Nearly $1M grant to study Dutch history of tolerance

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

Jesse-Spohnholz-80PULLMAN, WASH. – It’s not often that a humanities researcher is awarded a grant for nearly a million dollars – especially when the money is distributed from the government of another nation.

But such is the case for Washington State University historian Jesse Spohnholz, who will receive a $917,000 grant from the Dutch National Organization for Scientific Research.

Did exiles from Germany foster the Netherlands’ culture of tolerance? (Flickr/Andrew Black)

He and colleague Mirjam van Veen of the Free University Amsterdam will investigate historical factors that helped shape today’s culture of toleration in the Netherlands. The six-year project will examine the role that exiles from Germany played during the Middle Ages in developing this culture of acceptance.

“Grant applicants were encouraged to think big, and that’s just what my colleague and I did,” said Spohnholz, an associate professor of European history at WSU.

Among other things, he will research 16th century documents written in Dutch, German and Latin to understand how a variety of religious groups co-existed during a period of the Dutch Golden Age, when the region’s science, art and trade were among the most acclaimed in the world (Think Dutch ships plying the oceans and painter Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”).

WSU historian Jesse Spohnholz. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)

During that time, the Dutch Republic was Europe’s melting pot, home to an influx of refugees of multiple religious backgrounds. Among them were exiles who had fled from the Netherlands to the German Rhineland during Catholic Spain’s rule. After the region separated from Spain in 1572, many of these exiles returned.

“While in exile in Rhineland, people of a variety of faiths appear to have lived in peaceful religious coexistence. They learned to adapt, to compromise,” said Spohnholz. “After returning to the Netherlands, despite their differences, many of them emerged as advocates for religious tolerance and compromise.”

To trace the lives of some of these long-deceased exiles, he will track down and read volumes of 16th century documents – from church meeting notes to marriage and baptism records and tax lists – all written in multiple languages. What’s more, he’ll have to decipher the handwriting of that period, using the training he has received in paleography, the study of historical handwriting styles.

A text from 1570 that will be used in the research – the church records of exiles in the Rhineland. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Spohnholz)

“There was a lot of variation in how letters were shaped,” he said. “Even someone knowledgeable in a particular language needs special training to be able to read the text.”

Spohnholz and van Veen will begin the project this summer. They are hiring two doctoral researchers to complete the initial archival research. Eventually they will hire a postdoctoral researcher, co-author a book and develop a smart phone app and other public service and outreach materials.

Spohnholz will work in the Netherlands and Germany during June and July to begin studying systematically the variety of experiences that exiles had in the German lands.


Jesse Spohnholz, WSU Department of History, 509-335-7506,