THE EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES An Interpretation of Dutch Culture In the Golden Age

By Simon Schama Knopf. 698 pp. $39.95

LIKE ALL GOOD histories, Simon Schama's masterly investigation of Dutch culture in the 17th century -- its so-called Golden Age -- illuminates not only the past but also the present. Which is not to say that this book makes any facile analogies; Schama -- a Harvard professor -- is much too serious a historian for that. But the question that he asks in The Embarrassment of Riches is one that has recognizably modern overtones: How does a culture cope with sudden economic success?

We are all fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous, and in the 17th century nobody was as rich, or as famously rich, as the Dutch. Everything they touched, from Japanese porcelain and Malacca pepper to herrings and cheese, turned to gold. Their banks were the most dependable in the world. Their flourishing cities were cleaner, and their homes were better appointed than those of their European neighbors. They ate finer food -- and drank more -- their children were better looked after, their workers better paid, even their poor were less poor. Such good fortune was hardly universally appreciated, as we are reminded by the numerous Hollandophobisms that entered the English language during that period -- Dutch uncles doled out Dutch consolation, parsimonious hosts offered a Dutch treat, out of the bottle came Dutch courage, and naughty children didn't get in trouble, they got in Dutch.

There is no indication that the Dutch paid much attention to these slanders; theirs was a remarkably self-contained culture, and in any case one that had its own preoccupations. Holland was what would be called today an "emerging" nation -- it was brand new, having broken away from the Spanish empire in 1609. Like all "new" countries, poor or rich, it had to devise a set of social beliefs and behavior on the fly. It is this process of cultural bricolage that Schama sets out to examine. And what an examination. In an unhurried, scholarly fashion, but always with wit and humor he scrutinizes diverse aspects of 17th-century everyday Dutch life: not only such obvious things as food, clothing, the home and the family, but also manners and behavior, the relations between men and women, homosexuality, medicine, money, prostitution, law, the treatment of criminals, and much more.

We learn about the Tulip Mania of 1636, when a speculative market in tulip futures drove up the price until frenzied burghers mortgaged their homes and sold their furniture to buy a single exotic bulb. And about a corrective punishment for idlers, which consisted of a chamber, equipped with a hand-pump, that slowly filled with water; the hapless prisoner was obliged to pump, quite literally, for his life. Or of the curious relationship between Calvinist society and vice, especially spirits and tobacco, which were, paradoxically, more popular in Holland than elsewhere. The Dutch were assiduous record-keepers, and Schama presents us with a wealth of original information -- shopping lists, bankruptcy inventories, dinner menus, and lottery prizes. One of the most engaging sections is based on the diaries of Catharina Schrader, a Friesland midwife who kept a meticulous journal until her death at 91.

Material things matter, but so also do ideas, individuals and historical events, something that Schama, no annaliste, never lets us forget. He situates his description of social beliefs and behavior in the broader context of Dutch political history, which makes for a long book but a satisfying one, not the least because it is so well written. But it is not only the author's engaging prose, or his unearthing of the unexpected and the forgotten that holds our interest. "The most extraordinary invention of a country that was to become famous for its ingenuity was its own culture," Schama writes, and indeed there is something very attractive about the homely, 17th-century Dutch. We sympathize with their obsessive domesticity, with their demonstrative love of children, with their cult of the family, even with their sweet-tooth. We are charmed -- not shocked, as were most foreign visitors -- that courting couples held hands, or that Dutch women publicly displayed affection towards their husbands. Even their preoccupation with cleanliness, hardly their most appealing trait, seems a harmless enough fixation. IF THIS seems familiar, it is probably because we have "seen" so much of it, in the work of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Steen, Metsu and countless minor masters and lesser genre painters. The Embarrassment of Riches has an embarrassment of visual delight, over 300 illustrations drawn from the art of the period. These play an important role in the development of the author's thesis, for below the materialistic surface of Dutch painting is an abundance of symbolism, allegory and emblematic imagery. Gerard ter Borch's Soldier Offering a Young Woman Coins is ambiguously erotic, "the sensuousness of the outer world -- of fabric, fruit and flesh -- is in unresolved contention with the inward world of reflection." Jacob Cuyp's portrait of a little girl holding a pretzel turns out to represent "the theater of the contending powers of good and evil." Jan Steen's The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter, which was commissioned to celebrate the philanthropy of the sitter and hence includes a group of beggars, portrays the uneasy relationship between wealth and poverty. The painting suggests a distinct lack of intimacy between the father and his richly dressed daughter, that contrasts with the evident affection between the begging mother and son.

That was the Dutch dilemma -- how to be rich and moral at the same time. They never quite managed to reconcile the two, and, as a result they found themselves "adrift between the fear of the deluge and the hope of moral salvage, in the tidal ebb and flow between worldliness and homeliness, between the gratification of appetite and its denial, between the conditional consecration of wealth and its perdition in surfeit." As I said, this book has modern overtones.

Witold Rybczynski, who teaches at McGill University in Montreal, is the author of "Home: A Short History of an Idea."