Teenagers and youngsters in the Dutch Golden Age (book)

Edition 28 September 2017

According to Benjamin B. Roberts’ recently published book Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Dutch Golden Age, the young people today in the Netherlands are a bunch of wimps in comparison to seventeenth century teenagers. After studying seventeenth-century diaries, police records, medical treatises, and paintings the American-born historian concludes that Dutch students in the 1620s and 1630s were violent, promiscuous, and heavy drinkers. He adds in a telephone interview, “that was the generation of Rembrandt”. Moreover they were the first generation in history to start smoking, which by today’s standards is not so bad but then nicotine was considered a drug at the time. Before that only sailors and soldiers smoked tobacco, and smoking was considered a habit of social lowlifes. Thirty years later in 1650, smoking had become a national pastime among all social classes of Dutch society.

But smoking was not the only vice that defined Dutch youth culture during the 1620s and 1630s. Because of the wealth generated by trade, the economy was booming which meant that not only the rich had disposable incomes for luxury goods. In the Dutch Republic there was also a growing middle class, which gave pocket money to their adolescent children. From this new affluence emerged a distinctive youth culture. The new generation rebelled against their fathers who wore notorious for wearing dark and sober clothing with their white-starched collars. The youth started wearing bright yellow and red-colored outfits, accessorized with ribbons, silk stockings, and high-heeled shoes. Moreover, they let their hair grow shoulder length, which defied traditional codes of the masculinity. The generation conflict is evident in the two portraits of a father and son, painted in the same year. The artist portrayed the father, with short hair and wearing a black overcoat and millstone collar. However, the 22-year old son was depicted with long hair, a salmon-colored waistcoat, and flat collar, which was the new style. Roberts laughs, “the son was a dandy, and most young men in the 1620sand 1630s wore silk stockings and high-heel shoes. And to boot, sometimes had make up on their faces to conceal childhood pockmarks.

According to Roberts, moderation in alcohol, recreation, and sex were the most important hurdles young men had to master before they were considered men by seventeenth-century standards of masculinity. Just like teenagers and adolescents today who have to get a grip on their budding sexuality, in the Dutch Golden Age youngsters had to learn how to temper their carnal urges. Roberts explains moralists and ministers admonished young people for having pre-marital sex, but it was easier said than done. In the seventeenth century sexual temptation loomed at every street corner. In Leiden where the sons of the country’s ruling class attended the university, the neighborhoods adjacent to the city’s university were filled where hookers that sought out young men. And venereal diseases such as syphilis were rampant. In general, young men took enormous risks if they gave into their carnal urges. The fear of contracting syphilis in the seventeenth century was comparable to the AIDS virus of the 1980s, and moralists avoided the subject of sex all together, and only advised young people to wait with sex until they were married. Young men were more apt to seek other outlets like masturbation or homosexuality, which society condemned. However, matters like sexuality usually took place in the dark at night, and remained unknown. Roberts adds, “the night in the early seventeenth century were extremely dark because there was no street-lighting, and whatever happened in the dark, stayed in the dark”.

Benjamin B. Roberts, Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Dutch Golden Age (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) €14.95 ISBN 789462983021

The Netherlands in 26 iconic objects | ISBN 978-94-6003-090-1 | Edited by Wim Brands and Jeroen van Kan | € 17,50