Everyday Life and the Art of the Dutch Masters: A Social Historian’s Perspective

Mark Hailwood

The visual culture of the early modern period has been a prominent theme here on the many-headed monster, what with Jonathan’s recent post on what God looked like, and my own series of posts on woodcut workers, so I thought another contribution to these musings would be welcome.

So, below is an essay I was recently asked to write for a guidebook for an art exhibition being held at The Collection Museum, Lincoln. ‘Masterstrokes: Great Paintings from York Art Gallery’ runs until 26th August, and contains some of the highlights from York Art Gallery’s collection, on temporary display in Lincoln.

The painting I was asked to comment on is Cornelis Bega’s ‘Tavern Scene’, 1662, approaching it from the angle of what it might be able to tell a social historian. Here is what I came up with:

What is a social historian? The main thing that marks us out from our colleagues in political or economic history is that we are concerned not so much with the ‘great men’ or macro-economic developments—which have undoubtedly played their part in shaping our past and present—but with the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary men and women. We want to know what life was like in the past for the majority of our ancestors.

Recovering these experiences is far from straightforward. For the period that I study—the seventeenth century—the subjects of my research have rarely left behind any of their own accounts of what their lives were like. Only 30% of men, and 10% of women, were fully literate, and those that were tended to come from the upper ranks of society. As such, there are few letters or diaries surviving from humble men and women recording the fine details of their day-to-day trials and pleasures.

As a result, the social historian needs to be ‘omnivorous’ in their search for useful sources of evidence. They need to cast their net wide and glean what they can from surviving court records such as witness statements, from surviving popular ballads and songs, or from the indirect evidence provided by the extant writings of elite social groups. They might also be able to gain insights from the visual culture of the period they study.

In this regard, Dutch Golden Age paintings—such as Cornelis Bega’s ‘Tavern Scene’ on display here—are a tantalising prospect for the social historian. Many adopt a realist focus on the everyday life of seventeenth-century peasants and artisans. Moreover, many of them depict scenes of tavern culture, an aspect of everyday life that has increasingly come to attract the attention of social historians. There is a frustration here though for the historian of seventeenth-century England: there is no English equivalent in this century for the vibrant genre of everyday life paintings being produced in the Netherlands (I’m not quite sure why, but it is a common subject of speculation in conversation with my colleagues). So there is an obvious problem inherent in trying to use paintings of Dutch tavern culture to draw conclusions about English tavern culture, but if we put that to one side for the moment we might think about what sorts of questions a social historian could ask of paintings such as Bega’s ‘Tavern Scene’.

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permission to reproduce this image (YORAG782)

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permission to reproduce this image (YORAG782)

At first glance we might wonder if the utility of this painting lies more in what it tells us about contemporary attitudes towards tavern culture than what it can tell us about what actually took place in them from day to day. It could be taken to encapsulate a common negative stereotype of taverns that was most closely associated in England with Puritans—those who enthusiastically embraced the new Protestant religion—who were known to be particularly vociferous in condemning drunkenness as an ‘odious’ and ‘loathsome’ sin. Is the standing male character slightly off-balance perhaps, his shirt falling open as the decorum slips, drunkenly leering at the bosom of the… serving maid? Taverns were often criticised as sites of inappropriate sexual promiscuity, and we could read this depiction as a visual equivalent to the many sermons that were preached against the immorality of tavern culture in the period.

A closer look suggests that Bega is offering us much more than well-trodden moralising in his tavern scene. The social historian’s gaze is drawn to some of the more quotidian aspects in the painting. There seems, for instance, to be crumpled bedding laid out on the bench behind the central female character. This highlights an important fact about seventeenth-century taverns (or as they were more commonly called in England, alehouses) that the modern viewer may not appreciate: unlike the pubs of today, the primary purpose of an alehouse in this period was not to provide a location for recreational drinking. Rather, it had two main functions: one was to sell ale to local people who did not have the means to brew their own at home. Ale (usually weaker than our modern equivalent) was an important part of the daily diet and a key source of calories and nutrients, and was consumed with all meals by men, women and children. In this sense the alehouse was meant to serve more as an off-license. In practice, of course, many allowed drinking on site and they did become sites for recreational drinking and drunkenness, but this was forbidden in legislation.

Their other (legitimate) purpose was to provide lodging to travellers. As such they were invariably situated on main roads, something we can see in another painting in this exhibition, Meindert Hobbema’s ‘A Wooded Landscape’. It looks like a drinking house on the left, identifiable by its ‘ale-post’, the ancestor of the pub sign, protruding into the road to show that ale was available.

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permissions (YORAG2005.608)

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permissions (YORAG2005.608)

With this is mind another reading of this tavern scene is possible. What we have is not a scene of drunken debauchery, but a party of travellers who have spent the night asleep on the alebench (alehouse accommodation was rarely plush, and often involved simply sleeping on a bench or sharing a bed with landlord and landlady!) The man with his back to us is still rousing himself from sleep. The standing character is not yet fully dressed, but is nonetheless taking his ‘morning draught’ of ale, the seventeenth-century equivalent of that first cup of coffee. What we might be seeing is the depiction of a morning routine after an overnight stay at the tavern, a far from untypical experience in an age when the lower orders did most of their travelling on foot, and only limited distances could be covered in a day.

We are also struck, of course, by the act of reading taking place at the centre of the scene. It is intriguing, given the statistics of female literacy, that it is the female character doing the reading. What is she reading? Could it be a broadside ballad? These were songs printed on a single (sometimes folded) sheet of paper that were sold cheaply—usually for a penny, the same price as a pint of ale—and often took the form of drinking songs to be sung in alehouses, or even pasted up on their walls. Is that one pasted up in the alcove on the back wall? Perhaps one discarded on the floor in the fore ground to the right? These drinking songs have received a lot of recent attention from social historians, who have mined them for insights they may offer into seventeenth-century tavern culture. Is this a depiction of one being performed? Is the standing male responding to a call that was common in these songs to raise a toast to his companions, or to raise a loyal toast to the King, another familiar feature of these songs?

Arguably the scene is too sedate to be a raucous rendition of a drinking song. Another interpretation may be that the reader is relaying the latest news from a printed newsheet—possibly news of a successful sea battle that is spurring the toast of her companion, or even a satirical political broadside that is the root of his mirth. Both of these were common subjects for cheap printed wares that circulated in taverns. Indeed, the discussion of news and politics in taverns was common and widespread long before the emergence of the coffeehouse in both England and the Netherlands from the mid-seventeenth century, the drinking establishment which is more commonly associated with a public thirst for news and politics. Is Bega looking to capture the fact that the politics of ‘great men’ were not as detached from the world of everyday tavern culture as historians have often thought?

It is, of course, beyond us to know for sure what Bega wanted us to take from his tavern scene, and at best it remains a somewhat indirect form of evidence of everyday life in the past for the social historian. That said, there are a number of aspects of his scene—the tavern as a place of lodging, the circulation of printed ware in these locations—that accord with the evidence of tavern culture in the seventeenth century that social historians have garnered from other sources. It reinforces our sense that tavern culture was about more than mindless drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, providing vital services and a venue for the dissemination and discussion of the issues of the day. Given these areas of overlap between Bega’s scene and what we can recover from other sources there may well be cause for optimism for social historians that such paintings can be a reliable guide to everyday life in the past. Or at the least, another component of our omnivorous diet of sources.

1 thought on “Everyday Life and the Art of the Dutch Masters: A Social Historian’s Perspective

  1. Pingback: Imagining the Past | the many-headed monster

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