General Summary

Historical research on Dutch nationalism has hitherto focused mainly on the nineteenth century. However, the growth of national thought – the idea that the Dutch formed one and the same community – can be traced back to earlier stages in Dutch history. This project will do so by studying the role of war and propaganda literature in the period 1648-1815. This diachronical approach will enable us to investigate developments and changes in the rise of Dutch national thought. By focusing on the Early Modern period, it will also challenge current international scholarly views on the formation of national identities.

1648 and 1815 are considered to be landmark years in Dutch history. With the signing of the Peace of Münster in 1648, the Dutch Republic became an independent state, while the installation of William I as the sovereign of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 marks the beginning of a new era. On these occassions, and at intermittent political highlights and times of crisis, writers went to great lengths to symbolise the unity of the Dutch Republic. Texts written at the occasion of war and peace treaties therefore provide us with unique material to study the growth of national awareness in Early Modern times.

This research programme comprises three interrelated subprojects. The first project focuses on propaganda literature written during the four Anglo-Dutch wars (1652-1654, 1665-1667, 1672-1674, 1780-1784) and investigates to what extent authors attempted to create a unified imagined community. The second project scrutinises resistance literature written in opposition to the French regime (1806-1813). During this period, literature was used as the main tool of resistance by explicitly articulating ‘Dutchness’ and the nation’s identity. The third project analyses the shaping of national unifying images at the signing of peace treaties, starting with the Treaty of Münster (1648) and ending with the Treaty of Paris (1814/1815).

Scholarly background

Since 1798 marked the implementation of the first modern Constitution, research on the emergence of Dutch nationalism considers this year to be a landmark in Dutch history (Aerts 2004, Van Sas 2004: 42; Rosendaal 2005). This proclamation of an indivisible Batavian Republic officially brought the old confederation of seven provinces, which had their own independent governments, to an end.

Many scholars have discussed the rise of nationalism in the decades following the Constitution of 1798, and in doing so they have especially emphasised the second half of the nineteenth century (Aerts 2004, Bank 1990, Blaas 2000, Leerssen 2006, Van Sas 2004, Slechte 1998). Indeed, international research would seem to espouse the assumption that the ‘nation’ as a concept and the formation of national identities belong exclusively to the Modern period, i.e. 1780 and onwards (Anderson 1991, Hobsbawm 1990, Smith 2008).

However, the emergence of national thought – the idea that the Dutch formed a single community – can be traced back to earlier stages in Dutch history. Van Sas and others have convincingly argued that national awareness already increased during the second half of the eighteenth century (Kloek 1999, Koolhaas-Grosfeld 2010, Van Sas 1989). Very recently, medievalists and Early Modern scholars have put the formation of identities, including the shaping of a Dutch national identity, on the research agenda (Davies 2004, Duke 2009, Duke 2010, Hampton 2001, Hoppenbrouwers 2010, Pollmann & Spicer 2009, Schwyzer 2004, Stein & Pollmann 2010, Tracey 2008). These studies have demonstrated that the Low Countries provide us with many diverse instances of national identity formation. The perception of the Low Countries as the collective fatherland can already be observed in the mid-sixteenth century, and proliferated rapidly after 1568, when William of Orange and his rebel publicists started larding their propaganda with pleas for the deliverance of the common Fatherland from foreign tyrants.

This study will bridge periods by analysing the role of war and propaganda literature in the shaping of a Dutch national identity between 1648 and 1815. The Peace Treaty of Münster (1648) will be taken as the starting point. With the signing of this treaty, the Dutch Republic became an independent state, and seventeenth-century writers went to great lengths to symbolise its political unity. The years between 1813 and 1815 saw the ascension of William I, the first King of the Netherlands, and can therefore be considered to mark the beginning of a new era.

This project’s underlying hypothesis is that, on the one hand, during turbulent political crises (and especially in times of war), expressions of national thought are highly intensified, and that, on the other hand, the ideological faith in a nation’s uniqueness is articulated especially through literature. It has been widely established that literature played a substantial role across Europe in propagating the faith in a nation’s distinctiveness by referring to its history. Literature presented readers with the means to ground national identification in historical roots, since authors employed a people’s collective history as a way of affirming a set of national values (Flacke 1998, Jensen 2008, Jensen & Leerssen & Mathijssen 2010, Leerssen 2008, Peterson 2005). Because literature often employs discursive patterns of self-identification, convincing images and commonplaces, national identities can be formulated for the first time (and most effectively) in the field of literature (Beller & Leerssen 2007, Leerssen 2000, Stanzel 1974). Literature that was written at the occasion of military occupation, war, or peace treaties, therefore provides us with unique material to study the emergence of national thought in the Early Modern period.

Method and approach


Methodologically, this project is rooted in the field of imagology, which is the study of literary representations of nationhood and national identities. Imagologists work with a set of methodological hypotheses that basically comprise three perspectives: the text (1), the intertext (2), and the historical context (3) (Beller & Leerssen 2007, Leerssen 2000). This project will add a fourth perspective to this system by also taking the impact of images into account (4).

(1) The text. The basic framework of imagology concerns the textual level. National images are interpreted as properties of texts and as cultural constructions. Imagologists do not make any claims regarding the veracity of such images; instead, they are concerned with the various modes of representating a national character. Their subject matter is not a transhistorically durable or otherwise objective entity, but rather the set of mutable images of a historically changing nation. Attributes and characteristics of a given nation are thus considered as textual tropes.

(2) The intertext. Tropes and commonplaces are related to an intertext of related textual instances. It is therefore an intertextual issue to establish how representative a given trope is of more widespread patterns. Tropes have to be contextualized within the fields of other texts and media in order to establish their traditions: to which extent have these tropes been echoed, reinforced, and varied upon? Tropes that can be found in texts which were written to celebrate the peace of 1648, for example, resound in texts that engage with the liberation from French rule during the years 1813-1815.

(3) The historical context. Although intertextual analysis testifies to the durabilty of tropes, historical contextualization is additionally required to establish their meaning in a specific period. Historical factors must therefore be taken into account when scrutinising national self-images in texts about war and peace. In plays that were written to celebrate the peace treaties of 1679 and 1697, for example, the images that serve to propagate national unity are highly coloured by contemporary political struggles.

(4) The impact. This project will add a fourth approach to imagology by taking the texts’ audience function into account. The power of the images will be assessed by studying the their impact. Propaganda texts are meant to influence opinions, and therefore they can be said to have a performative character. In order to investigate the possible impact of recurring images in such texts, two strategies will be used. First, the texts themselves will be understood to be audience-oriented: the rhetoric and persuasive nature of war and propaganda texts are explicitely geared to a target audience, and therefore reveal much about their audience function. Second, this project will collect as much facts as possible on circulation figures, print runs and, in the case of plays, the number of performances. For the earlier period, we will rely mainly on previous research (e.g. De Kruif, Meijer Drees & Salman 2006, Worp 1903-1907). For the later periods (from 1780 onwards), we will include reception documents, such as reviews and correspondences. In the case of resistance literature (subproject 2), the application of censorship laws will be analysed, thereby drawing on unique material to assess the (possible) influence of images in literary texts.

All subprojects will employ and operationalise this four-layered methodological framework (text- intertext – context – impact). Each subproject will present a more detailed approach to the application of this model.