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"Wearing out a pair of fool's shoes":
Sexual Advice for Youth in Holland's Golden Age
During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the cities of the Dutch Republic experienced a population explosion. Leiden grew from 26,000 inhabitants in 1600 to 60,000 in 1647, and Amsterdam swelled from 60,000 to 140,000 in the same interval. Immigration, brought about by the revolt in the southern Netherlands and the Thirty Years' War in the states of Germany, accounts for much of this growth.1 Although we lack specific data on the ages of these immigrants, we can assume that youths comprised the majority, for they were best able to pull up roots elsewhere and seek their fortunes in the booming economy of the republic. In speaking of "youths," we follow early modern European usage and refer to males whose ages ranged from the early teens (when they left the parental home to become apprentices or scholars) to the late twenties (when they typically married) and to females from at least twelve to twenty-five.
This influx of young people took its toll on the social stability of the Dutch Republic's cities, whose authorities came to believe that large groups of adolescents posed a serious threat to public order. During periods of political upheaval, urban youths initiated rioting, plundering, and stone throwing, but their affronts to civic serenity were not limited to those moments.2 While not at home, work, or school male youths spent their leisure time gathering in city squares, at marketplaces, and on street corners. In the evenings servants, apprentices, students, and other young [End Page 139] people thronged the many taverns, brothels, and gaming halls. Especially before the introduction of street lighting (which occurred in Amsterdam in 1669), Dutch cities could be dangerous places at night.3
In an effort to control the volatile urban populace and youths in particular city officials promulgated an increasing number of ordinances aimed at curbing public gatherings. In Utrecht the municipal council tried to curtail the traditional Catholic feasts of St. Martin, St. Nicolas, and Epiphany, not only because these were remnants of the republic's papal past but because they were events at which crowds often got out of hand. The council also attempted to regulate the neighborhood games, meals, funerals, fairs, and other activities that took place around church buildings and on public roads or waterways. In the late seventeenth century it even prohibited youths from playing sports and games in public areas.4 In the university city of Groningen large groups of people, especially young men, were prohibited from congregating in public areas, disturbing the peace, parading through the streets, playing dice, frequenting inns, running up a tab at an inn, tossing firecrackers, throwing stones at church buildings, and committing acts of vandalism.5
If public ordinances alone failed to dissuade youths from tomfoolery, correctional facilities were available to incarcerate them. Continental Europe's first correctional house, the Rasphuis (Rasp house), was founded in Amsterdam in 1595. It was even equipped with a special ward (the white bread ward) in which to house young men from wealthy families that had trouble controlling them. However, Dutch parents who had their children imprisoned in the hope of reforming them and ending the shame they brought to the family name did so as a last resort.6 Before taking such drastic measures they were more likely to consult one of the available advice books on how to raise their children properly. Among these books, those authored by Jacob Cats (1577-1660) were especially popular. Cats, who [End Page 140] had earned fame as a statesman, advocate, and poet, became the best-selling author of the seventeenth century. By 1655, according to his publisher's estimate, around 300,000 copies of Cats's works had been printed or reprinted; additional copies...