Tulipomania - Questions for discussion

Questions for discussion

  1. Tulipomania is representative of the late 1990s trend to publish short works of narrative non-fiction in which apparently limited topics are shown to have much wider relevance than might have been anticipated – other examples are Dava Sobel’s Longitude and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod. How useful is this approach? Is it possible for these books to place themselves adequately in proper historical context? Must the limitations imposed by such an approach inevitably marr such works? Why do you think the fashion for books of this sort came to an end?
  2. Mike Dash describes two societies in detail in the book – the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch Republic. How do the differences between the two influence the way in which they see and think about the tulip? Which society do you think you would prefer to live in?
  3. Writing on Tulipomania, Mike Dash has described the difficulty of writing ‘a book without a hero… or, rather, a book in which the flower had to be made the hero.’ Is it in any way accurate to describe the tulip as ‘heroic,’ though? How does the absence of a human hero affect Dash’s narrative?
  4. Describing Harlem, the Dutch town at the centre of the mania, Dash attempts to evoke all five senses, describing its sounds and how it smelled, tasted and felt as well as looked. How successful is he? To what extent do you feel present in the Harlem he describes?
  5. Writing of the Dutch Republic, Dash sketches a society that seems deeply conflicted – one that is rigidly Calvinist, yet addicted to gambling, and which is passionate about beautiful flowers, yet opposed to ostentation in all its forms. Do you find this depiction credible? To what extent is our own society riven by similar contradictions?
  6. The vivid colours of the tulips that caused the great Dutch mania were caused by a disease, the mosaic virus, which science has since managed to exterminate – making the tulips we see today stronger but far less dramatic than those familiar to the seventeenth century. Were horticulturalists right to take this path? Have we lost more than we have gained as a result?
  7. Do you think it is fair to describe Sultan Ahmed III, as Dash does, as “the greatest tulip-maniac known to history”? Which other characters from the book might challenge for the distinction?
  8. What do you think were the chief lessons of the Dutch tulip mania? Have they actually been learned?
  9. Is it more correct to describe the Dutch tulip mania as a unique, unrepeatable episode, or as one that has numerous close parallels in history?