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  • Close To The Edge: Criminals and Marginals in Dutch Cities
  • Pieter Spierenburg (bio)

The characteristically Dutch urban culture of the Republican period is to be found first of all in the western part of the country: the area which today is called the Randstad and which, as Jan de Vries argues, already formed an integrated urban network in the seventeenth century. 1 Consequently, most of the examples in this brief essay will be from that area. Within the Randstad, Amsterdam was by far the largest city. It is also the one most extensively investigated with respect to crime and marginality. In addition to Amsterdam, ample information exists about towns such as Haarlem, Leiden, and Delft. Our principal question is whether this urban culture, as far as crime and marginality are concerned, had peculiar features, not to be found elsewhere. Was there a typically Dutch pattern? Since this is a broad question, I will restrict the discussion to a few themes.

One common characteristic results from the integrated urban network itself. Interurban mobility was very common, especially among the less settled sections of the lower classes. Admittedly, German bandits might easily cross the border of one territory and move to the next, and it was not uncommon for French beggars to traverse large parts of rural France. However, moving swiftly from one town to another is a different experience. That is what beggars, vagrants and criminals in the Netherlands often did, remaining all the while in an urban environment. The people on the edge were quick to learn new practices and rituals, as is apparent in the spread of the popular duel, in imitation of the noble duel. Banishment of undesirables often just meant an exchange of individuals from one urban subculture to another.

When historians of early modern Europe speak of marginal people, they refer primarily to beggars and vagrants. Prison-workhouses were established in the Dutch Republic around 1600 to lock up members of this group, along with unruly family members and petty criminals. It was felt that something should be done about the exchange of undesirable individuals. It makes no sense, the Leiden magistrates stated, that we “banish such people upon each other’s necks.” 2 Because the towns in Holland constituted an integrated urban system, concern about public order transcended the local level. Around 1600 the magistrates of Amsterdam and Leiden, and their colleagues in some other towns, wanted to cooperate, instead of diverting their problems to each other. The supra-local cooperation of urban magistrates aimed to restrict the interurban mobility of marginals just referred to. 3

However, the authorities had only limited success in this. Complaints about vagabonds and impertinent beggars continued to be heard throughout the Republican period and after. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, for example, the burgomasters of Haarlem requested advice from the prison regents on how to deal with “foreign” marginals. The regents recommended strict supervision over all houses which provided lodging. One of the suggestions was that people staying there with children should be forbidden from going out at night without them. 4 This practice of abandoning children, in the expectation that they would be cared for from [End Page 355] the public treasury, was of course an international phenomenon, but access to other towns, into which the parents could quickly disappear, may have encouraged it. Incidentally, the Haarlem prison regents added that their proposals had already been formulated in the 1670 “neighborhood order”: a clear indication that policies were stricter on paper than they were in actual practice.

It is quite possible, although difficult to substantiate quantitatively, that the rich and populous urban region of the Western Netherlands attracted more marginal people than most other regions of Europe. The conditions which forced some persons into a marginal existence, on the other hand, were the same everywhere. Disbanded soldiers and people with physical handicaps were typical beggars in the Dutch Republic as well as its surrounding countries. A certain Jean-Baptiste de Bauchan, arrested in Amsterdam in May 1749, combined both characteristics. He lost one hand because of a querelle with a fellow soldier, whereupon he was dismissed from his duty in the Prince of Orange’s Swiss...

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pp. 355-359
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