Holland and its People/Chapter XVI

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Groningen is, perhaps, of all the provinces of the Low Countries the one which the hand of man has most wonderfully transformed.

In the sixteenth century a great part of this province was still uninhabited. It was a country of sinister aspect, covered with brambles, stagnant pools, tempestuous lakes, and constantly inundated by the sea. In it there were packs of wolves and innumerable swarms of aquatic birds, and no voice was heard save that of frogs and deer. Three centuries of patient and courageous labor, often given up in despair and again renewed with obstinate determination, and carried on through every kind of difficulty and peril, have transformed that savage and dangerous region into a most fertile country, intersected by canals, dotted with towns and factories, where agriculture flourishes, commerce and labor go hand in hand, and a population of wealthy and well-instructed people swarms. Groningen, which in the last century was still a poor province, which paid to the State one-half less than Friesland and twelve times less than Holland properly so called, is now, taking into consideration its size, one of the richest provinces in the kingdom, and produces itself alone four-tenths of the oats, barley, and colza which are gathered in the Low Countries.

The most flourishing part of Groningen is in the north, and to such a degree does it flourish that it needs to be seen to be appreciated. Even I, who have been over it, cannot describe it better than by adding to my own observations, and those which I gathered from the natives, the descriptions which are given by the French agriculturist, Count de Courcy, who, however, made but a hasty survey of the country, and the Belgian Delaveleye, the author of a fine work upon the rural economy of the Netherlands, which I have already had occasion to cite.

The houses of the peasants are extraordinarily large, and have in general two storeys and many windows ornamented with handsome curtains. Between the street and the house there is a garden planted with exotic trees and covered with flowering shrubs; and beside the garden an orchard full of fruit-trees and various sorts of vegetables. Behind the house rises an enormous edifice which covers, under its lofty roof the stables, the cow-house, the hay-loft, and a great empty space which might contain the harvest of a hundred hectares.* In this great barn are to be found every kind of agricultural implement from England and America, many of them improved and perfected by the peasants: long files of cows, great black horses, and a marvellous cleanliness everywhere. The interior of the houses might rival any gentleman's house. There is furniture of American woods, pictures, carpets, a pianoforte, a library, political journals, the monthly reviews, the most recent works on agriculture, and not unfrequently the last number of the "Revue des Deux Mondes." Although fond of ease and luxury, these peasants have preserved the simple manners of their forefathers. The greater part of them, possessors of half a million of francs, a little less, or a great deal more, do not disdain to put their hands to the plough and direct in person the labors of the field. Some of them send one of their sons to the university, no small sacrifice, when it is considered that each student costs his parents about four thousand francs a year; but the majority disdain, as inferior to their own condition, the professions of doctor, lawyer, or teacher, and prefer to keep their sons at home. There is no class of the population which ranks above the peasants. Among them are chosen almost all the members of the different elective bodies, even to the deputies to the States-General. The labors of agriculture do not prevent them from taking an active part in political life and in the administration of public affairs. Not only do they follow the progress of the art of agriculture, but also the movements of modern thought. At Haven, near the city of Groningen, they maintain at their own cost an excellent school of agriculture, presided over by an illustrious professor and having fifty students. Even the smaller villages have museums of natural history and botanic gardens, founded and kept up at the common cost of a few hundreds of peasants. Even the women on market days go to visit the museums of the University of Groningen, and stay a long time, asking and obtaining information. Some of the men occasionally make a journey into Belgium or to England. The greater part of them are much interested in theological questions, and many belong to the sect of Mennonites, the Quakers of Holland.

Delaveleye relates that having seen on the road which connects the two flourishing villages of Usquert and Uythuysen four large factories, he asked the innkeeper to whom they belonged, and was answered that they belonged to some Mennonites, adding, "They are well-to-do people; each of them must be worth six hundred francs apiece." "I have heard," went on Delaveleye, "that there are no poor among that sect. Is that true as regards this district?" "No," answered the host; "that is, to be just, yes; because the only poor man there was died a few days ago, and now there is none." The severity of manners, the love of labor, and reciprocal charity banish poverty from those small religious communities where all know, watch over, and help each other. Groningen, in fact, is like a species of republic governed by a class of educated peasants; a new and virgin country, where no patrician castle rears its head above the roofs of the tillers of the soil; a province where the produce of the land remains in the hands of the cultivators, where wealth and labor always go hand in hand, and idleness and opulence are for ever divided.

The description would not be complete if I failed to speak of a certain right peculiar to the Groningen peasantry and called beklem-regt, which is considered as the principal cause of the extraordinary prosperity of the province.

The beklem-regt is the right to occupy a farm with the payment of an annual rent, which the proprietor can never augment. This right passes to the heirs collateral as well as direct, and the holder may transmit it by will, may sell it, rent it, raise a mortgage upon it even, without the consent of the proprietor of the land. Every time, however, that this right passes from one hand to another, whether by inheritance or sale, the proprietor receives one or two years' rent. The farm-buildings belong, in general, to the possessor of the beklem-regt, who, when his right is in any way annulled, may exact the price of the materials. The possessor of the beklem-reqt pays all taxes, cannot change the form of the property, nor in any way diminish its value. The beklem-regt is indivisible. One person only can possess it, and consequently one only of the heirs can inherit it. However, by paying the sum stipulated in case of the passage of the beklem-regt from one hand to another, the husband may inscribe his wife, or the wife her husband, and then the consort inherits a part of the right. When the possessor is ruined, or does not pay his annual rent, the beklem-regt is not at once annulled. The creditors can cause it to be sold, but the purchaser must first of all pay all outstanding debts to the proprietor.

The origin of this custom is obscure. It appears to have begun in Groningen, in the middle ages, on the convent farms. The land at that time being of small value, the monks easily granted to the cultivators the possession of a certain portion of their lands, with the condition that a certain annual sum should be paid, and another sum at every decease. This contract assured to the convent a fixed rent, and exempted the monks from the charge of farms which in general produced nothing. The example of the convents was followed by the large landowners, and by the civil corporations. They reserved to themselves the right to dismiss the tenant at the end of every ten years but they did not use their right, because if they did so, they would have had to pay the value of the buildings put up on their land, and they would not easily have found another tenant. During the troubles of the sixteenth century, the beklem-regt became, in fact, hereditary, or, at least, many authorities declared it to be such. Jurisprudence and custom decided the various points that were subjects for disagreement; a clearer formula was declared and generally accepted, and from that time the beklem-regt maintained its position by the side of the civil code, always respected, and gradually diffused over the whole of the province of Groningen.

The advantages derived by agriculture from this kind of contract are easily understood. By virtue of the beklem-regt the farmers have a continuous and very strong interest in making every possible effort to increase the produce of their land. Secure, as they are, of the sole enjoyment of all the ameliorations which they may introduce into the cultivation, of not having, like ordinary tenants, to pay a rent which grows higher and higher in proportion as they succeed in increasing the fertility of the land. They undertake the boldest enterprises, introduce innovations, and carry out the costliest experiments. The legitimate recompense of labor is the entire and certain profit that accrues from that labor. Therefore the beklem-regt is a powerful stimulus to work, study, and perfection.

Thus a strange custom, inherited from the middle ages, has created a class of farmers, who enjoy all the benefits of property, excepting that the net product is not all reserved for them, which would, indeed, divert them from their task. Instead of tenants continually in trepidation lest they should lose the land, adverse to any costly innovation, subject to a superior, and always interested in concealing the prosperity of their condition, there is in Groningen a population of free and self-respected citizens, simple in their habits, but eager for instruction, of which they comprehend all the advantages, and are interested in propagating it in every way: a class of peasants who practise agriculture, not blindly and as if it were to be contemned, but as a noble occupation which demands the exercise of the highest faculties of the intelligence, and procures for those who follow it fortune, social importance, and public respect; peasants who are economical in the present, prodigal for the future, disposed for any kind of sacrifice that will fertilize their land, enlarge their houses, buy them better tools and a better race of ,animals; a rural population, in short, who are content with their condition, because their fate depends only upon their own prudence and activity.

As long as the possessor of the beklem-regt cultivates the land himself, the hereditary tenancy produces only good effects. These good effects cease, however, from the moment when he, availing himself of his power to underlet, cedes, to another his rights for a given sum, with which he continues to pay the proprietor or landlord. In this case all the inconveniences of the system at once make themselves felt, with the difference that here the farmer has to maintain two idlers instead of one. Subletting was formerly very rare, for the produce of cultivation was barely sufficient to maintain the family of the tenant when he farmed the land himself. But since the increase in prices of all kinds of food, and, above all, since the opening of trade with England, the profits are very considerable, because the possessor of the beklem-regt can find a second tenant disposed to pay him a higher rent than that which he pays to his landlord: and as the custom of subletting extends more and more, the consequences cannot fail to be injurious.

Meantime, when the future conditions of the human race are considered, it is generally desired that two things should be brought about: first, a growing increase in production: secondly, a division of property according to the principles of justice. Now one fact that justice demands is this: that the laborer should enjoy the fruits of his labor, and their progress. It is then consolatory to see upon the distant shores of the North Sea an antique custom which answers in some sort to this economic ideal, and which gives to a whole province an extraordinary and equally apportioned prosperity.

One capital objection, among others, has been made to these opinions of Delaveleye. It is questioned whether the extraordinary prosperity of Groningen is really due to the beklem-reqt, or to the exceptional fertility of the soil. Delaveleye rejects this doubt, saying that the extraordinary prosperity and the perfection of cultivation exist in the stormy zone of Groningen, which is anything rather than fertile: but are not found in any other part, except in a very inferior degree in Friesland, where the soil is of the same quality. If, then, hereditary tenancy has not produced in other countries the same consequences as in Groningen, it is because it has been differently practised, as in some provinces of Italy, where the condotto di fivello, which is very nearly a beklem-regt, hampers the liberty of the farmer with the obligation to pay every year to the landlord a certain quantity of produce of a kind settled upon beforehand.

All Dutch economists conclude and are agreed in recognising the excellent effects of this custom, affirming that to the beklem-regt Groningen owes all her wealth, and in the agricultural meetings which discuss the question the desire is expressed that the same kind of contract shall be adopted in the other provinces.

Pursuing my excursion across the country, I reached the shore of the North Sea, near the mouth of the Gulf of Dollart. This gulf was not in existence prior to the thirteenth century. The river Ems emptied itself directly into the sea, and Groningen was joined to Hanover. The sea destroyed the wild region that extended between the two provinces, and formed the gulf which, since the sixteenth century, has been growing smaller by reason of the deposits of mud and slime which accumulate along its banks. Already numerous dykes, built one before the other, testify to the conquest of the land over the sea, and new ones are continually being constructed, gradually increasing the agricultural dominion of Groningen, and beautiful fields of barley and colza flourish where, a few years ago, the waves roared in their fury and destroyed the boats of the fishermen. It is a fine thing to see, from the tops of the dykes which defend those coasts, how the sea and the land meet, mingle, and are transformed. At the foot of the dykes extends a muddy marsh already in great part covered with grass and small green weeds: a little beyond this a small bit of peat rescued and turned into soil; still beyond, marshes and wet mud which gradually becomes thick and turbid water; and beyond again, sand-banks, some of which rise so as to form dunes and little islets. On one of these islets, called Rottum, there lived some years ago a family who lived by catching seals; and strange stories are told about the other islands, in which figure mysterious hermits, apparitions, and monsters. The pools of turbid water which lie at the foot of the dykes are called wadden, or polders in a state of formation, and are land covered with water at high tide and rising gradually higher and higher as the currents of the river Ems and the Zuyder Zee go on depositing new strata of clay. At low water the cattle ford them; at some points boats can pass; and immense flocks of sea-birds frequent them in search of the shellfish left by the receding tide. In less than a hundred years birds, boats, pools and arms of the sea will have vanished; the islets will be dunes that defend the coasts, and agriculture will have called forth from the virgin soil a luxuriant and beneficent vegetation. Thus on that side Holland advances victoriously upon the sea, avenging old injuries with the iron of the plough and the blade of the scythe.

With all this, however, I should have formed no conception of the richness of the country, if I had not had the chance of seeing the market of Groningen.

But before speaking of the market, I must mention the city itself.

Groningen - so called, according to some, from Trojan Grunio, and founded, according to others, one hundred and fifty years before the Christian era, around a Roman fortress which Tacitus calls Corbulonis monumentum (all which assertions have been affirmed and denied for centuries and remain undecided to this day) - is the most considerable of the cities of North Holland for size and commerce, but perhaps the least curious to a stranger. It is situated on a river called Hunse, at the junction of three great canals which connect it with several other commercial towns; is surrounded by high bastions constructed in 1698 by Coehorn, the Dutch Vauban; and has a port, which although distant several miles from the mouth of the Ems, can receive the largest merchant ships.

The streets and squares are large, the canals as wide as those of Amsterdam, the houses taller than in almost any other Dutch city, the shops worthy of Paris, the cleanliness worthy of Broek: with nothing peculiar in form, color, or general aspect. Arriving there from Leuwarde you feel as if you were a hundred miles nearer home, and in the atmosphere of Germany or France. The sole peculiarity of Groningen are certain houses covered with a greyish tint all encrusted with small bits of glass, which, when the sun shines upon them, burn with a strange radiance, looking as if the walls were set with pearls and silver beads. There is a fine town hall, built during the French domination, a market-place which is said to be the largest in Holland, and a vast church, anciently dedicated to Saint Martin, which presents various noteworthy features of the different phases of the Gothic, and has a very tall steeple composed of five diminishing stories, so that it seems to be made up of five steeples, each one smaller than the lower one, and placed one atop of the other.

Groningen has a university, for which reason it is honored by its neighbor cities with the name of the Athens of the North. This university, established in a new and vast building, has but a small number of students, since the peasants, the only rich men in the province, seldom send their sons to it, and the wealthy gentlemen of Friesland are educated at Leyden. It is, however, a university well worthy of standing with the other two. There is a fine anatomical cabinet, and a museum of natural history, containing many precious objects. The programme of studies differs little from that of the other two universities; there is a difference, however, in the direction, which, in consequence of the neighborhood of Hanover, is subject to the influences of German literature and science, and presents a religious character entirely its own. The theologians of Groningen, says Alphonso Esquiroz, in his "Studio sulle Università Ollandese," form, in the intellectual movement of the Low Countries, a school apart, which originated, towards 1833, in the very bosom of the most orthodox of cities Utrecht. A professor of Utrecht, M. van Heusde, sought to open a new horizon to religious belief; M. Hofstede de Goot, of the University of Groningen, participated in his ideas, and joined him; and in that way was formed the nucleus of a theological society, resident in the latter city, who, rebellious against synodal protestantism, and formally denying all human authority in matters of religion, are seeking to initiate a type of Christianity peculiar to the Netherlands, of which it would be difficult to give a clear idea, for the reason that those who profess it, and propagate it in their writings, are themselves very obscure in their exposition. In all this heterodoxy, observes Esquiroz, - which can, without serious danger, be introduced into the country, because, in the midst of the agitation of religious ideas, the customs, forms, and traditions of the ancient faith remain immutable - there is a grave and delicate point upon which the orthodox are always trying to trip up their adversary, and never succeeding - the divinity of Jesus Christ. Upon this point the thought of the heterodox is involved in a cloud. For them, Jesus Christ is the most perfect type of humanity, the messenger of God, the image of God. But is he God in person? They put this question aside with every sort of scholastic subtlety. Some, for example, proclaim their belief in his divinity, but not in his deity - an answer so obscure as to be almost equivalent to a negation. For which reasons the doctrine of Dutch heterodoxy may be called a sentimental deism, more or less bound to the poetical side of Christianity. The ardor of religious questions, however, is decreasing every year. The students of the University of Groningen are more interested in literature and science, towards which ends they form societies for readings and study in common, above all of practical science, which predilection is one of the most marked characteristics of the Frieslanders, with whom those of Groningen have many features of resemblance and numerous ties of relationship. The students of Groningen are more quiet and more studious than those of Leyden, who, as far as it is possible to be wild in Holland, have the reputation of being wild.

Besides the glory of the university, which dates from 1614, Groningen, has that of having given birth to several men illustrious in the arts and sciences, about whom it is pleasant to hear Messer Ludovico Guicciardini dilate in his vivid and forcible style. He appears to have had a peculiar affection for the place. First of all he places Ridolpho Agricola, "to whom, among other authors, Erasmus in his writings gives immense praise, saying that on that side of the mountains among men of literary gifts there is none greater nor more complete than he, and that there is no honest discipline, wherein be, with any artisan you will, may not contend: among Greeks and Latins the best of all; in poetry another Virgil, in oratory another Politian; most eloquent, a philosopher, a musician, and writer of many excellent works, with many other rare graces and felicities to him attributed." He goes on to speak of "Vesellius, called Basil, excellent philosopher, of so much doctrine, virtue, and science in every faculty, as appears in an infinite number of his works, written and given to the press, and who is likewise called the light of the world." And he continues that for fear of not being able to worthily praise this Vesellius and this Agricola, who are "the two stars of Groeninghen," he prefers to be silent, "and leave the page white for anyone who shall know better than he how to exalt their names and their country." Finally he cites the name of "another great man, a citizen he also of the same land, called Rinierius Predinius, most worthy author of divers books written with consummate honor and laudation." Besides these may be named the famous orientalist Albert Schultens, the Baron Ruperda, Abraham Frommins, and others.

In the costume and aspect of the people there is, for a stranger, little difference from those of Friesland. Only the helmets of the women are different. At LeuWarde the greater part of them are of silver; at Groningen they are all of gold, and in the exact form of a helmet, covering the whole head; but there are fewer to he seen. Ladies, it is understood, do not wear them any more; the richer peasant women have also left them off, in order to be more like ladies; and now it is only the servant-maids who can boast themselves legitimate descendants of those armed virgins, who, according to the ancient Germanic mythology, presided over battles.

With regard to manners and customs, I had some precious notes from a personage of Groningen, which I think are not to be found in any book of travels. There the customs which relate to the lives of girls and married women are entirely different from ours. Among us (in Italy), a girl who marries comes out of a state of subjection, almost of imprisonment, to enter one of perfect liberty, where she finds herself suddenly surrounded by the consideration, homage, and admiration of those who had formerly neglected her. In Groningen, on the contrary, liberty and gallantry are privileges of the girls, and the married women live surrounded and hemmed in by a hundred precautions and watchful eyes, and are treated with cold respect, almost neglect. The young men devote themselves to girls only, and a great deal of liberty is conceded to them. A young fellow who visits in a family, even if he is not an intimate friend, offers to accompany the daughters, or one daughter, to concert or theatre, at night, in a carriage, alone, and father and mother make no opposition: and if anyone did, he would pass for a fool or an ill-bred person, and would be blamed and laughed at. A young couple may be engaged for years; and during the whole time they are seen together every day, taking long walks, remaining alone together in the house, and in the evening, before separating standing by the half-hour in the door with no one near them. Girls of fifteen years of age, daughters of the first families, traverse the city from one end of it to the other, going to and coming from school, even towards evening, alone, and, should they stop and speak with anyone, nobody pays any attention. On the contrary, if a married woman assumes the smallest liberty of action, there is no end to the comment she excites; but that happens so seldom that it may almost be said never to happen at all. "Our young men," said my informant, "are not at all dangerous. They can be gallant with girls, because the girls are timid, and their timidity encourages them; but with ladies they are too shy. Within my memory there have been but two notorious cases of conjugal infidelity in this city." And he told me about them. "So it is, my dear Sir," he added, putting his hand upon my knee, "that here we make no conquests, except in agriculture, and he who wishes to make them, in another field, must first go before a notary and make his attestation that his intentions are to fight the good fight according to law, and with an honest purpose for peace in the end." Arguing, wrongly, from my silence, that this state of things was not to my taste, he added: "Such is our way of life; tedious if you will, but wholesome. You drink the cup of life all at once, we take it slowly and in small mouthfuls. You, perhaps, enjoy more, but we are more constantly content." "God bless you!" said I. "God convert you!" he replied.

But let us come to the market, which was the last spectacle of life that I saw in Holland.

Early in the morning I took a turn about the city to see the peasants come in. Every hour arrived a train which brought a crowd of them; by every country road there came brightly-painted wagons, drawn by five black horses, and bringing majestic married couples; by every canal arrived boats with sails, full of produce; in a few hours the city was full of noise and people. The peasants, male, are all dressed in cloth almost black, with a woollen cravat, gloves, and watch-chain, and carry a large leathern portfolio, a cigar in the mouth, and a countenance of serene contentment. The peasant women are beflowered, bejewelled, beribboned, like the Madonna of the Spanish churches. The business of the market over, they invade the shops and restaurants, not as our peasants do, who look timidly about them with an air of asking leave to enter, but with the look and bearing of persons who know themselves to be welcome. In the restaurants the tables are speedily covered with bottles of claret and Rhine wine; in the shops the clerks hasten to take down their merchandize. The women are received like princesses, and they spend, indeed, in a princely manner. Incidents occur which I have heard described by eyewitnesses. A merchant dealing with one of the ladies of the city, names the price of a silk dress. "Too dear," answers the lady. "I take it," says a peasant woman standing by, and she does so. Another peasant is buying a pianoforte. The dealer shows her one which cost one thousand francs. "Have you none dearer?" says she, "all my friends have pianofortes at a thousand francs." Husband and wife are passing a printseller's window, and see an oil-painting in a gilt frame displayed therein. They stop, and discover in it some vague resemblance to their own house and garden. The wife says "Let us buy it." The husband answers "'Let us buy it." They enter the shop, count out there and then three hundred florins, and carry off the picture.

When they have completed their purchases, they visit the museums, enter the cafés and read the journals, or take a turn about the city, casting compassionate glances at all that population of shopkeepers, clerks, professors, officials, proprietors, who in other countries are envied by those who till the ground, but here are regarded by them in the light of poor people. A stranger to the real condition of things might believe, at sight of this spectacle, that he had arrived in a country where some great social revolution had taken place, and that the newly enriched had come into the city to triumph over the despoiled citizens. But the finest sight is in the evening when they go back to their villages and their factories. Then all the country roads are covered with those curious wagons all driven at top speed, trying to outstrip one another, even the women urging on the horses, and the victorious ones cracking their whips in sign of triumph. The air resounds with song and laughter, until at last the festive tumult is lost in the endless green of the fields together with the last red rays of sunset.