The Importance of Money in the 17th century Dutch Society

As an additional article to my review on the picture “Woman Holding a Balance”, I thought it would be helpful to write something about the value of money in the 17th century Dutch society. In fact, money must have had a great importance in the Netherlands at that time, since so many painters used to depict people weighing material with scales and balances as, among others, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, and Quentin Massys.

"The Moneylender", by Gerrit Dou

The balance traditionally symbolizes justice; after all, to judge is to weigh. However, it seems that the pans of the balance in Vermeer’s work are empty, and they are almost in equilibrium. For a long time, every district in the United Provinces had its system of measures and weights. Weighing coins was actually a way to prevent falsifiers from clipping the coins in order to save money. Money scales had to follow a standard form in the Netherlands at that time. One of the pans of the balance had to be rounded so as to weigh the appropriate denomination of the coin, whereas the other pan had to be triangular to hold the coin itself.

An old balance

The box where scales were kept included the name of the maker and the weights of the balance. Vermeer depicted every single object to detail in his paintings. It was the government’s duty to regulate manufacturers of money scales to make sure they were prudently used, and many of these boxes were marked by passages from the Bible which emphasized fair and just weighing as, for instance, passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

"Moneylender and Wife", by Quentin Massys

Coins in the 17th century were much softer than they are today, and it was very common and easy for thieves to clip and falsify them. Rather than for its face value, a coin was worth the weight of its material, usually precious metal. Therefore, it was the duty of household ladies to count their money periodically, weighing all the coins in order to establish their real worth. Although there were various types of coins in circulation during that time, the ducat was the most common one. In Europe, two silver ducats were worth one golden ducat.

Dutch 17th century ducats

Silver had indeed become available in huge quantities all around the world, and that is why the period of time was also known as the Silver Century. Silver had become the universal measure of wealth, although it was mainly used for decorative and ornamental purposes. The main suppliers of silver were Japan and South America, and business transactions were normally done in silver.

"Still-life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar", by Willem Kalf

The Chinese were not interested in making transactions with Europeans, so they accumulated huge amounts of silver, because they accepted the material as a mode of pay for their porcelain, silk and other exotic goods they produced. Curiously enough, the silver that came to the ports of Amsterdam and London came from the Spanish mines in Peru, rather than from the mines in Germany and Austria.