History of Amsterdam and its People in
the 16th and 17th century
Bread is not only a universal food, but it was eaten at least 2000 years ago. Didnt
Abraham eat bread and wasnt Samson convicted to grind the corn for his enemies?
Regulations concerning the manufacturing of bread in Amsterdam are at least 500 years old,
but are mostly about the weight, price and quality. And of course the regulations of the
St. Hubertus guild, but those were mostly about how the oven had to be placed and how to
prevent fire. None of those strict regulations are about hygiene.
The fact that the dough is kneaded with the hands is even today completely acceptable,
although machines took over that job, But we can hardly believe, that the baker did the
kneading with his feet, even till in the 19th century.
I have a picture of a 350 years old memorial stone showing a baker kneading the dough with
his feet. On the other hand, whats strange about it, just think about how the grapes
for wine were processed.
The type of oven, which was used for baking bread, hardly changed throughout the
centuries. The oven was made of heat-resistant stone and was heated with wood, branches,
peat or sawdust. After heating the oven for some time, the fire was removed and the oven
was washed. The stone walls, floor and ceiling of the
oven had accumulated the heat and the bread was inserted. After a few times the oven was
cooled down a little and the remaining heat was used for other articles, which needed
This oven was also the reason, why a bakery was often on one particular place for
centuries. The shop and the living space were practically built around the oven and its
chimney, so the building could hardly be used for any other purpose.The rye bread was the
main food for the people, thats why the price and quality of the rye bread were
strictly regulated, but according to the bakers the price was to low. In order to get it
their way, they made the bread smaller, but the authorities appointed official
controllers, who had to measure and weigh the bread in the shops. It is obvious that these
officials were far from popular. The bakers hired some men and women, who posted at the
homes of the controllers and the moment he left his house, all bakers on his route were
warned, so they could hide their "illegal" bread.
But beside the rye bread the bakers were able to make very delicious fine bread in various
kinds of quality and taste. The regulation concerning white bread and other luxurious
kinds of bread were not as strict as for rye bread.
The bread baker was not allowed to make biscuit, pie or pastry, since 1497 the guild had
been split up and each delicacy had its own guild.
Wolff, baker in Haarlem
Dirck de Wolff, baker in Haarlem, was originally from Westzaan. In April 1635 he married
in Haarlem with Grietje Egberts, from Deventer and in Haarlem three children were born,
Abel (1636), Geertruyd (1637) and Trijntje (1639). In March 1641 he became a citizen of
Amsterdam and a member of the guild of
brokers. In Amsterdam two other children were born; Judith (1643) and Hendrick (1646).
The first known (indirect) contact of Dirck de Wolff with New Netherlands was on 10th June
1655, when his daughter Geertruyd announced her marriage with Gerrit Jansz. Cuyper aka
Groenewoud. (He used to be a cooper, in Dutch kuiper) In 1651 Gerrit went to N.N. on the
ship Bontekoe and according to his own
statement (1) it was not the first time. He had been there with his business partner Jan
Hendricksz. Sijbringh, wholesaler in textiles and they owned a house and grounds near Fort
After the death of his wife, Jan Hendricksz. Sijbringh made an inventory of his belongings
and it showed that Dirck de Wolff and his son Abel owed him 617;17 for delivery of
duffels and blankets in 1655 and 1656 (2).
When Abel and his brother-in-law Gerrit Jansz. Cuyper got to see some specimen of
minerals, which were brought by Claes de Ruyter from the coppermines of Neversings (near
Navesinck), Dirck and Abel de Wolff asked the directors of the West Indies Company
permission to exploit these mines.
Their acting managers, Gerrit Baancken and Harmen Vedder would take care of the practical
side of the project. The directors asked the Director General Peter Stuyvesant to look
into this matter (3), but he was unwilling to cooperate and the whole project ended in
But Dirck and Abel did not give up and on Thursday 31st March 1661 they got permission the
start a salt refinery in New Netherlands. At first the place would be pointed out by the
Director General, but Dirck stipulated that he could pick the place and he choose
s-Gravesande. Fourteen days after the agreement
he hired the Amsterdam blacksmith Arent Theunisz. (4) He and his wife would settle there,
build a house and a refinery on expense of his employer. By the time everything was
operational Arent Theunisz. had to boil the salt day and night in exchange for free food,
drinks and housing for him, his wife and children, as well as 15 guilders salary a month
and if the project was profitable, 20 guilders.
The acting manager, Evert Pietersz. and Arent Theunisz. would get half of the profit made
in the first 31 days after their arrival, but they themselves would have to pay for the
On 20th Oct. 1661 Evert Pietersz. and Harmen Vedder bought a piece of land on Coney Island
from Gijsbert op Dijck (5). He owned the land according to a patent of the former Director
General Willem Kieft, dated 24th May 1644. The inhabitants of s-Gravesande, mostly
English, considered the grounds as
common meadow and protested.
The Director General and the Council discovered, that the patent of Gijsbert op Dijck was
not signed by Willem Kieft and the secretary wrongly had added it to the patent registry.
They accused Gijsbert op Dijck of deceit, using a copy instead of the original, because he
could not find the official document.
The workmen of Dirck de Wolff continued their activities, but were constantly menaced and
threatened by the inhabitants of s-Gravesande. The Director General ordered them to
leave the workmen alone, but it did not help. Dirck de Wolff turned to the
"bewindhebbers" of the W.I.C. in Amsterdam and complained the English had
destroyed the house and garden and had pulled down the fences. The
"bewindhebbers" asked Stuyvesant to make up a report about the incident and to
sent 2 or 3 soldiers to the refinery, but again he was unwilling. After a year they still
had not received his report and the salt project of Dirck de Wolff failed too.
(1) Not. Arch. Amsterdam nr. 1300
page 40, dated 17-03-1651.
(2) Not. Arch. Amsterdam nr. 1306 page 162v, dated 01-09-1656.
(3) Brodhead a.o., New York Documents, part XIII, page 99.
(4) Not. Arch. Amsterdam nr. 1364 page 60 dated 28-04-1661.
(5) New York Documents, part XIV page 514, 518 and part II page 221.
If you compare Amsterdam with other European cities, Amsterdam is a
relative "young" city. Lets be honest, by the time Amsterdam started to
look like something more than a village of fishermen, Paris had its first university and
Venice was already sending trading-ships to China.
Actually the soil where the city was built on, was absolutely unsuitable, swampy peat,
which was raised with rubble and sand. All houses were built on wooden piles and subsoil
water was held down with cows skin, sewed together to one large blanket under the
I remember the renovation of a building in the center of Amsterdam, where I was by virtue
of my profession and where it was absolutely forbidden to drill in the basement floor. The
skin was still intact and if it got damaged, the whole floor had to come out in order to
replace it by a modern subsoil water barrier.
Practically all the first houses were build of wood and like all cities Amsterdam had its
"city fires". When the fire of 24th May 1452 destroyed 75% of the city, thatched
roofs were forbidden and the sidewalls had to be made out of brick. Wooden fronts and back
facades were allowed, because in case of fire, those could easily be pulled down, but it
was only in 1521 the city council ordered, that new houses built within the city-walls
should be made out of stone.
Amsterdam still has two wooden houses left, one of those on the Begijnhof. The average
house in the 16th century had four rooms, one high livingroom at the front, in the back
two stories, downstairs the kitchen and upstairs the sleeping/livingroom and the attic.
The front facade of these old houses are often built like it is bending over a little, it
is not exactly vertical. This was done to protect the facade and the windows. Merchants
often had their merchandise stored at the attic and if it was hoisted up, the chances of
damaging the front
of the house were limited.
Behind the house was the cesspit, a simple wooden case with a lid. Under the lid was a
wooden barrel or a stone pit with an opening ending up in the canals. From time to time
this pit had to be emptied. Archeologists love these cesspits, because people used to
throw or drop all kind of implements in it.
Till 1579 Amsterdam was a city in the dark, after nightfall it was very hard to find your
way through town: nowhere was light. It happened a lot that people fell into the canals,
so the City Council decided in 1579, that lanterns would be placed on every bridge.
Sixteen years later they ordered, that every twelfth house should have a lantern on the
In 1692 a report states; In Europe are no more than 10 to 12 cities
where books are printed in considerable amounts. For England in London and Oxford, for
France in Paris and Lyon, for Germany in Leipzig and for Holland in Amsterdam, Leiden,
Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Five large centers of publishers and
printers in West Holland and England and France had only two each. Amsterdam had about 400
bookshops, but those were very different from the bookshops we know, they hardly had books
in stock, only the Bible or a few bestsellers. In the shop-window were only the title
pages, thats why the title pages were always so extensive, it had to tell the buyer
as much as possible about the contents. If someone bought a book, the bookbinder still had
to bind it for him.
What did people read? The Bible of course, the editions of this book are countless, but
also sermons were printed (and read) in huge amounts.Bestsellers were the books of Jacob
Cats and people devoured travel stories. The story of skipper IJsbrandt Bontekoe had to be
reprinted every two years for over a century.
These travel stories served another purpose, besides entertainment for the armchair
traveler, it contained practical information for sailors and merchants about harbors,
rivers, tides, but also about customs and traditions in other countries.
In close connection to the travel story was the atlas, which could be bought in every
bookshop. Lucas Janszoon Wagenaar published his own charts and those were so famous in
England, they still use the name "Waggoners" to address a specific kind of
Willem Jansz. Blaeu had his own bookshop and drew his own maps. No sailor or merchant
could leave his shop, before he was interrogated about the new coasts he had seen. Blaeu
improved his charts with first hand information and if it was done he filled the corners
with lovely angels, grapes and the horn of plenty.
The habit of showing human figures on nautical charts originated from the fear for the
Turkish army. In the 16th century Turkey was a maritime power and it had an army of at
least 250.000 man, had conquered Hungary and was a threat to the rest of Europe. In order
to avoid the Turks to find the North Sea, the chart makers placed human figures on their
charts; they believed the Turks would not use these charts, because the Koran should
forbid portraying human figures.
of the Begijnhof (beguinage) in Amsterdam
In 1654, after a stay of 25 years on the Begijnhof Cornelia Arens felt her life was ending
and on her deathbed she told two beguines, she did not want to be buried in the in the
Chapel of the church, because the "New Religion" was preached in that church.
The City Council gave this church to the English Presbyterians in 1607, but the beguines
preserved the right to be buried in the Chapel.
And she wanted to do penance for her lapsed relatives and requested to be buried "in
the broad path near the church in the gutter". Cornelia Arens was in 1645 elected as
"Mother-Superior" by the beguines and her humility went too far for the other
beguines. On May 2nd she passed away "in a scent of holiness" and 12 sisters,
dressed in black, carried her coffin, covered with white flower-leaves, three times around
the Beguinage and she was buried inside the church. Her last wish was not granted and her
soul could not find peace in the church. She started to shamble around the Begijnhof at
night and the good beguines were very distressed. The priest heard about her last wish and
at last she was reburied in the gutter. This is where the legend ends.
According to the notes of Pastor Cornelis Dierout, rector of the beguinage from 1712-1745,
a coffin was found in the path near the grass in the gutter during some renovation in 1727
on the church. The pastor had the coffin opened and inside was a skeleton with a faded
virgins crown. The pastor had the remains reburied in a new coffin and since that
day the tombstone of "mother" Cornelia Arens is decorated with white sand and
flowers on her dying day each year.
Except for the "Rasphuis", imprisonment was almost unknown, but a more common
punishment for criminals in Amsterdam was banishment. It was considered to be a severe
punishment. How banished criminals had to survive outside Amsterdam was something nobody
cared about. No wonder they formed gangs, terrorizing the villages and the travelers and
they just continued their practices without having to bother about the Schout. The
jurisdiction of the Schout (Sheriff) was strictly limited to eleven hundred
"roeden" around the city borders. (One hundred Amsterdam roeden was 376 meter)
These borders were marked out by "ban-palen", sculptured posts, mostly in the
shape of an obelisk.
In 1544 Emperor Charles V extended the jurisdiction of Amsterdam till 7420 meters. In
Amstelveen, one of the villages near Amsterdam, where I live, we still have a ban-paal. On
each side are the arms of Amsterdam, the date 1625 and the text "Terminus
Proscriptionis" and "Limit post of the banished". Till 1795 these borders
limited the official jurisdiction of Amsterdam magistrates.Once caught within the city
borders, a banished criminal was severely punished, even sentenced to death.
Soon these outlaws were accompanied by a lot of innkeepers, who realized they did not have
to pay excise-duties on beer and wine, if they settled just outside the city-borders.
These primitive bars were very popular, because liquor was much cheaper than it was in
Amsterdam, but the result was an increase of crime.
Soon these criminal back streets were a threat to the travelers to and from Amsterdam and
for a flourishing trade center it was a disaster. The City Council tried everything to get
hold of this situation, but every measure only had a temporary effect. What bothered these
magistrates most (they were all traders) was the fact that the city missed a considerable
part of their income from the excise-duties.
Every time the city expanded these bars moved with the city borders and till late in the
17th century the City Council had to worry about this unsolved problem.
Poverty is a plague, but in combination with old age it could become inhumane suffering.
One of the first forms of charity was the care for the elderly. In the 14th century the
first "Gasthuis" was build, where old, poor and disabled people could live.
Travelers passing through and pilgrims could find a place to sleep here.In 1602 the City
Council founded an Old Mans House and an Old Womans House, but also the church
and some private citizens did help the elderly with large amounts of money.
Another group who had to live from charity was the orphans. The city founded the
"Burgerweeshuis" or Citizen Orphanage and the "Aalmoezeniersweeshuis",
(Aalmoes means alms) where the children of the non-citizens and the abandoned children
were accommodated. The food was very simple; meat was too expensive, so the daily menu was
bread with butter or cheese and dried peas and beans.
Hygiene was very poor; five children had to sleep in one small bed. Boys and girls were
strictly separated and both groups were educated in the Orphanage school. The boys had to
learn a trade at fifteen from a craftsman in town and the girls had to work within the
Orphanage in the knitting- and spinning factory. When they were nineteen years old, they
had to leave the Orphanage. On May 1st. they received a necessary outfit and some money.
The third charity-institution was for the poor citizens, who had a roof over their head,
like widows, cripples and single women, but also workmen with large families, seasonal
workers and the unemployed.But this group was checked very carefully.
They were often visited and if their circumstances were changed for better they were
removed from the list. Fraud was severely punished, In 1676 a woman, who had cheated
charity was convicted to one hour on the scaffold with a paper on her breast: "This
woman cheated charity".
Another group "benefited" from charity. The insane, who were a thread to the
other inhabitants, were locked up in the "Dolhuis". Their fate was not enviable,
locked away for the rest of their days, without treatment or any contact with the outside
Charity was important for both parties. First of all the receiving party had to show their
gratitude to their benefactors by living according to the laws of the city and the church.
The other party needed the charity for their salvation and peace of mind.
Leprosy was a very contagious disease brought along from the Middle East by the crusader
in the 12th and 13th century.
Charity had founded a lepers house outside the city walls. After the disease was
diagnosed the leper received a "vuilbrief"; literal translated "dirty
letter" and a rattle. Every Wednesday they were allowed into town to beg for alms,
but they had to wear a large black coat, a big hat with a white ribbon and they had to use
the rattle constantly.
It wasnt till the end of the 19th century, that this disease was banished from the
The plague was seen as the justified anger of God against mankind to punish them for their
sinful way of life. God made little flying dragons and snakes pollute the air and if you
inhaled this air, big black swellings would cover your body. High fevers, hallucinations,
rage and throwing up blood was followed by death. If one case was discovered, panic was
all over town, special services in church were performed to propitiate the Almighty.
In 1623 a flock of strange birds was spotted over the city and immediately the plague
broke out, lasted three years and killed 16.000 Amsterdammers, one sixth of the
population. In order to isolate this disease, the houses were marked with a "P"
and all doors and windows had to stay closed in order to keep the
polluted air inside.
But the rats and fleas were not held back by closed windows and contamination was
everywhere, despite the fact, that relatives and housemates of the sick were only allowed
in public places carrying a white stick, so if you spotted them, you could run. The plague
epidemic of 1655 changed Amsterdam in one big house of mourning, 16.727 casualties of
which 13.508 in six months. Entire families died that year.
In every epidemic thousand were killed; the last was in 1664 and made 24.148 casualties,
on a population of 200.000.
On 31st June 1832 skipper Runhard felt sick, had severe cramps and diarrhea, went to bed
and died a few hours later. Professor Dr. Vrolik saw the pale, yellow corps with the blue
marks around the eyes, the red and purple thighs and greenish belly and knew he was
looking at a cholera corps. Runhard being a sailor,
the professor thought it was an isolated case, but on the 7th August Naatje Bakkum died
under the same circumstances. From there it only got worse and the epidemic spread around
town. The City Council advised people to wear flannel shirts and woolen socks, not to walk
around with wet feet and not to eat unripe fruit. If somebody got sick he or she had to
put mustard and vinegar on their breast till the doctor arrived. But even the physicians
did not know what to do, only fifty years later Robert Koch discovered the link between
polluted water and cholera.
in Amsterdam, part I
In the Middle Ages Amsterdam had only one school, the Latin School, where the sons of the
rich were prepared for university. They started at the age of six and they learned about
Latin grammar, dialectics, rhetoric and Roman authors like Cicero and Virgilius. After
eight years they were ready for university, but since the Netherlands did not have their
own university, they had to go to Leuven, Paris or even further away.
Amsterdam became a trading center and the parents found out, their children were far
better of learning arithmetic, bookkeeping and speaking foreign languages, than quoting
Virgilius. Some enterprising men started private schools in 1503, but also these schools
were for the rich only.
In 1575 William of Orange appointed Leiden as the first University City and the graduates
from the Latin School did not have to travel abroad anymore.
In about 1620 disturbing rumors reached Amsterdam. A lot of sons of Amsterdam merchants
studying in Leiden did not fit in, probably due to a lack of intellectual substance.
Lectures were all in Latin, so passing the Latin School in Amsterdam just because you
father was an influential man, made them fail in
In order to protect the name of Amsterdam the City Council hired two respected professors,
Gerardus Johannes Vossius and Caspar Barleus, and founded their own university. After
several protests of the Leiden University (they needed the Amsterdam money) the Prince of
Orange and the High Council decided Amsterdam was not allowed to have its own university,
but it was called Atheneum Illustre.
Money never was an issue in this school, they hired famous scientists and even Leiden
University had to admit, they could compete with any university in Europe as far as
lecturers were concerned. But doctoral degrees could only be obtained in Leiden till 1877,
when the Atheneum was promoted to University of
The Reformation had enormous consequences, even for the schools. The teachers of the Latin
School, Pieter van Afferden and Simon Sonnius were replaced, because they refused to teach
the new religion. Preferably the priests would have taken over education, but the City
Council resisted against it with all its power. They appointed a board of governors, which
had to supervise all schools and those who wanted to start a school. Professional
knowledge was not priority number one; the new teacher had to be a "true
believer" and was not
allowed to use the "popish" books.
Education in Amsterdam part II
The Reformed Church was the first to start educating the poor and the underprivileged. In
1657 an enormous Orphanage opened its doors for hundreds of poor orphans and two teachers
welcomed them. One teacher for the girls, to teach them to pray, to spell, to read, to
knit and to sew.
And one for the boys, to teach them the principles of the only true Reformed Religion, to
read and to write and to prepare them in learning a trade.
These teachers did not only teach, they had to get up at six and supervise the children
getting dressed and have breakfast, he or she had to clean the toilets, assist at evening
prayer and get all these children in bed again. So its obvious it needed a strong
character and a lot of discipline to keep control over these
But the Reformed Church did take care of the other children too.
It was a thorn in the flesh of the Church Council, that parents allowed their children to
hang around in the streets all day and they decided to start schools for the poor. In
these schools they could learn about discipline, obedience, submission and diligence.
In order to get these children to school, they told the parents, who did not sent their
child to school or who forced their children to work, their names would be erased from the
Most of the lessons were filled with learned the Lords Prayer, the Ten Commentmens,
the Twelve Articles, the Heidelbergs Catechism and other texts and proverbs. Only the
first article of the school regulations was about
education, the rest was about behavior and religion.
The City Council shared the concern of the church, they were afraid the mob would assault
the properties of the civilians if they were kept in ignorance for another generation. The
poor never knew they lived in the Golden Age, but the new generation became aware of it
and the only way to keep them calm was to
let them in on it. So the City Council started founding public schools too, in order
"to educate them, in spite their neglected upbringing, in godliness, virtuousness and
At the end of the 17th century Holland had the lowest percentage of analphabets in Europe.
In 1968 the Amsterdam archivist S. Hart calculated, that in 1630 57% of the grooms and 32%
of the brides were able to sign with their names. In 1680 these numbers were 70% and 44%,
and in 1780 85% of the men and 64% of the women signed their marriage certificate.
The life of the Amsterdammer in the 16th/17th century was not easy, they had to work hard,
they often did not feel secure, death was everywhere, and most people did not get old.
They needed some entertainment to brighten up this hard life every now and then. Many
feast-days were celebrated intensely, cheerfully, rudely and loudly.
Winter was the time for feasts on a regular base; the highlight was Shrove Tuesday, before
the Lent. On corners and squares big fires were made, magicians and jugglers performed in
the streets and inns, men wore womans clothes and women mans clothes. Others
wore masks and went into the streets singing and shouting, they indulged heavily in
drinking, food and sex. The masks and the darkness made everybody anonymous and reckless,
but the next day everything was back to normal.
The Dutch words "kerkmis" and "kermis" are almost identical, the first
means "church-mass" and the second means "fair/carnival". The origin
of these words is in the same sequence. The fair probably originated from the annual
commemoration of the consecration of the church, in this case the Old Church, around 1330.
The annual fair was in September; it meant fun, traveling artists, like fire-eaters,
jugglers, acrobats and tightrope walkers, who walked from steeple to steeple. The
"Dam" was full of market-stalls with the unusual and luxurious articles, all
kind of delicacies, but also the usual vegetables and fish.
One of the highlights was the showing of the "freaks", giants and dwarfs, women
with a beard or withsharks skin, living skeletons and dried mermaids.
In 1734 an American Indian was showed in the inn "De Fortuyn" as a real Indian
prince, with feathers and all.
But not only at the annual fair looking at the "freaks" was a form of
entertainment. Even the insane in the "Dolhuis" could be watched if an admission
fee of one penny was paid. In the week of 19-27 September 1695 at least 2730 paying
visitors must have been watching these poor devils in their cells. Even the prisons, the
"Rasphuis" and the "Spinhuis" were a profitable attraction.
On "Kopper-Maandag" the Monday after "Drie-Koningen" (6th January) the
Amsterdam guilds celebrated a kind of Labor Day. A procession of representatives of the
guilds and the "Schutterij" (civic guard) in their colorful uniforms with
polished arms, the Mayors and other magistrates were an attraction nobody would miss.
trades in Amsterdam
In the early days of Amsterdam the night watch patrolled the town with his attributes, the
lantern, sword and rattle. Every half-hour he rattled, announced the correct (?) time and
rattled again. They were not policemen, but their presents on the streets had a
The job of night watchman was a job for the poor, so they tried to earn an extra penny. If
someone had to get up early, the night watchman came knocking.
Usually his patrol area was in the back streets of Amsterdam, where his knocking on one
door did wake up at least one hundred persons. Maybe thats what caused his role as
bogeyman; "Go to sleep or Ill give you to the rattleman".
A completely different trade was the "fire and water shop". Till not so very
long ago it had a very important role in mostly the poor back streets. Beside a bucket of
hot water or a hot coal for the stove, people could buy soap, detergents and even all
kinds of candy here.
Stentor was one of the heroes from Greek mythology, who had the voice as strong as of
fifty men. I dont think the announcer in Amsterdam needed a voice like that, because
he used cymbals or a drum to draw attention. He was the newspaper, gazette and advertising
agency. In cases of disasters, accidents, auctions, missing persons and announcements of
executions one could hear him.
Like I told you in "Building in Amsterdam" the City Council decided to put
lanterns on the bridges in 1579 in order to prevent people from falling into the canals.
Every evening the lamp-lighters had to go along every lantern in town.
Later the candles were replaced by lamp-posts with oil-lamps and every morning the
lamp-lighters refilled the oil reservoirs and in the evening they followed the same route
with their ladder to set fire to the fuses. The gas-light still needed them, but by the
time electricity was introduced another trade was extinct.
The profession of porter still exists, but not in the form we knew him in the early days
of Amsterdam. His job was comprehensive, he could deliver letters (the kind mom and dad
must not find), he went for theatertickets, run errands, was a babysitter, escorted the
ladies while shopping in order to carry their goods, so if he was not very discreet, he
had to find himself another job.
A typical Amsterdam profession was "kar-ga-door" (car-go-on). Because the
bridges in Amsterdam are very steep, handcars needed all the help they could get, in order
to go over all these bridges. Equipped with a strong rope with a hook attached to it,
strong man each had their own bridge and for a penny they would help everyone over
"their" bridge. Especially if it had snowed or if the streets were slippery with
ice, it was almost impossible to cross these bridges with heavily loaded handcars. The
last "kar-ga-door" Chris Smit, better known as Kikkie the bridgepuller, said it
had been enough at the age of 76 and hung his hook over the railing of his bridge. He died
in February 1940, 81 years old.
Around the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) the graveyard was separeted in three parts. One of
those parts was for the "miserables", those who died by the hand of the
executioner, the suicides, non-baptized babies and heretics. The other two parts were for
the poor. The highest attainable was to be buried inside the church, the floors of the
Oude Kerk and the Nieuwe Kerk still have beautiful tombstones. The church authorities had
a problem in those days, they had to perform divine services on a regular base, but also a
growing number of rich families, who wanted their relative to be buried in the church. So
they had to store the corpses till there was an opportunity for the funeral. If the city
was struck by an epidemic, the problems were almost insuperable. During the divine
services even perfume was not effective enough, so the situation was unbearable.
Authorities decided, that the funereal would be performed in the evening, after all
services and masses were over. The cortege would be accompanied by a number of servants
with torches, which made this event even more dignified.
The graveyards were, as can be expected, the ideal playing ground for the youth, plying
dice, throwing stones and shooting birds from the steeple. This improper use of the
graveyard just increased, because space within the city walls was limited. The carpenters
used it to saw the wood, the street vendor sold his merchandise here and sometimes pigs
and chicken were found in the graveyard.
But two more reasons forced authorities to do something about the funerals within the
city-walls. The first reason was the explosive increase of the population; in 1558
Amsterdam had 30.000 inhabitants, 50.000 in 1610, 100.000 in 1622, 145.000 in 1642,
170.000 in 1652 and in 1662 the population was 200.000, almost seven times more than 100
The epidemics were reason number two.
The City Council did not want to extend the graveyards near the churches, so they had to
build new graveyards outside the city-walls, like the St. Anthonis graveyard. Due to the
plague epidemic of 1601 the first funeral on the graveyard of the Zuiderkerk had been
carried out long before the church was ready. The church was consecrated on 22nd May 1611.
Some funerals made it to the history-books. Today nobody knows who Gerrit Dircksz. den Uyl
was, but in his days he was a very popular innkeeper in Sloten near Amsterdam. His funeral
on 21st May 1660 was attended by so many people, that the cortege was more than 200 meters
in length. We still know how much food was dispatched: 20 oxhoofden wine (an oxhoofd is
234 liters), 70 barrels of beer, bitter and sweet, 550 pounds of beef, 28 calve breasts,
12 sheep legs, 18 large pieces of wild boar and 200 pounds of minced meat. After the
funeral about 50 or 60 beggars were found on the road between Sloten and Amsterdam, dead
The craftsman of the 16th/17th century was a craftsman who loved his job.
Look up at the dragons and devils on the pinnacle of a cathedral, 200 or 300 feet up,
where hardly anyone can see it, look at the details and you know he must have loved his
This love was passed on from generation to generation by the system of the guilds.
A boy, who wanted to learn a trade, was assigned to a skilled craftsman by the guild. The
Master should have the qualities needed, to educate and protect his apprentice; he had to
take over the responsibility of the parents or the guardians. The governing body of the
guild decided, whether the Master was capable guiding an apprentice. To insure a proper
training the Master was allowed to have only one apprentice, maybe two if the first was
almost ready for his exams.
The boy had to promise to obey and serve his Master and after his apprenticeship he
received a testimonial, needed to go on for journeyman or Master.
The journeyman was, as the apprentice, hired by contract, often orally, sometimes in
writing, even notarial. Most of the time the contract was for a year and the reputation of
the journeyman must be irreproachable, not living together in concubinage or have a bad
influence on his colleagues. If the journeyman wanted to become a Master, he had to pass
an exam. He had to make a "masterpiece". In later years this masterpiece had to
be so absurd and valuable, the average craftsman could not afford it. For years the
journeyman knew he would be Master one day, but due to bad management of the guilds, their
number increased and they stayed journeyman for the rest of their lives.
Mastership was the ultimate goal for the apprentice and the journeyman. The Master was not
only responsible for manufacturing a good product to a reasonable price, but he had to
perform a duty in the board of the guild, if he was elected to it. Once a Master he had to
"suffer" a lot of specific rituals, depending on the guild he joined, but the
newcomer always had to treat the other Masters to a gigantic banquet.
He had to pay a kind of admission fee, a small amount for the king or city, a gift for
charity and the largest amount for the guilds funds and a annual contribution.
An exception was made for the sons and the widow of a Master. The widow was allowed to
continue his trade, even the trade of the barber/surgeon, without paying the contribution,
if she had a capable journeyman to replace him. The sons could inherit the trade of their
deceased father, their years of apprenticeship was shorter (the assumption was he
"learned the knack" from his father), they were excused from making the
masterpiece and their admission fee was much less. These exceptions later grew to gross
injustice and abuse and this was partly the cause the guilds collapsed.
In 1550 Amsterdam had about 10- to 12 thousand inhabitants and merchants were starting to
explore the world seas. In 1585 The Spanish troops under command of Alva conquered Antwerp
and 19.000 protestants Baptists and Lutherans- escaped and went north.
Amongst those were a lot of merchants and skilled craftsman and many of them settled in
Amsterdam and gave the city an enormous economical impulse.
In 1598 a ship loaded with Portuguese Jews arrived in Amsterdam. At the end of the 15th
century the Spanish Jews were persecuted and went to Portugal, but now Spain had annexed
Portugal and they had the choice of being converted to Catholicism or end up being burned
at the stake.
Most of these Jews were wealthy merchants and they invested in the Amsterdam trading
companies and founded synagogues, of which some still exist.
Not all Portuguese Jews were rich, but they were a lot better off than their East European
fellow-believer. In the 17th century they were constantly persecuted and threatened by
pogroms and the ones who had the chance, escaped to saver places like Amsterdam. They were
penniless and it was hard for them to build a new existence. The Portuguese Jews took care
of them, but soon the number of High German Jews exceeded the number of their Portuguese
brothers. They too founded their own synagogues close to the ones of the Portuguese Jews.
This neighborhood is still known as the Jewish quarter although W.W.II made and end to the
hegemony of the Jewish population.
The Jews have always had a huge influence on many aspects of Amsterdam, they made the city
one of the most important diamond centers in the world, and they even added several
typical words and expressions, which originated from Hebrew, to the Amsterdam dialect.
On 18th Oct. 1685 Louis XIV and cardinal Richelieu made an end to the relative freedom of
the French protestants, the so-called Huguenots, by the "Edict of
Fontainebleau". This was the beginning of violence, the systematic destruction of
protestant properties and the for France disastrous exodus of 400.000
Huguenots. Many of them moved to Amsterdam and gave the city a new impulse.
But the economy of Amsterdam was declining and many of them moved on, a small group went
to South Africa, other groups went to America and had an important influence on the
But also smaller groups had put their marks on Dutch society, Armenians, which were
Orthodox Christians, came to Amsterdam to practice their religion in peace. Russian, Greek
and Italian merchants, who settled here, but also adventurers from Germany and Hungary,
sailors from Norway and Ireland.
Amsterdam was a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. At the end of the 18th century
the population of 220.000 was: 50% Reformed, 22% Catholic, 15% Lutheran and 10% Jewish.
in Amsterdam, part I
If a couple went "through the red door" it meant they got married. The origin of
this expression lays in the fact, the Old Church in Amsterdam used to have a red door,
where the bridal couple had to go through.
But in the 16th century most people did not get married in church. In the presence of
family and friends the couple promised each other to be faithful, a ring was broken in two
pieces and each partner kept their half. This engagement was as good as an actual wedding.
The actual marriage was confirmed by sleeping
together; after the wedding night the wedding party took place.
In 1580 Holland got a protestant government, it was stated explicitly, that couples had to
get married in church or for non-reformed in the city hall. In 1584 they
even stated, that couples who married in the "middle aged" way still had to
The promise of marriage was sacred, if a boy and girl promised each other to get married
and one of them declined later on, one could summon the other party and the Commissioners
for Marriage-Affairs would make a judgement.
Parents could exercise their veto against the choice of their children, but what was
considered inappropriate? A marriage, in which the class difference could be compromising,
for instant with a servant, was impossible. Mixed marriages were not only unconventional
but also illegal, as were marriages with Jews and Muslims.
The average age of the marrying couple was 22 for the bride and 25 for the groom. In the
upper middle class the couples were a little younger.
The life expectancy of the couple was about another 24 years, so it was unlikely they ever
saw their grandchildren. Half of the brides and grooms had lost their father, mother or
both at the moment of their marriage.
Because the spouses died young, remarriage was very common. A widower with children could
hardly manage without help and because of the surplus of women he normally had no trouble
finding another wife.
But for a widow, especially if she had children, everything was depending on her
attractiveness, not only her looks, but also her economic attractiveness. A widow with a
shop or with money did not have to worry, but if her husband had been a journeyman or
laborer her future was not enviable. Most of these widows had to
appeal to charity in order to survive.
Marriage in Amsterdam, part
Although parents allowed their children to select their own partners, marriages of
convenience were also arranged to protect business and financial interests. In those
marriages the financial matters were regulated in contracts. Sometimes these contracts
were very outrageous and ridicule. When Sara Hinlopen (1660-
1749) widow of Mr. Albert Geelvinck, director of the WIC, remarried Mr. Jacob Henricksz.
Bicker in 1695 she had quite some possessions and bonds of herself and her children. Their
contract separated their possessions very strict, in case of divorce or death only their
own blood relations could inherit. If he should die, a part of his wealth should be put
aside as her new dowry ( ! ) and if Sara should die before Jacob the jewelry, worth 6.000
guilders, he gave her as a wedding present, would be returned to him or his heirs.
Normally the dowry became collective property, but if the man died, the widow could
reclaim her entire part and was entitled to all she had gathered during marriage as
personal belongings. All the wedding presents belonged to her; the children could not
claim a part of it.
Apart from death, other circumstances could be the reason for the woman to claim her part
of their possessions. If she could prove her husband was spending their money in an
irresponsible way, she could take legal steps to separate their possessions.
A proper marriage lasted at least three days; a "poor" wedding was a disgrace.
Sometimes a few couples married at the same time in order to share the costs.
But in the circles of the patricians the costs were enormous. When the young councilor
Johan de Witt married a scion of the wealthy and powerful Bicker family, his father, who
came from a more modest milieu, had to take out a considerable loan in order to pay his
part of the costs.
In 1655 Dr. Tulp and Mayor Bontemantel did get a new law through the City Council to
restrict these extravagant weddings. It was called the luxury-law, the number of guests
had to be restricted to fifty and the party was only allowed for two days with a maximum
of six musicians. Even the value of the wedding-
presents was limited to 5% of the dowry.
But this law did not have any effect, the fine was paid in advance and the wedding parties
were as before.
It was Tuesday 15th March 1345. A very sick man received the sacrament of the dying, but
after he had swallowed the host he threw up and the woman, who was taking care of him,
threw the vomit into the fire. Next day she raked up the fire and in the flames the host
appeared. A miracle !
Being shocked, she put her hands into the flames to grab it, but the fire did not hurt
her. A second miracle !
In a ceremonial way the relic was brought to the Old Church and on the place where the
miracle took place, a Church was built, the New-Side Chapel.
The news of the Amsterdam miracle did run fast throughout the country and thousands came
to Amsterdam. The great surge of pilgrims towards the church urged the Amsterdam Council
to construct a special road, the "Heilige Weg", the Saints Road, which
name still exists. On 23rd August 1566 corn porter Jasper
destroyed the holy relic during the iconoclastic fury.
In 1912 the chapel was a ruin and the church council decided it had to be torn down. If
you visit Amsterdam and walk from the Central Station toward the Dam Square you will find
halfway one of its remaining pillars in the middle of the sidewalk.
But there is something else to remind us of this old miracle.
Till 1568 Amsterdam had its "Miracle Procession" on March 15th.
In the front ranks were the guilds with candles, their banners and the statues of their
patron saints. Behind them the children; the girls as angels with wings on their shoulders
and the boys as little black devils, made up to scare the little ones, followed by the
"Schutterij", the pupils of the Latin School, the monks and the clergy. And
finally, under a beautiful canopy, carried by the four Mayors, the priest with in his
hands the monstrance, in which the sacrament was kept.
In 1881 this procession was restored in its honor and even today in March people walk the
"Stille Omgang" (Silent Procession) through nightly Amsterdam, in silence,
praying. And they still follow, as far as possible, the same Holy Route as their ancestors
did 600 years ago.
Since 1519 beautiful coins were made in the Bohemian "silver-town" Joachimsthal.
The coins were called Joachimsthalers or short "Thaler". The Dutch dialect
changed it into "daalder", which was the origin for "dollar".
The name "gulden" (guilder) came from the golden coin, which was produced in
Florence in the 13th century. On the backside of this coin was a lily, in Italian a
"flore". From this "gulden florenus" two words originated,
"gulden" and "florijn", we still use fl. as our currency-sign.*
The production of coins in Holland was at first a very clumsy technique. First the metal,
gold, silver, copper or led, had to be melted, till it was a very thin plate.
With huge hammers every bump was flattened and if the plate had the correct thickness,
circles were cut from it with big scissors in the size of the coin. This cutting was
almost impossible, so the results were more polygons than circles.
Finally the coin was stamped with a hammer, first the head, then the mintage. The result
was an unsightly coin and an easy target for the "snoeier", the cutter.
Its obvious what a cutter did, with the right tools he would cut pieces of the
silver or gold from the coin, spent the money and keep the little pieces till he had
enough to melt and sell it.
For this reason merchants always had their own balance with some calibrated coins. With
each transaction every coin was weighed to determine the real value.
The problem for the coins of little value was the size. A silver penny would be so small,
it was hardly visible, so the copper coin was introduced, and the value of the metal used
was equal again to the value of the coin.
In about 1670 the production of coins was mechanized, rollers pulled by horses pressed the
metal to the correct thickness and the coins were punched by chisels into circles. To
prevent the coins from being cut again, the coins got milled edges, like the Romans did.
* Since 2001 we don't anymore:
the Euro took the place of the 'gulden' and with it the fl. abbreviation
(Note of the editor of this site)
Mortality rate of young children in the 17th century was high, but the poorer the parents,
the smaller the families. The day laborers and the poor had the smallest families, read
the highest mortality rate. Than came the farmers and shopkeepers. The landowners and the
middle class had the largest families.
Some reasons are obvious; bad hygiene was reason number one for infant mortality, but also
negligence and ignorance were scoring pretty high. The rich and educated had all the
advantages possible, they could provide a decent shelter and they could read.
A very popular book about childrens diseases, by Stephanus Blankaart, was written in
simple, understandable Dutch and not in Latin, like every other medical book and most
advises given were almost the same as today.
It was not only about diseases, but also contained a lot of helpful tips, about
breast-feeding, nursing, toilet-training, first aid, even the first games and pedagogical
lessons. A short summary: cleaning the belly button of a new born with a soft, clean cloth
and a little alcohol, fresh fruit and vegetables, especially rose hip. No cuddling the
first minute the baby cries, no alcohol for the mother if she is breast-feeding, porridge
made of half water, half milk and brown bread.
All these tips still stand.
But a lot of children died at young age. Less than half of all new born reached adulthood,
most infants died before their first birthday. The reason for that, was mostly bad
hygiene, with as result diseases, which were fatal in those days.
Even the "simple" childrens diseases were incurable.
A lot of habits disappeared during the years. One of those habits was "bakeren".
The first two months the child was wrapped in swaddling clothes from neck to feet, so it
could not move. The classic reason was the correct growth of the limbs (even Aristoteles
and Plato wrote about it), but it was also the best way to keep the baby calm, it was the
ultimate imitation of the womb. (I remember being tucked in very tight by my parents and
it felt good). By some it was seen as indolence of the mother, cartoonists in those days
loved to portray those babies as packages hanging on a nail in the kitchen. This habit
disappeared in the
18th/19th century, in Russia it was still common in the 20th century.
Another phenomenon was the wet-nurse. In history books she is always described as the
"bad" woman. Normally her services were only required in case the mother could
not breast-feed her child and in cases of disease and death, but for a short period of
time the elite had a wet-nurse as a status symbol. But these aristocrat pretences were
pushed aside by (even in those days) the hype of "natural" breast-feeding as a
By the time the infants were one year old and started to move around, they got a dress,
even the boys. By the time the boys were six, seven years old they got mans clothes
and had to go to school.
The physician was a man of distinction, most of them came from wealthy families, but some
had to moonlight to improve their salary.
One group of physicians was sure of a considerable income, the city doctors, appointed and
paid by the City Council. This election made them superior over all other physicians,
assuming their knowledge was officially recognized. But they had to visit the poor and
take exams from the new midwives and surgeons.
The doctors felt much superior to the surgeons, they thought of them as stupid and they
were very willing to leave the dirty work to them. They just made the diagnose, prescribed
the medication and pointed with their walking-stick, where the surgeon had to make the
incision. The doctors themselves had studied for
years at the University of Leiden, Paris or even Palermo. After their first exams the
apprentices were allowed to visit a hospital, accompanied by an experienced physician.
Their education was pure theoretical, they attended autopsies, but were not allowed to do
anything themselves. They had to watch, to listen and to
Medicine in the 17th century was largely based on the experiences of the Greek Claudius
Galenus (130-210), personal physician of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. According to
his theory the human body contained four kinds of fluid:
blood, slime, yellow and black bile. If something went wrong in the balance of these
liquids, people got sick and only they knew how to create harmony into the body, mostly by
bleeding, but also by giving the patient hops or chervil to decrease the amount of bile.
Why this balance was disturbed was always a discussion, but they all agreed the stars and
planets had something to do with it, astrology was one of the main subjects at university.
What people did not know either about Galenus anatomic lessons was, that in the Roman
times autopsy on human bodies was not allowed, so Galenus used animals.
The physicians in the 17th century used a lot of herbs and the knowledge about it was
considerable. But only a part of the diseases were actually cured with herbs, a lot of
treatments were just an attempt to control the symptoms and not the actual disease, which
cause was unknown to them.
Some of their prescriptions make perfect sense, but a few make us wonder.
Kidney stone was treated with similar stony remedies, like the gallstone of an ox, but
also wood louse, the jaw and skin of a pike or lobsters eye.
Infirmity of the organs was treated with similar organs of animals, the lung of a fox for
tightness of the chest and brains of a hare in case of a stroke.
But not all physicians did adhere to the old methods, in 1676 Anthony van Leeuwenhoek used
a primitive microscope and was the first able to see bacteria.
Although prostitution has always been against the law, the magistrates of Amsterdam never
did much about this phenomenon. As a trading city the town was always full of sailors and
loose women were always found, where the sailors were. In 1500 the area behind the
"Dam" square was the official "prostitution-zone". Women who walked
the streets outside this area were escorted with flute music and drum roll into the
Brothels were not allowed, but some were actually run by the magistrates, "in order
to keep control".
In some public baths men and women could bath together, listening to music, drinking wine
and afterwards they could retreat to a separate room. Prostitutes and customers found each
other in the inns, musicos (theatres) and dance-establishments run by a madame. In
those days the customer did not only come to the brothel for sex, but listing to music or
playing cards or dice were an important part of the entertainment in this establishments.
Even bars with topless waitresses were known in the 17th century, most of the time the
barkeeper had an understanding with these women; during opening hours they would encourage
the clients to drink and after closing-time they could take the customers along. So what
has changed in 400 years ?
At annual fairs the brothels had competition from large groups of prostitutes, who
traveled from town to town. In 1611 one Willem Mouring offered 80 guilders to the
magistrate of Wassenaar, if he was allowed to locate "his" group of Amsterdam
girls near the horse fair. His request was denied, because the amount of 80 guilders was
too poor for such a lucrative license !!
In the 18th century the contrast between rich and poor became much clearer and the
luxurious brothel was accepted. The customer could even bring his wife along to take a
look around. The house of Madame Traese was so well known, even Prince Eugene of Savoy
visited it in 1722 during his official stay in Amsterdam. At the end of the 18th century
"De Pijl" in the Pijlsteeg and "De Fortuyn" on the Nieuwmarkt were the
stablishments, where big money was spent. The owner of "De Pijl", Jan Banes,
owned an estate.
Amsterdam even had its brothels for homosexuals, often under the cloak of an intermediary
for servants and employers. The insiders, even from far out of town, knew where to find
these brothels. In 1730 the authorities found out about this and it became a scandal, all
"guilty", poor and rich, were arrested and sentenced to death. Till the
introducting of the criminal laws of 1811 the penalty for "sodomy" was capital
If you take a look at the "Nachtwacht" of Rembrandt, you see the
"Schutterij", the Civic Guard of Amsterdam.
The history of the "Schutterij" goes back to 1300; The Netherlands as a state
did not yet exist, cities were at war with each other, so people had to defend their
properties. Count Willem IV ordered that every citizen had to have his own weapon, but
most of them had no idea how to use it. The wealthy citizens formed a kind of knighthood
to lead and train this "army" and formed a guild.
The first "Schutterij" to form a guild was the "handbow-schutterij".
Their patron saint was St. Sebastiaan, who sacrificed himself as a target for archers.
To him they dedicated an altar and on his name day, 20th Jan. they went to church in
procession, carrying a red banner with a yellow cross, the so-called Jeruzalembanner.
The second "Schutterij" to form a guild was the "footbow-schutterij".
The St. Joris-guild already existed in 1413 and had a white banner with a red cross. Both
guilds had their own practice grounds within the city-walls, a fenced area, called the
"Doelen" (Targets). Near this "Doelen" they owned a building, where
the Brothers of the guild had their meetings. A lot of street names
remind us where those were located.
Every year the "Schutterij" had a contest to elect their King. The marksman, who
could shoot a wooden parrot from a high pole, was King for one year and formed with four
other elected members the board of the guild. In the southern part of the Netherlands some
village still have their annual "Schutters feast".
The "Kloveniers-Schutterij", founded in 1522, was called after the first rifle
ever used by the Amsterdam guild, the "Coluvrijn" or "Clover". Soon
the 200 members of this guild formed the crack troops of the city, although the other two
guilds still existed. In 1597 the three guilds were joined together with the
existing "lower class" citizen civic guard and placed under one command. But the
three guilds did not stop to exist; each evolved into an exclusive club for the rich.
Most of the paintings we know were painted to brighten up the
"Kloveniers-Doelen", like the Nachtwacht painted by Rembrandt.
Looking at those pictures you see a lot of haughty men, dressed in expensive clothes,
knowing they owned the world. Thats exactly what (most of) the painters wanted to
show us. They were the elite, the rich and famous, arrogant sons from wealthy families,
dressed up like dandies and hardly looking like tough soldiers.
At very young age a family hired girls as servants. Early in the morning she had to get up
to light the fire and make breakfast. After the family had eaten she had to ventilate the
rooms, make the beds, clean the clothes and polish the tin and copper. She had to shine
the ironwork on the shutters and especially scrub the floors and the doorstep.
Due to the very low wages and a surplus of women in the cities almost every housewife from
the middle class could afford a servant.
In general the servants were willingly, depending on the relation between mistress and
servant, but normally she was almost part of the family. She ate with the family, but had
to know her place. In comedies servants were often ridiculed as the ones who talked most
at the dinner table. But they were subordinates and impudence was not tolerated, if things
got out of hand, even verbal, it could well become a matter for the Sheriff. It is
striking, that so many foreigners wrote about the fact, that the Dutch never did beat
Things changed as we reach the times, that merchants got richer, did not eat with their
hats on anymore and started to use French words, like Confrere and Monsieur. Twenty or
more servants were needed to run the household and the same number on his estate. The
special one-to-one contact between the mistress
and the servant was gone and so were labor relations.
Loyalty and discretion were not obvious anymore and the bad reputation servant-girls had
throughout centuries seemed to be confirmed.
According to their reputation they were a threat to every household, unreliable but
indispensable, single but marriageable, devious, lazy and disobedient.
Of course history has its reports about the servant, who was punished for stealing a
silver spoon and about seduction and adultery, but one should not forget, that her
intimate position within a family made this young girl extra vulnerable. Most of the time
they were the victims, they had hardly any defense against accusations of their more
superior employer. In case of pregnancy they rarely had the means and the social
confidence to accuse the natural father and in most cases the shame and scandal landed on
her head and not his.
Sometimes servant-girls did live together with their employers and got married like in the
case of Descartes or stayed as concubine, like Hendrickje Stoffels with Rembrandt.
life in Amsterdam
Almost all every days activity was performed on the street, so it must have been a
sociable excitement of yelling, singing and arguing. In the early days cattle, like
chicken and pigs were found in the streets and even in the houses.
Most streets did not have pavement, so these animals found their food in the mud and
between the remainders of the marketplace. In about 1500 the City Council restricted
cattle within the city walls, except for the Sint Anthony and the Sint Cornelis
pigs, property of two convents. The citizens fed these pigs and the meat was distributed
among the poor each year.
Markets were very characteristic and dominant in Amsterdam, first of all the fish-market.
In the food range of the Dutch, fish has always been important.
But Amsterdam did not only have four fish-markets, but also a special market for cheese
and butter, one for wood, for peat, for straw, for pipes, for cattle, flowers, vegetables
and many more. The street-names still indicate where these markets were.
Most of the people lived on the streets during the daytime, especially the children. When
they could walk, the boys were allowed to play in the street, girls had to play in or near
the house, on the doorstep.
The games they played and the toys they used did not change a lot throughout the
centuries, although in this age of computer-games, our children or grandchildren hardly
play these games anymore. But many of us remember our marbles, stilts and kites. Like the
children in the 17th century we played tag, blindmans buff and hopscotch, skipping
rope, bounceball or hide and seek. They too played with a hoop and with a top.
I found one game I did not know, "pulling cobbles", The young rascals took a
peace of leather, cut it into a circle, made a little hole in the middle, attached a rope
to it and if the leather was wetted, they had created a sucker cup. The pavement in
Amsterdam was in general cobblestone, so with their sucker cup they could pull cobbles out
of the pavement. This game made them very unpopular with the authorities.
Surgeons had a minimum of professional knowledge, a proper education was not available, If
somebody wanted to become a surgeon, he became a member of the guild of barbers and
surgeons and he was assigned to a known surgeon and stayed with him for about 5 years as
an apprentice. He would practice in bleeding, treatment of ulcers, wounds, fractures and
amputations. They had to attend a few autopsies, but most of the time they were banished
to the seats in the back of the college class and could not see a thing. The exams usually
started sharpening the lancet and to perform a bleeding. In the early days that was all to
it, but in the 17th century some theoretical knowledge was required.
Normally the surgeon had a shop, which was identified by a signboard with lancet and
scissors, which indicated his "descent" from the barbers-trade. In his shop he
treated his patients: bleeding, amputations, cutting out growths, set broken bones and
pulling out teeth. His helpers held the poor patient and even his wife did help in the
shop. In later years he left the shaving brush to his helpers (he could not survive
without the income of his shop) and started visiting his patients at their homes.
The real surgeon/barber was the man of the bleeding, he did not know about the theory of
Galenus and his four fluids. Sometimes, especially when he was young and inexperienced, it
really went wrong and his patient bled to death. But actually he was not to blame, the
only thing he had to do at his exams was sharpen his lancet, so it could cut leather
without a single sound, as a guilds letter in 1606 stated.
Surgery was an exception and the reports about this were horrifying.
In 1554 the first surgery in the Sint Pieters Gasthuis was performed by surgeon Willem
Andrieszoon and two colleagues, they amputated Vrees Reinertszoon a couple of toes with a
Anaesthetic and disinfecting were unknown words, if an operation was very painful gin was
the only anaesthetic available. Most patients left the surgeon shop alive, but nobody
knows how much died later on due to infections.
Even in those days surgeons could refer a patient to a specialist. Specialists like the
Cancer-Master, Plaque- and Pock-Master only treated special diseases.
If a specific kind of surgery was beneath their dignity or too risky, the surgeons hired a
traveling surgeon and paid this quack in order to protect their reputation. Poor patient !
manners in Amsterdam
Most European contemporaries saw the Dutch as a nation of gluttons, who were not very
choosy about the food they ate, as long as it was a lot.
The English traveler John Ray was very annoyed by the constant bolting of the Dutch, he
characterized the Dutchman as ponderous, fat, laconic and whose heart was only beating
faster if he saw profit or food.
Wine and beer were also consumed in considerable amounts, at some inns glasseswithout a
stem were used. You had to keep the glass in your hand, so it could be refilled all the
time. If you had enough, it had to be placed upside down on the table and you would be
In the 17th century a Frenchman wrote in his travel report: "The Dutchman keeps his
hat on during diner, eats with dirty fingers and smacks his lips audible.
The table manners of the lady of the house are no different of those of the maid, who sits
at the same table".
Okay, the rest of Europe was eating with their fingers too, but the Dutch still had their
table manners. It was allowed for a lady to lick her fingers, but only the first two
finger bones. For the rest of her hands and arms she had to use a napkin. The bread,
vegetables and the meat were eaten with the hands.
We still have a Dutch the expression, used as an excuse, if we are caught eating with our
fingers: "why else should the Good Lord have given us fingers".
The only cutlery they knew was the spoon and knife. The spoon for the soup and porridge
and the knife for cutting the meat. Someone with a healthy appetite always had his spoon
with him, hanging on his belt.
During a short period in the beginning of the 17th century a white pleated collar was in
fashion and people started using forks, in order to protect it from getting dirty, but by
the time the collar was out of fashion, the fork disappeared.
Even in 1733 Justus van Effen wrote; he did not see anything wrong in eating from the same
plate and drinking from the same glass. If in company of strangers he could understand it,
but "being with good honest friends, what could be wrong about eating with your
fingers, which were cleaned before dinner as was that fork".
But by this time the influence of the French Royal Court had already reached the Republic
and all Dutch maids had to put a fork for each course on the table
Transportation in Amsterdam
I own an old book with descriptions of all the villages and towns in the Netherlands and
all the distances are given in hours walking. Thats what people did most, they
walked. Within the city, from city to city, even from country to country. They had no
choice; they had to walk.
Only in winter they had another form of cheap transportation, skating. Even their early
ancestors, the Batavians, knew how to skate, only they used sharpened bones as skates.
But under normal conditions all goods were transported by wheelbarrow and handcart, for
transportation of the really heavy materials the companies used workhorses.
Within Amsterdam the number of horses was limited and the rich owned most of the horses
for their carriages. In 1634 the number of carriages caused traffic-jam in the narrow
streets, so the City Council had to restrict the use of private carriages. Despite the
fine of 50 guilders (a workman had two work 10 weeks for
that amount of money) this rule never was very effective, because the members of the City
Council refused to give up their own carriages.
The most effective way of transportation for goods and persons was by boat.
The network of canals, rivers and streams made it possible to reach every place they
wanted and it was much faster. Dont forget, within the center of the city almost all
roads had pavement, but in the back-streets and outside the city it was sand, dust, mud
and hardly any road as we know it. So a ride in a carriage over a bumpy, muddy road was no
But a voyage on a track boat was a pleasure-trip !
The traveler could enjoy the view of the landscape, have a conversation with the skipper,
read a book or he could go to sleep in the deckhouse, while the boat was slowly sliding
through the water, pulled by one or two horses. Every hour a boat left for any city, the
voyage from Amsterdam to Rotterdam for instance lasted
14 hours, but the traveler arrived rested and cheerful. The traveler in the carriage
arrived a few hours earlier, but he was exhausted and broken.
But not all track boats were pulled by horses, some inland transportation-ships were
pulled by men, sometimes with the help of wife and children. Just imagine, in winter, in
this flat and windy country
"The man is head of the family, but the woman is the neck, that allows the head to
move" is something my mother used to say, but I did find this expression in old
Although the Church demanded absolute obedience to their husband it is obvious the Dutch
women had a strong will of their own. Why Dutch women distinguished themselves from for
instance German and French women is hard to say. Maybe education, the jurisdiction and
upbringing did make a difference.
The Dutch legal system in the 17th century allowed a woman to institute legal proceedings
against somebody, even against her husband. If she was unmarried and had not reached the
age of adulthood (25) she needed a guardian. An unmarried pregnant woman could persecute
the alleged father in a paternity procedure. She could force him to marry her and if he
was already married she could demand a dowry, payment of childbirth costs, an allowance
for the child and she had a good chance of winning.
Knowing she had the law on her side made a woman stand stronger in life.
The upbringing could be another positive contribution to her independent attitude. For the
Dutch it is hard to determine on what points the behavior of Dutch women differ so much
from her European sisters, but reading the travel reports of French and English visitors
make it much clearer.
John Ray, the English naturalist and indefatigable traveler, was disconcerted, when he saw
it was customary for married women of the upper-crust to kiss a male acquaintance who came
to visit them and kiss him again as he was leaving.
Kissing in public, frank conversations, walks without chaperone were considered shocking
and improper, especially by the French, but were quite common for the Dutch.
A diplomat visiting Mayor Gerrit Hoofts home around 1735 met the Mayors
seventeen-year-old daughter Hester "being the most beautiful girl I have ever seen,
except for her teeth". After dinner she asked her father if the guest could accompany
her to the theater and her father agreed. He was appalled, that they were allowed without
any chaperone. "Returning home, before getting off the coach, she thanked me for a
lovely evening and she kissed me, without any double meaning, cheerful and laughing,
leaving me in utter astonishment".
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