Jacqueline Oud - Culture

Dutch Literature - From past till present


Amongst people outside of the Netherlands, the Dutch literature seems difficult to imagine and few are those who have a small idea about it. Let me tell you that the Dutch have quite a good local literature - yes the Dutch speak and write Dutch should you think it was English - and writers since even befor the Middle Ages.

This article will take you on a short tour in the world of Dutch literature trying to give you an overview of the existing.

  • Old classical literature
  • Middle Ages and literature
  • Nowadays literature and its currents
  • Dutch literature and translations

Old classical literature

The first type of literature that has been handed over from are those from 12th and 13th century. Soemdo have a mixed origin but the Dutch titles "Karel ende Elegast", "Van den vos Reynaert" [1]and "Walewein" are known among the Dutch who were many to have to had to read at least one of these as to understand the roots of their literature. These stories were very short and written in the ancient Dutch language. They were about heroic knights and good deeds they did, they are very funny to read, though a bit difficult due to the different language. (It is said that some were inspired by the stories of Sir Lancelot and King Arthur - so could we consider that at that time already borders were not bounding art and literature)

Middle Ages and literature

The second period of Dutch literature is from the Middle Ages. Stories were more influenced by God and punsishment but also about the temptations in life and though still in an old version of the current Dutch language they were easier to understood. Most of the times these stories try to learn or show something to the reader and at times even directly address to them. Titles that are most known to the Dutch are: "Beatrijs", Mariken van Nieumeghen" and also the theatrical "Elckerlijc". However, we should not forget the Middle Ages is also the start of the Renaissance and we find in this period also the works of Desiderius Erasmus - "Lot der Zotheid" (Laus Stultitae) and het boek tegen de barbarij (Antibarbari - translated in Dutch only in 2001). With the works of Erasmus - who wrote in Latin only - we can notice the 2 currents: traditional literature focusing on God and the evil, and the modern literature introducing the influences from abroad and a more open vision of the world.

This new vision of the world is even stronger in the 16th and 17 century when the Netherlands - IN this period the Netherlands are still the various Provinces including the Flamish part - are also taking a high rank in painting and trade. We see this represented in literature where the rhetoric styles are developing and trade guild are uniting themselves in promotional verses (De Rederijkers). It is also in this period that stories relate about the journeys from adventurers (Willem Ysbrantsz Bontekoe - Journael) and that theatre pieces and poetry are gaining in interest (Pieter Conrelisz Hooft, Gerbrand Adriansz Bredero). Joost van den Vondel was one of the main writers in this period ("Gysbrecht van Amstel", "Stockske van Joan van Oldebarnevelt", "Lucifer" among other things). Another way of literature is developed by Jacob Cats, he wrote and presented literature in a more daily way and was thus very close the the ordinary people. This didn’t prevent him to morilise life and the way people should be educated (he was also called "Vader Cats" - Father Cats)

Nowadays literature and different moments

According to most sources, nowadays Dutch literature starts at about 1830. One of the main currents of modern Dutch literature is the one from around 1900. It is called "Naturalism". This current recalls the emotions of the end of a century and not knowing what to do with life and results in many forms of depression. It is also considered to be a current in which the persons and its emotional reactions are the main aspect. Authors from this current are moreover: Marcellus Emants, Frederik van Eeden, Lodewijk van Deyssel and Louis Couperus [2].

After this current the main currents that have existed in Dutch literature are about the war and the after-war period, "absurdism" the "Dutch Indies" (Nederlands Indië). But many authors have managed to get known outside of a special current. It is also important to note that most currents were not only Dutch current and also not only restricted to literature. For exemple, the Dutch literature has also known periodes like "Romantism", "Expressionism", "Symbolism" and others that were also present in other countries.

Dutch literature and translations

I cannot tell if much Dutch literature has been translated. Often when I look for it I can not find many books but things seem to change. Our main nowadays authors can be found in some broad looking libraries and depending on the success from one country to another you might find another selection. However, to find older literature translated in foreign languages may still be difficult.

To learn more on the authors you can also read the following articles on this topic:

An institution exists that puts at your disposal through internet various Dutch literatrue in its local language. Should you be interested have a look: dbnl

[1This texte is also known in French with the same characters, I don’t know which can be an original but it shows that exchanges with other countries already existed at that time or shortly later. To read the complete Dutch version of it: Reynaert text

[2An international exemple would also be Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

[28 October 2003]

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