An excerpt from
Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age
Sometime in the late 1630s or early 1640s—we don’t know exactly when—the Haarlem market gardener Pieter Jacobsz was talking to his brother-in-law, Abraham Louwesz. They were talking about weighty matters, matters of great import. They were talking about tulips. 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 important. But the association was anything but obvious in the seventeenth century. Tulips then were new to Holland, and they were rare. To us the ultimate in Dutch domesticity, in the 1630s this fragile and changeable bloom represented novelty, unpredictability, excitement—a splash of the exotic east, a collector’s item for the curious and the wealthy, rather than a simple and unpretentious flower in a jug on the kitchen table. “It may well bee said, he is not humane, that is not allured with this object,” wrote the English gardener John Parkinson in 1629 about flowers. The Dutch, if anything, were even more rapturous in their praise of tulips. The frontispiece of one album of flower watercolors from 1636, picturing a tulip garden, contains verses addressed to “O noble tulip sweet o highly prized flower”; the album itself lavishly portrays 125 different tulips with brilliant red and white, red and yellow, and purple and white stripes and flames.
What is rare and curious is also expensive. Tulips, for a short time, were remarkably so. They had been collector’s items from their first entry into Europe in the mid-sixteenth century, and we hear of high prices some decades before the 1630s, but it was in the period starting around the summer of 1636 that prices for some bulbs rose to enormous heights. The stories have been passed down through the years: tulips the price of houses; tulips worth fortunes; tulips, briefly, the mad and improbable focus of existence for the Dutch. Tulips, we are told, were the center of life for the bloemisten, as those who grew and traded in tulips were sometimes known. One disdainful commentator wrote in January 1637 that among these people “no one speaks asks about or talks of anything but Flora, so that they have their heads so full of it, that they can neither think nor dream of anything else.” Because for most of the year the bulbs were in the ground, sales came to take the form of contracts for future payment and delivery. After the fact, these came to seem like empty promises, and the trade a windhandel, a business dealing in the empty wind. For almost inevitably—and the legends of tulipmania emphasize this inevitability—such a trade could not last. In early February 1637, the bottom fell out of the market. Buyers for the most part would not pay, and sellers were left holding the bulbs. An obvious folly—for who, subsequent accounts have stressed, would be so foolish as to pay a fortune for a tulip bulb?—came to its apparently deserved end.
Even as the tulip craze was in full swing, it incited amazement among contemporaries. William Crowne, passing through Europe in 1636 on a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor, took note of a variety of wonders for the benefit of the readers of his travel account. Among these were a Moravian baron of eighty-two whose seventy-five-year-old wife had twins, not to mention the bishop of Mainz who, “being much troubled with Mice,” built a tower to get away from them, “but even thither they pursued him also, and eate him up.” Tulipmania evidently fell into a similar category, a bizarre event worth reporting to a public hungry for prodigies. For Crowne, the comparable wonder to be noted about the small town of Vianen, south of Utrecht, was that “the rarest thinges in it, are Flowers, for there was a Tulip-roote sold lately for 340. pounds … .”
In the same way, Laurens van Zanten, author of a contemporary book of wonders, which divided world history into categories such as earthquakes, storms, fires, comets, plagues, wars, famines, enormous heat and cold, and incredible ways to die, felt tulipmania a prodigy equally worthy of mention. But the tulip craze was not only amazing; it was also stupid. The Haarlem priest Jodocus Cats wrote his nephew, a fellow priest, on February 5, 1637, that, like the plague that had been raging since 1635, now “another sickness has arisen . . . It is the sickness of the blommisten or floristen.” For Cats, this sickness was a sickness in the head. Never, he said, had the world seen such craziness being committed. One bulb, already a fantastic &fnonf;600, had tripled in price in the space of as many weeks. The Amsterdam poet Gerrit Jansz Kooch included a poem about “het Wonderlijck Jaer der bloemisten Anno 1637” (“the Wonderful Year of the bloemisten Anno 1637”), probably written in the 1670s, in a manuscript collection of verses which, when they dealt with events, were mainly about floods or unusual weather:
Nor was it only in the 1630s that tulipmania was a byword for idiocy. “I fear that what I am going to say will command no belief,” the historian of Haarlem Theodorus Schrevelius wrote eleven years later, in 1648. He thought the tulip craze was appalling—“I don’t know what kind of angry spirit was called up from Hell” to poison the world, he said—but despite the seriousness of the crisis, he feared the ridicule of posterity. “Our Descendants doubtless will laugh at the human insanity of our Age, that in our times the Tulip-flowers have been so revered.” And so it has proven. Accounts such as Schrevelius’ have been woven into a tale of stupidity, greed, and madness that has been told again and again. The outlines of the tale have become legendary, to be invoked almost ritually whenever either the Netherlands or financial speculation is in question. Novels, plays, even operas have been written about the craze. Wild stories are told of huge fortunes won and lost, and all focused on the most improbable of objects: the tulip bulb. It is no wonder that tulipmania is one of the best-known incidents in Dutch history.
In 1913 Ernst Heinrich Krelage, a leading bulb-grower and vice-president of the Dutch Gardening Council, was already pleading that “there is more than enough written about [tulipmania].” This did not stop him from spending much of his own adult life on the subject, publishing both a history of the trade and an edition of the satirical pamphlets it engendered in 1942, and, in 1946, an enormous history of three centuries of bulb export with a sizeable section on the tulip. His initial feeling that the subject of tulipmania should be put to rest was, admittedly, founded on his own interest as the head of a major bulb company and one of the leaders of the trade; in 1913 a gladiolimania threatened, and Krelage could only reflect on the damage this taint of insanity might do to his business. But his short-lived opinion that we need no more books on tulipmania lives on. The newspaper columnist Miles Kington, for example, who will probably not be writing a book about tulips in thirty years’ time, commented on the spate of such books several years ago that “frankly, one book about tulips is about as much as people can take.”
Why, then, another one? A look at the history of the history of tulipmania provides food for thought. As we survey the literature through its 360 or so years, certain themes, certain stories, become old friends through their constant repetition. Picturesque tales are told and retold: of fortunes lost when an ignorant visitor ate a tulip bulb (the focus of an execrable French play of 1880, Jacques Normand’s L’Amiral) or of a long list of goods, including two lasts of wheat, four of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat pigs, twelve oxheads of wine, four tuns of beer, and so on, plus a ship to carry them in, all equal to the cost (which became for some the actual cost) of one bulb of the Viceroy variety. Tulips became so desired, we hear, that the most common bulb, which would previously have been tossed on the dung-heap (Mesthoop, a word repeated in most of the sources), became worth good money. Bulbs were said to have changed hands hundreds of times in an ever-rising frenzy of financial madness. This must, we are told, be an irrational, an insane, a crazy trade—indeed an evil one, for not only were fortunes invested in a ridiculous way, but those doing the investing were the wrong people, those who, because of their low social station, should not have been allowed to submit to the temptation of easy money. Everyone in the country was apparently involved. In fact, we hear of a wholesale social revolution, with weavers abandoning their looms en masse and riding around the countryside in carriages when they are not drinking the costliest wine on credit. They were not interested in flowers, we learn, but simply in “odious” gain. One influential eighteenth-century author, Johann Beckmann, tells us that no one ever received the flowers, or wanted to receive them: “How ridiculous would it have been to purchase useless roots with their weight in gold, if the possession of the flower had been the only object!” To want the bulbs for profit was at least understandable (and thus, in his view, rational). But it was all the more deplorable for that. Fortunately, retribution for the hubris of tulipmania was not long in coming: thousands, we hear, were ruined, and the economy of the Netherlands left in shocked disarray.
These images appear in modern books on the subject, not to mention in the numerous Web sites, newspaper articles, and financial newsletters that have invoked tulipmania as a warning to investors in recent years. Yet the same tales of extravagance were told in the seventeenth century, often in exactly the same words. Critical reading of sources has not featured large in the study of this subject. If we trace these stories back through the centuries, we find how weak their foundations actually are. In fact, they are based on one or two contemporary pieces of propaganda and a prodigious amount of plagiarism. From there we have our modern story of tulipmania.
Most of the modern-day images of the tulip craze are based on Charles Mackay, whose Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds of 1841 is still in print and doing well. Mackay’s title is less than unequivocal about his views of the irrationality of the trade, and some of the more picturesque stories—of tulips being eaten by the unsuspecting; of oxen, cheese, and rye being delivered for a Viceroy; of the universality of the trade—make their appearance here. Mackay’s chief source was Johann Beckmann, author of Beyträge zur Geschichte der Erfindungen, which, as A History of Inventions, Discoveries and Origins, went through many editions in English from 1797 on. Beckmann was concerned about financial speculation in his day, but his own sources were suspect. He relied chiefly on Abraham Munting, a botanical writer from the late seventeenth century. Munting’s father, himself a botanist, had lost money on tulips, but Munting, writing in the early 1670s, was himself no reliable eyewitness. His own words, often verbatim, come chiefly from two places: the historical account of the chronicler Lieuwe van Aitzema in 1669, and one of the longest of the contemporary pieces of propaganda against the trade, Adriaen Roman’s Samen-spraeck tusschen Waermondt ende Gaergoedt (Dialogue between True-mouth and Greedy-goods) of 1637.
As Aitzema was himself basing his chronicle on the pamphlet literature, we are left with a picture of tulipmania based almost solely on propaganda, cited as if it were fact. Even the most authoritative Dutch accounts of tulipmania, Krelage’s 1942 book and the articles in the late 1920s and early 1930s of the renowned economic historian N. W. Posthumus, are based essentially on images presented in the pamphlet literature. Although Posthumus, with some help from his fellow economic historian J. G. van Dillen and others, located some archival material on the tulip trade in Haarlem and Amsterdam, he published it without comment (and with many errors) and indeed seems not to have consulted it at any length when writing his pieces on tulipmania for the Economisch-Historisch Jaarboek and the Journal of Economic and Business History. While some recent accounts have made occasional reference to sources beyond the pamphlets or, in the case of Simon Schama, have presented contextualized and useful interpretations of some of those pamphlets, despite the wealth of writing on the subject we remain in largely uncharted territory.
In fact, as we will see, the excitement generated by tulip bulbs fit almost none of the stereotypes. It is thrilling to imagine despairing tulip-sellers drowning themselves in canals, as Deborah Moggach does in her novel Tulip Fever (and as poetic license permits her to do). But even that exaggerated picture of the winter of 1637 taps into one of the chief images derived from the contemporary propaganda: that it was insane to want to pay large amounts for a tulip. If we take a calmer, more informed look at the tulip craze, we find a story that is different, but equally exciting, not because people killed themselves over bulbs or because they joined in the “madness of crowds,” but because the story of tulipmania takes us into a fascinating world. This was a new world, a new country, with a new kind of culture, a new set of priorities, a new social system, a new impetus to its commerce and its society. Tulipmania opens a window for us into that culture and its values.
When we delve deeply into the history of tulipmania, instead of merely exclaiming at its excesses, we begin to distrust the stereotypes. Although it was a craze, although it was a wonder, although it was much talked of at the time and ever after, most of what we have heard about it is not true. Not everyone was involved in the trade, and those who were were connected to each other in specific ways. The prices of some varieties of tulips were briefly high, but many never increased greatly in value., and it remains to be seen whether or not it was insane for prices to reach the levels they did. Tulipmania did not destroy the economy, or even the livelihoods of most participants.
But that does not mean that tulipmania was not a crisis. It might not have been a financial crisis, but it was a social and cultural one. In tulipmania, Dutch burghers confronted a series of issues that in any case gripped their culture: novelty, the exotic, capitalism, immigration, the growth of urban societies, and all the problems and excitement such issues raised. People in the 1630s and after found tulipmania a wonder, something to be marveled at, like a fireball, a child with two heads, or a plague of mice. But they also found it to be a warning. That warning, and the images it raised in the minds of those calling our attention to it, has always been treated as if it were a mere fact. Yet the reasons for the warning have scarcely been explored.