is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

The Rise and Decline of Dutch Technological Leadership: Technology, Economy, and Culture in the Netherlands, 1350?1800

Author(s):Davids, Karel
Reviewer(s):TeBrake, William

Published by EH.NET (March 2009)

Karel Davids, The Rise and Decline of Dutch Technological Leadership: Technology, Economy, and Culture in the Netherlands, 1350?1800. Leiden: Brill, 2008. xxii + 633 pp. (two volumes) $199 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-16865-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William TeBrake, Department of History, University of Maine,

Karel Davids, Professor of Economic and Social History at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University), Amsterdam, has produced a thorough and well-reasoned study of the place of technology and technological innovation in the northern Low Countries during the late-medieval and early-modern eras. In his introduction, Davids makes clear that the term “technological leadership” is used to refer not to individuals but to “socio-geographical entities,” such as “a given country, region, town or cluster of towns” that played “an initiating role in the development of new technologies in a wide variety of fields.” During the late-medieval and early-modern periods, various entities played such a role at some time or another, including Nuremberg, Venice, and parts of France, but all also lost such leadership positions as others took over. According to Davids, the northern Netherlands, the territory encompassed by the Dutch Republic, was the technological leader during much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before relinquishing that role to England by 1800, and in the process of explicating the rise and fall of Dutch technological leadership, he has called into question a number of commonplace assumptions found in the historiography of the period in question.

After a brief survey in chapter one of the circumstances and events leading to the formation of the Dutch Republic by the late sixteenth century, Davids examines what contemporaries understood about technological leadership, how and when such notions first appeared, and when they began to be associated with the northern Netherlands in chapter two. For this he uses a broad range of sources, from private correspondence, travel accounts, and reports by representatives of foreign governments, to tracts on various topics from the period. In chapter three, Davids conducts a thorough analysis of the role that technological innovation played in the economic expansion of the northern Netherlands and Dutch Republic along with a consideration of the various methodological approaches available to examine that role. He makes clear that the term, “technology,” is used to refer to the “abilities of people to control or transform nature for productive ends.” Thus he is not concerned with “household technology” nor with “skills that relate to the manipulation of money or people (such as financial techniques, military tactics or the practice of administration).” What remains ranges from “agrarian practices and seafaring skills to industrial processes and building techniques.” He dates the first signs of accelerating technological innovation in the northern Netherlands to around the middle of the fourteenth century which resulted in a position of technological leadership at least in hydraulic engineering and ship construction during the sixteenth century. During the early seventeenth century, residents of the region had also begun to earn reputations as “designers and makers of tools and machines in industry” and by the middle of the eighteenth century as expert in a whole range of other fields as well.

Davids looks at the diffusion of technological knowledge into and out of the northern Low Countries in chapters four and five respectively. For this, he supplements the material he uses in the second chapter concerning contemporary “perceptions of leadership” with documented evidence of actual technological import and export. The result is a highly nuanced picture of the rise and fall of Dutch technological leadership which Davids compares to current views concerning the timing and transmission of technical innovation during the late medieval and early modern period for Europe generally and for the northern Netherlands in particular. For the entire period between 1350 and 1800, the northern Netherlands both imported and exported technical knowledge, though the inflow of such knowledge clearly exceeded the outflow in both size and scope before 1580, with a rough balance between inflow and outflow for the century thereafter. The Dutch Republic was the preeminent exporter of new technology between 1680 and 1780; by 1800, England had begun to displace the Dutch Republic in this regard. In chapters six and seven, Davids attempts to locate the causes for the rise and decline of Dutch technological leadership and he compares his findings to current views on the issue.

Davids is informative and persuasive throughout. His documentation is extensive and the material he presents, while copious, is very well organized. One of the most interesting features of his study is the attention he pays to the truly remarkable concentration during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of literally hundreds of industries powered by windmills in the Zaan district, just across the IJ/harbor from Amsterdam, forcing the reader to reconsider how revolutionary the English Industrial Revolution really was. Further, there are several important areas in which he has significantly revised current understanding of the course of technology, economy, and society during the late-medieval and early-modern periods. First of all, he challenges the old assumption that immigration from the southern Netherlands, France, and Iberia during the century after 1580 was the leading cause of technological advance in the Dutch Republic. Davids’ scrutiny and evidence essentially demolishes this notion. He is able to show that the importation of technological knowledge had been occurring at a significant rate since the mid-fourteenth century, peaking before 1580, and that the century after 1580 ? the time of the much-vaunted immigration ? was precisely the period during which imports began to decline and exports to climb. Further, Davids makes clear that technological leadership in the Dutch Republic was much less tied to economic advancement than is usually assumed. Indeed, the Republic’s technological leadership began to peak only when the economy of the Dutch Republic already had begun to decline, during the late seventeenth century, and such leadership continued for another century thereafter, before giving way to England only after 1780. Finally, Davids makes a compelling case for locating the causes of technological leadership (and its decline) not only in market forces but also in institutional and cultural conditions, including the relative openness or secrecy of economic, cultural, and political life.

All in all, The Rise and Decline of Dutch Technological Leadership is an impressive piece of work. Unfortunately, it is not a perfect work. My primary criticism of it is the apparent abrogation by the publisher, Brill, of all responsibility for copy editing and proofreading. The book’s faults range from misspellings, typographical errors, and inappropriate punctuation to many sentences with awkward word order ? clauses of various types inserted between elements of compound verbs, as in the refrain from that old Broadway show, “Throw mama from the train a kiss” ? while the meaning is clear, this is not the form of expression expected in formal, written English. Also, there are inconsistent and sometimes odd spellings of place names: both “Ghent” and “Gent” and both “Tournay” and “Tournai,” with only the former in each case appearing in the index. Further, “Rijssel” is found in the text but only “Lille (Rijssel)” appears in the index. And why not use Den Bosch instead of “Bois-le-duc” (no one outside the Francophone world uses this form), and why not “IJ” and “IJssel” instead of “Y” and “Yssel”? Also, for the majority of English speakers in the world, “corn” is reserved for Indian corn or maize and “grain” is used for wheat, barley, etc. Finally, this book perpetuates the silly (British?) practice of substituting “states” for “estates,” in reference to status groups and their institutionalized form, Estates General; anyone even vaguely familiar with Dutch knows that “states” is a mistranslation. In fairness to the author, all of these matters should have been addressed by the publisher, preferably, in this case, by employing a competent, Anglophone copy editor. The fact that Brill did not do so is a disservice not only to the author but also to anyone paying $199 for this work. However, such criticisms aside, this is an important study that should be read by anyone interested in late-medieval and early-modern European history, not only technological but also economic, political, and cultural.

William TeBrake is Professor of History at the University of Maine where he teaches medieval environmental and social history. His recent publications include ?Taming the Waterwolf: Hydraulic Engineering and Water Management in the Netherlands during the Middle Ages,? Technology and Culture 43 (2002): 475-99; and Hoogheemraadschap Rijnland [Water Board Rijnland], Registers OAR 11, 12, 13: 1253-1564 (Leiden: Vereniging Jan van Hout, 2006). URL:

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval