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No. 77 from the inventory of egodocuments: diary (1624) of The Hague schoolmaster David Beck.
(from "Spiegel van mijn leven", Verloren, 1993)

Egodocuments up to 1814

Egodocuments in the Netherlands from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century

The Netherlands is not known for its strong tradition in autobiographical writing. On the contrary, an American study points out the 'scarcity in Dutch literature of books of memoirs, confessions, and diaries. Autobiographies, if written at all, are kept in the desk for posthumous publication, and relatives who survive the author are seldom inclined to gratify his ambition to survive himself'. (1) More recently, the critic and diary writer Hans Warren claimed that there was no tradition here in the area of diary writing.(2) The entry 'dagboek' in the Grote Winkler Prins encyclopaedia of 1980 states: 'In the Dutch language area the number of published diaries is relatively limited'.

What is surprising is that against this background the historian Jacob Presser enriched the Dutch language with the introduction of a new word in the area concerned: egodocument. He meant this as a collective term to indicate autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, personal letters and other texts in which the author writes explicitly about his own affairs and feelings.(3) Presser did not include texts in which we implicitly get to know an author such as accounts books. Presser's neologism was quickly accepted and is now included in the latest edition of the Van Dale Woordenboek, the standard dictionary of the Dutch language.

Presser's encouragement to study egodocuments found less resonance. Previous generations have often dealt carelessly with such writings. This is still the case, as becomes apparent from the adventures of the autobiography of Pieter Vreede, one of the leaders of the Batavian revolution of 1795. A passer-by found the manuscript several years ago on the pavement in front of the Leiden publisher Brill, where the attic had been cleared out. In 1990 he showed the find on the television programme Tussen Kunst en Kitsch, the Dutch version of the BBC's The Antiques Roadshow. Experts told the finder that the manuscript was not worth a penny. Strangely enough, not a single library took the initiative to acquire the manuscript. An historian who had been watching by chance was able to trace the manuscript and thanks to his initiative Vreede's moving and eventful life story was eventually published.(4)

Nevertheless, in the last decades the appreciation of egodocuments by both historians and literary historians has grown strongly. But access to such texts was difficult, because they were spread over family archives and collections of manuscripts. An inventory, for which all Dutch archives, libraries and museums were visited, has now changed this situation. The results have been published in book form and also made available on the internet.

The project covered the period from about 1500 to 1814. We searched all public archives, libraries and museums, but no private collections. We looked for both printed texts and texts in manuscript form. We recorded the following text types: autobiographies, memoirs, diaries and travel journals. We also distinguished a category called 'personal notes' which we define as notes kept over a short period of time, often around a specific occasion, a family argument, for example. We only recorded family books or genealogical notes if there were also sizeable personal observations. Letters were ignored for practical reasons and because they are already being centrally catalogued.(5)

The concepts were defined in their broadest sense, all the more since autobiography and diary only took on their modern forms in the course of time. The word autobiography is a neologism from the nineteenth century. It does not appear in the nineteenth century Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal. Long-winded descriptions were used, as in the autobiography of the clergyman Passchier de Fyne, published in 1721, 'Het leven vandoor hem zelve beschreeven' ('The life ofdescribed by himself').

In other European languages the word autobiography made its entrance around 1800, this occurred somewhat later in Dutch.(6)  We find its first use in a historical context in Kronyk van het Historisch Genootschap in 1856. From that time on the word is used more frequently. In 1863 the Lutheran preacher J. Decker Zimmerman spoke of his 'autobiography'. L. van Toulon wrote his autobiography in 1838 and himself spoke of 'herinneringen' (memories), but the text was posthumously published around 1875 as 'auto-biography'. The autobiography of the professor G.W. Vreede was published by his son in 1883 with the lengthy title Levensschets van G.W. Vreede naar zijn eigen handschrift uitgegeven (Life history of G.W. Vreede based on his own manuscript), but in the introduction the editor called the book an 'autobiography'. It is only in the twentieth century that the term autobiography has become established and only then did it acquire its modern meaning.

For more information, see Rudolf Dekker, Egodocuments in the Netherlands (pdf)


1. Adriaan J. Barnouw, The Dutch. A portrait study of the people of Holland (New York: Columbia U.P., 1940), p.24.
2. Hans Warren, Het dagboek als kunstvorm (Amsterdam, 1987).
3. J.Presser, Uit het werk van J. Presser (Amsterdam 1969) pp.277-282.
4. Pieter Vreede, Mijn leevensloop, ed. M.W.van Boven, A.M. Fafianie and G.W.J. Steijns (Hilversum: Verloren, 1993) (Egodocumenten 7).
5. Accessible through the Dutch library network on the World Wide Web.
6. Jacques Voisine, 'Naissance et évolution du terme littéraire "autobiographie"' in: La littérature comparée en Europe Orientale (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1963) p.278-286.