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Reviewed by:
  • Germans into Nazis
  • Margaret C. Jacob
Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam. By Anne E. C. McCants (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1997) 281 pp. $36.95

Sometimes an economic historian can write social history with a particular clarity. In her account of an Amsterdam orphanage that took care only of children whose deceased parents had possessed the status of citizen, McCants gives texture to the outlines of an early-modern Dutch society that has often been treated representationally through its art and artifacts.

McCants shows that in Amsterdam, even orphans ate exceptionally well by the standards of the age, consuming on average more than 2,000 calories a day. Their keepers were expected to eat more than twice that amount, leaving the reader to muse about the many successful escapes engineered by nimble orphans as their portly mentors lumbered after them. All this housing and feeding was financed largely by the wealthiest regents in the city, men with addresses on the Herengracht whose wives as regentessen were prepared to oversee menu planning and clothing distribution. In the period after Amsterdam joined the fight against Spain until the Napoleonic reign, Dutch society managed to sustain deep hierarchy, great prosperity, and relative cohesion. McCants’ lively prose, as well as her economic tables, enhance our understanding of the glue that held together the mix of rigid oligarchy and relative stability. She could find not a single instance of financial irregularity in more than 200 years of account books.

Everyone who counted in the small, tightly interwoven social elite served a stint on the orphanage’s board. McCants argues that a complex mix of motives sustained their energy: Calvinism mixed with a healthy dose of Erasmian humanism; pressure from the middling classes to ensure the status of their children if both parents were to die; and, not least, self-interest mixed with the need for social order. Other aspects of Dutch life spring from these ostensibly dry records: The down side of the increasingly nuclear family meant that the vast majority of orphans were signed into the institution by relatives who were no longer willing (or perhaps able) to disrupt their own households by adding a niece or nephew. Yet, knowing that regents were prepared to sustain the status of a child or relative must have muted social anger. Only when the regents became more public in their displays of wealth—amid an increasingly visible economic decline and the threat of French invasion—did social anger erupt in 1747/48. Rioting by Amsterdam’s artisans and small shopkeepers during that winter served notice that an orphanage was not enough; genuine reform had to occur.

McCants’s book demonstrates how economic history can illuminate not only the social but even the political and the intellectual realms. It gives meaning to terms like “secularization,” as increasing attention was paid to making every boy and girl employable and useful to society, not [End Page 331] simply pious. Insight comes also into the vexed problem of a supposed “moral decay” that overcame regents in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Once the standard explanation for the breakdown of social trust that preceded the revolutions of 1787 and 1795, the argument about decay gets little support from these records. The efforts made by the Amsterdam regents to save the orphanage in the face of escalating financial pressures everywhere apparent by the 1770s suggests that, at least in this case, the oligarchy had not abandoned its obligations.

That one institution can illuminate so many aspects of a national history should give renewed life to a jargon-free economic history, one that documents the lives of people in difficult circumstances without invoking on every page notions of repression and control to explain what society can sometimes offer the needy.

Margaret C. Jacob
University of California, Los Angeles

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pp. 331-332
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