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Urban and rural articulations of an early modern bourgeois civilizing process and its discontents

Articulations urbaines et rurales. Un processus de civilisation bourgeois et ses malaises
Ulrich Ufer


Over the course of the so-called early modern period the civilizing process unfurled both at the individual level and within society as a whole. At its heart lies the idea that one form of individual habitus or social organization in a larger sense claims to have ascended above previous stages of linear development. This paradigm of modernity emerged in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century and was intimately tied to the social dynamics of Dutch early modern urbanization and to concomitant transformations in the countryside. Urban and rural forms of social organization increasingly grew apart and this allowed attributing to urban and rural areas as well as to their respective inhabitants the very characteristics that associated the former more closely and the latter more remotely with the benefits of civilization and progress. This study in anthropological history assesses such early modern social dynamics between the urban and the rural by employing a model of civilized urban identity space, defined by four oppositional ideal types – the Burger, the Boer, the Pronckert and the Hovenier.

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1In many respects the United Provinces of the Netherlands of the seventeenth century can be considered as a harbinger of that conundrum of social and cultural dynamics that has been labelled modernity. Modernizing tendencies in the early modern Netherlands have been assessed in a variety of fields from the rise of capitalism (de Vries and van der Woude, 1995) via the birth of the nation state and patriotism (Hart, 1993) to the emergence of an information society (Smith, 1984). This paper, instead, will concentrate on the civilizing process as one of the main roads leading into modernity. Once famously analyzed in the context of court cultures in early modern Europe by Elias (1969), impacts of the civilizing process can also be found within the bourgeois culture of the early modern Netherlands.

2In his socio-historical analysis Elias discussed the civilizing process as a phenomenon that saw its first rise in the medieval period and he traced its repercussions well into modern times after the industrialization. As such, he looked at the civilizing process in terms of a pattern of long-term change that can only be detected with hindsight. Based on a social-anthropological reading of seventeenth century literary sources the main thrust of this paper aims at an analysis of how contemporaries experienced the convergence of an ongoing civilizing process and the dynamics of a growing divide between town and countryside in a period of rapid urbanization.

Urban and Rural Transformations

3Already during the late renaissance the province of Holland was relatively densely populated. Fishing and regionally restricted maritime trade as well as first ventures in the textile industries had nurtured the growth of towns along the coastline. By 1525 these towns housed about forty-four percent of Holland’s population. Over the course of the seventeenth century, however, urbanization experienced a dramatic increase. Ensuing transformations in city and countryside should be considered as a two-way process in which both impacted mutually on each other.

4At least three broad lineaments of urbanization in Holland contributed to the bourgeois civilizing process. First, there was a rising curve of urban settlement throughout most of the seventeenth century. The demographic development of the city of Amsterdam, for example, shows a sevenfold increase during the years 1580 to 1660 – 30,000 to 200,000 inhabitants. Leiden and other cities also showed similar growth figures, though on a smaller scale. Overall, by 1675 the relatively restricted territory of the province of Holland counted 540,000 urban dwellers, a figure that amounted to just over sixty percent of its population. By contrast, the more landlocked Dutch provinces only marginally increased their ratio of urban population during the 150 years after 1525, lingering between twenty-two and twenty-seven percent (de Vries and van der Woude, 1995: 84). Urban demographic growth was fed from the cities’ rural hinterlands, but also from more distant regions like the southern Netherlands under Spanish occupation, Germany, England and Scandinavia.

5A second important trait pertaining to Holland’s urbanizing society was the increasing global interconnectedness of its cities as the period witnessed a progressive expansion of Holland’s economic reach. In the aftermath of a macro-economic shift from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic the city of Amsterdam took over Antwerp’s former position as principal port in north-western Europe. The Netherlands sustained their commercial maritime trade network from the Baltic Sea into the Mediterranean and extended it step by step toward a global economic empire – initially by private and very soon by stately monopolized East and West India Companies.

6Closely linked with the former developments, a third characteristic of Holland’s modernization process was marked by the region’s standing at the forefront of a developing capitalist market economy. Not only did the province of Holland, and in particular the city of Amsterdam, institutionalize such crucial instruments of finance as a stock market, a national bank, or a giro bank already in the early seventeenth century, it also became a centre of capital accumulation and redistribution (Wallerstein, 1980). Amsterdam’s private and public banking houses spun a world wide financial network and by the 1620s ports like those of Amsterdam or Middelburg had become hubs of early modern global economic exchange. Cities with an emphasis on textile production like Leiden marketed their wares in places as distant as Turkey, India or the Americas.

7This brief characterization of the Dutch urbanization process can be contrasted with an overview over concomitant developments in the rural areas. In a sense, the hinterlands both benefited and suffered from changes instigated through urban economic progress. In every case they were deeply transformed by it. The demographic growth of the cities, for example, demanded more food provisions for their inhabitants. However, Holland’s maritime economy was strongly orientated toward gaining access to foreign resources and markets. Throughout the seventeenth century Dutch port cities fostered and extended existing trade links with grain exporting regions on the shores of the Baltic Sea and in Germany. Thus, Dutch agricultural production had to face increasing competition of rival purveyors from other parts of Europe. In addition, the global impact of Dutch trade brought to Holland the produce of other world regions and in consequence changed local consumption patterns and consumer preferences. By the end of the seventeenth century Dutch agriculture had reacted to such changes by introducing new fashionable cash crops such as tobacco.

8Last but not least, the city and the countryside also stood in close financial relation. Besides the money which was spent on rebuilding, embellishing and extending the growing urban centres, capital accumulation in the bustling cities sought extra-urban outlets, too. The grand projects of land reclamation in the Dutch marshes answered to a constant search for opportunities for capital investment. Similarly, the capitalization of dairy farming and its close link up with an urban maritime export economy (de Vries, 1971: 267) was another result of the intensified connection and mutual influence between town and country.

Paradigms of modernity

9Sustained urbanization and the changing relationship between rural and urban regions also altered the ways in which society thought of city and countryside. The dynamics that fed the growth of towns were intimately linked to an expansion of trade networks, to wealth accumulation and to a growth of production and consumption. Towns once rather modest, such as Amsterdam and Leiden, turned into thriving cities which became not only centres of commerce but also centres of learning, of science and of cultural production. Viewed in this light the city raised high hopes among contemporaries as to its potential to generally increase wealth, to promote education and culture. In short, urbanization proposed itself as a means to effectively improve the social organization of a country.

10Re-organization of the city of Amsterdam during its years of growth can be discussed with reference to such a modern paradigm of rationality, order and progress. The city’s sevenfold population increase to about 200,000 citizens during the seven decades between 1580 and 1650 necessitated continuous physical expansion of the city. Rural areas were progressively drawn into the city as urbanization reclaimed marshland and pushed out the ramparts during four successive phases. Expanding the city beyond its original medieval location along the banks of the river Amstel, the city council drew up a plan according to which the extended ramparts were to form an almost exact semi-circle with the northern shoreline as its diameter. Spatial allotment to different partitions of social organization within the city also followed a recognizably geometrical and logical plan: the harbour, financial and political institutions as well as the offices of trade were largely situated in the centre of the city and from this ever spinning and bustling pivot of business and administration a series of main-streets radiated out toward the ramparts and through the city gates. Between the walls and the centre lay a number of concentrically arranged Grachten, or channels, lined by prestigious residential buildings for roughly ten thousand dwellers as well as specially designed districts for the labouring classes.

11Completed in 1662, the rationalistic rebuilding of Amsterdam was celebrated by the performance of an elaborate public allegoric play praising the achievements of Dutch urban culture. Central to the play were its elaborations on the mythical concept of the Golden Age which was interpreted as the distinct marker of a perfect society. The play by Dutch director and stage designer Jan Vos showed a woman as allegorical representation of the city. She was surrounded by various attributes of the Golden Age to which she had ascended: Wealth, Peace and the Graces of the fine arts were allegorically staged around her and they symbolically subdued the figures of Robbery, Force and Strife as the evils of an overcome Iron Age. Conceiving of Amsterdam’s development as a historical process in which the city had reached the top of a hierarchical division, Amsterdam was presented as even more scientifically advanced and as even more progressive in her economic ventures of global trade than the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece.

12This tune – set by Amsterdam’s allegoric self-representation as a site of rational reorganization, of economic, moral and aesthetic improvement – was joined by an elegy of the city by classical scholar and linguist von Zesen. In 1664 he lauded the rise of Dutch urbanism publishing a close description of how, within the relatively short time span of a century, Amsterdam had risen from “the wild marshes of Holland’s boggy coast” and presently found herself seated on the throne of a “Golden Age” of civilization (von Zesen, 1664: 2). By describing the rural environment as a savage anterior state before the advent of urban civilization von Zesen reflected a more general tendency of his time. Positive identification with the promises of urbanity was paired by a negative identification against and concomitant downgrading of the countryside.

Civilizing urban culture – stigmatizing rural nature

13Von Zesen’s praise of the city and of urban culture simultaneously attests to a growing alienation from the countryside and by extension to a growing alienation from nature as such. And while his observations on urban culture’s inbuilt necessity to impose itself on nature may have touched on a subject central to all urban cultures, his remark seems to be of particular significance if viewed before the backdrop of extremely hostile natural conditions against which Dutch early modern urbanization had to struggle.

14The soggy ground of Holland’s shore necessitated, for example, that each and every house in Amsterdam rest on a base of many wooden pillars, driven into the unstable soil – a technique that provoked several observers to remark that nature had been put under human control to such an extent that a whole forest was turned upside down. In order to illustrate hostile natural conditions further much could be said about the construction of dikes for the protection of inhabited marshes, or about the ingenious inventions of Dutch engineers to allow for shipping in the shallow coastal waters. Summarizing all these hindrances nature had put into the path of civilizational progress, von Zesen’s coeval, the statesman Johan de Witt, argued that the whole province of Holland was geographically so ill positioned that it could not sustain itself of its own natural wealth. “Of necessity” it depended on all sorts of importations comprising food, raw materials for production processes and manpower (de Witt and de la Court, 1662: 21). How striking the Dutch struggle against the elements appeared even to visitors shows in a comment of one French traveller in 1719 who remarked at the sight of Dutch cities planted into the boggy marshes that here civilization was truly “forcé contre nature” (Murris, 1925: 46).

15Urban civilization’s inherent necessity to gain and exercise control over nature reverberated on all levels of social organization and of individual lives. On a socio-psychological level, the conflicting relationship between civilization, or culture, and nature can be approached in terms of Elias’ civilizing process. Based on a survey of early modern literary sources, Elias transferred Freud’s tripartite concept of the psyche of modern identities – Ego, Id and Superego – from an individual to a social level. Looking at aristocratic manners over the course of the early modern period he showed how modernizing definitions of civilized behaviour reigned in and sublimated the comparatively coarse habitus of a medieval chivalric élite. Prowess and ferocity became increasingly domesticated and restrained, impulsive behaviour, bawdy language, untempered expressions of sexual drives or violent reactions were increasingly checked by the civilizing processes which comprised common laws and social conventions such as shame as well as a redefinition of the codes of polite behaviour (Elias, 1969: 369-379).

16Quite clearly, the civilizing process impacted not only aristocratic societies, but also on the bourgeois society of the urbanizing Netherlands. Here, the city and the town, rather than the chateau and the castle, became the prime locations of civilized life. By contrast, judged from an urban perspective, rural life lagged behind the city’s progressive civilizational achievements and thus, appraisal of the city promoted at the same time stereotypical views on the countryside and on the country-dwellers as backward. In the most extreme cases urbanites described the peasantry as savage and uncivilized.

17Such abasement of country-life was considered as justified for a variety of reasons, ranging from the material poverty of many rural parts in the landlocked provinces of the Netherlands to an alleged ignorance of the codes of civil conduct or of urban fashion among peasants. Language was also considered as an important characteristic of a civilized identity, and from the citizens’ point of view, uncouth rural dialects did not conform to urban politeness.

18An adequate illustration of these tendencies comes from the pen of the Italian nobleman Cosimo di Medici. Upon the express recommendation of an Amsterdam acquaintance, he paid a visit to the Frisian village of Molkwerum, while travelling through the Netherlands during the 1660s. By this date, parts of the Dutch country-side had been stigmatized as barbarous to such an extent that di Medici described the peasants he met as “rozza, incivile e salvatica” (Hoogewerff, 1919: 269). Their dialect sounded to him utterly incomprehensive for little did the rural population know of the strong influences of French on Dutch polite language. The diplomat de Groot even went so far, as to state that Flemish was the language of ignorant people while French was spoken by men of intelligence (Price, 1974: 224.).

Paradoxes of civilized identities between the rural and the urban

19In the course of an ongoing civilizing process during the seventeenth century, both settings, the urban and the rural, became invested with meaning attributions of progress and of backwardness, or even of savageness. Upon analysis, however, both value attributions reveal deep controversies. For in contrast to the tight connection which public discourse ascribed at first sight to the modern siblings of urbanity and the paradigms of progress, order and wealth accumulation, the city and its urban culture proved to be virtuous and vicious at the same time (Schorske, 1998: 37-55). The fact that some modern hopes were frustrated or even perverted in the prime locality of progressive civilization provoked counter-discourses which consequently reversed identificatory values attributed to the city and to the countryside.

Figure 1. Civilized identity space between the urban and the rural as constructed from the Burger’s point of view

Figure 1. Civilized identity space between the urban and the rural as constructed from the Burger’s point of view

Source: the author.

20Contemporary social discourses over the virtues and vices of either country-life or city-life can be analyzed and discussed by reference to a four-poled model (Figure 1) of civilized identity space between the urban and the rural, inspired by the model of modern identity space as discussed by Friedman (1994: 91-95). The defining extreme points of this model reflect a self-reflective process of contemporary cultural auto-description and they can be retraced through a literary analysis. However, it is important to note, that all these positions – the Burger (citizen), the Boer (peasant), the Pronckert (spendthrift, or dandy) and the Hovenier (country-house denizen) – do not represent blueprint presentations of real life identities. Rather the positions are conceptual ideal-types constructed from the perspectives of a civilizing urban culture experiencing contradictions and critical split ups: while the promises of urban modernity to lead to civilized and virtuous life in the city was reflected in the ideal-type of the Burger, the ideal-type of the Pronckert stood representative of the city’s possible vices. And whereas the Burger expressed his civilized identification in opposition to the ideal-type of the Boer who he stigmatized as savage, he could reconcile disappointments and discontents of urban civilization by idealizing and relating to the ideal-typical civilized country dweller, the Hovenier.

The Burger’s expressions of urban civility

21Celebrating civilizational achievements of the city necessarily posed questions about how this modernization of social organization affected the character and condition of individual urban dwellers. A reading of Koerbagh’s dictionary of foreign words of 1668 may serve as an adequate entry point to discuss how a betterment of the human being was expected to grow out of the urban civilizing process. Translating the adjective and noun of Latin origin urban and urbaniteyt Koerbagh (1668: 637) proposed that in Dutch both could be adequately expressed as “steeds, beleeft, burgeragtig, deftig” (urban, polite, civic, elegant) and as “beleeftheyd, burgerlijkheyd, deftigheyd” (politeness, civicness, elegance). Evidently, Koerbagh defined the meaning of urbanand of urbaniteyt as almost equivalent to that of another word group of Latin origin, the adjective, verb and noun “civil, civiliteren” and “Civiliteyt”. The latter he translated as “burgerlijk, galant, beleeft” (civic, gallant, polite), “begeerlijk maaken, beleeft maaken, heusch maaken” (to make pleasant, to make mannerly, to make galant) and as “beleeftheyd, burgerlijkheyd, heuschheyd” (politeness, civicness, refinement) (Koerbagh, 1668: 145).

22Thus, if the city came to be seen as natural habitat of the civilized man, than the ideal type of the civilized urban dweller was the Burger. Legally, citizenship to a city like Amsterdam could be purchased at the price of fifty Florin, roughly the seventh part of an annual worker’s income. Practically, however, Koerbagh’s cultural linguistics shows how civilized urban identities were defined first and foremost by forms of polite behaviour. Yet, what were the central characteristics of the civilized urban Burger? Rather than attempting to define the exact traits of urban politeness it may be wise to start instead by an assessment of how contemporaries constructed their civilized city lives in contrast to both courtly and rural social conventions.

23Being one of the first European Republics beyond the small territorial limits of the renaissance city states, the United Provinces of the Netherlands were much less influenced by aristocratic lifestyles of the late renaissance and early absolutist courts of Europe. This is not to say that fashion and forms of courteous behaviour as developed, for example, at the court of Louis XIV did not influence Dutch urban politeness. However, the Dutch class of urban merchant-regents considered itself distinct from the local nobility and the latter was mainly restricted to a landed aristocracy situated in the landlocked, rural provinces. Within the context of the Burger’s political and economic dominance over the aristocracy such courtly influences as there were became quickly acculturated in distinctly urban bourgeois ways.

24Strategies to distinguish bourgeois civilized behaviour from that of the court showed, for example, in the progressive replacement of the epee with the walking stick. In the second half of the seventeenth century higher strata of urban society did away with final remnants of chivalric habitus and instead accentuated the leisurely behaviour of those who afforded extant time and money in a market economy (Veblen, 1931: 265). Further, importations of world trade democratized once highly prestigious consumables of the nobility such as spices and sugar and added new ones such as coffee and tea. Again, such adaptations lost their original courtly connotations as they were transferred into a bourgeois culture, becoming part of books on cooking and housekeeping, as for instance of the famed bestseller De verstandige kock, of Sorghvuldige huyshoudster by Marcus Willemsz. Doornick of 1667.

25Doornick’s recipe book seems to be representative of a more general trend of the Dutch urban civilizing process, namely the democratization of formerly elite patterns of behaviour by the means of printing, literacy and a consumer market (Schama, 1987: 351). Literacy rates in the urban parts of Dutch Golden Age society ranged at about sixty percent and allowed to a majority of people an autodidactic access to popular guide books on civilized manners – a rising new literary genre. Toward the end of the renaissance, Castiglione’s Cortegiano and its many subsequent translations had aimed at making a multiplying noblesse de robe fit for courtly life. Bourgeois manner books, by contrast, aimed at consulting toward a behaviour that distinguished the civilized Burger from the common masses, from the nobility and from the peasantry at the same time. The negative identificatory strategies focusing on a distinction from rural life forms will be discussed in an analysis of the Burger’s rural opposite, the ideal-typical character of the Boer.

Stigmatizing the Boer as savage counter image

26Koerbagh’s (1668: 89) dictionary of foreign words also gave a linguistic definition of civilized man’s opposite. Suggesting Dutch equivalents for the ancient Greek word Barbaarthe author defined him as“a wild or rough man, an outlandish man or foreign man. Angry people are those who live in the wild, without much laws or good customs and with whom wisdom, science and art have but little room” (our translation).

27It is worth noting that Dutch concern with definitions of civilized behaviour was expressed more than a hundred years before a similar point of view was to be recorded in the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it was Samuel Johnson in 1772 who first used the word civility in a context that connoted it with “freedom from barbary; the state of being civilized; politeness, complaissence, elegance of behaviour”.

28As has already been suggested in the analysis of Cosimo di Medici’s exoticized view of the countryside, the notion of outlandish or foreign was not necessarily conceived in a strictly geographical sense. Rather, the limits of civilization could stop right at the gates of the city. Accentuating this divide between urban and rural culture a bourgeois manner book of the first decade of the eighteenth century (van Laar, 1735: 126) argued that:“civilized behaviour is the opposite of countrified behaviour. The first means the well-mannered ways in which well bred people of the cities are used to treat each other; the second means the unmannered lumpish behaviour as it is common among peasants in the villages” (our translation).

29Represented from the urbanite’s perspective as a backward stage in civilizational development rural hinterlands became devalued as backward and unsophisticated and the Boer was stigmatized as the anti-type of the Burger.

30Two passages from the work of the popular poet Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero underline the city’s pretensions of civilizational superiority over the countryside. In his theatre play Moortje of 1617 Bredero conveys the anecdotal story of one Burger seeking distance to his stressful urban affairs. Yet, barely outside the walls of Amsterdam the urban dweller notes with distress an uncivilized atmosphere in the villages and immediately laments his solitude among such an “onbevoelijck volck, van onbevallijcke Boeren” (unfeeling people of uncivilized peasants) (Grootes 1999: lines 1780-1784). A similarly pejorative view of the country side and its population is related in the poem Boeren Geselschap (Peasant Society) of 1615 which tells the story of a peasant feast (Stuiveling, 1976: 47-49). Bredero describes the peasantry as uncouth, their clothing as outmoded and their behaviour as brutal. All peasants disqualify from civilized behaviour, first because of their distorted dialect which the author mocks in transcription. Second, they are ridiculed for their attempt at imitating new urban fashion since they wear their hats with the wrong posture. Finally, they are presented as uncontrolled and aggressive since the poem devotes one verse to the description of a peasant and a farm girl having spontaneous intercourse in a nearby barn, and soon after the whole peasant feast ends in a drunken brawl where one peasant gets stabbed to death. The poem finishes with the express warning to readers not to join such barbarous festivities, but to keep to civilized urban companionship.

31With regard to the central tenets of the civilizing process, Bredero described peasant life from his urban perspective as coarse, as ignorant or uncaring of the laws and customs of polite society and as ruled by untempered aggressive and libidinous drives. And yet, while the city as the prime location of civilizational progress and the urbanite as its heroic protagonist of polite conduct were glorified by stigmatizing the rural population as barbarous, conflicting dynamics in urban culture complicated this dualistic identificatory scheme.

The Pronckert, or urbanity and its discontents

32Where one of the main objectives of civilized urban social organization was to serve progress and order – expressed for example in the logical, geometric layout of the city of Amsterdam – the social result of such urban social design was not quite so straight forward. Demographic fluctuation, upward and downward social mobility, high rates of immigration from rural and from foreign parts, growing anonymity and a consequent erosion of traditional social hierarchies upset what was perceived from an idealistic vantage point to have once been a much more tight-knit community. Consequently, idealized characteristics of what defined a civilized Burger soon came into conflict with the realities of an urban market economy. When concentrating on negative aspects of city life in the context of increasing urbanization and modernization the city could be interpreted as a home to avarice and deceit, as a place of political strife, of social tensions, of crime, of pretension and of pomposity. The social anti-type to the Burger who seemed to epitomize such tendencies can be found in the figure of the Pronckert.

33In a speech of 1632 the classical scholar and head of the newly founded institute of higher education Athenaeum Illustrum, Caspar Barlaeus, attempted a positive definition of the Burger. Recognizing urban culture’s structural link with the market economy, Barlaeus defined him as a Mercator Sapiens – as a wise merchant. Beyond his civilized habitus and polite language, the Burger should be successful in commerce, yet morally dexterous in the means he employed to acquire wealth, he should be considerate in his spending and still ungrudging and benevolent toward the poor. However, as far as Caspar Barlaeus’ belief in civilized society went, he remarked himself that it was more wishful thinking than conviction. In a private letter written around the same time he complained about living in an age of ignorance, ambition and avarice where only money was worshiped (Wicquefort, 1646: 2). According to Barlaeus, his was the age of the Pronckert.

34According to the etymological definitions of Grimm’s etymological dictionary the noun Prunk, from which the Pronckert derives, referred from its earliest mentions to splendour, pageantry or pomp and also the related verb prangen, meaning to bedizen and to embellish. Thus, the Pronckert can be most adequately translated as spendthrift or somewhat exaggerated and avant la lettre as a dandy. Understood in a wider sense the Pronckert can thus be described as a consumer with a bent toward overconsumption. He grew out of an emerging modern capitalist mentality bringing together tendencies toward individualism, toward capitalist profit seeking and toward materialism as a prime means to express selfhood.

35Tensions between the Pronckert and the Burger reveal a profound contemporary ambivalence in economic reasoning that came along with the emergence of a capitalist mentality. The Burger’s economic attitudes, as described by Caspar Barlaeus, seem to conform largely to the Weberian capitalist prototype of the parsimonious “save-and-reinvest” outlook. While Weber’s work on the “spirit of capitalism” cannot be praised enough for unearthing this aspect of the workings of capitalism, he may rightly be criticized for not having spent sufficient attention to the role of consumption and of the consumer. By contrast, Campbell’s (1987: 36-57) work on the “spirit of modern consumerism” has highlighted how importantly the change of individual attitudes toward consumption played into the development of capitalism and of the modern society.

36Both parsimonious and freehanded attitudes toward consumption were integral outcomes of the urbanization process, but the Pronckert was regarded as a potential danger to the peace and stability of urban society. He embodied the temptation by which the Burger was constantly tested and at the same time his tendencies toward conspicuous overconsumption eroded social trust in the relation between public status display and real social standing. The latter confusion raised fears about an obliteration of social distinction in the course of which even the Boer’s savage stigma couldget blurred.

37Indiscernibility between the Boer, the Pronckert and the Burger arose out of modernizing forces such as the rise of a market economy and the abolition of sumptuary laws allowing pretensions to a social status one did not actually own. Understood as an impostor the Pronckert posed a potential threat to the stability of an ordered society, in particular if it was rural immigrants pretending to the status of a civilized Burger. Even from the comparatively small town of Leeuwenhoorn, a chronicler reported in the early decades of the seventeenth century (van Deursen, 1991: 217):

You can see this getting stronger by the hour,

That everybody gets propped up with embellishments,

To such extent that you can hardly tell a difference,

Between a Burger, a Boer or a nobleman (our translation).

38The peasant’s inroad on distinguished civil urban society was treated, for example, in the book Het vol-vrolik thee-geselschap (The Jolly Tea Party). Among many hundreds of jokes, this joke book of 1687 told the anecdote of a Boer who marches into an urban coffee house and orders a cup of this new and prestigious beverage. Insecure in which way the fashionable drink should be consumed, he asks his bystanders for advice. They tell him to gulp it all down in one go, as he would habitually do with his genever – the proverbial peasant and working class booze. Mouth and tongue burned the peasant runs out of the coffee house leaving behind him a laughing crowd. His conduct was uncouth and uncivilized and yet, he afforded the monetary means to formally buy his way into civil society.

39Many similar plots can be found in the works of Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero (1585-1618), Jacob Cats (1577-1660) and Pieter Bernagie (1656-1699). Understood in a broader sense, the Pronckert was understood by conservative contemporaries as one who disintegrates traditional social order by consuming beyond his accustomed share. Criticism of his cultural and economic conduct showed an early form of cultural scepticism towards the fundamental characteristics of modernizing urban society.

The Hovenier – urban escapism toward the rural

40Dutch society of the seventeenth century cultivated the widespread notion to be witnessing a Golden Age of civilizational ascent. The very notion of being at the forefront of progress, however, was bound to pose questions over its continuation and propose one rival point of view to the emerging modern paradigm of continuous, unending development and progress derived from the classical myth of the Golden Age. According to Hesiod’s circular periodization of the ages, the Golden Age was part of a sequence of an iron, a bronze and a silver age. This initially linear ascendency was bound to reach a tipping point with the Golden Age and subsequently took on circular features when degenerating into a new iron age.

41The Golden Age was marked by an era of peace, of communion with nature and of general insouciance since aggression, diseases or the toils to obtain life’s necessities were unknown. Read against this background, the Pronckert with his attributed qualities of causing social disorder, of vanity and self-concern could be accused of foreshadowing society’s downfall. Contemplating Amsterdam’s fortune of economic up- and downswing over the past century, an observer remarked in 1732 (Bruin, 1732: 13):

But, should I not fear

That, alas! Amsterdam is already at its highest point. […]

Downfall may happen, before you know it,

When you attempt to rival God

Through pride, wealth and other sins (our translation).

42Growing critical attitudes toward urban forms of social organization provoked fantasies of alternative forms of a civilized life – escaping the conditions of urban corruption, unaffected by social competition, reconciling an overbred and increasingly artificial civilization with the authenticity of nature. Such escapist imaginations were projected from an urban perspective onto the ideal type of the Hovenier.

43The Hovenier differed from the Burger for his objective was to leave behind the ambitions of urban civilization. Yet, neither did the Hovenier stand representative of tendencies toward uncivilized and savage conduct as his extra-urban coeval the Boer did. Instead, the Hovenier can be considered as the outcome of escapist identity fantasies created from the vantage point of discontented urban identities. Such escapist fantasies featured particularly strongly in a new literary genre that rose to prominence in the Netherlands during the 1620s – Arcadian literature.

44Inspired by earlier English, French and Italian courtly models of Arcadian tales, Johan van Heemskerck adapted the ancient Greek myth of Arcadia and the Golden Age to the circumstances of an urbanizing bourgeois society. In his Batavische Arcadia of 1637 he told the story of a group of bourgeois young men from The Hague who set out on a speelreize, a kind of road trip by horse carriage into the countryside. Dressing up and addressing each other as shepherds and shepherdesses they embrace nature and playfully act out a pastoral identity. At the same time, however, they seek the comforts of civilization when they retire into their country mansions in the evenings for sophisticated dinners and cultured talk.

45Since the 1620s wealth accumulation among urban merchants had been partly reinvested into the building of country mansions, first along the banks of rivers which provided an easy waterway connection to the city, later also in the artificial landscapes of reclaimed land in the fens. The greatest area of land reclamation, the Beemster Polder in northern Holland, was visited by Cosimo di Medici whose rural experience here stood in surprising contrast to his testimony of peasant savagery in the village of Molkwerum (Hoogewerff, 1919: 272). In the artificial manmade landscape of the Beemster he saw:

“the most delicate of all of Holland. There used to be marshland or lagoons here, which have been reclaimed, as one tells, with much industry. These farmlands are spread out wide and have been designed with channels that contribute to its range and that allow for numerous garden houses and for country mansions that are adorned with statues and surrounded by moats. These [country mansions] permit a view on the beautiful order of the abovementioned plain” (our translation).

46The Amsterdam scholar Caspar Barlaeus was a frequent visitor to a country mansion Oostwijck in the Beemster Polder. Barlaeus counted among a number of countryside amateurs who articulated their praise of the rural in so called Hofdichten (Poems on the Country Mansion). His poems Lof van de Lindenboom (1647) or Op de Hofstede Inde Beemster, genaamt Oostwijck (1653) breathe a rural tranquillity and communion with nature that stands in contrast to urban hectic and civilized alienation. One of the most famous glorifications of country life is the statesman Constantin Huygen’s voluminous elegy on his country estate Hofwijck outside The Hague. Joining the chorus of urban escapist fantasies he described his autonomy and autarchy when being on his rural estate where he found the better life outside the city while at the same time avoiding contact with uncivilized Boerish society.

47How prominent the life of a Hovenier had become by the end of the seventeenth century is witnessed also by a series of publications that gave advice to urbanites on horticulture and general maintenance of a country mansion. Books like the Den Nederlandsen Hovenier by Joannes van der Groen of 1699 or the Den verstandigen Hovenier by Petrus Nylandt of 1700 answered to a growing demand for information about lifestyles alternative to those of the city.

48The Hovenier’s idealization of country mansions and of the rural life in contrast to the urban had certain repercussions on the city, too. Turning a final gaze back onto the city, we may note how Amsterdam’s new layout after the various phases of city expansion during the seventeenth century allowed the purposeful reintegration of idealized rural and natural elements into civilized city life. The architectural design of villas built along the channels in the prestigious residential quarters separated the house into a section facing street-side, which had a rather public character featuring large window panes, and a more private section facing to the back, which comprised a nicely laid out backyard garden. Here, the ambience of Arcadian nature was only a few steps away from the delights of the city and provided a near abode where to cultivate escapist fantasies.


49In summary, we have seen how the transition from a predominantly agricultural to a predominantly urban society had a profound impact on the re-interpretations of the relations between nature and civilization. From the perspective of the self-reflective modern urban dweller, the city held promises and hopes of the civilized life while at the same time it corrupted precisely those very virtues. On the other hand, rural life was thought to represent a savage past that had been overcome by urban civilization. While nature in this sense became degraded, the corruption inherent to urban civilization demanded for evasive identity conceptions and a reconciliation of nature and civilization. The rise of four ideal social types of the Burger, the Pronckert, the Boer and the Hovenier corresponded to this crisis and fragmentation of modern urban identity.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Civilized identity space between the urban and the rural as constructed from the Burger’s point of view
Credits Source: the author.
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Electronic reference

Ulrich Ufer, “Urban and rural articulations of an early modern bourgeois civilizing process and its discontents”Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Special issue 3 | 2010, Online since 04 January 2011, connection on 04 March 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ulrich Ufer

Ulrich Ufer is DAAD-Professor at the University of Montreal in Canada. He has studied history at the University of Cambridge and social anthropology at EHESS in Paris and received his PhD from EHESS-Paris and the University of Stuttgart. He teaches courses on the History and Anthropology of Globalization, on European Identity, Modernity and on Interdisciplinarity. Publications include the monography Welthandelszentrum Amsterdam. Globale Dynamik und Modernes Leben im 17. Jahrhundert (Böhlau, 2008) and the articles “On the global distribution and dissemination of knowledge” (with N. Stehr, International Social Sciences Journal 2009), “Globalization and modern Identity Practices - Locals and Cosmopolitans in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam” (HERMES, 2009) and “Der Dreißigjährige Krieg in Oberschwaben. Drei Ego-Dokumente” (Ulm und Oberschwaben, 2009).

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