In the first stages of Dutch literature, poetry was the predominant form of literary expression. In the Low Countries as in the rest of Europe, courtly romance and poetry were popular genres during the Middle Ages. One Minnesanger was the aforementioned Van Veldeke. The chivalric epic was a popular genre as well, often featuring King Arthur or Charlemagne as protagonist.
As the political and cultural emphasis at the time lay in the southern provinces, most of the works handed down from the early Middle Ages were written in southern dialects such as Limburgish, Flemish and Brabantic. The first Dutch language writer known by name is the twelfth-century County of Loon poet Henric van Veldeke (1150 – after 1184). Van Veldeke wrote courtly love poetry, hagiographies and epics.
Beatrice of Nazareth (1200-1268) was the first known prose writer in the Dutch language, the author of the notable dissertation known as the Seven Ways of Holy Love.
A number of the surviving Dutch language epic works, especially the courtly romances, were copies from or expansions of earlier German or French efforts, but there are examples of truly original works (such as the anonymous Karel ende Elegast) and even Dutch-language works that formed the basis for version in other languages (such as the morality play Elckerlijc that formed the basis for Everyman). Another genre popular in the Middle Ages was the fable, and the most elaborate fable produced by Dutch literature was an expanded adaptation of the Reynard the Fox tale, Vanden vos Reynaerde ("Of Reynard the Fox"), written around 1250 by a person only known to us as Willem.
Up until the thirteenth century, the Middle Dutch language output mainly serviced the aristocratic and monastic orders, recording the traditions of chivalry and of religion, but scarcely addressed the bulk of the population. With the close of the 13th century a change appeared in Dutch literature. The Flemish and Hollandic towns began to prosper and to assert their commercial supremacy over the North Sea, and these cities won privileges amounting almost to political independence. With this liberty there arose a new sort of literary expression.
The most important exponent of this new development was Jacob van Maerlant (~1235–~1300), a Flemish scholar who worked in Holland for part of his career. His key works are Der Naturen Bloeme ("The Flower of Nature", c. 1263), a collection of moral and satirical addresses to all classes of society, and De Spieghel Historiael ("The Mirror of History", c. 1284). Van Maerlant straddles the cultural divide between the northern and southern provinces. Up until now, the northern provinces had produced little of worth, and this would largely remain the case until the fall of Antwerp during the Eighty Years' War shifted focus to Amsterdam.
The Brussels friar Jan van Ruusbroec (better known in English as the Blessed John of Ruysbroeck, 1293/4–1381), is considered the father of Dutch prose, who following Beatrice took prose out of the economic and political realms and used it for literary purposes. He wrote sermons filled with mystic thought.
Around 1440, literary guilds called rederijkerskamers ("Chambers of Rhetoric") arose. These guilds, whose members called themselves Rederijkers or "Rhetoricians", were in almost all cases middle-class in tone, and opposed to aristocratic ideas and tendencies in thought. Of these chambers, the earliest were almost entirely engaged in preparing mysteries and miracle plays for the people. Soon their influence grew until no festival or procession could take place in a town unless the Chamber patronized it. The Chambers' plays very rarely dealt with historical or even Biblical personages, but entirely with allegorical and moral abstractions and were didactic in nature. The most notable examples of Rederijker theatre include Mariken van Nieumeghen ("Mary of Nijmegen") and Elckerlijc (which was translated into English as Everyman).
At the close of the early period, Anna Bijns (c. 1494–1575) stands as a transitional figure. Bijns was an Antwerp schoolmistress and lay nun whose main targets were the faith and character of Luther. In her first volume of poetry (1528) the Lutherans are scarcely mentioned and focus lies on her personal experience of faith, but in that of 1538 every page is occupied with invectives against them. With the writings of Bijns, the period of Middle Dutch closes and the modern Dutch begins (see also History of the Dutch language).
The first ripples of the Reformation appeared in Dutch literature in a collection of Psalm translations printed at Antwerp in 1540 under the title of Souter-Liedekens ("Psalter Songs"). For the Protestant congregation, Jan Utenhove printed a volume of Psalms in 1566 and made the first attempt at a New Testament translation in Dutch. Very different in tone were the battle songs sung by the Reformers, the Gueux songs. The famous songbook of 1588, Een Geusen Lied Boecxken ("A Gueux Songbook"), was full of heroic sentiment.
Philips van Marnix, lord of Sint-Aldegonde (1538–1598) was one of the leading spirits in the war of Dutch independence and an intimate friend of William I, Prince of Orange. The lyrics to Wilhelmus, the current Dutch national anthem and an apology of the Prince's actions composed around 1568, are ascribed to Marnix. His chief work was 1569's Biëncorf der Heilige Roomsche Kercke (Beehive of the Holy Roman Church), a satire of the Roman Catholic church. Marnix occupied the last years of his life in preparing a Dutch version of the Bible, translated directly from the original; at his death only Genesis was completed. In 1619 the Synod of Dordrecht placed the unfinished work in the hands of four theologians, who completed it. This translation formed the starting point for the Statenvertaling or "States' Translation", a full Bible translation into Dutch ordered by the Synod. In order to be intelleglible to all Dutchmen, the Statenvertaling included elements of all main Dutch dialects and so became the cornerstone of modern standard Dutch.
Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522–1590) was the Low Countries' first truly humanist writer. In 1586 he produced his original masterpiece, the Zedekunst ("Art of Ethics", 1586), a philosophical treatise in prose. Coornhert's humanism unites the Bible, Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius in one grand system of ethics.
By this time, the religious and political upheaval in the Low Countries had resulted in 1581's Act of Abjuration, deposing their king, Philip II of Spain and the subsequent eighty years' struggle to confirm that declaration. As a result, the southern provinces, some of which had supported the declaration, were separated from the northern provinces as they remained under Spanish rule. Ultimately, this would result in the present-day states of Belgium (south) and The Netherlands (north). After Antwerp fell into Spanish hands in 1585, Amsterdam became the centre of all literary enterprise as all intelligentsia fled towards the north. This meant both a cultural renaissance in the north and a sharp decline in the south at the same time, regarding the level of Dutch literature practised. The north received a cultural and intellectual boost whereas in the south, Dutch was largely replaced by French as the language of culture and administration.
In Amsterdam, a circle of poets and playwrights formed around Maecenas-like figure Roemer Visscher (1547–1620), which would eventually be known as the Muiderkring ("Circle of Muiden") after the residence of its most prominent member, Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581–1647), writer of pastoral and lyric poetry and history. From 1628 to 1642 he wrote his masterpiece, the Nederduytsche Historiën ("History of the Netherlands"). Hooft was a purist in style, modelling himself (in prose) after Tacitus. He is considered one of the greatest historians, not merely of the Low Countries, but of Europe. His influence in standardising the language of his country is considered enormous, as many writers conformed themselves to the stylistic and grammatical model Hooft devised. Other members of his Circle included Visscher's daughter Tesselschade (1594–1649, lyric poetry) and Gerbrand Adriaensz Bredero (1585–1618, romantic plays and comedies), whose best-known piece is De Spaansche Brabanber Jerolimo ("Jerolimo, the Spanish Brabanter"), a satire upon the refugees from the south. A versatile poet loosely associated with the Circle of Muiden was the diplomat Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), perhaps best known for his witty epigrams. Huygens' style was bright and vivacious and he was a consummate artist in metrical form.
The best-known of all Dutch writers is playwright and poet Joost van den Vondel (1587–1679), who mainly wrote historical and biblical tragedies. In 1625 he published what seemed an innocent study from the antique, his tragedy of Palamedes, or Murdered Innocence, but which was a thinly-veiled tribute to Johan van Oldebarnevelt, the Republic's Grand Pensionary, who had been executed in 1618 by order of stadtholder Maurice of Nassau. Vondel became in a week the most famous writer in the Netherlands and for the next twelve years, until the accession of stadtholder Frederick Henry, had to maintain a hand-to-hand combat with the Calvinists of Dordrecht. In 1637 Vondel wrote of his most popular works on the occasion of the opening of a new Amsterdam theatre: Gijsbreght van Aemstel, a play on a local historical figure loosely modeled on material from the Aeneid that is still staged to this day. In 1654 Vondel brought out what most consider the best of all his works, the tragedy of Lucifer, from which it is said Milton drew inspiration. Vondel is considered the typical example of Dutch intelligence and imagination at their highest development.
A similar school to that in Amsterdam arose in Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland, led by Jacob Cats (1577–1660). In Cats the genuine Dutch habit of thought, the utilitarian and didactic spirit reached its zenith of fluency and popularity. During early middle life he produced the most important of his writings, his didactic poems, the Maechdenplicht ("Duty of Maidens") and the Sinne- en Minnebeelden ("Images of Allegory and Love"). In 1624 he moved from Middelburg to Dordrecht, where he soon after published his ethical work called Houwelick ("Marriage"); and this was followed by an entire series of moral pieces. Cats is considered somewhat dull and prosaic by some, yet his popularity with the middle classes in the Netherlands has always been immense.
As with contemporary English literature, the predominant forms of literature produced in this era were poetry and drama, Coornhert (philosophy) and Hooft (history) being the main exceptions. In another prose genre, Johan van Heemskerk (1597–1656) was the leading man of a new vogue blown over from France: the romance. In 1637 he produced his Batavische Arcadia ("Batavian Arcadia"), the first original Dutch romance, in its day extremely popular and widely imitated. Another exponent of this genre was Nikolaes Heinsius the Younger, whose Mirandor (1675) resembles but precedes Lesage's Gil Blas.
The period from 1600 to 1650 was the blossoming time in Dutch literature. During this period the names of greatest genius were first made known to the public and the vigour and grace of literary expression reached their highest development. It happened, however, that three men of particularly commanding talent survived to an extreme old age, and under the shadow of Vondel, Cats and Huygens sprang up a new generation which sustained the great tradition until around 1670, when decline set in sharply.
After Vondel's death, Dutch theatre fell into sharp decline. The playwrights of the day followed the French model of Corneille and others, led by Andries Pels (d. 1681). None of the poets of this age set before himself any more ambitious task than to repeat with skill the effects of his predecessors, with the possible exception of Jan Luyken (1649–1712). In the midst of this dissolution of poetical style, a writer arose who revived an interest in literature. Justus van Effen (1684–1735) was born at Utrecht and was influenced by Huguenot émigrés who had fled for the Republic after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Van Effen wrote in French for a great part of his literary career but, influenced by a visit to London where the Tatler and Spectator were on the rise, from 1731 began to publish his Hollandsche Spectator ("Dutch Spectator") magazine, which his death in 1735 soon brought to a close. Still, what he composed during the last four years of his life is considered by many to constitute the most valuable legacy to Dutch literature that the middle of the 18th century left behind.
The year 1777 is considered a turning point in the history of letters in the Netherlands. It was in that year that Elizabeth “Betje” Wolff (1738–1804), a widow lady in Amsterdam, persuaded her friend Agatha “Aagje” Deken (1741–1804), a poor but intelligent governess, to throw up her situation and live with her. For nearly thirty years these women continued together, writing in combination. In 1782 the ladies, inspired partly by Goethe, published their first novel, Sara Burgerhart, which was enthusiastically received. Two further, less successful novels appeared before Wolff and Deken had to flee France, their country of residence due to persecution by the Directory.
The last years of the 18th century, which had seen decline in the Republic on all fields, including the arts and international politics, mainly caused by weak in-fighting government, were marked by a general revival of intellectual force. The romantic movement in Germany made itself deeply felt in all branches of Dutch literature and German lyricism took the place hitherto held by French classicism, in spite of the country falling to French expansionalism (see also History of the Netherlands).
Against this backdrop, the most prominent writer was Willem Bilderdijk (1756–1831), a highly intellectual and intelligent but also eccentric man who lived a busy, eventful life, writing great quantities of verse. Bilderdijk had no time for the emerging new romantic style of poetry, but its fervour found its way into the Netherlands nevertheless, first of all in the person of Hiëronymus van Alphen (1746–1803), who today is best remembered for the verses he wrote for children. Van Alphen was an exponent of the more sentimental school along with Rhijnvis Feith (1753–1824), whose romances are steeped in Weltschmerz.
In Hendrik Tollens (1780–1856) some the power of Bilderdijk and the sweetness of Feith were combined. Tollens wrote nationalistic romances and lyrics celebrating the great deeds of Dutch history and today is best known for his poem "Wien Neêrlands Bloed" ("To Those in Whom Dutch Blood Flows"), which was the Dutch national anthem until it was superseded in 1932 by Marnix' "Wilhelmus". A poet of considerable talent, whose powers were awakened by personal intercourse with Tollens and his followers, was A.C.W. Staring (1767–1840). His poems are a blend of romanticism and rationalism.
During this period, the Low Countries had gone through major political upheaval. The Spanish Netherlands had first become the Austrian Netherlands before being annexed by France in 1795. The Republic saw a revolution inspired and backed by France that led to the Batavian Republic and Kingdom of Holland vassal states before actual French annexation in 1810. After Napoleon's downfall in the Southern Netherlands village of Waterloo, the northern and southern provinces were briefly united as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This period lasted until 1830 only, when the southern provinces seceded to form Belgium. It had little influence in literature, and in the new state of Belgium, the status of the Dutch language remained largely unchanged as all governmental and educational affairs were conducted in French.
The Dutch language of the north resisted the pressure of German from the outside and from within broke through its long stagnation and enriched itself, as a medium for literary expression, with a multitude of fresh and colloquial forms. At the same time, no very great genius arose in The Netherlands in any branch of literature. For the thirty or forty years preceding 1880 the course of literature in the Netherlands was smooth and even sluggish. The Dutch writers had slipped into a conventionality of treatment and a strict limitation of form from which even the most striking talents among them could scarcely escape.
Poetry and a large part of prose was dominated by the so-called school of ministers, as the leading writers all were or had been Calvinist ministers. As a result, many of their products emphasized Biblical and bourgeois domestic values. A prime example is Nicolaas Beets (1814–1903), who wrote large quantities of sermons and poetry under his own name but is chiefly remembered today for the humorous prose sketches of Dutch life in Camera Obscura (1839), which he wrote during his student days under the pseudonym of Hildebrand.
A poet of power and promise was lost in the early death of P.A. de Genestet (1829–1861). His narrative poem "De Sint-Nicolaasavond" ("Eve of Sinterklaas") appeared in 1849. Although he left no large contemporary impression, Piet Paaltjens (ps. of François Haverschmidt, 1835–1894) is considered one of the very few readable nineteenth-century poets, representing in Dutch the pure Romantic vein exemplified by Heine.
Under the influence of romantic nationalism, writers in Belgium began to reconsider their Flemish heritage and move for a recognition of the Dutch language. Charles De Coster laid the foundations for a native Belgian literature by recounting the Flemish past in historic romances but wrote his works in French. Hendrik Conscience (1812–1883) was the first to write about Flemish subjects in the Dutch language and so is considered the father of modern Flemish literature. In Flemish poetry, Guido Gezelle (1830–1899) is an important figure. An ordained journalist-cum-ethnologist, Gezelle celebrated his faith and his Flemish roots using an archaic vocabulary based on Medieval Flemish, somewhat to the detriment of readability. See also the article on Flemish literature.
After the restoration in 1815 to the Dutch state of the Dutch East Indies, works of literature continued to be produced there. With the rise of social consciousness regarding the administration of the colonies and the treatment of their inhabitants, an influential voice rose from the Indies in the form of Multatuli (ps. of Eduard Douwes Dekker, 1820–1887), whose Max Havelaar (1860) is a scathing indictment of colonial mismanagement and one of the few nineteenth-century prose works still widely considered readable today.
The principles of the 1830–1880 period were summed up in Conrad Busken-Huet (1826–1886), leading critic of the day; he had been during all those years the fearless and trusty watch-dog of Dutch letters as he understood them. He lived just long enough to become aware that a revolution was approaching, not to comprehend its character; but his accomplished fidelity to literary principle and his wide knowledge have been honoured even by the most bitter of the younger school.
In November 1881 Jacques Perk (born 1860) died. He was no sooner dead, however, than his posthumous poems, and in particular a cycle of sonnets called Mathilde, were published (1882) and awakened extraordinary emotion. Perk had rejected all the formulas of rhetorical poetry, and had broken up the conventional rhythms. There had been heard no music like his in the Netherlands for two hundred years. A group of young men collected around his name and were joined by the poet-novelist-dramatist Marcellus Emants (1848–1923). Emants had written a symbolical poem called "Lilith" in 1879 that had been stigmatised as audacious and meaningless; encouraged by the admiration of his juniors, Emants published in 1881 a treatise in which the first open attack was made on the old school.
The next appearance was that of Willem Kloos (1857–1938), who had been the editor and intimate friend of Perk, and who now led the new movement. His violent attacks on recognized authority in aesthetics created a considerable scandal. For some time the new poets and critics found a great difficulty in being heard, but in 1884 they founded a review, De Nieuwe Gids ("The New Guide"), which was able to offer a direct challenge to the old guard's periodicals. The new movement was called Tachtigers or "Movement of (Eighteen-)Eighty", after the decade in which it arose. The Tachtigers insisted that style must match content, and that intimate and visceral emotions can only be expressed using an intimate and visceral writing style. Prime influences of the Tachtigers were U.K. poets such as Shelley and the French naturalists.
Around the same time, Louis Couperus (1863–1923) made his appearance. His boyhood years were spent in Java, and he had preserved in all his nature a certain tropical magnificence. His first literary efforts were lyrics in the Tachtigers style, but Couperus proved far more important and durable as a novelist. In 1891 he published Noodlot, which was translated into English as Footsteps of Fate and which was greatly admired by Oscar Wilde. Couperus continued to pour out one important novel after another until his death in 1923. Another talent for prose was revealed by Frederik van Eeden (1860–1932) in De kleine Johannes ("Little Johnny", 1887) and in Van de koele meren des doods ("From the Cold Pools of Death", 1901), a melancholy novel.
After 1887 the condition of modern Dutch literature remained comparatively stationary, and within the last decade of the 19th century was definitely declining. In 1889 a new poet, Herman Gorter (1864–1927) made his appearance with an epic poem called Mei ("May"), eccentric both in prosody and in treatment. He held his own without any marked advance towards lucidity or variety. Since the recognition of Gorter, however, no really remarkable talent made itself prominent in Dutch poetry except P.C. Boutens (1870–1943), whose Verzen ("Verses") in 1898 were received with great respect.
Kloos collected his poems in 1894. The others, with the exception of Couperus, showed symptoms of sinking into silence. The entire school, now that the struggle for recognition was over, rested on its triumphs and soon limited itself to a repetition of its old experiments.
The leading dramatist at the close of the century was Herman Heijermans (1864–1924), a writer of strong realistic and socialistic tendencies who single-handedly brought Dutch theatre into the modern time. His fishermen's tragedy Op Hoop van Zegen ("Trusting Our Fate in the Hands of God"), which is still staged, remains his most popular play.
As in the rest of Europe, the Netherlands of the nineteenth century effectively continued unchanged until World War I (1914–1918). Belgium was invaded by the German Empire and the Netherlands faced severe economic difficulties due to its policy of neutrality and consequent political isolation, wedged as it was between the two warring sides.
Both the Belgian and Dutch societies emerged from the war pillarised, meaning that each of the main religious and ideological movements (Protestant, Catholic, Socialist and Liberal) stood independent of the rest, each operating its own newspapers, magazines, schools, broadcasting organizations and so on in a form of self-imposed, non-racial segregation. This in turn affected literary movements, as writers gathered around the literary magazines of each of the four "pillars" (limited to three in Belgium, as Protestantism never took root there).