For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Images of Labor and Diligence in Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Prints: The Work Ethic Rooted in Civic Morality or Protestantism?"

by Veldman, Ilja M (1992)


"The people of the Low Countries are very hard-work- ing, diligent, inventive, and have a ready wit," writes Lodovico Guicciardini in his Descrittione dei tutti i Paesi Bassi (Antwerp I 567). "They are a nation of merchants and are skilled in all forms of commerce, such that the prosperity of the country is founded largely on trade and industry." I Hadrianus Junius is also full of praise for this indus- triousness in his Batavia, a historical treatise written in Haarlem in 1565-69. Junius goes on to define thrift, in combination with temperance in diet, as a way of ensur- ing that one is provided for in later life. "The mores of country people are diverse in kind. The inhabitants of northern parts have a somewhat stricter and more aus- tere way of life, inspired rather by thrift, that great source of income, than by any lack.... Aside from this, they were never idle, and were capable of strenuous exertion. They were ardent seekers of work."2 A little further on, where a description is given of a time when "the desire for delicacies had exceeded the bounds of civic morality" (with some families exhausting their entire capital), Junius remarks: "The wealthy, thank Heaven, have profited from this example and have turned their attention to more worthy matters. A new order has emerged and been given governance of the state. It has introduced thrift, and accords the highest priority to comfort in later life, an age at which poverty is held to be the utmost disgrace."

Key Passage

Another of Junius's verses, "In tabellam de otiosis" (On a picture of idlers), describing an unknown print or painting, conveys an equally clear message: "He who squanders his time in vulgar idling, and wilfully puts too much trust in chance, strikes a blow at the source of bounty, and he who has once given generously becomes a beggar. Wealth often grows for one who, though afflic- ted by want, lives frugally by toiling diligently in a seem- ly manner."68 So beggars have only themselves to blame. This point is also made in Den rechten weg nae 't gasthuys (The best way to the poorhouse), a text that had originally ap- peared in French at the end of the fifteenth century, being reprinted as Der fielen, rabauen oft der schalcken vocabulaer (On the vocabulary of scoundrels, ruffians and rogues; Antwerp I563). This is a satirical portrayal of all manner of people who have been reduced to beg- gary by shunning such virtues as thrift, orderliness and diligence. The book is largely taken up by a Dutch ver- sion of the Liber vagatorum, a tract denouncing beggars in their numerous guises.69 Whereas almsgiving and good works had been reli- gious obligations during the middle ages, The idler's punishment and similar publications clearly reject the need to show charity to those able to work. The belief that idlers are potential criminals who should be set to work, perhaps even under coercion, is also expressed in Coornhert's Boeventucht ofte middelen tot mindering der schadelyke ledighghangers (The correction of knaves, or ways of reducing the numbers of harmful loiterers; 1587), the first manuscript of which dates from 1567, in the same period that produced Galle's engravings.70 Coornhert's treatise links poverty and crime, and calls for the establishment of workhouses, something that would indeed come into effect in Amsterdam toward the end of the century. For if able-bodied beggars receive sustenance rather than punishment, Coornhert reasons, the country will soon be full of scoundrels who will plague the righteous with theft, pillage and murder.  (p.242)


Protestantism, Protestant Reformation, Aesthetics, Imagery, Protestant Work Ethic, Work Ethic, Civic Morality, History, Dutch History, Moral Artwork


Work in Art, Protestantism, Labour History

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