Well, history. “Long ago, far away. What actually happened?” This is how Tom Waes starts the Flemish version of a history series that was extremely popular in the Netherlands last year. Actor Daan Schuurmans then talked us through seven millennia of national history, from the hunter-gatherers, via the Golden Age and the industrial revolution to the Second World War. More than two million Dutch people watched it, no I didn’t, because at that time I still had a life outside of television.
After the first episode of The story of Flanders on the Dutch TV Sunday, out of curiosity, I still have the first part of The story of the Netherlands viewed (via NPO Start). The Dutch and Flemish makers have taken a good look at the Danish original from 2017, History of Denmark. The setting is documentary-like and cinematic, the music is lavish, there are costumed actors who – without text – re-enact history and there is a well-known narrator who anachronistically walks through scenes while taking the viewer into the story. Tom Waes keeps his distance more than Daan Schuurmans, who quietly walked into the stable where the huntress of five thousand years ago had just given birth in the straw.
For their story, the Flemish take the ‘biggest, most difficult leap’ back in time and start with the darkness of prehistory some 38,000 years ago. The 14,000 square kilometers of Flemish soil was frozen, cold and desolate. A polar desert where no trees grew, only shrubs and grasses. But then we see a well-packed nomad family, father, mother and three children, enter the icy plain. “Tough rascals”, hunter-gatherers from Africa who reached the Maas valley in South Limburg around that time. Their hair black, their skin dark, their offspring would gradually become lighter to survive in this area with too little sunlight.
Turning point in history
Via the mammoth, the Neanderthal and the ice age that lasted a few centuries, the Flemish story ends up at where the story in the Dutch version began: the fifth century BC. A turning point in history, after which everything would change. Then the seeds were planted, the growths of which will keep us busy until at least 2030. Seven centuries ago, the first farmers settled in Europe, bringing their grains, livestock and knowledge from the Middle East. They were settlers, newcomers who cut down primeval forest to build farms. They planted their wheat, peas and linseed and roasted their domestic goats. Slowly but surely, the farmer supplanted the hunter, gatherer and fisherman. And about what that finally brought about, that’s what it went into Buitenhof Sunday afternoon left. Too many cattle, barren soil, an agricultural crisis and farmers without a future.
Flemish and Dutch archaeologists and historians are not at all enthusiastic about the agricultural revolution in the distant past. Farmer’s life was hard compared to that of the hunters, say the Flemings. A constant fight against nature and the climate. “Farming didn’t have many advantages.” But whoever started it was stuck with it at a certain point. “In a sense, people have become slaves to agriculture.” Should have told you that a few centuries ago.
The Dutch version still insists on the ‘radically different mentality and way of life’ of the farmers compared to the hunters and gatherers. “It’s all about possession.” Livestock, soil, territory, growth, expansion. That all has to be demarcated, limited, defended and that will automatically turn into a fight. The hunter’s ax thus became the tools of war in peasant hands.
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