutch nation that invented itself from the ground up, attained an unprecedented level of affluence, and lived in constant dread of being corrupted by happiness. Drawing on a vast array of period documents and sumptuously reproduced art, Schama re-creates in precise detail a nation's mental state. He tells of bloody uprisings and beached whales, of the cult of hygiene and the plague of tobacco, of thrifty housewives and profligate tulip-speculators. He tells us how the Dutch celebrated themselves and how they were slandered by their enemies. -- Publisher description.

Media reviews

Simon Schama’s book is unusually difficult to review, for it is a frustrating mixture of the very good and the surprisingly bad.
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In ''The Embarrassment of Riches'' Simon Schama has not set out to rewrite Motley's ''Rise of the Dutch Republic''; it is rather Johan Huizinga's sketch of ''Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century'' he has sought to comprehend and expand. Yet his erudite and engrossing study far transcends
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the interests of only Dutch, or art, historians. It is a fascinating panorama as busily animated and skillfully composed as scenes by Hendrick Avercamp or Jan Steen (whose ''Fat Kitchen'' and ''Thin Kitchen,'' along with scores of other pictures in the book by many artists, speak to Mr. Schama's argument).
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This monumental book has one monumental shortcoming. Not unlike the golden Dutch that Schama so eloquently describes, it tends to undo by overdoing. Nevertheless ...

User reviews

LibraryThing member AsYouKnow_Bob
A masterful (and massive) cultural overview of Golden-Age Holland. Schama presupposes a degree of familiarity with the military and cultural history of the age.
LibraryThing member hugh_ashton
A period in history that English-speakers know little about. Schama does an excellent job of explaining the psychology of the Netherlands at that time, often using contemporary graphic art as the key to unlock the minds of the Dutch.
LibraryThing member Othemts
I've read two previous works by Simon Schama and enjoyed his approach to microhistory, where he takes a few incidents or objects and from them draws a bigger story of an historical place or time. This book about the Dutch Golden Age almost seems the opposite approach as Schama collects lots and
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lots of little things - art, books, material culture - and attempts to recreate the era bit by bit. I found the book slow going and eventually gave up reading. This shouldn't be considered a negative review as I'm certain that this book would prove valuable to someone with an academic interest in 17th Century Netherlands. In my case, I brought it along as airplane reading for my trip to Amsterdam and found it to be much to much for my purpose.
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LibraryThing member mattries37315
I knew Schama from his A History of Britain series via BBC/History and I have been interested about the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, so that's what brought me to this book. My usual history reading were usually biographies or general histories, so a book dealing with cultural attitudes was
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something new for me. Overall it was very informative and Schama gives ample examples with engravings and prints thus showing his thorough research. But during some sections, it was a grind to read so much so that I was barely making a dent in the book as time went on. I started this book at the beginning of March and instead of getting through by the end of the month, I still had a ways to go. After taking a break to read a fictional work, it took me only 8 days after picking this book up again to finish. But don't let my own troubles dissuade you from purchasing this book, the insight into Golden Age Dutch culture gives one a basis in viewing Dutch's political, diplomatic, and military decisions during Europe's early modern period.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
Schama covers in amazing detail the culture and history of the Netherlands during the peak of its Golden Age in the seventeenth century. He provides great insight on some of the origins of the traits we associate with the Dutch - strong business sense, open mindedness, high value for cleanliness
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and a great work ethic. Although reading this entire book (700 pages) is a bit of a grind, the book is filled with photos of art from the Dutch masters and his descriptions of how they depict the culture of the Netherlands was fantastic. I wish I had read this before vacationing in Amsterdam this summer. Definitely a thoroughly researched and fascinating look at the Dutch Golden Age.
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LibraryThing member robeik
This is a BIG book. Strap yourself in for a word and picture journey through the Netherlands of the 15th and 16th century. This is no history book; you are supposed to be somewhat familiar with it. An understanding of the Dutch language also helps. However, there is lots to learn about Dutch life
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in that period: family, marriage, children, relations between church and state, eating, housing, relationship between the 'classes' etc. One prominent topic is how the Dutch handled the tension between wealth creation and a Christian (indeed Reformed) attitude to money and charity.
A couple of comments:
- The pictures in my edition were in black and white, and do the details he described in the text were not often to be seen.
- He really flogs a topic to death - shorter is better?
- Knowing the Dutch language helped me (see above)
- There is a fair bit of focus on Amsterdam, and to a lesser degree Leiden and den Haag; the author does acknowledge this.
Anyway, read it and learn a bit about life in Europe and about words.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

698 p.; 7 inches


0394510755 / 9780394510750
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