Book Review: Vermeer’s Hat

I will begin with apologies to whoever mentioned this book. I know I saw it on someone’s blog and immediately requested it from my library. It took several months for me to get far enough up the list to read it and in the meantime the origin of the recommendation has disappeared from my memory.

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook is a fascinating account of the early development of global trade, particularly between Europe and China, but taking in the Americas and Africa as they bear on that topic.  Brook is a historian of China but in this book uses Vermeer’s paintings, and a few other cultural artifacts of 17th century Delft as “doors” into a wider discussion of global trade relations in that period. Each chapter focuses on one painting (or artifact) beginning with a discussion of the painting itself and the moving on to an examination of particular objects in the painting. The driving question is thus something like “How did such a thing end up in Delft, anyway?”

The hat of the title is a rather elaborate beaver hat worn by a soldier and leads into a very interesting discussion of the fur trade, Champlain, and so on. The settlement of that part of North America was a by product of the search for a route across North America to China.

Other objects include a dish of fruit, and notably the nature of the dish the fruit is in. A later chapter investigates a similar dish made in Delft, in a style influenced by the Chinese and depicting Chinese scenes but with clear evidence of the limited knowledge of  Chinese art and traditions. This “mistake” in the representations leads into a fascinating discussion of the history of tobacco and smoking and how it moves, remarkably quickly, from North America around the world. The desire to control the profit of that trade leading to the establishment of plantations and the use of enslaved Africans to work the tobacco fields of the young colony of Virginia, among other things. Similarly, a silver coin leads into a discussion of the mining of silver in what is now Bolivia and the complex relations by which it arrives in Europe and China in different forms. The disruptions of the move to a fully commercial economy are fascinating and provide useful insight to those of us for whom the importance of money is almost natural.

The fascination of 17th and 18th century writers with stories of shipwreck and piracy makes much more sense with the knowledge of the extent of both in this period. Fascinating tales are woven into the main narrative making for a complex and interesting historical narrative.

As with much history, there are many points in the narrative when the adage that the more things change the more they stay the same comes to mind. For example, in the chapter “School for Smoking”, Brook notes that

Wherever tobacco showed up, a culture that did not smoke became a culture that did. Transculturation happened almost overnight, and was usually well advanced before elites bothered to notice that everyone was smoking and started thinking up reasons why this was not a good thing.

Early on in Europe tobacco retained some of the spiritual connotations that it had among Native Americans although these shifted into more culturally relevant manifestations but these soon disappeared. The following passage resonated strongly with the current anti-tobacco movement here in Canada:

Once smoking was cleared of its assocation with witchcraft, even the clergy were free to take it up, and they did. The Jesuits remained hostile to the habit, and their Society forbade them from smoking, but they were a minority among the priests. The rest of the Christian clergy took to tobacco with gusto. Indeed, they became such avid smokers, inside churches as well as out, that the Vatican had to intervene. “Decent people” on their way into church, the pope noted in 1643, found the smell of smoking offensive and disliked having to step through the tobacco ash that tended to accumulate around church entrances. Lest their foul personal habits further damage the deteriorating public reputation of the clergy, the Vatican told priests that they could not smoke in a church, nor even in the porches at church doors. Priests who wanted to smoke could do so, but not in church and well away from entrances.

In general, this approach is engaging. The juxtaposition of European art history with the history of China works. And this kind of detailed knowledge of the political economy of the 17th century provides important background to our understanding of the 21st century global economy. Near the end of the book, Brook makes some connections to the usual focus of 17th century European history on the rise of the state and the shift from monarchy to republican and democratic forms of government pointing out the importance of the trading relationships to that domestic shift. This is certainly a history of which I was only vaguely aware.

It is not surprising that the request list at the library is so long. This is a fascinating book. Well worth the wait. It seems that I am always highly recommending the books that I review and that this might suggest a lack of discrimination on my part. But I think, rather, it demonstrates that I can’t be bothered to write reviews for mediocre books. I read much more than I review here. As with others I have taken the time to write about, I highly recommend Vermeer’s Hat, particularly for those who enjoy history, or are developing an enjoyment of history.

BTW, a quick google search brought up a bunch of other reviews that might be worth checking out, including  a rather good one by Lisa Jardine (whose little biographical note suggests another book that I might investigate).


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