The Dutch Republic was something of an outlier in the seventeenth century. Compared to its many neighbors struggling with demographic, economic, and political turmoil, the Dutch enjoyed relative stability and strong economic growth. Golden Age success seems all the more notable because it occurred during the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age (lia). Scholars are increasingly connecting the variability and extreme weather of the lia to social disorder across Europe; more recently this discussion has assumed global proportions.1 Dutch success has never fit neatly into this narrative, however. “There was something about the Dutch Republic,” Degroot argues, “that let its citizens thrive during the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age” (5). Employing an impressive range of documentary sources and drawing from the most recent work in historical climatology, this book demonstrates that climate and weather were very much a part of Dutch Golden Age success.
In a thorough and highly readable first chapter, Degroot introduces the science of climate and the historical climatology underpinning the lia. This discussion, useful for specialists and non-specialists alike, informs the remainder of the book, grounding his innovative use of documentary sources to connect climate, weather, and Dutch society. For instance, Degroot employs a vast trove of Dutch East India Company data from ship logbooks in his first two chapters about Dutch commerce to reconstruct historical wind velocity and direction. Prevailing winds, he finds, favored quick voyages during the two coldest phases of the lia. Although lia climate exacerbated some challenges for Dutch commerce, on balance the Dutch Republic coped more successfully than its rivals and enjoyed disproportionate benefits because of its maritime economy.
The following two chapters, which focus on Dutch military conflicts between 1564 and 1688, evaluate the impact of weather on important battles. These chapters reveal the care that Degroot takes to characterize climate as a causal agent. They methodically move from descriptions of large-scale climatic conditions through their relationships with localized weather to their potential impacts on military outcomes. Ultimately, however, the human element remains central. Frigid weather typical of the lia froze rivers and facilitated Spanish assaults during the Dutch Revolt, but it also undermined the resolve of invading forces. Prevailing winds during warmer and colder decades of the lia presented Dutch and English fleets with tactical advantages, but officers often failed to capitalize on them. Many of the book’s conclusions about climate’s effects are thus expressed in degrees of influence rather than outright determination. Climate never caused military victories or defeat, but certainly made outcomes more likely.
In his final two chapters, Degroot tackles the broad subject of Dutch cultural response to climate. This shortest section stands apart from the rest of the book because it relies less on quantifiable data and considers a much broader range of documentary sources. The changing content of paintings, the language of pamphlets, and the popularity of technologies like ice breakers revealed the complicated ways in which the Dutch rendered, interpreted, and adapted to a shifting climate. Some sources reveal clearer relationships than others. The Dutch genre of “winter landscapes” are now iconic representations of the lia, but they are often poor sources for climate reconstruction because they rarely documented actual weather. Winter landscapes of Dutch work and play nevertheless remain valuable, Degroot argues, because they reveal cultural perceptions of weather. Like maps of new resource frontiers and new technologies to cope with the cold, paintings reflected an underlying cultural resilience to the lia.
These final chapters reinforce the book’s unique contribution to the debate about the origins and character of the Golden Age during an era of crisis. The Republic thrived not only despite climatic changes but oftentimes as a result of them. Relative to their rivals, the Dutch more effectively capitalized on favorable climatic conditions and more resiliently weathered challenges. The Frigid Golden Age demonstrates that climate should play a larger role in Golden Age historiography, and the book’s interdisciplinary approach, its clear and careful methodology, and diverse use of sources establish an effective approach.
Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, 2013).