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The Rise of the Dutch Republic, Volume I.(of III) 1555-66 By John Lothrop Motley Characters: 15666

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


It can never be satisfactorily ascertained who were the aboriginal inhabitants. The record does not reach beyond Caesar's epoch, and he found the territory on the left of the Rhine mainly tenanted by tribes of the Celtic family. That large division of the Indo-European group which had already overspread many portions of Asia Minor, Greece, Germany, the British Islands, France, and Spain, had been long settled in Belgic Gaul, and constituted the bulk of its population. Checked in its westward movement by the Atlantic, its current began to flow backwards towards its fountains, so that the Gallic portion of the Netherland population was derived from the original race in its earlier wanderings and from the later and refluent tide coming out of Celtic Gaul. The modern appellation of the Walloons points to the affinity of their ancestors with the Gallic, Welsh, and Gaelic family. The Belgae were in many respects a superior race to most of their blood-allies. They were, according to Caesar's testimony, the bravest of all the Celts. This may be in part attributed to the presence of several German tribes, who, at this period had already forced their way across the Rhine, mingled their qualities with the Belgic material, and lent an additional mettle to the Celtic blood. The heart of the country was thus inhabited by a Gallic race, but the frontiers had been taken possession of by Teutonic tribes.

When the Cimbri and their associates, about a century before our era, made their memorable onslaught upon Rome, the early inhabitants of the Rhine island of Batavia, who were probably Celts, joined in the expedition. A recent and tremendous inundation had swept away their miserable homes, and even the trees of the forests, and had thus rendered them still more dissatisfied with their gloomy abodes. The island was deserted of its population. At about the same period a civil dissension among the Chatti-a powerful German race within the Hercynian forest-resulted in the expatriation of a portion of the people. The exiles sought a new home in the empty Rhine island, called it "Bet-auw," or "good-meadow," and were themselves called, thenceforward, Batavi, or Batavians.

These Batavians, according to Tacitus, were the bravest of all the Germans. The Chatti, of whom they formed a portion, were a pre-eminently warlike race. "Others go to battle," says the historian, "these go to war." Their bodies were more hardy, their minds more vigorous, than those of other tribes. Their young men cut neither hair nor beard till they had slain an enemy. On the field of battle, in the midst of carnage and plunder, they, for the first time, bared their faces. The cowardly and sluggish, only, remained unshorn. They wore an iron ring, too, or shackle upon their necks until they had performed the same achievement, a symbol which they then threw away, as the emblem of sloth. The Batavians were ever spoken of by the Romans with entire respect. They conquered the Belgians, they forced the free Frisians to pay tribute, but they called the Batavians their friends. The tax-gatherer never invaded their island. Honorable alliance united them with the Romans. It was, however, the alliance of the giant and the dwarf. The Roman gained glory and empire, the Batavian gained nothing but the hardest blows. The Batavian cavalry became famous throughout the Republic and the Empire. They were the favorite troops of Caesar, and with reason, for it was their valor which turned the tide of battle at Pharsalia. From the death of Julius down to the times of Vespasian, the Batavian legion was the imperial body guard, the Batavian island the basis of operations in the Roman wars with Gaul, Germany, and Britain.

Beyond the Batavians, upon the north, dwelt the great Frisian family, occupying the regions between the Rhine and Ems, The Zuyder Zee and the Dollart, both caused by the terrific inundations of the thirteenth century and not existing at this period, did not then interpose boundaries between kindred tribes. All formed a homogeneous nation of pure German origin.

Thus, the population of the country was partly Celtic, partly German. Of these two elements, dissimilar in their tendencies and always difficult to blend, the Netherland people has ever been compounded. A certain fatality of history has perpetually helped to separate still more widely these constituents, instead of detecting and stimulating the elective affinities which existed. Religion, too, upon all great historical occasions, has acted as the most powerful of dissolvents. Otherwise, had so many valuable and contrasted characteristics been early fused into a whole, it would be difficult to show a race more richly endowed by Nature for dominion and progress than the Belgo-Germanic people.

Physically the two races resembled each other. Both were of vast stature. The gigantic Gaul derided the Roman soldiers as a band of pigmies. The German excited astonishment by his huge body and muscular limbs. Both were fair, with fierce blue eyes, but the Celt had yellow hair floating over his shoulders, and the German long locks of fiery red, which he even dyed with woad to heighten the favorite color, and wore twisted into a war-knot upon the top of his head. Here the German's love of finery ceased. A simple tunic fastened at his throat with a thorn, while his other garments defined and gave full play to his limbs, completed his costume. The Gaul, on the contrary, was so fond of dress that the Romans divided his race respectively into long-haired, breeched, and gowned Gaul; (Gallia comata, braccata, togata). He was fond of brilliant and parti-colored clothes, a taste which survives in the Highlander's costume. He covered his neck and arms with golden chains. The simple and ferocious German wore no decoration save his iron ring, from which his first homicide relieved him. The Gaul was irascible, furious in his wrath, but less formidable in a sustained conflict with a powerful foe. "All the Gauls are of very high stature," says a soldier who fought under Julian. (Amm. Marcel. xv. 12. 1). "They are white, golden-haired, terrible in the fierceness of their eyes, greedy of quarrels, bragging and insolent. A band of strangers could not resist one of them in a brawl, assisted by his strong blue-eyed wife, especially when she begins, gnashing her teeth, her neck swollen, brandishing her vast and snowy arms, and kicking with her heels at the same time, to deliver her fisticuffs, like bolts from the twisted strings of a catapult. The voices of many are threatening and formidable. They are quick to anger, but quickly appeased. All are clean in their persons; nor among them is ever seen any man or woman, as elsewhere, squalid in ragged garments. At all ages they are apt for military service. The old man goes forth to the fight with equal strength of breast, with limbs as hardened by cold and assiduous labor, and as contemptuous of all dangers, as the young. Not one of them, as in Italy is often the case, was ever known to cut off his thumbs to avoid the service of Mars."

The polity of each race differed widely from that of the other. The government of both may be said to have been republican, but the Gallic tribes were aristocracies, in which the influence of clanship was a predominant feature; while the German system, although nominally regal, was in reality democratic. In Gaul were two orders, the nobility and the priesthood, while the people, says Caesar, were all slaves. The knights or nobles were all trained to arms. Each went forth to battle, followed by his dependents, while a chief of all the clans was appointed to take command during the war. The prince or chief governor was elected annually, but only by the nobles. The people had no rights at all, and were glad to assign themselves as s

laves to any noble who was strong enough to protect them. In peace the Druids exercised the main functions of government. They decided all controversies, civil and criminal. To rebel against their decrees was punished by exclusion from the sacrifices-a most terrible excommunication, through which the criminal was cut off from all intercourse with his fellow-creatures.

With the Germans, the sovereignty resided in the great assembly of the people. There were slaves, indeed, but in small number, consisting either of prisoners of war or of those unfortunates who had gambled away their liberty in games of chance. Their chieftains, although called by the Romans princes and kings, were, in reality, generals, chosen by universal suffrage. Elected in the great assembly to preside in war, they were raised on the shoulders of martial freemen, amid wild battle cries and the clash of spear and shield. The army consisted entirely of volunteers, and the soldier was for life infamous who deserted the field while his chief remained alive. The same great assembly elected the village magistrates and decided upon all important matters both of peace and war. At the full of the moon it was usually convoked. The nobles and the popular delegates arrived at irregular intervals, for it was an inconvenience arising from their liberty, that two or three days were often lost in waiting for the delinquents. All state affairs were in the hands of this fierce democracy. The elected chieftains had rather authority to persuade than power to command.

The Gauls were an agricultural people. They were not without many arts of life. They had extensive flocks and herds; and they even exported salted provisions as far as Rome. The truculent German, Ger-mane, Heer-mann, War-man, considered carnage the only useful occupation, and despised agriculture as enervating and ignoble. It was base, in his opinion, to gain by sweat what was more easily acquired by blood. The land was divided annually by the magistrates, certain farms being assigned to certain families, who were forced to leave them at the expiration of the year. They cultivated as a common property the lands allotted by the magistrates, but it was easier to summon them to the battle-field than to the plough. Thus they were more fitted for the roaming and conquering life which Providence was to assign to them for ages, than if they had become more prone to root themselves in the soil. The Gauls built towns and villages. The German built his solitary hut where inclination prompted. Close neighborhood was not to his taste.

In their system of religion the two races were most widely contrasted. The Gauls were a priest-ridden race. Their Druids were a dominant caste, presiding even over civil affairs, while in religious matters their authority was despotic. What were the principles of their wild Theology will never be thoroughly ascertained, but we know too much of its sanguinary rites. The imagination shudders to penetrate those shaggy forests, ringing with the death-shrieks of ten thousand human victims, and with the hideous hymns chanted by smoke-and-blood-stained priests to the savage gods whom they served.

The German, in his simplicity, had raised himself to a purer belief than that of the sensuous Roman or the superstitious Gaul. He believed in a single, supreme, almighty God, All-Vater or All-father. This Divinity was too sublime to be incarnated or imaged, too infinite to be enclosed in temples built with hands. Such is the Roman's testimony to the lofty conception of the German. Certain forests were consecrated to the unseen God whom the eye of reverent faith could alone behold. Thither, at stated times, the people repaired to worship. They entered the sacred grove with feet bound together, in token of submission. Those who fell were forbidden to rise, but dragged themselves backwards on the ground. Their rules were few and simple. They had no caste of priests, nor were they, when first known to the Romans, accustomed to offer sacrifice. It must be confessed that in a later age, a single victim, a criminal or a prisoner, was occasionally immolated. The purity of their religion was soon stained by their Celtic neighborhood. In the course of the Roman dominion it became contaminated, and at last profoundly depraved. The fantastic intermixture of Roman mythology with the gloomy but modified superstition of Romanized Celts was not favorable to the simple character of German theology. The entire extirpation, thus brought about, of any conceivable system of religion, prepared the way for a true revelation. Within that little river territory, amid those obscure morasses of the Rhine and Scheld, three great forms of religion-the sanguinary superstition of the Druid, the sensuous polytheism of the Roman, the elevated but dimly groping creed of the German, stood for centuries, face to face, until, having mutually debased and destroyed each other, they all faded away in the pure light of Christianity.

Thus contrasted were Gaul and German in religious and political systems. The difference was no less remarkable in their social characteristics. The Gaul was singularly unchaste. The marriage state was almost unknown. Many tribes lived in most revolting and incestuous concubinage; brethren, parents, and children, having wives in common. The German was loyal as the Celt was dissolute. Alone among barbarians, he contented himself with a single wife, save that a few dignitaries, from motives of policy, were permitted a larger number. On the marriage day the German offered presents to his bride-not the bracelets and golden necklaces with which the Gaul adorned his fair-haired concubine, but oxen and a bridled horse, a sword, a shield, and a spear-symbols that thenceforward she was to share his labors and to become a portion of himself.

They differed, too, in the honors paid to the dead. The funerals of the Gauls were pompous. Both burned the corpse, but the Celt cast into the flames the favorite animals, and even the most cherished slaves and dependents of the master. Vast monuments of stone or piles of earth were raised above the ashes of the dead. Scattered relics of the Celtic age are yet visible throughout Europe, in these huge but unsightly memorials.

The German was not ambitious at the grave. He threw neither garments nor odors upon the funeral pyre, but the arms and the war-horse of the departed were burned and buried with him.

The turf was his only sepulchre, the memory of his valor his only monument. Even tears were forbidden to the men. "It was esteemed honorable," says the historian, "for women to lament, for men to remember."

The parallel need be pursued no further. Thus much it was necessary to recall to the historical student concerning the prominent characteristics by which the two great races of the land were distinguished: characteristics which Time has rather hardened than effaced. In the contrast and the separation lies the key to much of their history. Had Providence permitted a fusion of the two races, it is, possible, from their position, and from the geographical and historical link which they would have afforded to the dominant tribes of Europe, that a world-empire might have been the result, different in many respects from any which has ever arisen. Speculations upon what might have been are idle. It is well, however; to ponder the many misfortunes resulting from a mutual repulsion, which, under other circumstances and in other spheres, has been exchanged for mutual attraction and support.

It is now necessary to sketch rapidly the political transformations undergone by the country, from the early period down to the middle of the sixteenth century; the epoch when the long agony commenced, out of which the Batavian republic was born.

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