The Elusive Netherlands: The question of national identity in the Early Modern Low Countries on the Eve of the Revolt
BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, Vol. 119, No. 1 (2004)
When in the Comedy of Errors Dromio of Syracuse compares the ghastly fat kitchen- wench, whom he’s thinking of marrying, to ‘a globe’, on which he ‘could find out countries in her’, his master Antipholus demands particulars. Having asked him to locate on the anatomy of this female atlas Ireland, Scotland, France, England, Spain and the Americas, Antipholus concludes his inquisition by enquiring, ‘Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?’ to which the slave replies, ‘O sir! I did not look so low.’ Antipholus’ question was, of course, mischievous, intended simply to produce a good belly laugh from the groundlings, yet it deserves more serious consideration for uncertainty enveloped the early modern Low Countries. Erasmus once jested that because of where he was born, he did not know whether he was ‘Gallus’ or ‘Germanus’; on that account he could be considered as two-headed, ‘anceps’, and he was not alone in his agnosticism.
The obstacles to the construction of a durable and comprehensive national identity for the early modern Low Countries were formidable. In the first place, the Burgundian-Habsburg state was a dynastic state ‘par excellence’: the Burgundian dukes had put it together piecemeal and though they had created central institutions, the autonomy of the individual provinces was protected by extensive and distinctive privileges. Nor were the provinces themselves cohesive political units. It was, for example, only in the late fifteenth century that the States of Holland became a representative body with which the ruler could do business. Moreover insofar as the prince owed fealty to the king of France and to the Empire and his subjects could appeal to ‘foreign’ courts, his position as the fount of justice was notionally compromised.