In the seventeenth century tulips became insanely popular in the Netherlands. The flower had been introduced into the Netherlands from the Turkish Empire in the sixteenth century. In 1635 the trade in tulips spiralled and a real tulip mania seized the population: rich and poor alike joined in the speculation.
On 3 February 1637, however, the bubble burst. A rumour circulated that the bulbs were worthless, prices plummeted and everyone tried to sell their bulbs.
In this painting Breughel shows how people had acted like foolish monkeys. Monkeys negotiate, monkeys weigh the bulbs, monkeys count money and monkeys keep records. The monkey on the left has a list of bulb prices. On the right, a monkey urinates on tulips. Behind him a speculator is brought before the court for debt. A monkey sits crying in the stocks. In the centre background a disappointed buyer comes to blows. On the right in the background, a speculator is even carried to the grave.