With Christmas drawing nearer, our thoughts go out more often to the poor than at any other time of year. We have grown used to governments taking care of the poor in our Western societies. Even in times of crisis, governments cover at least the most basic needs of the poor. But what was it like for our ancestors? Could they rely on some sort of poor relief? And can we still find evidence of this in the archives?
From as early as the 1400s there was a system of poor relief available in the Low Lands. This usually took on the form of little clusters of small houses on the premises of a church or a convent. These were called “hofjes” (lit. courtyard, because they used to be arranged around a little yard with common facilities such as the latrines). These houses were appointed by the church to selected poor and elderly people. Staying was free but required impeccable behavior from the residents. Yard doors were closed at ten o’clock in the evening, church visits were compulsory, no alcohol was permitted within the premises as was drunkenness or any other kind of frivolous behaviour.
Over time, the “hofjes” were mainly reserved for poor and/or elderly women. From the 1500s on poor and elderly men could take shelter at the “oudemannenhuis” (lit. old men’s house). These were mainly erected because practice proved that elderly men were less capable of properly taking care of themselves as was required in a “hofje”. At the “oudemannenhuizen” these men not only got a free bed, but also free meals and clothes. These old men’s houses were also kept by the church or a convent and required the same impeccable behavior from it’s inhabitants as the “hofjes” did.
Slightly less poor people that whished to be looked after in a more comfortable way than at the old men’s house, could buy themselves into a so-called “proveniershuis” (lit. charity house). The care was similar to that of an old men’s house but the beds, food and clothing were all of a slightly better quality.
This system worked quite well until the Renaissance. Until then, the rich hoped to buy themselves a place in heaven by giving generously to the church’s charity works. However, the Reformation introduced the idea that a place in heaven could not be bought through charity. Little by little the care for the poor was taken over by municipalities which were funded by the rich and middle classes which saw it as their moral duty to take care of the less fortunate. This resulted in the 1600s in the founding of the so-called “huiszittenhuizen” besides the already existing municipal poor houses. “Huiszittenhuizen” (lit. stay at home houses) provided relief in the form of food and fuel to those people that were able to provide with their own shelter but lacked the money to buy the rest of their basic necessities.
The relief offered by “huiszittenhuizen” was available to both men and women regardless of their faith (which was a new idea!). They could mainly be found in the big cities and they usually kept quite meticulous records of whom they provided with bread in summer and bread and fuel in winter. Most records cover roughly the early 1800s. If your ancestors lived in a big Dutch city and the head of family had humble or unsteady work such as season work or work at the docks, it is worth checking these registers. Especially if they had many children, in which case chances are that the money earned was not by large enough to feed that many mouths.
Some families pop up in the registers year after year, while others only do so occasionally. When people are removed from the register often a reason is given (many times this was the death of the person in question). These records are a valuable source in getting a more detailed idea of how poor your ancestors actually were. If your ancestors are from Amsterdam, you are lucky, since this city has indexed and scanned its “huiszittenhuizen” registers and put them online here (small fees apply to see the actual scans, but you can browse the index for free): Huizittenhuizen registers Amsterdam .
Ever since unexpectedly, after a very mild December and dreary gray Christmas, Jack Frost decided to pay us an extended visit, there is a buzz of excitement going through the Netherlands. Now that the ice has reached a thickness of about 10 centimeters (4 inches) some even dare whispering “it giet oan”. “It giet oan” is Frisian for “it’s on” and they are the magical words that announce that the infamous “Elfstedentocht” (Eleven Cities Tour) is on.
Once the words are officially spoken by the chairman of the Eleven Cities Tour organization it seems all Dutch go mad (even those not really into the event, can’t help making comments about it). They collectively pack up some warm clothing and skates and head for the north, to the city of Leeuwarden. Shops manage to get all things orange and Frisian on the shelves within a day and skate sharpeners make over hours.
Now what is this fuzz all about? What is this “Elfstedentocht” that gets a whole country into a frenzy also referred to as “Elfstedenkoorst” (Eleven Cities Fever)?
It is an epic speed skating tour of 200 kilometers (that’s about 125 miles and a minimum of 7 hours of skating!). It runs along lakes and canals with natural ice that pass through all eleven Frisian cities. The tour starts in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden, then passes along Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum and ends up in Leeuwarden again. For the tour to take place, the ice needs to have a thickness of 15 centimeters (6 inches). Only then it is strong enough to carry the thousands of skaters that will join the race. Since a winter that cold only happens once or twice a decade in the Netherlands, the race is quite a rare event.
The first official organized “Elfstedentocht” took place in 1909. It was organized by Pim Mulier who became inspired to do so when he skated along all eleven Frisian cities himself in 1891. He also designed the cross that all participants, that manage to reach the finish, get. He was, however, not the first to skate that route. For centuries, skating had been a very practical means of transportation in cold winters for the Frisians. Skates were a cheap and fast alternative to walking on slippery roads. As early as the 1700s there have been reports of young men challenging each other to skate along the eleven Frisian cities as a proof of their strength, endurance and bravery (and I guess that impressing the girls has played some part in it as well ;o)).
Nowadays, the event is extremely popular with both men and women. Every time thousands of people show up at the start to prove themselves. Since the route has a limited capacity, however, the number of participants is now topped at 16,000. To prevent that many participants start but do not finish because they are physically unfit to ride the tour, some selection has been introduced by the organization. Only those who are a member of the “Elfstedentocht” association can join the tour. The only way to become a member is to have two members vouch for your capabilities to ride the tour.
Since cold winters are such a rare event in the Netherlands the official “Elfstedentocht” has only been held fifteen times: in 1909, 1912, 1917, 1929, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1954, 1956, 1963, 1985, 1986 and 1997. The most famous, or perhaps better infamous, of these tours was the one of 1963. During that tour weather conditions became very grim. There was a stormy east wind sweeping up drifting snow, the ice was full of cracks and temperatures plummeted to minus 18°C (that’s about 0.4 °F). Of the 10,000 participants that showed up at the start, only 69 made it to the finish and many had to be treated for frostbite.
The 1963 tour even inspired a movie “The Hell Of 1963″. If you like you can watch a trailer to get an idea or listen to the title song “De Hel Foarby” (Beyond Hell) sung by the popular Frisian pop group “De Kast” (also a nice chance to hear some Frisian singing! It’s a really beautiful language, at least to my ears). If you are wondering what the lyrics of the song are about, this rough translation by Google Translate will give you an idea. It beautifully illustrates the skating-to-prove-yourself-worthy-of-a-girl’s-love-theme that dominates the movie and shows that those Frisians can be very romantic indeed!
Personally I am not into skating that much (too cold!). But since so many people take much pleasure in the event, I sincerely hope that in spite of the announced short thaw period this weekend, the ice will keep on growing and soon we will hear: “It Giet Oan”!
One of the first images that comes to mind when people think of Holland, no matter where they are from, is a windmill. Funny enough, windmills are not a Dutch invention at all. So how come they ended up as an icon for everything Dutch?
The first windmills were probably invented by the Greek. We know that the Greek Tesibius, who lived from 285 to 222 BC, was probably the first who experimented with the idea of using wind instead of water to drive a mill.
We also know that the Persians had windmills for grinding grain, during the 940s, although historians suspect that they may have existed in the area already in the 700s. These were fixed mills that could not turn to follow changing winds. Only if the wind was blowing from a certain direction the mills could be used.
Windmills first pop up in Europe during the 1000s and 1100s in Flanders and Normandy. These were also fixed mills and mainly used for grinding grain.
Around 1180, we find the first documented rotating windmills in Flanders, also known as post mills. These mills were a technical revolution because they allowed the miller to follow the wind by turning the upper part of the mill, hence making more and better use of it. During the 1200s and 1300s, the post mill spread around Europe and could be found from Scandinavia in the North to Bulgaria and Turkey in the South.
By the 1400s, post mills were a very common sight in almost every part of Europe. So what happened that nowadays people associate windmills so specifically with the Netherlands? Cynics may say that this is mostly the result of the promotional efforts of the Dutch Bureau for Tourism. And although they have put a lot of effort in promoting an image of tulips, cheese and windmills overseas, they did not invent these icons. They merely took and emphasized icons that were already there.
The fame of the Dutch windmills probably started in the 1600s because of a man called Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, who lived from about 1550 to about 1607. He had a brilliant idea: he added a crankshaft (an Arabic invention, by the way) to a windmill to convert the rotating movement to an up and down movement. This way a windmill could be used to saw wood at a significantly higher speed than any experienced hand sawing team at the time. He obtained a patent for his invention in 1593. A very lucky timing because already in 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded to explore the East Indies. As a consequence, the demand for wood to build ships grew explosively during the decades to follow.
Sawing mills were implemented en masse to supply the tons of wood Amsterdam’s shipyards devoured each year. The first sawing mills however, were not build near the Amsterdam shipyards but along the river Zaan north of Amsterdam. The reason for this is that the hand sawing guilds of Amsterdam, feeling threatened by the sawing mils, managed to ban them from the city. Therefore, they were built just outside Amsterdam’s borders were the guilds had no power and the wood was simply shipped to Amsterdam over the river Zaan.
Cornelis’ patent expired in 1610 and shortly after the amount of sawing mills grew explosively. In a couple of years, almost 90 mills arose in the province of Holland of which 53 were located in the Zaan area. Once it became clear that the ban on sawing mills could not save the hand sawing industry, the ban was lifted in 1630 and the amount of sawing mills grew even further. Historians believe that at the peak of the wind mill era, over 1000 mills were operating in the Holland province. This was using wind power on an industrial scale, especially considering that the Holland province has a land area of only 2,670 km2 (or 1,030 sq mi). Add to this all the mills used to pump water to keep the reclaimed land dry, and it becomes clear that nowhere in Europe windmills were so prominent in the landscape as they were in Holland. Some historians have even theorized that the Dutch jumped on the Industrial Revolution train somewhat late because they already had an industry going powered by wind and hence did not feel the need to switch to steam. Along the same lines the Dutch adopted the train rather late because they had a good transportation network in place using canal boats.
Nowadays little windmills are left in the Netherlands, the most famous being those at the Zaanse Schans. Industry and pumps to keep our feet dry are now powered by electricity. However, we are perhaps slowly reaching back to our windmill days. Over the last two decades, more and more modern wind turbines have been installed in an effort to produce clean power. Slowly, wind turbines are reclaiming the landscape the wind mills dominated for centuries hence redefining on of our best known icons.