The Points Interview: Benjamin B. Roberts

Editor’s note: Today’s Points Interview is with Benjamin B. Roberts, author of the forthcoming book, Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Dutch Golden Age, available December 2017. Mark your calendars!

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The main question of my book is: “What was it like to be a man coming of age in the early seventeenth century at the height of the Dutch Golden Age”. Rembrandt, who was born in 1606, grew up in this period. I wanted to know everything about being an adolescent and teenager in the seventeenth century. What did they think was cool to wear, how did they deal with their sexual urges, at what age did they start drinking alcohol, and what did they do for fun? Ultimately I wanted to find out if being a young man in the seventeenth century was any different than it is now.

One of the main conclusions from my research is that young men rebelled against the older generation with their physical appearance. They let their hair grow long (shoulder length), wore bright-colored clothing, and accessorized with ribbons, silk stockings, and high-heel shoes. Some young men even wore make-up to conceal smallpox marks they had from childhood.

The youth of the early seventeenth century were also the first generation in Europe to start smoking recreationally. In the 1620s, students were the first to experiment and smoked tobacco with a pipe. At first it was thought that tobacco was a cure for smallpox but students soon figured out, smoking did not save lives but it sure did gave a good nicotine-high. By 1650 – in only 30 years – smoking had become a mainstream recreational habit and all social groups in the Dutch Republic smoked, from rich to poor. Visitors to the Dutch Republic often noted, “The country stank like tobacco”.

The most important finding of my research is that young men in the Dutch Golden Age had to master the art of moderation. This applied to everything in life but primarily to their consumption of alcohol and sexuality. Young people in the seventeenth century started drinking beer already as children (it was considered safer than water which was often contaminated). As teenagers they played drinking games where the winner was the one who could drink but still remain sober. Drunkenness was not only frowned up and stained a person’s reputation, but it could also be lethal for a young man. Before street lighting the risk of a drunken man falling into a canal at night was a common fatality. Moderation also applied to one’s sexual appetite as well. In an era of syphilis and other incurable STD’s, a young man had to repress his carnal urges. If he went to prostitutes, there was a great chance that he’d get syphilis, which was the most common diseases that struck down men down in the prime of their life. In the seventeenth century, it was a dreaded disease, one that is comparable to the AIDS epidemic of in the 1980s, when many people were afraid of having sex. Moderation was not only a social virtue, but it also saved a young man’s life.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

One of the traits of young people throughout history is their openness to novelty and experimentation with mind-altering drugs. In the Middle Ages, young people spiked beers with special herbs that would cause a narcotic effect, and in the seventeenth century young people smoked tobacco for its nicotine-high. In the 1960s, the youth tried LSD and shot up heroin, and in the 1970s and early 1980s they did lines of coke, and today it’s ketamine. In this aspect, young people continue to experiment.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The most interesting (and comforting) revelation about my research is that the experience of being young transcends all cultural and temporal boundaries. Adolescents and young people whose bodies are raging with hormones experience the same turmoil of growing up and struggle to find a balance. Rembrandt, whose self-portrait in 1629 depicts him with long hair and baggy clothes, must have struggled with his appearance, suffered from hangovers, and had his heart broken a couple of times. But eventually he grew up and became the greatest painter of the seventeenth century. It all works out in the end. That’s the case for every generation. However, that does not mean parents and society should just sit back and leave everything to automatic pilot. Society still needs to be vigilant and guide its young people through the difficult phase.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

For my research I did not have enough sources to research teenager girls. Contrary to men, girls in the seventeenth century grew up in the house under the helm of their mother and other female family members. Men grew up outside in the public domain and their behavior was more often registered in moralistic treatises and municipal reports.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

George Clooney