A recent article from Dutch historian Roeland Harms caught my attention, as he compared today’s blogs with the religious and political pamphlets of 17th century Amsterdam and the way that the presentation of opposing views in these pamphlets created media hype.
These events took place during the Dutch Revolt. Through a range of medieval inheritances the previously independent Dutch counties and duchies were combined and became part of the Spanish-Habsburg Empire. This was ruled from Madrid by the zealous catholic Spanish/Hapsburg Emperor Philip II. He proclaimed a number of new taxes on the Dutch and also banned the new protestant religions that had entered Europe from Germany and Switzerland.
The Dutch nobility, while still accepting the emperor as their suzerain, tried to negotiate lower taxes and a relaxation of the Spanish regime of terror that was taking place to enforce these new rules. This led to the Dutch Revolt, which started in 1568 and did not end until 1648.
However, by 1572 the States of Holland and Zeeland, protected in the south by the almost impregnable river delta of the Rhine, were able to operate totally independently of Spain, with the 80-year war mainly ravaging the southern Netherlands.
The north operated as a Republic, with a Stadtholder (the military leader) and a Raadspensionaris (Prime Minister). For the provinces of northern Netherlands this heralded the start of the Golden Age of Holland. Here religious tolerance was observed – the government remained secular but Calvinism was proclaimed the official religion.
Protestantism in general is well-known for its many factions, where often miniscule differences can develop almost into civil war. Two of these factions began to use pamphlets to express their views. They were cheap to produce and could be rapidly distributed through urbanised Holland. The controversy reached fever pitch in 1618-1619, when the Stadtholder and the Prime Minister chose different parties. The Prime Minister, Johan van Oldenbarneveld, was in favour of the tolerant faction that was happy to accept both points of view, side by side; but Stadtholder Maurits of Orange (probably for political reasons) chose the more fanatical intolerants. In the end this led to the public execution of the Prime Minister.
In the meantime the publishers had been doing extremely good business, and so when the controversy started to die down they began to fuel the campaign with their own opinion pieces, switching camps in an opportunistic way, but basically attacking whichever was the losing party, since that would generate the highest possible sales of their pamphlets. The contents no longer revolved around real issues – scandals, satire and cartoons were used to move from news to entertainment. And by skirting around the issues the publishers also avoided arrest by the authorities.
From then on media hype became a staple product of the pamphlets, with two notably large campaigns in that century, around 1650 and 1672. Increasingly the pamphlets became more and more sensational in their content, often with little or no discussion on the real serious issues that lay at the core of them.
So what has changed in 400 years?
We invite your comments: Please click here to commentTagged in: blogs, Digital Media, Global, Media