In the comments box to an earlier post, a reader asks:
Would it be accurate to say your most consistent theme throughout The Low Countries is the effect of the Christian religion on Dutch culture, politics, and life?
The short answer is "not consciously". The central line or chain of thought that helped me get through writing the book was the internationalism of the Low Countries, their position as (North-)Western Europe's "crossroads, cockpit and marketplace", their openness to outside influences and their influences on other places. From the mix of "Northern" and "Western" archaeological finds in the Drenthe dolmens, to hosting the EU and NATO institutions, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court.
In my own mind, one of the worst distortions of this approach is that I fail to bring out with concrete examples just how provincial and parochial a lot of life and thought in the Low Countries is and has been (I do make a couple of bald references to provincial particularisms, but give no memorable specimens).
One thing that I did want to do, very consciously, was not be limited by subdsciplinary divisions into "Political History", "Social History", "Church History", etc., and I suppose Church History, partly because of my own (non-specialist) interests, is one of the main beneficiaries of that. I treat, briefly, sports, tourism, food, education, and all sorts of other issues that the standard overview leaves out (or at least, tended to leave out when I was cribbing from them 20 years ago - perhaps I'm just doing what everybody else does these days, without realising how permeated I am by the "spirit of the age").
The extensive coverage of Christianity in various forms (still, given the constraints, insufficient: the Mennonites don't get the coverage they deserve, let alone a lot of the smaller Protestant groups) is due solely to the historical importance of Christianity for most of the history of the Low Countries. From the 7th century to the 1970s, it's impossible to write about how people conceived of their world, their society, their duties and their hopes without writing about some variety or other of Christianity, or some sort of conscious reaction against it.
And thanks for this spur to reflecting on my own writing processes!
Manchester University Press have just brought out the latest volume in the "Britain and the Netherlands" series (as it used to be known - I'm not sure it still functions as a series). The title is Catholic Communities in Protestant States: Britain and the Netherlands c. 1570 - 1720.
The volume contains papers from a conference held in Amsterdam and Leiden in late 2006 - among them a piece by me about how the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) functioned as the prime point of contact and support in Counter-Reformation Europe for Catholic minorities of Britain and the Netherlands. Most of the other essays deal more with the internal (political, social, devotional) affairs of the Dutch and British Catholic communities.
It has just come to my attention that the History of the Low Countries has been reviewed in European History Quarterly 39 (2009), pp. 119-120, by somebody called Johannes Koll. Hurrah! A notice! Now to find out what it says ...
It seems as though somebody has whipped out their history books and cottoned on that the Romans did send expeditions across the Rhine, most famously those led by third-century emperor Maximinus Thrax, who boasted about it by taking the name Germanicus Maximus.
Nevertheless, they're sticking to the story that the battle site at Kalefeld is the "find of the century", tracing the progress of the battle through finds of arrow heads, ballista bolts, broken harness, horseshoes, sandal nails, and other odds and ends (including an army-issue axe), scattered over an area of one and a half kilometres by 500 metres (suggesting that a substantial column came under attack and fought off its ambushers). They also say that the 600 finds already turned up barely scratch the surface. Gosh, exciting stuff. It brings to mind the opening scenes of the film Gladiator - as the less reputable German newspapers have hastened to point out.