Antwerp: The Glory Years by Michael Pye review – the medieval Mammon

This beautiful snapshot of Antwerp in its 16th-century pomp reveals a city flush with money but with no idea how to spend it

Antwerp is the star of this charming and rather lovely history. The “trade of the whole world”, wrote the Venetian ambassador and cardinal Bernardo Navagero in the middle of the 16th century, could be found in this city. It was hardly an exaggeration: all kinds of spices could be bought there; so too could books and art, produced by the score for all tastes and inclinations; when William Cecil wanted “little pillars of marble” for Burghley House – along with a ready-made classical gallery – it was to Antwerp that he turned.

It was not just goods and products that could be acquired, for in Antwerp everything had a price, including knowledge, information and secrets – although distinguishing truth from scurrilous rumours was not easy, especially when it came to sex. Tales of “filth and wicked pastimes”, alongside those of “dancing, nightly buffooneries and ravishing of virgins” excited commentators as much as (and perhaps more than) accounts of the disputations between Catholics and Protestants that dominated so much of the social, political and religious history of Europe in the 16th century.

Michael Pye’s focus is not on Antwerp of the past and present, but in its “glory years”, which filled most of the century that began in 1500. “Commerce was its identity,” he writes, “the energy which held it together.” Fundamental to that was a very “pragmatic kind of tolerance”: Antwerp’s “business depended on foreign traders, so it had no interest in abolishing the heresies to which so many of those traders were attached”. In Antwerp, money mattered, not God.

Pye draws on a rich tapestry of sources – and individuals – to paint his portrait. Some were little known beyond inventories of the goods they left behind. We know of Adriaan Hertsen, for example, from lists of things he owned, from toys to beds, glass and a large quantity of silver. And yet, as the author notes, although we do not know what Hertsen valued most, let alone what he thought, we can tell something about the wealth being generated at a time when Antwerp grew to become a dazzling emporium famous across Europe.

The city’s success was a surprise for, unusually, it lacked a court, a bishop, or a ruling dynasty – to say nothing of a backstory. It owed its success, in part, to being located in the heart of a northern Europe that was booming, thanks to wealth flowing back from the Americas, Africa and Asia. In part, too, it was because it was “full of people passing through”, including Portuguese Jews, who plugged the city’s traders in to wider commercial networks. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Antwerp should become a victim of its own success.

As the Reformation took hold in the 1560s, tolerances and freedoms gave way to religious suppression, with consequences for the traditional live-and-let-live approach that made the city such a good place to do business; key too was that Antwerp’s wealth caught the eye of those who had wars to fund and treasuries exhausted by almost endless confrontation and competition. The magic ingredients in Antwerp’s success were dissolved – and quickly. By the early 1600s, the city’s streets were said to be more or less deserted, without a man on horseback or a coach in sight.

Pye writes beautifully, has a lovely eye for detail and an obvious affection for this period of Antwerp’s history. I am not quite so sure the “glory years” would have been quite so glorious to live through. For one thing, the overwhelming concern of people making lots of money was to make even more, in what one observer described as “a gross insatiable appetite for extraordinary gain”, often at unjust profits. That sounds like utopia for the few, rather than for the many.

And, as the author hints, those who did well could and perhaps should have spent more time enjoying the fruits of their success. People spent more attention to making and saving money than they did to spending it “on showy things”, wrote one contemporary visitor, who could not conceal his shock at how bad the food was. It was so awful, he noted, that “it would be hard to live more poorly”. Even the beer was pretty ghastly, thanks to the city’s water.

The citizens of Antwerp thought the good times would last for ever, and bet heavily on the future by ploughing cash into property. Once the music was up, traders moved away in droves to build their fortunes again elsewhere. Antwerp’s loss was Amsterdam’s gain, with the latter “feeding off the corpse” of the former. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

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