Teaching Material Culture and the Dutch Golden Age in AP World History

The Netherlands in the seventeenth century was the center of a series of economic and social transformations that would redefine the way Europeans viewed the world around. This first age of truly global trade saw the exchange of objects of beauty, and objects of science, and objects of commerce. This moment cannot be understood without considering Dutch historical trends alongside the simultaneous power of the Scientific Revolution, the rise of the Atlantic World, and the nature of global exchange.

Although this is not my argument, it is one I find particularly interesting and compelling. The Dutch Golden Age may not be explicitly cited in the AP World CED, but it is an excellent illustrative example of the key concepts within Unit 4. Through the study of changing material culture in this moment, students can be exposed to deeper historical analysis and higher order thinking. The fascinating nature of the era means that there is also an abundance of engaging primary sources for student’s to question.

There are great examples of material culture in this historical moment beyond the Netherlands. This 18th century tile display shows a Spanish Chocolate party, useful for understanding how elite adopted new objects and knowledge as part of their lives and identities. Explore this source using Google’s collaboration with the Museum of Barcelona.

Material Culture and Exchange

Material Culture can be either incredibly engaging or incredibly dull; the key deciding factor being the era or content selected to frame its study. Luckily, early modern Europe provides great examples of the new and developing relationships between people and their things along with the agency of said things in the making of knowledge, language, and culture.

My own knowledge of the historiography is likely a little dated as I do not get as much time to read now as in the past. However, one of the better books that explores material culture in the Dutch Golden Age is Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. The opening chapter provides an overview of his argument that is both detailed an accessible for high school students and it works really well as the focus of either a Harkness of Socratic Seminar. The link above provides a PDF of what I have used with my own students.

This reading provides significant insight into many of the key concepts and learning objectives in the AP World CED. It also foreshadows themes that will return after unit four with the Enlightenment, colonialism, and imperialism. The concepts that students latch onto the most through discussion are below.

  1. The process/act of discovery lies at the heart of the Scientific Revolution. However, this could not have happened without the engagement with the natural world that occurred as a result of global exchange outside of intellectual or scholarly circles. Discovery of new plants, animals, goods, and other objects did not take place in universities nor did it happen solely because of scientists or professional researchers. It was the sailors, soldiers, merchants, and travelers who took note of what they saw around the globe and brought back specimens. Likewise, the original holders of these objects and knowledge in the Americas, Africa, or Asia played a critical role in this process as they passed it on to Europeans they came into contact with.
  2. The unique political and economic trends within the Dutch Republic allowed the Netherlands to become a hub of both economic exchange and creation of new knowledge. Urbanization increased economic capacity and broke down barriers of social class. Increased political power among the urban middle classes further encouraged this trend. This new social hierarchy had many unforeseen consequences among which was the encouragement of innovation and experimentation.
  3. Objects that were traded, of which the tulip is an excellent example, were simultaneously objects of science, commerce, and art. This illustrates the way creation of knowledge or advances in particular fields cannot be understood in isolation of the larger contexts in which they occur.
  4. The wealth of the Dutch Republic combined with the accessibility of new objects to create a new kind of material culture. Possession of objects became part of building individual identity. New goods became imbued with moral qualities and virtues, leading to the development of concepts of taste and sophistication. This is one reason why looking at Dutch art from the seventeenth century is so interesting.

Cook’s writing is a great example of the historical thinking skills teachers want students to master. What better way to teach them than to show students how they are used by a professional historian?

Image Analysis: Dutch Paintings and More

One of the activities I use to unpack these concepts is an image analysis. A few of the images or Dutch paintings, but others are selected to illustrate some other topic or concept that I want students to be aware of. For each image I ask students to discuss what it reveals about economic exchange in the early modern world and what it reveals about material culture in the early modern world. I also ask them to try to HIPP a couple of them. The full set of images can be found in the linked PPT. I try to rotate a couple new ones in every year.

One of the more fun and successful debrief assignments is to have students create their own “Dutch style” portrait. Essentially, I ask students to select what possessions and objects define their own identity and set-up a similar scene that they can take a picture of. Student creativity, sense of humor, and personality never fail to make me laugh.

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