H-Net about    search    site map    editors    donate    contact    help
navbar
Discussion Networks Reviews Job Guide Announcements

The comprehension of the image: power and the Dutch Republic, 1588: Narrative as hierarchy and linearity.

Andrew Sawyer, University of Southampton.

The late sixteenth century saw a spectacular florescence of power on the Rhine delta, the emergence of a global power from the wreck of the Habsburg Low Countries. No one chronicled it more vividly than John Lothrop Motley, in his Rise of the Dutch Repub lic published in 1856, a brilliant narrative of the birth and early years of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

Yet his passionate history, for all its scholarship, is as teleological as its title suggests, is implicitly incontestable, and above all is bound to the hierarchy of the narrative. And ironically, the polity he revealed had its own, private, multiple te leologies: its birth, survival, and flourishing was contested at every step from within and without; and the diffuse nature of its political system defied and still defies narrative, being, in the words of one modern historian, 'fundamentally incoherent'. There is no grand narrative, no Dutch Hobbes or Bodin. But, in place of the hegemony of Leviathan, the Dutch Republic (as any student of the Golden Age is aware), was 'wired' for imagery: and Motley, for all his brilliance, was bound by the technology of the 1850's to text. Only in footnotes, by way of branching anecdote, could he invoke the pictorial.

An attempt to diagram power in the Republic, rather than narrate it, was made by the English Earl of Leicester when he was appointed by the fledgling state to the post of Governor General in 1585. As part of a multi-media offensive of pageants, tableaux, prints and pamphlets, aimed at imposing a hierarchic and monarchic order on the dis-order of the Provinces, his party produced a medal in 1588. In a microcosm it shows how the aristocratic Leicester perceived power in the polity, as top down, hierarchic , and linear, power which could indeed be projected through narrative. At the same time, the Dutch themselves were explaining, perhaps even creating, new structures of power in imagery.

Bound to the linearity of speech and text, it is not possible or perhaps desirable to escape the narrative. But to go beyond narrative, to extend our reach and exploit such sources as Dutch political prints in the context of historical study is, we would argue, dependent upon technology. The demonstration of digital modelling and source oriented software (Kleio Image Analysis System) to analyse imagery, and to systematically incorporate it into historical narratives is the subject of this paper.