Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Memory before Modernity

This synthesis brings together strands developed in the four studies, sets out memories of the Revolt and presents the Low Countries as a case study.

2008 - 2013
Judith Pollmann
NWO Vici NWO Vici

First objective

The first objective of this synthesis is to bring together the strands developed in the four studies above, and to set out how memories of the Revolt came to shape Netherlandish identities in the seventeenth century. While it is clearly impossible to anticipate our results, I expect the synthesis to revolve around the following ideas. 

First, that it was not just the war, but also the commemoration of that conflict, that shaped the identity of the Dutch Republic and the Habsburg Netherlands and that led to a lasting cultural division. By the 1620s that division had developed far enough to make the integration of newly conquered territories in Brabant and Limburg into the Republic very difficult. Even the nineteenth-century efforts to recreate a canon of the Revolt that would suit both the Netherlands and Belgium did not succeed in obliterating this divide. 

Second, that in the first generations after the Revolt, public memory was profoundly affected by personal memory. Public memory was shaped by storytelling and other acts of memory, because ‘personal tales’ became part of public memory, but also because people used memories of the Revolt to forge an identity for themselves. This is most evident in the case of exiles, who invoked these memories to anchor themselves in their host societies. 

Third, that while both personal and public memory practices were often prompted by concrete and short-term socio-political concerns, they served simultaneously to create long-term memories of the Revolt that could be adjusted to serve new political and social needs. Memories of the Revolt were treated as a ‘prefiguration’ of new political crises, like those of 1618 and 1672 in the Republic, and 1632 in the Southern Netherlands. While the interest of academic historians in the Revolt may have waned after 1648, its political significance therefore could stay very much alive.

Second objective

The second objective of the synthesis is to present the Low Countries as a case study of the interaction between ‘personal’ and ‘public’ memory in an early modern population that shared the same past but that became politically and confessionally divided. Although the Revolt of the Netherlands is unique in early modern Europe for having resulted in the emergence of a new state, there are many similarities between this conflict and the French wars of religion (1561-1629), the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and the British civil wars (1642-1651). These wars pitched citizens against each other and against their overlords as they were contesting fundamental matters of religion and its political and social ramifications. As happened in the Low Countries, problems of memory loomed large in the aftermath of all these conflicts. While winners and losers were producing very different views of the past, they often had to share political and social space with their former enemies. Thus, memory could become the hallmark of dissent and resistance as well as a tool for social groups to reinvent themselves in the light of new political realities. While the aim of the synthesis cannot be to cover the memory of all early modern civil conflict, it will use the Netherlandish case to suggest approaches for the study of memory elsewhere. 

For its evidence, the synthetic study will rely on the databank that the team will be putting together in the course of the project (see 2d ‘plan of work’), as well as on additional research on memory practices and the theory of memory.


1. E.g. Philippe Joutard, La Légende des Camisards. Une sensibilité au passé (Paris, 1977); Eamon Duffy, The stripping of the altars. Traditional religion in England c.1400-c.1580(New Haven ; London, 1992), 583-592; R.W. Scribner, `Incombustible Luther. The image of the reformer in Early Modern Germany, Past and present 110 (1986) Simon Ditchfield,`Time here becomes space. Reading Rome as a sacred landscape, 1560-1635’, in Italian History Seminar (Oxford, 2004).

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