Amsterdamby Geert Mak, Philipp (Translator) Blom, Philipp Blom
Cosmopolitan, stylish, even a little decadent, Amsterdam"the Venice of the North"is a city of legendary beauty. From a twelfth-century settlement of wooden huts at the mouth of the River Amstel, it had become by the late sixteenth century one of the great cultural capitals of Europe and a major financial center.
In this gracefully written examination
Cosmopolitan, stylish, even a little decadent, Amsterdam"the Venice of the North"is a city of legendary beauty. From a twelfth-century settlement of wooden huts at the mouth of the River Amstel, it had become by the late sixteenth century one of the great cultural capitals of Europe and a major financial center.
In this gracefully written examination of Amsterdam's soulpart history, part travel guidethe Dutch writer Geert Mak imaginatively depicts the lives of early Amsterdammers and traces the city's progress from a small town of merchants, sailors, farmers, and fishermen to a thriving metropolis. Mak's Amsterdam is a city of dreams and nightmares, of grand civic architecture and magnificent monuments, but also of civil wars, uprisings, and bloody religious purges. In his delightfully instructive journey through the city and through time, Mak displays an eye for the bizarre and the unexpected: a Rembrandt sketch of a young girl executed for manslaughter; the shoe of a medieval lady unearthed during a remodeling project; a graffito foretelling the city's doom on the wall of a mansion, daubed by a deranged burgomaster with his own blood.
Amsterdam remains a magnet for travelers from around the world, and this charmingly detailed account of its origins and its history through the present day is designed to help the reader step into daily life in a truly modern city.
- Harvard University Press
- Publication date:
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- New Edition
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- 5.72(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.88(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Beautifully Constructed House
HISTORY BEGINS BENEATH THE ROOTS of trees. That is certainly true of Amsterdam, a city that grew up on the IJ and sank, only to rise again.
The people who lived through Amsterdam's history have vanished. Nobody can tell their stories; nevertheless, dumb witnesses to what happened still exist in their thousands. Time and again small fragments are released from this silent archive. Beneath the foundations of an old house in the Warmoesstraat, next to the red-light district of the Oudekerksplein, building workers found a barely deteriorated layer of fourteenth-century cow dung and straw, and a pair of bone skates, remnants of the time when the Warmoesstraat was still a dyke, and Amsterdam a little village on the IJ. Similarly, during work on a multi-storey car park at the Nieuwezijds Kolk, some walls were found that had once reinforced the early settlement and around which the city had grown. Again, by the Herengracht, close to the Leidsestraat, excavations for a new bank laid bare a bizarre combination of objects: the lower beams of an old mill; a silver medallion bearing a rose-shaped cameo; several skeletons in almost totally disintegrated coffins; a horn ointment press; smelling bottles; remarkable quantities of ointment pots; a medieval stone wall lamp; a single lady's shoe. The builders had chanced upon the site of the provisional pesthouse from the seventeenth century, a place where thousands of victims of the Black Death spent their last days. The coffins, the ointment pots, the lady's shoe and the rose are a testamentto their tragedy.
It must look like a battlefield under the surface of Amsterdam: beams, floor tiles, nails, grindstones, fishing hooks, riding spurs, pots, weights, bullets, scythes, compasses, scraps of wool and linen, coins, spindles, buckles, buttons, necklaces, shoes, keys, knives, spoons made from wood, pewter or bone, oil lamps, pilgrims' insignia, devotional pictures, dice, and, last but by no means least, purses. Little by little, enough objects have been found in the ground to keep a medieval town going, yet at the same time every single shoe in the mud holds its own little secret.
Thus the city has been leading a double life for centuries. Droning on in the streets is everyday existence, but behind the façades the city walls still stand, the gothic beams of monasteries remain in place, mills and chapels continue to creak, while, underground, the earth harbours treasures by the handful, thousands upon thousands of forgotten names. Not a week goes by in which an old bottle, the head of a pipe or a collection of pottery shards does not come to light somewhere in the city. During the 1970s, when the old houses around the Zuiderkerk were demolished to make way for an underground railway line, the bottom of the building pit was found to be strewn with skulls and bone: a graveyard had come to light again after two centuries. Underneath the Nieuwmarkt by the Lastage, the tools of the shipbuilders who had worked there around 1500 were found lying around: hatchets and hammers, workmen's gloves and an enormous iron cauldron, probably used for tarring and caulking. Then, too, there are all the things that have been found in the dark blue mud of the canals: thimbles, lace, hairpins, cloth seals, purse clasps, wooden plates (so-called telloren), eyeglasses, pens, forged coins, tobacco boxes, knucklebone dice, and even the visor of a knight's helmet.
Dig deeper still, however, and all of a sudden one encounters little but silence and the murmur of reeds along the banks of the Amstel. Where, around 1325, there was a solid city complete with harbour and fleet, houses and churches, workers, whores and burgomasters, only one and a half centuries earlier there had been nothing at all.
* * *
Amsterdam is young compared with most European cities. There is no prehistory of migrations, of military barracks or temples; emperors and kings have never held court there. "The origin and early growth of Amsterdam are hidden in a thick mist of doubtfulness and uncertainty," wrote Jan Wagenaar, one of the first historians of the city, in the eighteenth century. Not surprisingly, therefore, nobody really knows what to make of the earliest findings.
When the subway and the tunnel underneath the IJ were built, some Roman coins were dug up, much to everyone's surprise, and even a white marble bust of a Roman emperor has been excavated from the Amstel. During the sinking of a subway caisson, a Roman brooch was found, which the wearer must have lost in the area of the Weespeerstraat at the beginning of the Christian era. There were, therefore, certainly Roman passers-by after all, Velsen, a considerable Roman garrison, was not far away; moreover, for centuries the windy IJ formed part of the northern border of the Roman Empire. But nobody has ever uncovered proof of Roman habitation in Amsterdam, and other indications of early human activity on the banks of the Amstel remain just as shrouded in mystery.
One thing is certain, though: after the year AD 200, so many floods went over this low country that the banks of the Amstel and the IJ soon became unsuitable for all human occupation. For almost a thousand years it was to remain a deserted area of small lakes, rivulets, willows, rushes and moorland vegetation, not unlike the tiny nature reserves that still exist in Holland, now carefully guarded by conservationists. Such was the state of what was to become Amsterdam when the first university was founded in Paris and the Venetians were trading with the Emperor of China.
There are two legends about the origin of this city. The first is the tale of a knight, a Norwegian prince who, having been shipwrecked in a storm, was almost killed by the heathen Frisians until, at the last moment, he was saved by a Christian, a Frisian fisherman called Wolfert. Together they fled in Wolfert's boat, but on the Flevomeer they were caught in another terrible storm. The prince swore an oath that should they be delivered from their danger he would found a city on the exact spot where Wolfert's sheepdog lay down. Exhausted, they fell asleep, and awoke to find that their prayers had been answered: the boat sat high and dry on arable land, the sun was shining, and the dog was asleep under a tree. A whole new world awaited them.
The second legend is a peasant story. A hunter and a fisherman, wandering around in the desolate marshes along the Amstel, fell to worrying about their future, wondering where to go with their wives and children. A heron, taking pity on them, suddenly began to speak, advising them to build on the sandy corner where the Amstel flowed into the IJ: "Your houses will become a hamlet, the hamlet a village, the village a town, the town a city and the city will one day rule the whole world!"
So much for stories, now for the reality.
As far as we know, the first buildings to be erected where Amsterdam is now situated appeared at the end of the twelfth century, set on a layer of clay formed by the great floods of 1170 and 1173. Holland at this time was an inhospitable place, an area of marshland in the main, dotted with lakes connected to the sea, lakes which grew in size with every autumn storm. The land was habitable only in the sandy areas of the Gooi in the east and the dunes in the west.
A sort of Wild-West situation arose in the almost deserted Holland of around AD 1000. Families that had eked out a living on the sandy lands of the Gooi and in the dune strip along the IJ, began to venture into the wilderness like true-born pioneers. In some riverside spots these colonists would clear a piece of land of trees and reeds, then dig trenches around it to let the water drain away. All over the almost deserted Netherlands there sprang up isolated farms on which a little grain was cultivated and some livestock raised. The farmers made whatever they needed, with the result that these farmsteads were largely self-supporting. Trade was minimal and there was little money in circulation except for what was required to buy a few luxury goods and to pay rent and taxes. Work was strictly divided between the sexes: the women wove and spun, ground the grain, baked bread, dried salt, brewed ale, made shoes, candles and pots, and also concocted medicines. The men worked on the land, raised, tended and slaughtered the cattle, submitted to corvée and built boats, which were vital on farms surrounded on all sides by water. This division of labour continued in the early Amsterdam.
During that same period, between 1000 and 1300, several pioneer villages sprang up: Sloten (1063), soon to be followed by Osdorp, Schellingwoude, Ruigoord, Spaarnwoude, Oud Diemen and Ouder-Amstel. Originally the land on which these pioneers lived was literally floating on the water. The canals they dug caused the bog to settle, but this had disastrous consequences, for every flood pushed the sea water further inland, creating large lakes like the Purmer, the Beemster, the Schermer, the Bijlmer and the Haarlemmer which threatened to engulf the entire area. The settlers therefore decided to build dykes, the first of which were constructed by the local count and his subjects. The tidal inlets leading to the largest lakes were closed and the whole south side of the IJ then still a substantial area of water was dammed by a dyke running for many kilometres all the way from the Gooi, along Diemen and the mouth of the Amstel up to the dunes near Haarlem. Today, the Amsterdamse Zeedijk and the Haarlemmerdijk are the visible remains of this project which was hugely ambitious for its time. In order to prevent the salt water from entering the river mouths, over the years the rivers were all equipped with dams and locks for shipping and for the draining-off of bog water this was the origin of place names like Zaandam, Spaarndam, and even Amsterdam.
This delta plan avant la lettre was not imposed on the settlers by feudal overlords: for the Dutch back then it was literally a case of working on the dykes or drowning. Since the authority and wealth of the count were wholly insufficient for such a large project, and since the prince was far away, the fishermen and farmers had to save themselves, albeit with the Count's encouragement. The planning, building and upkeep of these dykes required good organization, which led to the setting up of a simple administrative system consisting of dijkgraven (dyke administrators) and ingelanden (landholders). Thus each had some say in the project, with the result that the system functioned reasonably efficiently. This was necessary because at stake was nothing less than the defence of the land against their greatest enemy: water. This tendency in the coastal areas to deal with problems privately, to tend towards decentralization and a rough kind of democracy, was to form the basis of the administrative tradition which, in the end, would determine Dutch political culture for centuries to come.
Officially, the area around Amsterdam, known as the Amestelle, was the property of the Bishop of Utrecht, a powerful man whose realm comprised a large part of the modern Netherlands. He was, moreover, a favourite of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, a regular visitor to Utrecht for the high holidays of the Church.
The administration of marshy Amestelle was hardly interesting for someone as important as the Bishop, however, and he therefore delegated it almost entirely to a trusted villicus or sheriff. A villicus was not always a nobleman. Documents from around 1100 mention for the first time a certain Wolfgerus, a serf, who was made a sheriff by the Bishop, and whose family had originally settled in a farmstead belonging to the bishopric, probably in Ouderkerk. Soon, however, Wolfgerus created a new position for himself by exploiting the discord that arose between the Counts of Holland and the Bishops of Utrecht.
In due course Wolfgerus was succeeded by his son, Egbert, who was followed in turn by a whole series of Gijsbreghts, grandsons and great-grand-sons. In this way the office became hereditary, and while the colonization of the area was continuing, the family began to call themselves "squires of the Aemstel". However, the van Aemstels were freebooters rather than noblemen, quick to take advantage of the diminishing power of the Bishop and the problems facing the Count of Holland in his dealings with foreign countries. Steadily their influence expanded towards north and south Holland.
The farmstead they inhabited was converted into a simple castle. It was no luxury, for as soon as this no man's land started to develop, the Kennemers, who lived in the dunes, organized one looting expedition after another, the largest of which, as is related in the chronicles of the Egmond monastery, took place in 1204. These "hordes" which in fact consisted of no more than some tens of men breached the Amstel dyke, flooded the surrounding land and "burned the beautifully constructed house of Gijsbreght [van Aemstel II] to ash: the fruit trees standing by the house were wholly burned". This, however, was not to be the end of the van Aemstels by any means.
* * *
Every New Year's Day there was once a long-standing tradition in Amsterdam of staging a performance of the famous tragedy Gijsbreght van Aemstel in the city's main theatre. In this play, the seventeenth-century poet Joost van den Vondel linked the rise of Amsterdam with the demise of the squires of Aemstel, and there was a great deal of truth in this notion. The succeeding Gijsbreghts van Aemstel had between them established something of a dynasty in the wild wasteland of the Amstel region; indeed, by around 1290 Gijsbreght IV was even considered the most important nobleman in Holland.
Not unnaturally, Amsterdammers in later centuries found Gijsbreght a wonderful tale: a royal drama taking place in such, to them, familiar locations as Zwanenburgh, Slooterdijk, the Aemstel, the Dam, the Doelenburgh, the Haerelemmerpoort, and the Clarisse monastery. Later, romantic poets turned to the subject time and again.
At last the hosts in heav'nly halls
Have pitied my embattled walls,
And my poor citizens, whose prayers
And crying echoes with their terror.
So begins Gijsbreght, although it is, of course, pure fantasy. The central action of the play is the siege of Amsterdam in 1304. Such a siege did indeed take place, but its principal figure was not Gijsbreght at all, but Jan van Aemstel, and the motives behind his actions were considerably more trivial than those that infuse the tragedy. In 1304, the Count of Holland was so taken up with an invasion by the Flemish that Jan van Aemstel, seeing his chance to settle an old score with the Count, reinforced the then still small Amsterdam with stockades, moats and walls. Even so, when the Count's troops laid siege to the city, Jan was forced to capitulate after only two weeks. "Though it lies in rains, the city will not tremble, it will rise again in greater glory out of ash and dirt," wrote Vondel, but the reality proved less dramatic. The people of Amsterdam were made to dismantle their own defences, their privileges were withdrawn, they had to pay special taxes, and that was that. Moreover, Vondel created for his play a prettified, if illusory, backdrop by setting it in a much larger city, similar to the Amsterdam of about 1550; as an extra attraction he put in a full-blown castle by the IJ in place of the Schreierstoren, where in reality there had been nothing but a little corner post in a city wall, and this was erected long after the events of 1304.
But Vondel had created a sparkling Greek tragedy on the dykes around the Amstel, a myth complete with angels, knights and virgins, love and duty, heroism and nobility of spirit, and the inhabitants of this grey little country were eternally grateful to him.
Nearly seven hundred years after the siege, in the winter of 1994, the little area behind the Nieuwezijds Kolk was cleared of squatters in a demonstration of strength by the police. The squatters had lived there for years and the houses were dilapidated; now a project developer wanted to tear them down and replace them with luxury apartments and a car park, a proposal to which the municipal authorities consented on condition that the city archaeologists were given access to the site first.
Every now and then I went to have a look at the enormous excavation, noticing how the dragline cut through the centuries like a knife through cake. Some cups from the nineteenth century, a layer of rubbish from the eighteenth, some bottles from the seventeenth; this is what a city looks like from underneath its contemporary surface. Sometimes the diggers displayed their daily harvest: ordinary fare in the main, coins and pottery shards, but also a shoe made from Turkish cork, some fabric, a medieval carnival sign and an iron drill used for shipbuilding.
One overcast day when I walked past, a whole stone hearth had appeared, a small open fireplace dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century. It was remarkable how ordinary it looked, as though it had been carved just a year ago a little crude perhaps, the work of a cheap contractor even the tree trunks beneath it might only have been felled the day before yesterday. The Inquisition, the Black Death, the discovery of America, the French Revolution, all these events had thundered over this fireplace and the tree trunks, without affecting them in the least. Now, after more than six hundred years, a machine stood there, rattling, while a man in a yellow plastic overall walked around.
Another visit, a few days later, and suddenly traces of a clay wall were visible. This had probably acted as protection not only against human enemies but also against the IJ, whose banks have receded by several hundred metres over the centuries (originally the IJ began at the Nieuwezijds Kolk and the Dirk van Hasseltway). Then, on 18 February 1994, after little more than a month's digging, the archaeologists decided to call a halt to their operations, for there is nothing to find in Amsterdam at a depth of more than five or six metres. Moreover, a stiff easterly breeze was blowing and the temperature stood at -3°C, making digging far from enjoyable. At this precise moment, at a depth of seven metres, they chanced upon the remains of a wall almost two metres thick. Such unthinkably massive walls could mean only one thing: that there had been a castle by the Amstel after all, just as the poet Vondel had described.
Some days after this discovery, all of history-loving Amsterdam came to have a look: elderly librarians, history teachers, genealogists, conservationists, art historians, and journalists; all stood beaming at this fragment of yellow and pink brickwork, as though this single find had not undermined all of their hypotheses and their archival research. Until then, the theory had always been that there had never been a castle in Amsterdam, that there had never been lords and servants, that this had been a city of independent burgers from the very beginning
According to city archaeologist Jan Baart, the castle was built shortly after the sacking by the Kennemers of the first fortress of the van Aemstels in 1204, and judging by the worn tiled floors it was in constant use for many decades. It had stood on what was once a peninsula in the IJ, surrounded by a small settlement, measured a good 20 by 20 metres, and had four small corner towers.
The discovery explains certain things that had remained mysteries, among them the unearthing, some years earlier, of a twelfth-century shield in the vicinity, along with a smithy of almost the same age, from a period when there were only a few houses in the settlement. Little archival material has survived from the shadowy thirteenth century, although we do know that slightly later, in 1305, the bailiff still lived in, or had returned to, Ouderkerk, and that this was the centre of administration for the area during that time. Then, after the excitement of the find had abated a little, another opinion rapidly gained currency: the structure discovered was not in fact the castle of the van Aemstels at all, but a reinforcement built three-quarters of a century later, probably by Count Floris V. The timber used in the castle's construction was cut from trees still growing in 1273, as an examination of the rings in the wood proved. Moreover, such square castles were only introduced into Europe in the second half of the thirteenth century.
But whatever the truth of such theories, they make little difference to the history of the development of Amsterdam. With or without a castle, the city has hardly known any feudal tradition. In many European cities the nobility kept their ruling position in society long after they had lost their commanding influence as a social paradigm. In Amsterdam, however, this was much less the case. The citizens observed their duties until the middle of the seventeenth century the gallery of the Town Hall (the Stadhuis) was dominated by four wooden statues of the Counts of Holland, symbols of authority but otherwise they simply went about their own business. This may have been due to the shortness of the period during which the van Aemstels ruled, but it may also have resulted from local power relations; besides, the van Aemstels themselves were freebooters at least as much as were the first pioneers to settle in Amsterdam. The original coat of arms of the city is telling: a cog (an early form of sailing ship) with two men and a dog. This is not a legendary image, but a rather prosaic one, translated into symbol. One man, a man of war on closer inspection, symbolizes the castle; the other, a merchant, the city; the dog is a symbol of loyalty; and together all three sail on the ship of the future.
* * *
We know almost as little about the first settlement of Amsterdam as we do about the castle. The terrain was boggy marshland, full of alder thickets, hazelnut bushes, spindle trees, reeds and heather; this, at least, is what is suggested by the excavated seeds. Few trees grew alongside the Amstel. Around the year 1180, during the building of the first dyke or possibly even earlier, the settlers had raised artificial mounds on a solid layer of clay by the river and on these they built the first higgledy-piggledy assembly of houses. They were simple huts, each no larger than a sizeable living room of today, and were constructed from a few tree trunks, with walls of twigs covered with clay and a roof of reed or straw. A space for the fireplace was left in the back of the house, "a fire around which one can walk", and the clay floors sloped down from the centre towards the walls in order to prevent rainwater streaming into the house. Dwellings of this type stood in the city until the late Middle Ages. Their advantage was that they could be torn down very quickly in case of fire, it being the obligation of the owner of a burning house to pull down the walls with a hook as quickly as possible.
A row of such huts stood on what is now the Nieuwendijk and a part of the Kalverstraat, on the "New Side" of the city. Contrary to what most Amsterdammers think, the terms Oude Zijde (Old Side) and Nieuwe Zijde (New Side) have nothing to do with the origin of the city. They date from a later period, when Amsterdam was divided into two parishes, and should really be Oude Kerks-zijde (Old Church Side) and Nieuwe Kerks-zijde (New Church Side), the Oude Kerk dating from about 1300, and the Nieuwe Kerk from the fifteenth century.
It was mainly fishermen and farmers who lived in this fledgling Amsterdam, even if some discoveries around the castle indicate that there were also a few specialized craftsmen living there. This dyke village was extremely narrow, measuring less than 25 metres in breadth, although it would have taken a quarter of an hour to walk from one end to the other. It was soon broadened by filling up parts of the Amstel from one bank and building new houses on the reclaimed land. As a result the dyke became a street, with houses on either side. Only a few years ago, during excavations for the foundations of a commercial building by the Rokin, the original bank of the Amstel was discovered. This clearly showed how the early pioneers had filled in parts of the river with mud and turf, alternating with layers of rubbish from the first houses. Although it was a difficult operation it proved successful, and the people of Amsterdam would repeat it several times in the following decades. All in all, about 60 metres were won from the original breadth of the Amstel during this early period. It was the first land that the city had won from the water, and once it had the taste it wanted more.
The dam that gave the settlement its name was probably built after the floods of 1170 and 1173, although some scientists believe it was erected some 50 years later. It is traditionally assumed that the settlement was originally situated closer to the IJ, somewhere near today's Nieuwe Brug. By re-siting it a little further inland, the river mouth could be made to serve as a natural harbour. The settlers quickly began to populate the other side of the harbour, the site of today's Warmoesstraat, which probably derives its name from the vegetable gardens once situated there. In the area around the Oude Kerk a thriving quarter of textile merchants and craftsmen came into being, as is evident from the finds there of seals and pieces of cloth.
This was the state of affairs on Sunday, 27 October 1275, when Amsterdam first appears in the archival sources. In the document in question, Floris V, Count of Holland, grants freedom from taxation "to the people abiding near the Amsteldam". The city has very carefully preserved this piece of parchment down through the centuries, and with good reason, for it was the first privilege granted to the young settlement by the Count. What is more, it was very valuable, for it meant that the first citizens of Amsterdam no longer had to pay costly tolls when crossing the bridges and locks that dotted the County of Holland.
This first document also tells us something about the situation in which early Amsterdam found itself. There is no mention of a real city; otherwise Count Floris might have been a little less vague about these "people abiding near the Amsteldam". At the same time, however, the settlement was obviously important enough for the Count to bind its inhabitants to him by the grant of a privilege. It may even be that the building of the walls, mentioned earlier, influenced his decision to treat the Amsterdammers so preferentially. Who can say?
The remainder of this episode in the city's history is indeed worth writing a tragedy about. Gijsbreght van Aemstel IV, seeing that the Bishop of Utrecht was losing his authority, decided to play off Holland and Utrecht against each other, just as his ancestors had done so successfully. Matters got so out of hand that in 1296 van Aemstel, together with other noblemen, even made an attempt to rid themselves entirely of Count Floris V. The coup failed, and the whole van Aemstel family was banished to Flanders for ever. The County of Holland confiscated the castle and set about demolishing it. Then, in I304, as I wrote earlier, Gijsbreght's son, Jan, tried to seize power over Amsterdam. Although he conquered the city and fortified it with a wall, less than a year later he was chased out, this time for good, after a two-week siege by Floris V's successor as Count of Holland, William III. It seems likely that the headstrong, rebellious van Aemstels had the support of the population of Amsterdam, something which can at least be inferred from the fact that the city was initially punished severely by the Count. Since the people of Amsterdam had "taken in the murderers of Count Floris", they were stripped of all their privileges, the castle was pulled down, and the walls, too, were demolished only to come to light again unexpectedly almost 700 years afterwards.
When the van Aemstel family was finally defeated in 1304, the city of Amsterdam had to relinquish its recently secured rights, only to have them restored a year later. Because it was during the same period of confusion, when the castle was pulled down, that Amsterdam must have been granted city rights. In a charter dating from around 1300, the new bishop, Gwijde van Avesnes, mentions for the first time "our burghers of Aemstelredamme". Thanks to these city rights, Amsterdam was removed from the authority of the Bishop, the Count, and the van Aemstel family and was in principle allowed to administrate itself through its own aldermen and councils and its own sheriff. Sheriff and aldermen had the power to decide whether to admit new citizens and were entitled to pass their own laws and administer justice, while, if a citizen was imprisoned beyond the city walls, all citizens were entitled to set out to liberate him. Apart from this, the charter also set down regulations about the treatment of serious crimes such as murder, wounding, and breach of the peace. This meant that the city could develop undisturbed, protected by its charter from the meddling of the nobility and by its walls from the uncertainties of the countryside.
Many European cities during this period became islands of commerce and progress in a sea of inertia, terror, superstition and oppression. This was not true of Amsterdam, however, for the interaction with the surrounding countryside was too strong, and the city was still relatively small. While Utrecht, Nijmegen and Dordrecht already had between one and two thousand houses, and Leiden almost a thousand, settlements like Hoorn, Medemblik and Amsterdam consisted of no more than a few hundred. As to the city's spiritual needs, while there was already a small chapel on the square where the Oude Kerk now stands, "Amstelredamme" had to share a pastor with the churches of Ouder and Nieuwer-Amstel. Only on 5 May 1334, when the Bishop decided to appoint a certain Wouter van Drongelen as pastor of the Oude Kerk, was the young city apparently considered grown-up enough to provide enough work for a shepherd of souls. After this, however, things changed rather quickly.
* * *
What, within so short a period, transformed Amstelredamme into the city of Amsterdam? What was the dynamic force that drove a few fishing families that, around 1200, had paid the lowest fishery tax of the whole area but were to become a real power, conducting a veritable sea war in the Sound, only three or four generations later? And why did this all happen around the boggy mouth of the Amstel, of all places, when there were so many more suitable areas in the Netherlands in which to found cities?
When all is said and done, Amsterdam was an impossible city. Everything that was built sank into the mud, especially in later centuries when the harbour could only be reached by a complicated route made more difficult by sandbanks and headwinds. In addition, it was, when compared to other Dutch cities, something of a late bloomer: Dordrecht (1220), Haarlem (1245), Delft and Alkmaar (both 1246), among others, all preceded Amsterdam by many years. Yet the young city drew strength from the fact that it was situated close to so many important cities, at least by the standards of the day. Added to this were factors that so often lead to great success: (1) chance; (2) an invention that was to have momentous consequences; and (3) above all, the stupidity and short-sightedness of others.
Let us begin with the invention. Among the earliest inhabitants of the Amstel lands there were many Frisians. In the early Middle Ages they traditionally organized the transport links between the centres of commerce in the Netherlands such as Muiden, Staveren, the Ijssel towns and beyond, towards the Waddenzee, North Germany, Jutland and the Baltic. It seems almost certain that the little town of Amsterdam was part of this commercial route from the very beginning, if only because it is known that there were quite a few sailors living there (there is, for instance, a letter preserved from 1248 before Amsterdam received its official name in which Gijsbreght van Aemstel III protests against the confiscation of a ship from Amstelland by the city of Lübeck). During excavations, the remains of objects imported from strange and distant lands were found in the earliest Amsterdam houses: among these, a yellow earthenware jug which ended up in the river around 1200 appears to have been made in Belgium, while the seeds of dried grapes, currants and figs probably came from the south of France or Italy. Then, too, there was a curious strip of silk which came to light among objects dating from around 1225. Woven in Genoa, it had made a long journey on small boats through a complicated network of rivers and small channels, and thence by pathways and trading posts, eventually to arrive here.
The great invention was the cog: a large, broad-beamed wooden ship with a rounded prow and stern, like an enormous clog with a mast, seaworthy and able to transport large quantities of goods cheaply. Just as in the twentieth century the development of the jumbo jet caused a revolution in areas such as migration and international relations by offering relatively inexpensive mass transport between continents, so the cog suddenly made it possible to transport basic goods like grain, wood and salt across the seas in bulk.
Amsterdam was soon playing a part in all this: quays dating from the thirteenth century and designed for sea-going vessels have been excavated opposite the Central Station, and houses near by were found to have been built on the remains of decommissioned cogs. The cog had a capacity of about 100 tons, five or ten times that of its predecessors, and could sail on the open sea instead of taking the convoluted route through rivers and canals. Amsterdam's passive trade as part of a larger network soon turned into active involvement: the city began to go its own way.
As I have said, however, it was not this invention alone that propelled Amsterdam to prominence; it was also the stupidity and short-sightedness of others, and in particular of the Bishop of Utrecht. With the introduction of the cog, the merchants on the coast of the North Sea and the Baltic, especially those in Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck, began increasingly to trade with southern Europe. They imported salt and wine from France, wool and cloth from England and Flanders, and silk, velvet and spices from Genoa and Venice, while also importing grain, wood and furs from the north. Brugge (Bruges) in Flanders was their entrepôt, an outpost from which they could transport their goods. Because of the treacherous nature of the North Sea, merchants preferred to avoid the open seas as much as possible. Their old route from the Baltic went by inland waterways right through the Netherlands, via the Waddenzee, Almere (the bay which would later grow to become the Zuiderzee), then via Muiden and up the Vecht, Utrecht via the Dutch Ijssel to the Rhine, then onwards via the islands of Zeeland to Brugge.
During the thirteenth century the unstable equilibrium between the authorities, freedom and trade, the fine balance between coercion and promise which Amsterdam would exploit to rise to world power in later centuries, was ignored by the Bishops of Utrecht. Essentially, those who ruled mainly tried to make money from the merchants' route through the Netherlands, establishing tolls and building dams, and thereby slowly strangled the hen that laid the golden eggs. From the second half of the thirteenth century, the route along the Rhine through the province of Utrecht was as good as impassable. Under Bishop Jan van Nassau, the diocese sank into total chaos; merchants were robbed and murdered; while from his castle in Vreeland that noble lord Gijsbregt IV acted like a true robber baron.
It was as a result of this negative turn of events that Amsterdam began to grow so strongly after 1275. Merchants who sought, en masse, to avoid the old trading route soon found new ones which passed through Holland, and especially through the Amstel and Amsterdam. The route was by far the most advantageous, and what was more there was no toll to be paid to the Count. Unlike their rivals in Utrecht, the Counts of Holland had quickly understood that their increasing population could not sustain itself by agriculture alone on the boggy and sandy soils around the Amstel. They therefore stimulated and protected the trade, improved locks and bridges and lured merchants into their land with privileges and guarantees of safe passage, with the goal of making a second Brugge out of Dordrecht.
As Amsterdam grew, so it continued to cultivate its individuality; from then until today there has existed a contrast between the principal city and the rest of the country or, if you will, between the mentality of the Counts and that of the Bishops.
The Bishops, relying on the feudal system of landowners and serfs, ruled over farmers who literally had nowhere else to go, and who were weighed down with taxes like old donkeys until they simply caved in. The Counts, on the other hand, understanding the importance of commerce to their lands, appreciated the fact that merchants were not serfs, and were at liberty to use other routes if they so chose. Furthermore, they understood what would later develop into one of the most important traditions of the Netherlands: the need to deal with the new and the foreign without smothering them with rules and restraints and cheap profit-hunting.
In Holland, people opened themselves to the sea and to everything that came from afar, while those on the sandy soil of Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel turned their backs on it. Holland looked towards the west and the north and the lands further to the east; a subtle divide which runs through the political and cultural landscape of the two Netherlands even today.
"An extraordinarily powerful book. Do you want stories? Read it. Do you want the history of ordinary men and women? Read it. Do you want to learn to love Amsterdam? Read it"
GEERT VAN ISTENDAEL, Vrij Nederland
Cosmopolitan, stylish, and even a little decadent, Amsterdam "the Venice of the North" is a city of legendary beauty. From a twelfth-century settlement of wooden huts at the mouth of the River Amstel, it had become by the late sixteenth century one of the greatest cultural capitals in Europe and a major financial centre.
In this fascinating examination of Amsterdam's soul, part history, part travel guide, the Dutch writer Geert Mak imaginatively depicts the lives of the early Amsterdammers and traces the city's progress from a little town of merchants, sailors, farmers and fishermen into a thriving metropolis. He also provides his own insights into the psyche of Amsterdam's citizens: their concern for free speech and the rights of the individual, their characteristic sobriety and how their famous tolerance was put to the test and found lacking under the German Occupation, when many of the city's Jews (most notoriously Anne Frank) were betrayed by their neighbours.
Mak's Amsterdam is a city of dreams and nightmares, of grand civic architecture and magnificent monuments, but also of civil wars, uprisings, and bloody religious purges. In his delightfully instructive journey through the city and through time, Mak displays an eye for the bizarre and the unexpected: a medieval lady's shoe unearthed during building work; a Rembrandt sketch of a hanged girl; a graffito foretelling the city's doom on the wall of a mansion, daubed by a deranged burgomaster with his own blood.
Amsterdam remains a magnet for travellers from all over the world and this idiosyncratic, charmingly detailed account of its origins and its history to the present day is designed to help the reader step into the nature of daily life in this truly modern city.
GEERT MAK was born in Friesland in 1946 and is one of the Netherlands most prominent journalists. His works have been published to huge critical and popular acclaim at home and in translation.
PHILIPP BLOM was born in Hamburg and is now living in London, where he works as a journalist, novelist, and translator.
"Magnificent. One of the most readable, most surprising historical works ever written"
Meet the Author
Geert Mak is one of the most prominent journalists in the Netherlands.
Philipp Blom works as a journalist, novelist, and translator in London, England.
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A terrific read. If you are familiar with Amsterdam and love the city you'll love this book.