With a romance at its center, the title of the oft-delayed film Tulip Fever (and the novel on which the Alicia Vikander and Dane DeHaan movie is based) plays on the passionate sense of a “fever.” But the real historical context in which the story is set had to do with a fever less about love and more about money.
The fever in question, known as the Tulip Mania (sometimes styled as one word), struck in 17th century Holland, when the nation’s now-famous blooms caused a major financial boom and bust. As TIME once explained in a story about a different boom market, the flower itself was almost incidental to the story:
It was, according to Mehmet Odekon’s financial encyclopedia Booms and Busts, the first significant bubble in European financial history. It burst in 1637 when tulip speculators could no longer find investors; without that flow of money, the bulbs themselves “plummeted” in value. In the centuries since, though many experts believe it did not really damage the Dutch economy long-term, it has remained an important touchstone and reference point for what can happen when financial speculation goes haywire.
The level of speculation, in fact, would even have affected the painterly plot of Tulip Fever.
“At the height of the Dutch tulip mania,” Robert Hughes noted in a 2001 review of work by the Dutch artist Vermeer, “such rare blooms would never have been cut for a painter; he would have had to draw them in the garden.”