The odd corner where the modern world was born

Even today, the basic laws of the modern world sound very radical: that states have the right to determine the system they live under, that minorities are protected within each state, and that states are sovereign. The small building called the Ratskammer (town hall) in Muenster looks similar to those around it, perhaps a few more decorative curlicues than the ones around it. Maybe a touch more gold. But in the mid 17th century the building in the featured photo was where diplomats representing 194 different European sovereigns gathered to hammer out a detailed treaty based on these principles.

We entered the building and saw many little groups speaking Dutch scattered about the long vestibule. We bought our tickets and walked into a little chamber at the end of the hall. The richly carved wood paneling was the only indication that this room was so important in history. A muted recording looped over a description of the historical events that happened in this room: the haphazard gathering of diplomats, the negotiations, and the signing of two treaties, one of which gave rise to The Netherlands.

I’d been here once more than thirty years back. Then, as now, I had a sense of alienation. Could the rules which govern the modern world have really been negotiated in such a small place? The Family walked around quite bemused. I busied myself taking photos of the wooden panels. Below them were hard wooden benches. I wondered whether the delegates brought their own cushions. Did they also bring their own food? The countryside around here must have been ravaged by a generation-long war. The room did look like the one in the painting by Gerard ter Borch, but that did not give the correct sense of size.

Two of the walls were covered with portraits of the diplomats at the peace conference. I saw many Dutch names, some Spanish, some French, and others whom I could not map on to a modern country. I’m not a historian, after all. We looked at the portraits and tried to imagine the people behind them. I must report utter failure; these were people from a different world who could see that something new was needed, but never lived in the world that they created. What political compromises did they have to make?

Over the centuries a place like this collects other things. One case contained a golden cockerel which predates the negotiations. Apparently it can hold about one bottle of wine. This was offered to important guests of the city as an honour. Muenster was a Hansa town, and could presumably afford these small indulgences.

The really weird stuff was in a different case: one of a pair of slippers and a severed hand. There are no real explanations about why they are there, just a bunch of stories. Eventually you figure out that they are there because no one can make a decision to move them elsewhere. They just make the room look a little more odd. To think that absolutely revolutionary changes were made in a room where such small decisions cannot be made!