Netherlands Literature – From the Origins to the 16th Century

In the Dutch area the centers of culture had initially developed in the southern regions, in Limburg, in Antwerp, in Flanders and in particular in Brabant, under the dukes of Burgundy. The first literary texts date back to the last decades of the 12th century, while in the Northern regions, despite the close linguistic and cultural ties with those of the South, literary production begins a little later. In the wake of the historical chronicles of J. van Maerlant and J. van Boendale, it appears at the beginning of the 14th century. the Rijmkroniek van Holland («Rhythm Chronicle of Holland», 1305) by M. Stoke, a rather extensive work which constitutes an important source for national history. The first part is dedicated to Count Floris V (1266-96), assassinated by the rebel nobility, a legendary figure who would have inspired various plays (PC Hooft, J. van den Vondel, W. Bilderdijk). At the service of the counts of Holland between 1383 and 1408, the true court artist was the storyteller W. van Hildegaersberch, author of farcical poems and tales, of a realistic and moralizing imprint, which offer a penetrating image of the events and of the customs of the time. Around the first decade of the 15th century. the figure of D. Potter emerges, a gentleman in the service of Giacomina of Bavaria and her successor Philip of Burgundy, whose main work, Der minnen loep (“The course of love”, 1412), is a didactic poem composed of about sixty rhyming stories on different types of lawful and illicit love. The religious spirit that in the South had found expression in lyricism and mystical speculation, in the North flowed, above all through the work of J. van Ruusbroec, into a form of devotion aimed mainly at the practice of Christian ideals that gave birth to the well-known religious movement like Modern devotio, of which the Latin operetta De imitatione Christi, attributed to Thomas of Kempis (14th-15th century) is the most famous writing. To remember are the very popular sermons of the Franciscan J. Brugman (15th century) and the two booklets of meditations, prayers and lyrics by the nun of Utrecht Sister Berta.

According to best-medical-schools, the phenomenon of Chamber of rhetoric, to whose development the affirmation of the city bourgeoisie and the easier diffusion of culture due to the invention of the press contributed considerably, initially manifested itself in the South, especially in Brabant and Flanders, but over the course of a few decades also widespread in the North: the oldest rhetoric chamber was founded in Middelburg in 1430, and the famous chambers of Amsterdam and Haarlem, De eglantier and De pellicaen, arose after 1500. Alongside the function performed by the rhetoric chambers, which stimulating the search for more complex literary forms and individual artistic expression prepared to some extent the road to the Renaissance, in the first half of the 16th century. two factors were decisive for the evolution of new existential, artistic and spiritual models: the affirmation of Humanism and the Reformation. ● From Italy, the ideas of Humanism were welcomed and propagated in Frs by Erasmo da Rotterdam, who between the positions of the Catholic Church and the new Protestant orientations of M. Luther, G. Calvino and H. Zwingli, was able to affirm a model of life inspired by conciliation and tolerance, the rejection of all Pharisees. Erasmus wrote in Latin, as well as many authors who were inspired by him: among these we remember Janus Secundus, with the collection of Basia lyrics, and Macropedius and Gnapheus, authors of plays. ● A great center of humanistic-Renaissance culture became Leiden, whose university was founded in 1575 and boasted European renowned professors and scholars such as Joseph Justus Scaliger and Justus Lipsius; the philosopher-philologist GJ Voss who, interpreting Aristotle’s Poetics, published an extensive treatment of the various literary genres according to the canons of classicism; and in particular the eminent classicist D. Heinsius, whose poetic work gave a decisive imprint on the neo-Latin literary production of the whole 17th century. However, Hensius did not write only in Latin: in Hymnus of Lofsanck van Bacchus (“Hymn or Praise to Bacchus”, 1614), Nederduytsche poemata (“Dutch poems”, 1616) and Lofsanck van Jesus Christus (“Praise to Jesus Christ”, 1616) wanted to use the national language, as had already done by J. van Hout (16th century), one of the first authors of Netherlands north to have received the Renaissance spirit by promoting a literature in the national language.

Among the first humanists was DV Coornhert (16th century), whose life and works were characterized by an Erasmian spirit of tolerance. The bearer of a new ethics and new aesthetic ideals, Coornhert also contributed to the re-evaluation of the national language, formulating it with great accuracy, fluidity and rigor in his prose, which was taken as a model for the entire following century. A need for purity of the language, also induced by the desire to contrast the Frenchizing fashion spread in literary circles as a result of the Burgundian domination, materialized in the first Dutch grammar, Twe-spraack van de Nederduytsche letterkunst (“Dialogue on Dutch grammar”, 1584) by HL Spiegel, which was published with a preface by Coornhert. The merchant-poet PR Visscher, whose house was a meeting place for artists and writers, also contributed to giving a character of its own to the Dutch language with the collection of epigrams Brabbeling (“Bagattelle”, 1614) and the small volume of emblems Sinnepoppen (1614), which in their realistic tone and popular flavor prelude the work of different authors such as C. Huygens, J. van den Vondel, GA Bredero, J. Cats and J. Luyken.

Netherlands Literature - From the Origins to the 16th Century