by Doctor Science
I've been on a Dutch painting of the Golden Age kick recently, so I dug out Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches and was noodling around in it, looking especially at how women's lives and work were portrayed.
The most distinctive aspect of Dutch women's work was the constant cleaning:
The spick-and-span towns shone from hours of tireless sweeping, scrubbing, scraping, burnishing, mapping, rubbing and washing. They made an embarrassing contrast to the porridge of filth and ordure that slopped over the cobbles of most other European cities in the seventeenth century. "The beauty and cleanliness of the streets are so extraordinary," ran an English account, "that Persons of all ranks do not scruple, but even seem to take pleasure in walking them." [p 375]Streets so clean you'd want to walk there, wow.
Schama seems to feel that Dutch cleanliness was part of their Protestant drive for godliness and purity, that it was an attempt to enact rules similar to those in Leviticus Chapters 11-15, which proscribe various things or actions as "unclean". For the Dutch to be the new Chosen People, they too had to strictly separate the pure from the impure, the clean from the unclean.
I was not very happy with Schama's explanation, because it overlooks how very much *work* the Dutch put into cleanliness, and how very consistent they were about it. Dutch preachers' sermons about the evils of drink and other excess were not followed especially consistently, after all, even though they didn't call for all that much effort on the part of believers. Dutch levels of cleanliness, on the other hand, required an enormous, relentless commitment of time and energy by a large part of the population. This is not the kind of habit that forms easily and quickly, and people won't keep it up unless there's an ongoing pressure or incentive that makes it seem worthwhile.
Schama's book came out in 1987, so I went to The Google to see what the current state of historical thinking might be. Bingo:
A Land of Milk and Butter: The Economic Origins of Cleanliness in the Dutch Golden Age by Bas van Bavel and Oscar Gelderblom of the University of Utrecht.
Bavel and Gelderblom's analysis goes like this:
- starting around 1400, many small farmers in the Holland region had a few cows to produced cheese or butter for the market
- butter was made by the women of the household: mother, daughters, maidservants
- before refrigeration and pasteurization, making any dairy product was a race against time, because (as we all know) milk spoils rapidly
- cheese gets around the spoiling problem by being deliberately "spoiled" as quickly as possible, prompted to begin fermentation into a storable form
- Butter is much more fragile: unpasteurized butter has a shelf life of about 10 days, even when (as was universal) the milk is slightly soured or "cultured" during the couple of days between when the cow was milked and when the butter was finally made.
- though it was centuries before the germ theory, dairy farmers already knew that the cleaner everything used in the milking and butter-making process was, the more likely it was that the butter would be good-tasting and would last long enough to be transported, sold, and used. Unless there was a reliable market for butter, keeping everything scrupulously clean probably wasn't worth the effort, but once the market was there, that effort would pay off even for small-scale producers
- Dutch butter-making was described in Martin Schoock's Tractatus de Butyro (1664):
The women, he wrote, used separate tools for the various stages of production. They thoroughly cleaned their churns and rinsed them with cold water before churning. When butter was removed from the kegs it was transferred into well-washed wooden tubs. The women, he reported, then carefully washed their hands before they began to knead the butter. The cleanest women thought cold water was not good enough to remove all dirt, so they used hot water. Furthermore, it was generalIn other words, the containers were partially sterilized, not just wiped out or air-dried.
practice to dry the wooden pails and tubs before using them -- not by exposing them to
the sun, but rather with heat from fires made by burning straw or bean pods.
- Bavel and Gelderblom estimate that by 1500 fully half of all Dutch households (and thus, Dutch women) engaged in dairying, and up to a third of urban households had one or two cows.
- In the later 16th and 17th century dairy farms became larger and thus fewer households were involved, but hygienic customs didn't fall away. Many farm girls, formerly milkmaids, moved to the towns and became maidservants, where they still handled large quantities of dairy products in the kitchen. The habits of cleanliness become part of a general culture.
- the only other butter-producing area in Europe where much of the population was engaged in dairying for the market was (part of) Switzerland. "So, it is perhaps no coincidence that Switzerland was one of the few European regions that also acquired a reputation for cleanliness", Bavel and Gelderblom observe.
Neither Schama nor Bavel & Gelderblom talk about why Dutch cleanliness continued to be such a pervasive cultural characteristic for so long, becoming if anything stronger with time. It was often described as a "mania", and there's definitely a kind of OCD quality to the scrupulousness with which Dutch women cleaned everything around them, even the sidewalks in front of their houses. The human effort involved was enormous and unrelenting; what made everyone agree it was worthwhile? Remember, this was before the Germ Theory, and in a period when the rest of Europe was often pretty squalid. It would be interesting to see if Dutch cleanliness had any effect on Dutch health, but certainly the connection wasn't obvious at the time.
One thing that has been IMHO overlooked is that this level of cleaning is a way for women to compete with each other. It's a form of conspicuous consumption: it takes a lot of resources (servants, especially), which means money, and it *is* conspicuous: Dutch women were especially scrupulous to clean their front steps and hallway, so that passers-by could see at a glance who was ahead in the housewife competition. Preachers said that cleanliness was aligned with godliness, so women could say that they were merely working to be as godly as possible -- but I don't think there was much of humility in it. They were practicing Extreme Cleaning, and because so much of it was publicly visible they could rank each other's performance to an exacting degree.
Women's work can be confined to the home and supposedly restricted in scope, yet still be as forthright a display of wealth, hierarchy and social dominance as any potlatch. Human beings are like that.