Reading lists of 19th century Dutch reading groups remarkably international

10 March 2014

Little patriotic literature was read in reading groups in the North Netherlands (the present-day Netherlands) during the period of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830). In fact, a large part of the groups’ reading matter consisted of translated foreign works. This is the conclusion of Arnold Lubbers, who will defend his PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam on Wednesday, 19 March.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands will celebrate its 200-year anniversary from 2013 to 2015. As part of his PhD thesis, Lubbers explored reading groups in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a single state comprising the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg which existed between 1815 and 1830 and was ruled by King William I. It is generally assumed that the Kingdom’s Dutch population had ‘nationalistic’ interests owing to the renewal of national freedom ushered in by the monarchy in the wake of the Napoleonic Empire.

Lubbers, who visited several archives across the Netherlands, examined archival documents and the surviving publications of almost 60 reading groups that were active from 1815 to 1830.

Choice of reading matter as indicator of interest

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the North Netherlands had hundreds to thousands of reading groups. These were small associations with some 20 members who, in a democratic manner, decided which books and magazines were purchased with their cash reserves. These reading groups provide an insight into the interests of Dutchmen at that time.

Lubbers compared the information about the books and magazines bought by the reading groups with existing studies about the reading matter produced in that period. The comparison shows that the people of the North Netherlands bought little explicitly patriotic reading matter.

The books and magazines purchased by the people of the North Netherlands were for the most part newly published works. It is also striking that between 30% and 50% of their purchases consisted of translated reading matter; a lot of  reading matter originally from Germany, France and England was in circulation in reading groups.

The reading group as democratic example

‘Although little was read about the fatherland or national themes, reading groups did contribute to the development of national unity,’ tells Lubbers. ‘As is evident from the rules and regulations that they drew up, distinct efforts were made in these reading groups to avoid controversy. Time and again, members strove to reach a consensus and in this way differences of opinion were soothed. This attitude is consistent with the wish for peace and harmony that was then widely held in society. Reading about explicit patriotism was evidently out of step with that sentiment.’

At the same time, the reading groups offered tens to hundreds of thousands of people in the North Netherlands an opportunity to socialise in a democratic way. Members were required to adhere to strict rules and in most cases a fine would be imposed for the violation of these rules. To put it simply, participation in a reading group offered a considerable proportion of the Dutch population a democratic environment in which they were required to behave in a disciplined manner towards one another. In this way, these reading groups helped pave the way for the democratisation of Dutch society.

Publication details

Arnold Lubbers: ‘Een republiek in het klein’. Noord-Nederlandse leesgezelschappen in het Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden 1815-1830. Supervisor: Prof. E.A. Kuitert. Co-supervisor: Prof. J.Th. Leerssen.

Time and location

The PhD  thesis defence ceremony will be held on Wednesday, 19 March at 10:00.
Location: Agnietenkapel, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231, Amsterdam.

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting