Domesticating Human Capital

The Material Culture of Knowledge in Early Modern Amsterdam




material culture, human capital, intellectual history, craftsmanship, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment


This article investigates the consumption of knowledge in early modern Amsterdam. A dataset of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century probate inventories is employed to examine the synergies and inequalities between the skilled and educated middle classes and the intellectual elites. A series of democratisation waves in the ownership of books, writing equipment, and measuring tools confirms the unprecedented levels of basic literacy and numeracy skills in the urban centres of the early modern Low Countries revealed by research on signature proficiency and age heaping. The concentration of secular books and advanced knowledge objects in the hands of a small but growing group of affluent households, on the other hand, corresponds to other research that has fixated instead on the role of upper-tail human capital in scientific, technological, and economic progress. Yet, the relatively low value estimates of libraries and scientific instruments, together with a more qualitative examination of two amateur scientists of middling background, dovetails with the hypothesis that the Dutch Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment were marked by a close interaction and mobility between craftsmen and scientists. An above-average income and enough leisure time to develop intellectual interests could be sufficient for inhabitants of Amsterdam to cross the Rubicon from consuming to (re)producing knowledge.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biographies

  • Lotte Kemps, University of Antwerp

    Lotte Kemps studies history at the University of Antwerp. Her research interests include intellectual, medical, and religious history. She is currently working on her research master thesis on the overlap between religion, popular devotion, and medicine in the counter-reformation Low Countries under the supervision of Guido Marnef of the Centre for Urban History (CUH) at the University of Antwerp. The topic of her research bachelor thesis (grade: 18/20) was early modern Amsterdam and the intellectual culture in the home, which was under the supervision of Bas Spliet and Bruno Blondé. In the summer of 2023, she worked on two CUH research projects: ‘The embarrassment of riches’ project of Bas Spliet and ‘Female Merchants and Future Thinking in 18th Century France’ project of Elisabeth Heijmans.

  • Bas Spliet, University of Antwerp and Vrije Universiteit Brussel

    Bas Spliet is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Antwerp and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He obtained his Master in History summa cum laude from the University of Ghent, where he also attained a Bachelor in History and a Bachelor in Arabic and Islamic Studies. In 2021, he received the André Schaepdrijver prize for best master’s thesis from the Oud-Studenten Geschiedenis Universiteit Gent, and in 2023, he was granted the Matthieu et al. scholarship for promising researchers by the University of Antwerp Research Council. He sits on the editorial board of Stadsgeschiedenis and is a member of the Centre for Urban History at the University of Antwerp.







How to Cite

Kemps, L., & Spliet, B. (2024). Domesticating Human Capital: The Material Culture of Knowledge in Early Modern Amsterdam. Early Modern Low Countries, 8(1), 25-50.