Tulip Madness

In popular culture, there is probably no better-known event in the lexicon of unusual financial history than the tulipmania that seized Holland in the early seventeenth century. Whenever there is a financial bubble in modern times, the term tulipmania is bandied about, but few commentators who use the term have a grasp as to what actual events occurred.

It is a fascinating tale—perhaps somewhat apocryphal—and, if nothing else, entertaining. And it is surely the only chapter in this compendium of financial history that involves not one but two important biological maladies that shaped the story: a flower-distorting virus and a deadly human plague.

An Introduction to the Flower in Question

If you’ve ever grown tulips, you know all too well that, while beautiful, the tulip is a temperamental and relatively weak plant whose bloom is short-lived and whose likelihood of returning the next year is far from certain.

The flower itself was unknown to most of Europe in the sixteenth century, but around 1554, the Pope’s ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey was charmed by the flower and collected seeds and bulbs for distribution. (The word tulip itself is said to be derived from the Turkish word for “turban,” since the bloom somewhat resembles the same).

Cultivation spread throughout the region we today call the Netherlands as tulip bulbs found their way to Vienna, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. Planters took pleasure in the vibrant blooms and the fact that the plants were ...

Get Panic, Prosperity, and Progress: Five Centuries of History and the Markets now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from nearly 200 publishers.