Holland in the Age of Rembrandt module (HY31020)

An introduction to the Dutch Golden Age, which explores the political, religious and socioeconomic contexts of seventeenth-century Dutch artists and art work

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Did you know that New York used to be called New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century? And that, back then, Australia was known as New Holland? Ever wondered how the words ‘cookie’, ‘boss’ and ‘landscape’ ended up in the English language? And why Downing Street should be named after Sir George Downing, English ambassador in The Hague and cheer leader for the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667)? This module offers a coherent introduction to the Dutch Golden Age, with a focus on the political history of the Low Countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including various forms of interaction with the British Isles.

We will discuss a wide range of topics, ranging from the rise of merchant capitalism and trade and colonial expansion to social stratification and gender history, from religious strife and toleration to intellectual life and Dutch art and culture. Indeed, the Dutch Golden Age is largely synonymous with painters like Rembrandt and, more broadly, with the high levels of art production in seventeenth-century Holland. Was it a ‘Golden Age’ for all inhabitants of the Low Countries, though? Can we establish how far the ownership of luxury items like paintings extended down the social scale? The purpose of this module is to make you familiar with the methodological and interpretative issues raised by different kinds of sources and approaches. We will discuss a wide variety of primary source materials, including seventeenth-century Dutch art work.

What you will learn

In this module, you will:

  • engage with a wide range of primary sources, both visual (art work) and textual (in English translation)
  • contextualise these primary sources by reference to the relevant secondary literature published in English
  • view and critically analyse Dutch Golden Age art work

This module also touches on topics such as the Dutch War of Independence (1568-1648), Dutch expansion overseas, the development of commercial capitalism, Anglo-Dutch naval conflict, women’s history, religious strife and toleration, and, of course, Rembrandt and Dutch art and culture.

By the end of this module, you should have:

  • a source-based understanding of the Dutch Golden Age
  • key critical, analytical, written, and communication skills

Assignments / assessment

Depending on the semester the module is taught in, the modes of assessment are different:

Semester 1:

  • a primary source review (30%)
  • in-class student presentation (15%)
  • module portfolio (55%)

The semester 1 version of this module does not have a final exam.

Semester 2:

  • in-class student presentation (15%)
  • module portfolio (45%) 
  • written exam (40%)

Teaching methods / timetable

  • student led seminar (3 hours, weekly)
    • in-class presentations
    • providing (anonymous) peer reviews of draft module portfolio entries submitted by your fellow students
  • field trips to galleries
    • McManus Gallery (Dundee)
    • National Gallery (Edinburgh)


This module is available on following courses: