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Dutch Pride and Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs

Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted his Netherlandish Proverbs in the 16th century, while the Netherlands was under Spanish rule. That’s right - Europe’s history is so long and convoluted that there was an even a time that the Spaniards ruled Holland. 

Art history professor Robert Baldwin argues that Bruegel's celebration of Dutch proverbs had lots to do with an emerging linguistic pride and Dutch cultural identity at a time of rising hostility toward Spanish rule. Ambitious readers can find Baldwin's full essay Language and Power in Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs (1990) online; for the less-ambitious, I’ve sampled his essay to summarize it in his own words:

“To look at Bruegel's art with its peasants and proverbs, its folklore, coarse humor, popular culture, and  lowly manner, one would hardly guess it decorated the  villas, townhouses, and palaces of mid-sixteenth-century Flemish urban elites. In patronizing, writing, and defending a Netherlandish vernacular, the Dutch elite capitalized linguistically on the growing local hostility toward Philip II's repressive government.

Gropius Becanus argued Dutch was spoken by Noah's son, Japhet, and was thus the closest modern language to the lingua adamica. In this myth, the multiplication of languages following the destruction of Babel was a linguistic Fall and an alienation of words from natural things. Redemption would thus be effected by restoring, purifying, and standardizing the vernacular.

The new Dutch was self-consciously serious, elevated, and philosophical, a language worthy of a great region and suited to the noble ideals of an urban patriciate charged with governing the cities and administering justice. Here, we see the humanist ideal of multi-leveled progress, at once linguistic, political, cultural, social, spiritual, and even scientific." 

Below: Green area shows the Habsburg empire in the 16th century

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