Netherlands – A Frisian Paris

THE country changed its face on leaving the coastlands for Leeuwarden. Rich farms joined richer farms with every mile that brought us nearer to the Frisian capital. Farmhouses like royal rustic Petits frianons proclaimed from their very housetops, gay with rich mosaic tiling, the wealth of their owners. Under the ponderous roof live man and beast. The lush grass grows up to the very doors, and there is no litter about, nothing visible of the usual farm-waste, no straggling paths, no underbrush, no “lean-to” — only one massive dwelling set in a perfectly ordered grass plot, and surrounded by a perfectly ordered square or rectangle of farm lands, the various fields separated by ditches filled with clear water.

These rustic mansions, for they are nothing less, are, many of them, beautiful in coloring, although bare of setting. There are few trees, and not many flowers, about them. I saw one which may serve as a sample of the colors used. It was of maroon-colored brick. Its ponderous roof, with low-hanging eaves, was gray-thatched, the thatch as sleek as an antelope’s hide. About the huge dormer windows was set a border, perhaps four feet wide, of beautifully glazed red and yellow tiles.

This tiling is highly ornamental, and used for the better class of houses.

In the fields, knee-deep in grass, a thousand cattle were gathering in groups near the ditches. It was milking time, and everywhere we saw, as we saw afterwards in Gelderland, the originals of those paintings by Anton Mauve, that make their appeal through their subjectivity. The men in blue linen, jackets, of which blue Mauve makes almost as much as Vermeer of Delft of his predilection for that color, were busy with the cattle. The great splendid creatures yielded their marvellous flow of milk from such distended udders that sixty quarts a day seemed no longer an “old wife’s tale” to us. In point of fact, I was ready to accept any tale of Dutch fecundity and production, after seeing what we saw all about Leeuwarden which is the chief cattle market of Friesland. Large cans, painted bright blue or red, which hold, I should judge, about fifty gallons, were trundled about on gay little hand-carts from one lovely Holstein group — fit subject for a Paul Potter — to another, until all the clusters in the galaxy of this very real Milky Way had been visited. Then the carts were trundled off to the, many times, distant farmhouse. The cattle kept together for a while, ruminating in their twilight way; then, snuffing up the sweet, moist evening air, they bent their noble heads to the deep pasturage, and began again that strange natural process by which man is helped to live.

It was something of a shock, so far as a sentiment for what James designates rurality is concerned, to find ourselves, after an hour and a half of this country idyl, in a modern hotel bus, rattling through the brilliantly-lighted streets of Leeuwarden at half-past eight. The jar of the shock was comfortably lessened upon our en-trance into a stately old inn, ablaze with lights, and our taking possession of bedrooms that were as ample as a modern drawing-room, and infinitely more comfortable. The effect of the shock was further diminished by a substantial late dinner. Somehow, the Dutch landlords manage to have a most satisfactory dinner served at any hour of the evening, not, of course, â la carte. The dining-room recalled those seen in Italian hotels some twenty years ago. It was high-studded, twenty feet perhaps, panelled from floor to ceiling, and severely. plain but rich in its furnishings. The windows were glass doors, opening upon a small but charming garden.

We went out afterwards into the gay brightness of the streets. There we found regular boulevardiers and boulevardiéres, together with crowds of Frisian beaux and belles, promenading, chatting, laughing, and enjoying themselves generally. The rows of shops along the principal streets bordering canals were brilliantly lighted and filled with attractive wares. The city was doubly illuminated, for the bright lights were everywhere reflected in the black waters of the canals. The life, the move-ment, the gayety, the broad streets, the shaded avenues, the many gas jets—all reminded us of Paris. It is the only reminder, seen as we saw it, in all the Netherlands; for the crowds of sombre mood that pace of an evening up and down the dimly-lighted narrow Lange Poten at The Hague, and the stream of stolid elbowers along Kalver Straat in Amsterdam, have nothing in common with the gay promenaders in Friesland’s capital. It is a miniature Paris, and its women are so pretty! James said he had seen more handsome women in one half hour that evening than he had seen during our entire winter in The Hague.

To the glitter and brightness of the shop windows, the lighted streets and the illumined waters, add the gleam, beneath dainty lace caps, of the rich silver and gold helmets that crown the lovely pink and white of girls’ merry faces, and the flash of jewelled gold chains that cross the smooth foreheads from one temple to the other; then one may form an idea of the species of spectacular transformation to which our ideas were subjected after leaving poor, forsaken Stavoren, only to find this Little Paris in the far north of the Netherlands!

We went to Leeuwarden with two objects in view: to visit the famous Frisian Museum of Antiquities, and to see my Great Tower, an etching of which hangs above my book shelves at home; a reproduction of it may be seen in the frontispiece.

The Frisian Museum of Antiquities is sui generis. It, together with the museum at Middelburg on the island of Walcheren, form a record of the history of this land from the time of the Cesars until the present. Two such collections, well studied, are worth more as historical object lessons than all the other museums put together throughout the Netherlands. The museum in Leeuwarden is alone worth the journey from The Hague thither. Ancient Dutch living-rooms — the Hindeloopen rooms — furnished in their gloriously stiff manner, memorial stones, wood-carvings, coins and medals, old prints, an unequalled collection of Old Delft porcelains, ancient costumes, antique bronzes, silver and gold work, and Roman antiquities present an object lesson which cannot be learned elsewhere.

In all these we read History written in capital letters: the history of conquest, the history of defense, the history of the home, the history of the altar, the history of every industry connected with the land, the history of men and women, patriots all. This land has had its stone age, its bronze and iron age, its age of commerce with Rome, with Merovingians and Carlovingians, with Anglo-Saxons, with Germans, with the Franks. In comparatively modern times it had its Spanish occupation, and in the last century its French yoke.

It would seem, from some of the contents of this museum, that a Dutchman has continued to memorialize himself from time immemorial, and not only himself, but his deeds, his profession, his trade, his seasons of feast, his times of famine, his birth, his betrothal, his marriage plus his silver wedding, his archery-club fines, his anniversaries, his town, his province and country. He goes farther; he memorializes the Fathers of the City Council, the meeting of the Diet, the crucial moments in his country’s history, his nobility, his workingmen, the very beggars on his streets, his own emotions, when they come to the surface, his fire-engines and conflagrations, and the introduction of his city-water. He memorializes the dead, and, doubtless, would memorialize his own death if he could. For aught I know, he makes provision for this in his will. It is a national trait that may be characterized as a national “fad,” antedating the tulip, poultry, and antiquity fads.

The expression of this memorializing mania may be found all over the Netherlands in two forms: in the so-called corporation-pieces and portraits of the individual, and in the striking of medals and the coining of penningen. These “pennies” are generally in copper, but are found in silver and gold, as well as in lead, tin, and paper. Even the monks of olden times had their “travel-penny” — a kind of free circular Cook’s excursion ticket, I take it.

The siege of Alkmaar was memorialized in tin and lead pennies; the siege of Leyden in paper. Haarlem’s memorial bears this inscription: Haarlem besieged by the tyrant Alva has in her great need coined this money.

On a “Beggars’ Penny” we find: In all things loyal to the King, even to the carrying of a beggar’s wallet. On a “Carpenters’ Penny”:

Joseph us was a carpenter mild, This penny is in the carpenter’s guild.

But for the land’s Greatest — its artists and scholars and men of deeds, no, there are too few. One there is, memorializing the monument erected to Rembrandt, which bears this inscription: Among them all he shone resplendent. The Dutch vision is restricted to the objective, and the objective focusses the Dutchman and the interests that touch him personally.

Take the Guild Pennies alone; they show the industries of the land. These were generally of copper, and given to the brotherhood as proof of their membership. The following list in the Museum will show conclusively that ancient Frisia was in the very vanguard of industrialism before the Pilgrim Fathers ever thought of seeking positions in the workshops of Leyden: Archers, butchers, bakers, smiths, coopers, knifemakers, carpenters, surgeons, lockmakers, barbers, shoemakers, tailors, hoodmakers, coffee-pourers, hour-glass makers, trekschuit-skippers, ferrymen, linen-weavers, sheep-shearers, skippers, ship-carpenters, turf-carriers, button-makers, masons.

In a church at Hempen the panels of the pulpit are ornamented with carvings representing these so-called ” peasants’ coats-of-arms.” It becomes a matter of sociological interest and question, when one sees side by side with the arms of these industrial noblemen the escutcheon of some noble family with an engrafted Lily of France and the inference, which is, in one case at least, expressed in words: They toil not neither do they spin.

But how some one must have toiled and spun to clothe these ancient Frisians in their almost literal cloth of gold! The costumes of the Spanish occupation are marvels in their way, and an ironical commentary on Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. Of the most ancient Frisian costume nothing remains in the dress of the people of today. Free and independent Frisia, when once it had felt the yoke of Saxon and Burgundian, clothed itself in sombre black and white, allowing only the long gold chains for ornament.

Friesland lost her independence in 1498. At that time, upon the appearance of Saxons and Burgundians, the red and brown in the costumes gave place to black — velvet cap with feather, close-fitting black waistcoat, heavy gold chains on the breast, long black silk breeches, and black pointed shoes. The women, too, were in black with girdles and bracelets of gold. About this time there came into fashion those voluminous balloon-like trousers, bloomers in earnest, gathered at the knee, of which the Urk fisherman’s nether garments must be lineal descendants. Once when I was leaving Amster-dam some of these fishers, with yards of drapery for ordinary trousers, were with me on the small boat. I could well understand, after seeing these garments at close range, that the clergy of old took the field against the excessive amplitude of the same and threatened Heaven’s vengeance upon the wearers. The preaching, however, was in vain. On good authority it is stated that the Water Beggars of Zeeland — the terror of the Spaniards on the sea — were thus costumed.

Upon the Saxon followed the Spanish occupation, and all was changed; and what a change! The Spanish stamp upon the Netherlands remains indelible. It may still be seen on the towers, steeples and gateways, and in the costumes of Friesland and Zeeland, including Zeeland-Flanders. One is tempted, as one stands before the Night Watch in the Ryks at Amsterdam, or the masterpieces of Frans Hals in Haarlem, and watches the play of light and color in silk and velvet, cord and tassels, gold chains and rings set with costly jewels, when one sees the flash of emerald and ruby, the glitter of gold, the sheen of silk, the bloom of Utrecht velvet, the lustre of pearl, the delicacy of richest lace, the long gloves exquisitely embroidered — a sign among the gentry of “non-activity,” to ask: Without the Spaniard, would there have been a Rembrandt? For all these material things of life helped to give us the Master.

The “finds” throughout the province have been many and rich. The coins found show very clearly the historical strata of the land: Gallic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, German, Spanish, Republic of Holland, French, and now the United Provinces of the Netherlands. They have been found by the hundreds, I dare say, by the thousands. The terror of invasion was brought home to us when we saw these treasures, hall-marks of a two, thousand years of existence, that have been exhumed from the grounds of long-fallen monasteries and castles, from old mounds, ditches, from morass and heath, and from beneath the roots of old trees. The oldest of these dates from 200 B.C.

Before leaving the subject of the Museum, I must record one laughable, if irritating, incident. We were looking at the masterpieces of the collection: two large salvers of beaten silver, marvellous both in design and workmanship. The subjects are taken from “heathendom,” as the Dutch express it, and the work seems to antedate—although this is an inference of my own—the world-renowned Hildesheim “find,” the Roman silver service now in Berlin.

These dishes are labelled in the catalogue: Artistic dishes of beaten silver for which an American has offered in vain 100,000 florins. Note the in vain! Upon seeing this James groaned outwardly, and I inwardly. The American dollar has become, even to these far-away cousins in Friesland, the hall-mark of an American. The pity of it!

After all, the great failing of the Dutch —when I write that word I wonder I dare call it that, knowing their wonderful history — is their self-sufficiency. Yet, curiously enough, their defect, which is a dyke against progressive ideas, is a wellspring of national art. I quote one of their own, who, speaking of the few lesser works of Roelofs, Israëls, Mesdag, Bosboom, Tom, and others, which hang on the walls of the small gallery connected with the museum, says : “It is our sea, our land, our cattle, our thatch, our town, our winter, our water, and our light which is represented here.”

The italics are the Dutchman’s, not mine, and give better than an exegetical volume on the subject an in-sight into the national weakness which is the strength of Dutch art and Dutch life.

One realizes something of the departed glory of this ancient land when one sees the jetsam gathered in so unique a place as the Frisian Museum. We realize, too, what close affiliations, historically, the English race has with the ancient Frisian. The Anglo-Saxon dialect is its next of kin. There is a little couplet that runs:

Good butter and good cheese Is good English and good Fries.

This is perfect English and perfect Frisian.

I made two delightful “finds” of my own: a delightful word, gissing, with a verb gissen, to guess, to conjecture! A fine patent of ancient nobility for our Yankee “I guess”; never again should it be tabooed in polite conversation. My other “find” took me into the region of American slang, and showed me the phrase as legitimate heir of good old Dutch, or Frisian! There was a curious word, bons, used in connection with a Guild Penny. Tracing it, I found that de bons krijgen was to be discharged, in other words — to get the bounce! !

James says if only it had been “grand bounce,” the “find” would be perfect. He is too critical!

The famous Chancellerie, just around the corner from the Museum, seems to emphasize the royalty of this ancient capital of Friesland. Its façade carries all the emblems of majesty— stone lions, stone escutcheons, the shafts, that one may see duplicated on the tomb of William of Orange in the New Church at Delft, and the hated name of Philip II., King of Spain!

But apart from that, and a glimpse of the interior of the Catholic Church at Sunday morning service, where we saw, shining between the pillars, the silver-gilt casques of the women and girls, Leeuwarden seemed to us a child of the New Time, rather than of the Old; and all its grand boulevards in miniature, its large Cattle Market — the centre of the agricultural interests in Friesland – its promenades and broad water ways bear the stamp of the “capital,” where one looks in vain for the Ancient Frisia that is found within the walls of its Museum.

The ramparts of Leeuwarden are-very beautiful; they have been converted into shady promenades and border the ancient moat, the Noorder and Wester Singel. Here on the Noorder Singel you will find my Great Tower of Leeuwarden, and its double in the motionless waters. It leans a little away from them, as if fearing to see too much of its huge bulk in such an unstable firmament. It is the old belfry of the church of St. Vitus, long since destroyed; it is the Hofsterkerk; it is the Oldhove; it is one of the most ancient landmarks in all the land, and tradition has it that centuries ago the sea washed its base. The curator of the Museum told me that the authentic date of its erection is 1517 — the year of the Reformation. It is an unfinished brick tower of enormous bulk; the ornamentations in wrought iron are noticeably fine, and so delicate that one can but wonder who designed these artistic tendrils that creep up and about the giant mass of brick much as ivy finds its way, upreaching, on an old tower.

I saw it one Sunday morning “in the mists beyond the Zuider Zee,” and wondered to find myself so close to a realized ideal! I shall always connect its ponderous mass and other-worldly surroundings with the Pied Piper of Hamelin, for I never saw so many children gather around me as flocked about me on my short tour of inspection around the Oldhove. I have no idea what attracted the first dozen or two, unless it was the fact of my being a foreigner, at once recognized as such, and immediately catalogued with the strange animals in the Zoo. But, at the first corner of the tower, I noticed there were between twenty and thirty. As I rounded the next corner, I stopped to count, laughing at them the while; they numbered fifty-five. As I doubled the third corner the noise of little feet behind me shuffling over the pavement was like the trailing of heavy brushwood over stones. I counted again; there were between seventy and eighty! I completed my circuit of the great tower with an ever-increasing following. When I stopped to look at some detail of the tower, they stopped. When I moved on, they, with one accord, moved on too. When I smiled, they smiled, and, gathering about me, looked up into my face as if wondering how I came there.

Indeed, I found myself wondering how I came there; for the ancient tower, the gathering mists, the misting waters in which the reflection of this Oldhove began to be dimmed, the green ramparts, and the children flocking so close about me and looking up into my eyes with all the curiosity of youth beneath the old, old tower of Leeuwarden, that had stood there, unheeding youth and age, for so many centuries, all served to dull reality and induce a conviction of unreality as to time, place, and personality.

James, appearing round the corner whither he had gone to get a cab in case of rain, brought me into the Actual again. His amazement at my following was unbounded; but he did the only thing proper in the circumstances: put his hand in his pocket, and, ignoring the hundreds of hands upreached to catch the expected rain, of pennies, gave a bystander some money to buy cakes for the “crowd,” as he called it. It began to rain most opportunely, and from the cab window I took my last look of the Oldhove and of the children who, gathering close about the man, James’ almoner of prospective cakes, never once looked at the departing foreigner — and that was so like children!

“Well, Persis, you’ve had your cake, too; are you satisfied with your Great Tower of Leeuwarden ?”

“Oh, yes, James,” I said, but sighed as I answered.

“What’s that for ?” he said, leaning to look into my face.

“I don’t exactly know; but I think I’ve had enough of the Great Tower for ever and ever — those children—”

James patted the back of my hand. “Yes, I know, Persis. It’s time for us to be leaving Leeuwarden. I should get the blues here just as quick as I get them in Paris. I don’t feel at home in this semi-capital, and with all its fine streets and grand houses, it’s the only place in the Netherlands I’ve been near getting home-sick ;— I want to get back across the Zuider Zee.”

“So do I, James; let’s go on the next train.”

He took out his watch. “It starts in half an hour; can you be ready ?”

“Try me and see,” I replied joyfully, and bade the driver hurry back to the hotel.

It is, perhaps, unnecessary to add that we caught the train.