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 - Sebastiaan Coops -

For a long time, our understanding of women in the early modern period was limited. This limitation may well perpetuate itself, because misunderstanding the importance of historical women also makes it unnecessary to open up archives and then conduct research. No, women in those times were to us the silent, insignificant princesses. That is what I read when I took up Stefan Zweig's biography on Marie-Antoinette about 15 years ago. He writes about her and other women as follows: "She would have been interred with pomp and ceremony, and the court would have worn mourning for the prescribed number of weeks; thereafter she would have vanished from human memory as completely as numberless other princesses, the Mary Adelaides and Adelaide Maries, the Anne Catherines and Catherine."

Such thoughts will have left an impression, not only on me, but surely on others as well. In addition, they also raised questions about those vanished women of the early modern period. In recent years, I myself have been catching up by reading a lot, and I am glad that a new book has been published that can help us all catch up like this.

Vrouwen rondom Johan de Witt was compiled by Ineke Huysman and Roosje Peeters. Peeters is a PhD student at Leiden University. Huysman has long been involved in digitising letters from the Brieven van Constantijn Huygens project, as well as the Brieven van Johan de Witt and the Brieven van de Hollandse en Friese Stadhoudersvrouwen projects. The Huygens Institute is currently digitising the correspondence of Johan de Witt. A huge job, because thousands of letters were sent by or to Johan de Witt. From these letters, a study of 700 letters has been made, 31 of which have been chosen for the book Vrouwen rondom Johan de Witt. The book has a foreword written by the well-known historian Els Kloek, famous for her book 1001 vrouwen uit de Nederlandse geschiedenis. Each letter is provided with context by an expert.

A full historical picture

Historiography has paid little attention to letters from women to Johan de Witt. The source edition by Nicolaas Japikse and Robert Fruin, Brieven aan en Brieven van Johan de Witt, includes 3,038 letters. Among this selection, there are only 101 letters written by 32 different women. Ineke Huysman writes that "despite their importance, these letters have often been ignored in historiography, leading to an incomplete historical picture." This makes the reader curious and delighted. Will this book now change our thinking about the women around Johan de Witt and in the early modern era?

Indeed, it does. The letters show that illustrious men like Johan de Witt were also very dependent on women in political, military, administrative and diplomatic matters. Not only those issues are covered, though. The letters are by a diverse group of writers from all walks of life in society. From the highest nobility to a Dordt innkeeper. The subjects are also diverse. They deal with health, finances or exclusive societies. What emerges? Women were at the centre of society, had influence and used it.

What is striking about the book is that the letters follow one another. This makes the book read like a continuous story in which you learn more about the life of Johan de Witt and his time. The reader constantly recognises things that were discussed earlier in other letters. This gives you an understanding of the relationships between the letter-writers and the events that took place. It helps here that the letters are presented chronologically. As a result, the chosen letters do not seem like a random selection from the archive, but together they form a nice entity. Moreover, other letters are often quoted to discuss the transcribed letter in question.

The book is full of interesting insights that show women in a different light. Take Wendela Bicker, who has been treated with little honour in historiography. This while she does not look bad at all in her letters. On the contrary: she is a sharp writer and also comes out as incredibly witty when she teases Johan about an old flame. Or what about Elizabeth Stuart, who predicted the second English naval war in her letters of warning. There are also 'newly discovered' women in the letters. Like the mysterious Margrietje Ditteliefs Wolfs, who wrote religious pamphlets and asked Johan de Witt for a reward for this.

The book would not lose power with fewer illustrations or if the illustrations were discussed more often in the descriptions. As padding, the illustrations are unnecessary. The book contains a wealth of information on Johan de Witt and is a clear call for more research on women in the early modern period.

Vrouwen rondom Johan de Witt is now available for purchase.


Image: Gerard ter Borch, Curiosity (ca.1660-1662)


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