Dockyards, quays, terminals, pilots, warehouses, wharves, anchorages, lighthouses and beacons, craftsmen, shipping companies, customs and other port authorities, fish auctions, boarding houses, lodgings, packing facilities etc. Indeed, seaports respond to the needs of everything that arrives from the sea, or that leaves for it. Besides the demands of commerce, ports traditionally cater the demand for sex as well. Since the Frisia Coast Trail tells the history of a coastal strip of land along the North Sea, the old faithful pair of seafarers and prostitutes must be part of it too. A story for long, and sometimes still, wrongly worded and painted as romanticism. In this post we’ll focus on the late medieval and early modern periods, and in which we’ll offer some understanding of the struggle for survival of the women of this coast.
Since this post truly is a long-read, we inserted a Table of Contents. So, the reader is facilitated to read some bits and pieces, and tempted to read everything nevertheless.
- Port by the Wadden Sea
- Late Medieval Period
- Early Modern Period
- A Farewell to Bums, Brothels and Bars
- Suggested music
- Further reading
This long-read isn’t just about sailors and prostitutes. It’s about how the lives of women was being influenced by the sea and the sea trade, also known as the Devil’s Highway. As we’ll see, initially it was women who were dominating the prostitution business, both as whore and whoremaster. Only later men interfered and by and large took over the management of brothels. But this post is also about how wives of sailors had to survive while their husbands were at sea, sometimes for years on end. With a two-third chance their men wouldn’t made it back anyway (Dekker & Van de Pol 1989). In general, lower-class women often had to take care for themselves, whilst respectable and honourable jobs were reserved to men.
A very much overlooked phenomenon in early-modern history of north-western Europe, is travesty. Women dressed up in trousers pretending to be a man and enrolling as soldier in the army or the navy, or as sailor in service of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie ‘Dutch East India Company’ (VOC). Sometimes without being unmasked for years. That way having the possibility to make a living and survive. Becoming a prostitute, was another option, albeit a dishonourable one. With all the men at sea and the many widows, the ratio of male-female of Amsterdam was 45-55 percent, especially in lower-class and working districts. Furthermore, about a third to a half of all criminal acts in Amsterdam was committed by females. According to foreigners visiting the city, women weren’t merely assertive but were ruling the streets in a way. During the first half of the sixteenth century, Frisians were strongly represented in the criminal statistics, which had to do with the fact it was especially Frisians who emigrated to Amsterdam during this period. Much more than from any other province (Thuijs 2020).
Further below this post we’ll elaborate on the topics mentioned. We’re even pleased, if we may say so, to meet the Devil and accompany it during a nightly city tour along the whorehouses, bad inns and obscure bars of Amsterdam in the late seventeenth century. Together with the Devil we’ll witness two drunken Frisian skippers during the night, each with a juffertje ‘little whore’ on his knee.
Those male readers who think prostitution doesn’t concern them, know that the average whore customer coincides with Average Joe (Altink 1983). They come from all classes and provenances. At present in the Netherlands, about 300,000 men visit a whore several times per year, and one out of five men has had an experience with a prostitute’s service in his life. About 70 to 80 percent of the whoremongers has a partner (Ronde 2010). The nondescript term ‘john’, being slang for a man visiting prostitutes, matches in this respect the reality, because they very well can be your next-door neighbour or your brother-in-law, or even without the in-law part. No, not implying they are. But now you know the odds and can do the math yourself to estimate the likely number of johns in your own street or within your happy family. If you think this post will be too confronting for you, this is the moment to stop reading.
We could have kicked-off this long-read with the seaport of Shanghai, nicknamed ‘the brothel of Asia’ with its whore madams known as white ants. ‘Shanghaiing someone’ even became an expression for forcing a person to do something against her or his will. Or we could have started with Amsterdam, nicknamed ‘the whore on the IJ’ (IJ being a former sea bay), available to do anything as long as you pay. Such was the reputation of Amsterdam already in the sixteenth century, that an inn in the harbour area Strandgade of Copenhagen was named Amsterdam, and known as a place of Svir, Dobbel og løse Kvindfolk ‘drink, gambling and loose women’. Obviously with many Dutch sailors frequenting the inn (Christensen 2021). Or else, we could have started with San Francisco’s vice district known as ‘Barbary Coast’. With all its gold mine workers and other bums squandering their hard-earned money on Chinese, French and Mexican whores on Pacific Street. Another place to start with, could have been the wharves of London with the frows of Flaundres ‘women of Flanders’ on Ratcliffe Highway who, in the seventeenth century, had a reputation for their sexual expertise. Prostitutes from the Low Countries also had an excellent reputation in Florence, by the way (Cordingly 2011, Haemers 2022).
No, we leave Shanghai, San Francisco and other infamous ports behinds, and begin our story with the tranquil sailortown Harlingen in province Friesland in the Netherlands. This is not to be confused with Harlingen in the State of Texas, where prostitution, drugs and violence are a challenge to this day. Not the case anymore with sleepy, picturesque Harlingen in Friesland. A seaport that’s part of a string of cities and towns, more or less bordering the southern coast of the North Sea, each with its own Sex-Meile ‘red-light district’. Be it Hazegras in Ostend, Het Zuid in Ghent, Schipperskwartier in Antwerp, Katendrecht in Rotterdam, De Wallen in Amsterdam, De Achterdam in Alkmaar, Weststraat in Den Helder, De Weaze in Leeuwarden, Nieuwstad and A-kwartier in Groningen, Lessingstraße in Bremerhaven, Helenenstraße in Bremen, Nadorster Straße in Oldenburg, or Herbertstraße in Hamburg.
A common nickname for a sailor was ‘Jan Hagel’ and was synonymous with mob or scum (Christensen 2021), besides also being the name of an eighteenth-century (janhagen) biscuit. That sailortowns filled with those Jan Hagels trying to find a berth are a source of evil, is part of our collective psyche. It’s something which was still taught to society a century ago with the well-behaved character Helmut Harringa in a novel with the identical title, written by Hermann Martin Popert in 1910. The story takes place in the seaport of Kiel in the north of Germany. A sinful place with tars, whores and brothels. Main character Harringa is depicted as a tall Frisian from region Ostfriesland with blond hair, blue eyes, and of pure blood. Harringa fights against adultery, prostitution, crime and drinking because it leads to degeneration of the race. And that’s what he wants to preserve: the pure German people. When another personage in the novel, a student named Friedrich, visits a brothel in Kiel and attracts a venereal disease, he commits suicide by drowning himself in the Baltic Sea (Beaven & Seiter 2020).
All in all a cheesy warning not to liaise with whores. This otherwise stomach-turning book, and its evident racial ideology using an archetypal Frisian main character, is even more amazing when one considers writer Popert was Jewish. Anyway, the point is this post is about seaports and their perceived immorality. With all the fascinating, raw edges that belong to it. However, just to be clear, here any other parallel with the book Helmut Harringa ends.
Warnings about visiting brothels weren’t necessarily inspired by moral and a sick conception, but by common sense and experience too. We know from the memoirs of the North-Frisian seafarer Jens Jacob Eschels from Wadden Sea island Föhr that Arctic whalers when they embarked or disembarked in Amsterdam, some paid a visit to a brothel. The father of Jens warned his son and drilled it into his head, not to go to the whores because of the risk of venereal diseases, indeed. On the whaling expedition in 1770, Eschels describes how one of the crew members suffered tremendously from such illness (Bruijn 2016). The free and liberal reputation of the coastal culture of the Netherlands was known north of Denmark. A bailiff in Norway wrote in 1743: “Bønder ved sjøkanten er meget tilbøjelige til sjøfart med skibe, og sædelis til den hollandske nations levemaader der medfører et meget fritt levned og magelighed.” Translated it says, ‘the peasants along the [Norwegian] coast are inclined to seafaring and in particular the customs of the Dutch nation, which results in a very free way of living and in indolence’ (Christensen 2021).
Sea, sailors and sex workers truly were very much interconnected in the early modern period. A period of history between 1450 and 1800. Skippers, sailors, East-India men, Arctic whalers, were in ample supply among the clientele of prostitutes. Out at sea the only creatures that vaguely resembled a woman were sirens, mermaids and seewiefkes, but they were no good to satisfy needs of the flesh. An expression of the interconnectedness is how sailors sometimes even chose their wife from a spinhuis, which were a kind of re-education working houses annex prisons for bawdy women, including whores. And, albeit to a much lesser extent, seafaring and prostitution are intertwined to this day.
Whores and sailors each belonged to a specific subculture, with its own appearance in clothing, rituals, and own language. Sailors loved to swear and sing, to gamble and drink, wore long trousers and an English knit cap. They even had their own gait, a specific way of walking. VOC sailors were the cream on the cake, or the lowest of the low, when it came to having a bad reputation. VOC sailors were villains, scoundrels, robbers, pickpockets, nightwalkers and other comparable types. At least according to a contemporary account, but it might be a bit unfair generalization (Duijn 2016). Besides VOC sailors, seamen on the Nordic and Baltic Sea trade also enjoyed themselves during the short shore leave. Whether that was in Arkhangelsk, at the funfair in Dantzig, or in the play houses of Riga. The houses in Riga each attracted their own specific nation by putting up the respective national flag. Besides music, you could find women prostituting themselves in these houses as well.
Also, both subcultures, whores and sailors, were considered being honourless in early-modern society (Van de Pol 2011). Readers who like to know where those seamen sang about, it was about hoeren ‘whores’, zwartinnen ‘black girls’, zoete vrouwtjes ‘sweet girls’, mooy meisjes ‘beautiful girls’, and venusdiertjes ‘venus creatures’ (De Wit 2008). Below a line of one of those sea shanties:
So up the stairs and into bed I took that maiden fair.
I fired off my cannon into her thatch of hair.
I fired off a broadside until my shot was spent,
Then rammed that fire ship’s waterline until my ram was bent.
This introduction to sailors and hookers isn’t to say prostitution was limited to coastal towns. Not at all. Every place on blue planet earth where are men, and especially where men have been deprived of sex for a while, services of sex flourish. Think of soldiers in garrison towns. Or gold-diggers in mining towns. And, indeed, think of seafarers, navy seamen in ports. Men who have been out at distant seas for a long time, without having sex and basic female companionship. Lastly, cities as such always offered a market for paid sex. Simply, because of the sheer number of inhabitants. Moreover, cities are anonymous (Pluskota 2017). Save for people to be a bit naughty and do something socially unacceptable. Including for tourists out on the town, secretly doing their thing. Yes, already in seventeenth century, as we’ll see further below.
Prostitutes on board ships of the British Royal Navy (Stark 1996) – During most of the sixteenth and nineteenth century, the Royal Navy had a very specific human resources policy. A policy that somehow couldn’t attract more personnel.
First of all, and especially during times of war, the Royal Navy had always shortage of seaman. Their solution was press gangs. Press gangs were sudden raids in towns and villages everywhere in the country whereby men were captured and forced to work as seaman on one of the warships. If times were really bad, even convicted criminals were placed on ships instead of prison.
Secondly, up to the mid-nineteenth century, in order to prevent fleeing, seamen of the Navy were never permitted leave when the ship called at port. As such this wouldn’t be a problem except that a ship could be commissioned for four years at sea. To alleviate the sexual needs of the seamen, prostitutes were allowed on a warship when it was in harbour. Not a few, but hundreds of prostitutes were ferried to the vessels. The lower deck turned into one big orgy that could last for days. Ports like Portsmouth and Plymouth were stuffed with prostitutes. Also in harbours overseas prostitutes, whether or not slaves, were brought on board.
Thirdly, wages were low, and for centuries didn’t keep pace with inflation. In addition, payment by the Royal Navy after fulfilling service was very slow. as well. It could be years before being paid.
Lastly, living condition were terrible as well. Living in dirty, airless and cramped spaces below deck, with food that was simple and not healthy. Dying of an illness, therefore, was more often the case than due to acts of war.
Everything described here is, of course, less captivating and glamorous than the romantic movie Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts playing the innocent, implausible rough-in-the-diamond whore. To all men with wild Richard Gere fantasies in their head, we say: rest assure that clients of sex workers are in no way special for them. Emotionally, nor physically. Sex workers merely pretend you’re a big, brave and special boy, and deliver the service you need and paid for. Especially when you’re a bink, which is slang for a good paying customer.
In the Late Middle Ages, besides seaports, university towns had a special relationship with prostitution too. Not only because students paying a visit to a whore after they drank too much, or as part of bravery and hazing. No, it was also a common practice for students to have their own whore to fund the study (Altink 1983). Students reading this, do get any stupid ideas!
A famous late-medieval student was Françoys Villon, who studied theology at the university of Paris. He, a bastard at birth, was the greatest thief-poet, and womanizer not to forget, France has ever had. A modest statue of Françoys Villon can be seen next to Dom Church in the university city of Utrecht. Artist of the statue is Marius van Beek. He made it in 1963. You’ll pass it when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail. Not only was Françoys Villon an illustrious thief who narrowly escaped the gallows on several occasions, and a great poet in his time already, but he too frequented low-life, bad taverns and whores. One of Françoys Villon’s well-known phrases is: “En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat” (in this brothel where we are established). The poem is about whoremaster and innkeeper Fat Margot. We’ve quoted the final verse of Ballade de la grosse Margot, written in Old French in 1461. Just before the early modern period begins.
Vente, gresle, gelle, j’ay mon pain cuict!
Je suis paillard, la paillarde me suit.
Lequel vault mieux, chascun bien s’entresuit.
L’ung l’autre vault: c’est à mau chat mau rat.
Ordure amons, ordure nous assuyt.
Nous deffuyons honneur, il nous deffuyt,
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.
Come wind, hail, or ice, my bread is baked! | I’m a dirty old man and a slut’s what suits me. | Which one is worse? We’re a match, | Like unto like: bad rat, bad cat. | We relish in filth, so does filth surround us. | Virtue runs when it sees us, and we run from it, | In this brothel where we are established.
Let’s sail back from the river Seine to the Wadden Sea, to sailortown Harlingen. Once we’ve sketched the history of sex and the sea in Harlingen, we’ll sail to broader horizons. To discover how life looked like of women living at the fringes of the North Sea coastal society. The lives of women on the waterfront (Cordingly 2001).
Port by the Wadden Sea
The Wadden Sea area teemed with sea vessels, and thousands of sailors, fishermen, soldiers, suppliers and passengers. Cargo ships going back and forth to ports on the shores of the Zuyder Sea, English Channel, North Sea, White Sea, Baltic Sea, Skagerak, Kattegat, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, Labrador Sea, Bay of Biscay, Mediterranean Sea etc.. At ports and on islands of the Wadden Sea there was a huge range of bars and taverns, and areas where women were offering sex. Like Jenerverbuurtje ‘gin borough’, also called Kollegat on the island of Texel. The word kol was an epithet for ‘prostitute’, and gat a term for ‘bad area’. A small port on an island with only a few hundred inhabitants could have as many as twenty taverns. Names of taverns were: De Roode Leeuw ‘the red lion’, Buitenleven ‘outdoor life’, Het Gouden Vlies ‘the golden fleece’, and Moriaens Hooft ‘Moor’s head’. Even the church had a direct financial interest in abundant drinking. For every barrel of beer the church on the island of Vlieland received fifteen pennies (Doedens & Houter 2022).
One of the biggest seaports by the Wadden Sea was Harlingen. For a while it even could match its mighty southern neighbour Amsterdam.
brief history of Harlingen
Harlingen is situated in the north-west of the Netherlands, on the shores of the Wadden Sea. A shallow sea with strong tides, that falls dry twice a day during low tide. Read our post Yet another wayward archipelago to learn more about this muddy sanctuary and its common cultural heritage stretching from province Friesland in the Netherlands to southern Jutland in Denmark. Morphologically, Harlingen lies on the northern ridge of the former Marne estuary. Marne was once a sea loch, continuing its way northbound under the name Jetting, up to the river Vlie (also written as river Flee). Flowing out in the North Sea, eventually.
Just north of Harlingen, river Ried flowed out in the sea. A modest stream along which the terps (artificial dwelling mounds) of Wijnaldum and Tjitsma are located. Provenance of the exquisite sixth-century Tjitsma-Wijnaldum fibula. Settlement started in this area in the second century AD. The spot where the stream Voorstraatslenk, today a modest shopping street with canal Kleine Voorstraat St. as a last faint remainder of the stream, flowed out into the sea, is where the settlement of Harlingen developed. The mouth of the stream Voorstraatslenk used to be where Grote Bredeplaats St. is today. Later in time, the course of the river Ried was rerouted by men, and connected to the stream Voorstraatslenk east of Harlingen.
On the south bank of the mouth of the stream Voorstraatslenk, a hand-dug pond used to be. This pond supplied the settlement with sweet water in the otherwise salty environment of the former tidal marshlands. Current street names Vijverstraat and Vijver, previously written as Fijuer, still remind of this pond (Schroor 2015). On old sixteenth-century charts, the pond is still visible. Vijverstraat St. is also the spot of a former whorehouse, close to the gloomy harbour and dockyards. Much more of that later.
In the beginning of the sixteenth century, sea traffic increased, and by the year 1550 Harlingen had developed into a real seaport. For the Habsburg dynasty, that possessed the Spanish Netherlands, Harlingen was strategically located near sea. With three castles it could be defended effectively as well. Brussels gave the town several privileges, including preferential rights on shipping cargo, and the collection of certain taxes. One of those taxes was called paalgeld ‘pole money’. A lucrative tax for the maintenance of beacons and barrels at sea for navigation of ships through shallows. In the year 1565, Harlingen received octroi to expand the town (Spaans 1996).
From the end of the sixteenth century, piggyback on the economic boom of the brand-new independent Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (commonly Dutch Republic), Harlingen developed into a seaport of significance. The most important trade of Harlingen, and province Friesland for that matter, was the navigation with England, Scotland, Brittany, southern Scandinavia, including much of the long Norwegian coast, Russia, and the Baltic Sea. Especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Baltic Sea trade flourished. Important commodities imported were timber and grains. Halfway the eighteenth century, 56 percent of this trade was held by Frisians from Harlingen, Hindeloopen, Makkum, Molkwierum, Stavoren, Workum and the Frisian islands. Furthermore, Harlingen traded also with the nearby ‘free cities’ Bremen, Altona, Hamburg, and with distant France, Spain, Portugal, and the Mediterranean more in general.
Also fishing, especially herring fishery, traditionally was an important economic activity. From the year 1635 onwards, when a kamer ‘department’ of the Noordsche Compagnie ‘northern company’ was established, Harlingen started ‘to fry bigger fish’ than herring. This was Arctic whale hunting and it brought additional possibilities. The kamer of Harlingen ceased to exist in 1662 (Hacquebord 2014). Classic Arctic whaling as a Harlingen economic activity as such, ended in 1863. Whaling, and long-distance seafaring in general, also had a major impact on the (more equal) social position of women living along the Wadden Sea coast of Germany and the Netherlands. Because for one thing, women were on their own on the island for much of the year. Read our post Happy Hunting Grounds in the Arctic.
With the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sea trade collapsed. Never would it be restored to its former volume (Veluwenkamp 2022). The collapse of the sea trade hit Harlingen notably hard because it relied so strong on this sea trade, and because it was very densely populated. Check our post Know where to find your sweet potato to find out how hard. And, if you think the second millennium brought a change for the better for the impoverished people of Harlingen, it’s not the case. Following repetitive academic research, if you are born in Harlingen you have the worst prospects within the Netherlands to climb on the social ladder and escape poverty (Westrheenen 2020).
During the era of the Dutch Republic, besides international sea trade, Harlingen was lucky that in the year 1645 the Admiralty of Province Friesland was relocated from the town of Dokkum to that of Harlingen. The rivers Dokkumerdiep and Lauwers, connecting Dokkum with the Wadden Sea, had silted up. Wharves and headquarter in Harlingen were located at the Zuiderhaven ‘southern harbour’. Other warehouses were spread over town. Presence of the Admiralty meant more economic advantages. Jobs for shipbuilders, rope makers, timber merchants, admiralty staff, solliciteurs (i.e. recruiters of sailors), millers, suppliers, victuals, lodgings, notaries, clerks etc. Also taverns benefited from the presence of the Admiralty (Roodhuyzen 2003).
Not only economic prosperity but also prestige was added to the town with the Admiralty. Prestige with local sea heroes like rear-admiral Hendrik Bruynsveldt (Harlingen), vice-admiral Rudolf Coenders (Harlingen), captain Jacobus Deketh (Harlingen), rear-admiral Christoffel Middaghten (Sexbierum), commander Hidde Sjoerds de Vries (Sexbierum), and, last but not least, admiral Tsjerk Hiddes (Sexbierum). Other prestigious mariners settled in Harlingen, like admiral Auke Andriesz. Stellingwerf, captain Wytze Joannisz. Beyma, captain Symon Jansen Codde (Amsterdam), and captain Andries van de Bukckhorst (Noordwijk).
Hier in Prins Willem, ‘t Hooft van Hollands Batavieren,
Verkoop ik, maar met winst, Vicuali voor die geen
Die om ‘s Lands neering hare schepen zeewaarts stieren,
Om onder ‘t Bootsvolk dat te deelen in ‘t gemeen.Inscription of a victual house in Harlingen
Here at Prince William, Head of Holland’s Batavians, | I sell, with profit, victuals for those | Who steer their ships seabound for the Country’s trade, | To be shared equally among the Boat folk
It was also from halfway the sixteenth century that Flemings, mostly Baptists, started to settle in Harlingen. This migration flow continued until around 1700. According to the Frisian statesman Wigle Aytta van Zwichem (1507-1577), commonly known as Viglius, and the principal advisor of Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain Charles V, Harlingen attracted many heretics because it was considered a haven from religious prosecutions. Flemish migrants were skilled in the manufacturing of cloth. Their skills perhaps dating back to the early medieval period, when the coastal plains of Flanders were still part of Frisia; read our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: The Coast of Flanders. Woolen cloth was rinsed with bare feet in big tubs filled with water. Comparable with traditional wine production. This supposedly is the reason why citizens of Harlingen in common parlance are named tobbedanser ‘tub dancer’ (Otten 2021).
Later, in the eighteenth century, many migrants from Westphalia in Germany settled in Harlingen as well, the so-called Hollandsgänger. They were weavers who worked in the cotton and hemp industry. Most of them were Catholic, explaining why about 15 percent of the citizens was member of this religion. Lastly, Mennonites constituted an influential community. Two-third of the Harlingen elite was Mennonite. Rejecting the use of violence, they were well represented in the, non-violent, trade and commerce. With the economic growth and migration between 1530 and 1780, Harlingen had become one of the most densely populated towns of the Netherlands and would continue to be until the beginning of the twentieth century (Dijkstra 2006).
Around 1870, Harlingen was still the third biggest harbour of the Netherlands (Schroor 2015). Today, Harlingen stands at the back of the line behind the Dutch ports of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Velsen, IJmuiden, Terneuzen, Vlissingen and Delfzijl. Even the thousands of tourists taking the ferries to the Wadden Sea islands Vlieland and Terschelling give the town only a quick glance from afar while rushing from the parking lot to the ferry.
prostitution in Harlingen
After having set the scene of this old seaport, let’s look at prostitution in its harbour quarters. First a quote of the great Dutch writer originating from Harlingen, Simon Vestdijk, setting the scene of Harlingen too in his famous, autobiographical novel ‘Terug tot Ina Damman’ (Return to Ina Damman) in 1934:
“Lahringen telt zes kerken, geen enkel bordeel en zeven scheersalons.”Simon Vestdijk
Lahringen (pseudonym for Harlingen) counts six churches, not one brothel and seven shaving parlours.
Vestdijk also wrote that Harlingen possessed strikingly high numbers of idiots, drunks, imbecile prostitutes, misfits, troublemakers, and physically deformed, all living out on the street.
Harlingen has a vivid tradition of giving nicknames to people, and Vestdijk listed many nicknames too. A few of these, semi relevant for this post, are Engelsch hoertje (English little whore), Hoertje Doet (little whore Doet), Trien zonder broek (Trien without pants), and Spaansche Billen (Spanish bottom). At least some of these were real nicknames. Trien zonder broek, as citizens recall, strolled along the jetties where ships were moored. From down below, through the gaps between the wooden planks of the jetty, boatmen could confirm that Trien didn’t wear any underclothes.
To this day, tobbedansers give nicknames to each other (Visser 2004). Two recent Harlingen nicknames, also related to the topic of this post, are Gouden Kontsje (golden bottom) and Sneeuwwitje (little snow white). For reasons of privacy we cannot elaborate too much on who they were, but they allegedly were moonlighting offering sex. Sneeuwwitje received her name because she always was clothed in a white dress. She frequently took a walk on the dark dockside for clientele. As if she was a white nun belonging to the order of fallen women, a so-called witvrouw (see further below).
Earning additional cash from sailors was also a practice known in the port of Delfzijl in province Groningen in the twentieth century, after the Second World War. Delfzijl is also a port at the Wadden Sea in the Dollart Bay, opposite the city of Emden in Germany. Delfzijl people used to distinguish two types of girls who prostituted themselves, namely bakkerswichten ‘bakery girls’ reserved for captains, and petroleumventsters ‘petrol hawkers’ available for ordinary sailors (Boon website).
The fact that when Vestdijk wrote ‘Terug tot Ina Damman’ there were no brothels in Harlingen, doesn’t mean there never were any. We traced four former whorehouses in the period between 1531 and 1891. Without a doubt there have been many more stews (brothels), bawdy houses and bad inns, and we’re open to extend the list. Please, let us know. Anonymity guaranteed!
The oldest of the four whorehouses in Harlingen we found, is Vastenavond, established in the year 1531. Vastenavond is mentioned in the manuscript of Seerp Gratama (1757-1837). Gratama was a professor at the university of Groningen. Vastenavond is the name for Shrove Tuesday. Hence carnival, when people had a wild night with much drinking and men who went het pijpje uitklopen as the expression was, literally meaning ‘cleaning the little pipe’. Reason why this brothel existed, was because the town and its port was growing, and thus became a labour market for prostitution too. Where in town brothel Vastenavond was located, Gratama doesn’t reveal to the reader.
brothel King of England
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was a brothel near the old town gate Franeker Poort. That’s on the inland, eastern side of town. You could say the outskirts of town. The brothel was identified by the signboard ‘King of England’. The brothel’s name ‘King of England’ might indicate presence of an English-Scottish community in Harlingen (Sprunger 1982). In which premises the brothel was housed exactly, we couldn’t figure out. The brothel was frequented by students at the university in the nearby town of Franeker, eight kilometers east of Harlingen.
Brothel ‘King of England’ wasn’t solely frequented by students, however. A professor at the same university did so too. He was professor in theology Jan Makowski (1588-1644), or Johannes Maccovius, from Poland. Indeed, another ‘john’ going to the whores. Makowski was an erudite man. Already in 1615, at the young age of 27, he was assigned as professor at the university of Franeker. He got himself into trouble because of fierce theological disputes with other scholars, which led to charges of heresy only a few years after his appointment. At the same time, he spent his life on riotous living. Being popular among students but receiving complaints from other scholars (Boeles 1878). A final note on Makowski is that he was married to Antje van Uylenburgh from the town of Leeuwarden. She was the sister of Saskia van Uylenburgh, who was married to the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. In other words, Rembrandt and Jan were brothers-in-law. Not suggesting Rembrandt drank too much and visited brothels too. Of course not, we wouldn’t dare to.
Another, internationally famous, student at the Franeker university was the Frisian and future statesman Pieter Stuyvesant (1611?-1672). He would become New Amsterdam’s (modern New York City) governor between 1646 and 1664. During his study philosophy in Franeker, which he probably started in 1628, Stuyvesant is known for rough behaviour in taverns in Harlingen, and for having sex with the daughter of his landlord. Stuyvesant never received a degree, because in 1630 he was expelled after the incident with the landlord’s daughter (Otto 1999). Did Pieter Stuyvesant and Jan Makowski party all night long together perhaps? Of course, not with Rembrandt. Again, we wouldn’t dare to suggest.
Not merely tars, students, professors, Scots, future statesmen, and perhaps the occasional artist or talented painter visited bars and brothels in the port of Harlingen. Also, men from Harlingen, the tobbedansers, visited whore houses in other places in the country.
In the year 1641, a burgomaster from Harlingen had a notarial act drawn up in a desperate effort to proof he hadn’t visited a whorehouse in The Hague for the purpose of having sex. Instead, the burgomaster declared he was pooping in an alley when all of a sudden two or three whores grabbed his hat and coat. Cloths were very valuable back then. You could even pay with it. Not to foul his underpants, he carefully wiped himself, hiked up his trousers, and started running after the lady-thieves. He ended up in a whorehouse. The bawd immediately notified the bailiff. The corrupt bailiff who arrived, made it perfectly clear to the burgomaster he wouldn’t make any mention of the burgomaster’s presence in the whorehouse, if he paid 185 guilders and promised to deliver a half barrel of butter as well. The burgomaster agreed, because otherwise he would lose his honour. When he was already on his way back to Harlingen, the burgomaster reconsidered his actions and went back to The Hague. He had a notarial act created unilaterally, stating his side of the story so to defend his honour (Van de Pol 1996, Kools 1997, Frijhof & Spies 2004).
Of course, an alternative sequence of events whereby the athletic burgomaster was robbed from his hat and coat during a planned visit to a brothel, instead of while pooping in an alley (yeah right!), and the corrupt bailiff was fetched by the whore madam after the burgomaster started to make trouble with the girls, obviously is absurd. Or, isn’t it?
brothels at Vijverstraat St. & Grote Ossemarkt St.
At the end of nineteenth century, there were two brothels in Harlingen. Both very close to each other, in the quarter next to Zuiderhaven harbour and shipyards. A place of vice with seedy boarding houses, taverns, and houses of ill fame, jam-packed with night creatures without reputation. An area with the smell of tar, fish, and horse manure (Cordingly 2001), is how we would like to imagine this neighbourhood too.
There was one whorehouse on the already mentioned street, namely Vijverstraat St. number 28. This brothel was successively exploited by Neeltje Sijtsma, Jan Winkel and Bastiaantje Bongen. It was a relatively big whorehouse with three to seven prostitutes working. The other one was located on Grote Ossemarkt St. number 8. This whorehouse was run by Johannes Antonius Pieters. It was smaller than the brothel on Vijverstraat St., and had only two women working. In fact, two or three was the average number of whores working and living in whorehouse.
Interestingly, two of the four whoremasters were women. We’ll come back to the role whore madams had. The so-called johns or whoremongers who visited these brothels were mainly sailors, since Harlingen only had about 10,000 inhabitants back then, of which about half was male. The number of adult men was even lower, of course. Whores working in these two brothels mainly came from the north of the Netherlands, like Groningen and Leeuwarden (De Mik 1985).
Brothel keeper Neeltje Sijtsma of the brothel on Vijverstraat St. is also known from the archives for making a plea at the town council in 1875. She requested that her girls shouldn’t be obliged to present themselves for the twice-weekly medical examination with the stadschirurgijn ‘town chirurgeon’ on publicly-known, fixed hours and location. This was degrading and humiliating for the girls, Sijtsma said. The stadschirurgijn supported Sijtsma’s reasonable plea. The medical check-up itself was something originating from the penal code during the French period 1794-1815. Periodic medical examination had become mandatory for prostitutes to prevent spreading of venereal diseases. After the French period, the Code Pénal of 1810 was abolished, and it was unclear to town administrations whether to regulate sanitation of prostitutes, or not. Should public health prevail, or would that imply you sanctioned an immoral pact with evil? An illustration that every era is entitled to have its own difficult questions and dilemmas.
Harbours and garrison towns, however, started to regulate prostitution not long after the French period. This because of the emergence of syfillistische aandoeningen ‘syphilitic conditions’ (Muyres 2019). Harlingen had started regulating prostitution again with the police order of 1851, being the third town in the Netherlands to do so, after the towns of Alkmaar and Den Helder (De Mik 1985). The caption of the police order read ‘Van publieke vrouwen en huizen van ontucht’ (concerning public women and houses of fornication). Only if prostitutes reported themselves, they could keep their rode boekje ‘red booklet’, their de-facto permit. Soon after, in 1878, the order regulating prostitution was abolished already. The prevailing opinion had shifted further towards banning prostitution as an undesired, evil phenomenon that shouldn’t be sanctioned in any way.
Aside, we found that the port town of Flushing in province Zeeland already had regulated prostitution in 1829 with the ‘Reglement op de zoogenaamde Publieke Huizen en Publieke Vrouwen binnen de Stad Vlissingen’ (regulation concerning so-called public houses and public women within the town of Flushing). Another interesting side note. When in 1856 the town of Den Helder regulated prostitution, it was Christina K. daughter of a porter, who successfully asked permission to start a brothel. As such not very out of the ordinary. Sensational thing was Christina’s age, namely 13 years. When she was 28, Christina was the owner of a brothel in the university town of Leiden in province Zuid Holland. Quite a career.
moral demonization of women
Ginds sluipt de speelbal van verbeestelijke lusten,
Als op fluwelen voet, naar nachthuis en bordeel;
Bevlekt zijn echtkoest; maakt gespannen in het gareel
Der ontucht, d’eed ten spel, verscheurt den band der trouwe
En zinkt, vol geilen drift, in d’arm der vreemde vrouwe,
Die met haar reed’nen vleit, en met haar adem doodt.J.F. Jongs 1842
Over there creeps the plaything of beastly lusts, | As if on velvet feet, to night house and brothel; | Stains his outspread; making tensed in the reins | Fornication, the oath at risk, rips the bond of fidelity | And sinks, full great desire, in the arms of an unknown woman, | Who flatters with her words, and kills with her breath.
This moral condemnation of women, not of the consuming men, earning money through sex, is also illustrated by the much-praised Dutch contemporary writer Jacob van Lennep in his book ‘De lotgevallen van Klaasje Zevenster’ (the fortune of Klaasje Zevenster) published in 1866.
As an orphan, Klaasje was raised by three students at the university of Leiden. Klaasje was a very pure girl. At later age, after a chain of events, she ends up in a bawdy house owned by brothel keeper Madame Mont-Athos. This was beyond Klaasje’s fault. Fortunately, she was rescued by one of her three foster fathers, who visited the brothel. Just before she was forced to have sex with a customer for the first time. So, she had preserved her virginity. Nevertheless, innocent Klaasje dies young of a heart illness. The reason she had to die was, according to Van Lennep himself, that although she was a harmless girl by nature, the disgrace of having stayed in a brothel is simply ineradicable. Regardless the fact her stay was beyond her will, and regardless the fact she had not had sex with a man (Peters 1990). A near-fundamentalistic warning of Van Lennep for everyone to stay away from sex workers as far as possible. Not for nothing it was the prudish Victorian era. A time even chair legs were covered to prevent sinful thoughts would arise with ladies. Meanwhile, everyone was buying Van Lennep’s book because people could read scenes describing a brothel from the inside. Thrilling and red cheeks! Smart thinking Van Lennep. Smart thinking… Be reminded, earlier in this post we discussed a very similar deadly warning concerning visits to brothels, given in the novel Helmut Harringa written by Popert in 1910.
There was also serious criticism concerning the mental limitations of Van Lennep, including from a Frisian feminist. She was Sietske Cornelisdr. Abrahamsz., originating from the Wadden Sea island Ameland, and a true libertarian. Her uncle was another famous Dutch writer, Eduard Douwes Dekker alias Multatuli, famous for his book Max Havelaar in 1860.
The ideas of Van Lennep fit the Calvinistic dogmas of the time. Catholicism, on the other hand, believes redemption of prostitutes is possible, instead of harsh punishment for committing sins. Who doesn’t know the story of Mary Magdalene, the supposedly fallen woman who became a repentant sinner, albeit the Bible doesn’t state that Mary Magdalene actually was a whore. She did kiss Jesus on his cheek, though, which is as everyone knows practically the same. In the Middle Ages, prostitutes were also described as susteren van Magdalene, ‘sisters of Magdalene’. What’s more, the Catholic Church even has a dedicated monastic order for fallen women, the Order of Saint Mary Magdalene. Already for eight centuries. Nuns of this order are called in German language Büßerinnen ‘penitents’, or in Latin language sorores poenitentes ‘penitential sisters’. They are dressed in white and sometimes called witvrouwen in Dutch, ‘white-women’. And we are back at the woman nicknamed Sneeuwwitje ‘little snowy white’, moonlighting on the dockside in Harlingen in the ’80s of last century.
Vulcanus was een horenbeest,
Sijn wijf een schoon juweel.
Sijn huis is vóór een smids geweest
En achter een bordeel.Van Lennep & Ter Gouw 1868
Vulcanos [Greek god of fire] was whore’s beast, | His wife a wonderful jewel. | The front of his house was a smithy | And the back a brothel.
The fun is over. After nondescript johns, hilarious prudish writers, eye-catching snow whites and golden bottoms, drunken professors, and pooping burgomasters, it’s about time to face reality and to delve into the hard lives of countless brave women who lived on the southern shores of the North Sea. As said, we’ll focus on the late medieval and, especially, early modern periods.
Late Medieval Period
Things went completely and utterly wrong in Paradise, a very long time ago. Nobody knows exactly how long ago. Eve ate the forbidden fruit because the Devil told her to. All she did was nibbling from an apple, now on top of everyone’s lap if you’ve the money for it, and both men and women were kicked out Paradise for good. It’s from then on, women are carrying the original sin. In the Middle Ages, Christendom was a religion of piety, virginity and devotion, and the by nature sinful women were regarded a necessary evil. Needed for the reproduction of mankind. At the same time, men weren’t allowed to spill any of their seed either. In other words, sexuality was completely defined by religion, and the only acceptable excuse to have sex was reproduction (Altink 1983).
Bawdy women, meaning women who behaved indecent, and thus not perse prostituting themselves for money, had to be brought back onto the path of righteousness. Examples are the aforementioned Mary Magdalene and the medieval Dutch nun Beatrijs, but also the allegedly nymphomaniac Mary of Egypt, the harlot Pelagia of Antioch, and the Greek prostitute Thaïs. In Dante’s poem Divina Commedia ‘divine comedy’ written in 1320, whores were even ranked lower in the picking order than cold-blooded murderers (Altink 1983). Thus, the souls of prostitutes burned deeper in Hell. Yes, at this very moment, the soul of Jack the Ripper sits at a more comfortable, cooler place in Hell than the souls of the women he brutally slaughtered. How is that for doing justice?
Punishment of a prostitute consisted of cutting off noses and ears, or burying women alive. Indeed, the world was still very far removed from the World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights signed in 1985 during the first World Whores Congres in Amsterdam. One relativization is in order, though, namely that in practice it seems these sentences were carried out only incidentally. Many were acquitted, especially if they were young and first-time offenders (Vos 2007).
In the course of the Middles Ages, Europe underwent a process of urbanization. Towns grew and real cities emerged. Attracting people from everywhere. It’s then for the first time that prostitutes started to appear near markets, mills, shops, churches, smithies and so forth. At the end of the Middle Ages, prostitution was being regulated by the church and town administrations. Whores, or deernen ‘maidens’, or lichte wiven ‘light women’ as they were called in the Low Countries, were considered inevitable if you wanted to prevent men committing even worser sins, like raping honourable women, sodomy and adultery. A necessary evil, according to the church (Vos 2007, Dussen 2020). A concept of thinking that remained well into the seventeenth century. Hopefully, not any longer. Also bathhouses functioned as brothels, known as a stove in England and stoof in the Low Countries (Hamers 2022).
Notwithstanding the fact prostitution was being regulated, prostitutes were considered disturbing elements in society. Therefore, they could only live and conduct their business in designated areas in the outskirts of town, or even outside the city walls. To ensure a clear separation between honourable and non-honourable people (De Graeve 2010, Muyres 2019). Signboards with green images of (exotic) birds informed the visitor it was a door of a whorehouse he was knocking on. In addition, whores were obliged to wear a distinctive feature on their cloths, like a red ribbon. In the year 1389, the city council of Maastricht decreed sex workers had to carry a yellow ribbon on their hat or headscarf (Haemers 2022). Furthermore, whores weren’t allowed to have a steady or regular customer. Moreover, they could only render their services to unmarried Christians. Having sex with a Jew was forbidden. Jews, by the way, weren’t allowed to touch fruit and bread either. So, let alone a woman of flesh and blood. Neither were prostitutes allowed to work on holy days. Lastly, there was supervision of their food, and of tariffs whores charged for their services. Prices for sex shouldn’t become too high if prostitution was to stay effective in preventing greater evils.
In towns where brothels were located outside the walls, small fortresses developed. Outside the city walls brothels were vulnerable for plunderers and roaming armies in times of war. Therefore these brothels turned into fortified houses with sometimes even their own drawbridge.
“Een hoere es een wijf die dair der oncuyscher begeerten van veele mannen bereet ende ter wille is.”Willem van der Tanerijen (fifteenth century)
A whore is a woman who is ready and willing for the indecent desires of many men.
Also, designated houses were created by town authorities, where deernen, or Dirnen in modern German language, were obliged to work, i.e. spinning wool. Each day, the bawdy women had to produce a certain amount of wool. These premises became the so-called spinhuizen ‘spin houses’. The first spinhuis of Amsterdam was founded in 1597 with the purpose of re-education of women. In the seventeenth century, spinhuizen had developed into prisons. Spinhuizen were open to the public; during lunchbreaks peeking at dishonourable women. A visit to one of the spinhuizen was a standard item on the itinerary of the many tourists visiting Amsterdam (Van de Pol 1996, 2011). Today, it would be included in the ‘Top thing to do’ of the Lonely Planet guide of Amsterdam. As said before, a city nicknamed ‘Whore on the IJ’.
De Hoer aan ’t IJ is voor elk geld te koop
Die vaart voor Paap en Heiden, Moor en Turk
Die geeft om God noch ’t lieve Vaderland
Die vraagt naar Winst alleen, naar Winst! Naar Winst!seventeenth-century Minister
The Whore on the IJ can be bought for any money | She sails for Pope and Pagan, Muslim and Turk | She doesn’t care for God nor her dear Fatherland | She merely asks for Profit, for Profit! For Profit!
Conceptions about sexuality and women in the late medieval period, also had as consequence women were vulnerable for being assaulted. If a woman displayed free and inappropriate behaviour, she could become a target for assault and rape. She wouldn’t only be a victim physically and mentally, but also be powerless to defend or restore her honour afterwards. This had far-reaching consequences. Once without honour, she wouldn’t stand a chance anymore to get a respectable job. Further below we’ll elaborate on the concept of honour. The fact her attitude and behaviour was considered too ‘lightly’, meant she was as honourless as a whore, and raping a whore was basically without judicial consequence for a man. If rape had happened to a woman, prostitution was therefore one of the few options left to earn money for survival.
The recent movie The Last Dual (2021) with Jodie Comer is about this vulnerability of honourable, emancipated women in the Late Middle Ages. The bitter medieval logic was, that it was better to accept some lichte wiven ‘sex workers’ because they would serve as protection of honourable women (Vos 2007). Indeed, to prevent a greater evil. Whores as decoys.
Early Modern Period
Before we continue, it’s important to highlight two aspects of early modern society, in order to understand the social position of women in this region better. The first is the concept of honour which we touched upon already. Putting it bluntly, any person without honour had a value of no more than that of a hog or a dog. An honourless person was considered vuyl ‘foul’. In modern Dutch the word vuil has the meaning ‘dirty’ and the epithet vuil wijf is frequently being used to this very day. The second aspect is the degree of equality or inequality if you will of women when compared to men.
Honour in the early modern period, but also during many centuries before, was vital. If a man had no honour, he had no known good reputation, and no creditworthiness either. Therefore, he wouldn’t get any financial credit. Neither would proper jobs and official positions be available for him. In other words, honour governed every aspect of a man’s life (Frijhof 2004).
This mechanism is understandable. Reputation in a world without our modern regulating and registration institutions was all one had. Even today, reputation and integrity is still modestly relevant in Western society, but in no way as strong as a few centuries ago. Today, you can sue someone for slander and libel at court, but it doesn’t happen much and offers little compensation. Back in the early modern period, honour was of vital importance, and had to be defended at all costs, and increased as much as possible. Bankruptcy or fraud, for example, was considered shameful and meant you lost much of your honour. When bankrupt, a man had to lay down all his public and church functions. Emigrating to one of the VOC’s colonies, was one of the few ways to start over with a clean slate. More about the emigration option later. The concept of honour was even physical. Touching money earned out of dishonourable activity, affected one’s honour. Best thing to do with dirty cash, was to give it as alms to the poor. Money laundering in reverse, as it were.
Contrary to southern Europe, women in north-western Europe had their own, independent honour to nourish and defend. Difference was, if a man lost his honour in for example France or Italy, his wife would lose hers as well. But also, when a woman ‘misbehaved’ socially, this had a negative impact on the honour of both her husband and his family. This wasn’t the case in north-western Europe (De Graeve 2010). If a man lost his honour, his wife still had her own honour unaffected. And vice versa. In the Low Countries people typically spoke of an eerlycke ‘honourable’ or oneerlycke ‘dishonourable’ woman. By the way, women dressing up as men, wasn’t being considered dishonourable. These women ‘merely’ acted against God’s creation and its laws. Keep it in mind, we’ll come back to this social phenomenon of cross-dressing and travesty in the seventeenth century.
A person was by definition also honourless if she or he was either a foreigner, not a Protestant, an unemployed, a criminal, an adulterer, a fornicator, unreliable concerning money, no longer a virgin, a prostitute, a carny, a charlatan, a soldier or sailor working for the VOC, and, most importantly, if he was doing women’s labour (Van de Pol 2011). So, not all jobs were honourable. In fact, only a limited number of honourable jobs were available to women. Jobs that paid little and were often seasonable too. For women of the lower class, it was therefore difficult to make a living throughout the year. Whilst some dishonourable jobs paid better, sometime as much as a man. Indeed, professions like prostitute, whore madam, but also innkeeper annex zielenverkoper ‘souls broker’ could offer better perspectives. Concerning the remarkable job description zielenverkoper we’ll say more about it further below.
Became curious what role honour played in the Early and High Middle Ages in Frisia? read our post You killed a man? That’ll be 1 weregeld, please.
inequality of women
Concerning the social position of women in early-modern society, the first relevant notion is that women had lesser access to the labour market than men. Honourable jobs for lower-class women were basically limited to garment trade, textile industry, food services, and domestic service, i.e. being hired as a housemaid. The second notion is that wages of women were about half that of men. Minimum wage for a man amounted around 3 guilders per week. A prostitute earned about 6 guilders, and had to pay the madam about half her earnings, or ‘op ‘t halfje‘ as the expression was in Amsterdam. A third notion is that women in north-western Europe married relatively at older age, on average when they were between 25 and 30 years old (De Graeve 2010). This meant women had to take care for themselves (longer) and didn’t move straight from her own family into that of her husband. In other words, in the southern parts of Europe the marriage age was much younger. For young women to generate income, the possibilities in Amsterdam were even slimmer because of the surplus of women during the early modern period in this city, and thus more competition (Thuijs 2020).
Furthermore, the way men regarded women was being inferior. We said much about it already. Amongst others, women were regarded as ledigh ‘idle’. Idleness led to sexual desires, and this was dangerous because that way the Devil had opportunity to get hold on a woman’s body and soul. Hence, women were often portrayed as dangerous, deceitful, bawdy temptresses. Underlying notion was that women were the perpetrators and men their victims (De Graeve 2010). Indeed, “when the lady smiles, a man cannot resist her call” (Hay 1984). One of the nicknames of a whore was, therefore, ledighe vrouw meaning ‘hollow/idle woman’. Anyway, it’s just one example of how women were being perceived and thus seriously discriminated. To be complete, also men could be ledigh but, surprise surprise, in general their sin for being idle was considered less dangerous than women being idle. Perhaps the Devil’s preference were women?
The paradox is, women of the wider North Sea region were relatively more independent and assertive when compared to other areas of Europe, but at the same time more vulnerable too. Economically, they had to take care of themselves for a long(er) time, when meanwhile they had limited access to the labour market, and on top of that their wages were significantly lower than that of men. Longer not being married made them vulnerable too, of course. If this was combined with a pretty appearance of a girl of the lower class, risk of being lured into prostitution was higher. Lastly, as explained, in north-western Europe women possessed honour themselves, but had to defend this themselves too. At the same time, moral codes about what behaviour was honourable and what not, made women almost defenseless against sexual assault.
The conclusion therefore is, freedom is fragile and liberties bring limitations, as they always do.
arrival of Protestants and syphilis bacteria
In the year 1494, an outbreak of the sexual transmittable disease syphilis happened. It had epidemic proportions and prostitution was one of the outbreaks. It brought a new fear of sex and hatred towards prostitutes. (Van de Pol 2010). Not long after, the Protestant belief and doctrine would spread over big parts of Europe.
With the arrival of Protestantism in the wider North Sea region, the social view on prostitution changed as well, and not to the benefit. It meant an end to the leniency of the Catholic Church towards prostitution. According to the Protestant Church, a sinner couldn’t be forgiven but should be punished for his faults. This in combination with the fact that chastity of both men and women became of paramount importance (Van de Pol 2011, Dussen 2020). With the so-called Alteratie ‘overturn’ of Amsterdam in 1578, whereby the power changed from the Catholics to the Protestants, prostitution was forbidden. Two years later after the Alteratie especially facilitators of prostitution were criminalized. The change of policy meant bailiffs no longer supervised brothels and prostitutes. Imagine, to compensate the bailiffs for the loss of their income, some city councils raised their salary (De Wildt 2011).
More and more brothels were shut down in the second half of the sixteenth century. Consequently, prostitution went underground and spread over town in discrete houses. The former clear, visual distinction between honourable and non-honourable people, both in dress codes as in spatial separation, disappeared from daily street life. With the emergence of Protestantism, women were being regarded as lacy, hypocritical, inborn horniness, and susceptible for the Devil. Meyskens van plaisir ‘girls for pleasure’ was a typical derogatory expression. In other words, women could turn into a harlot in a split second, so never you could let your guard down.
However, banning prostitution in the Dutch Republic soon turned out to be impossible. During the seventeenth century, from time to time flare-ups to round up and convict prostitutes were organized by the authorities, but by the eighteenth century these operations were over (Thuijs 2020). Especially, in the city of Amsterdam, controlling prostitution was utopian. But also, urbanization of province Holland and West-Friesland was too strong to maintain a strict policy concerning prostitution. Massive influx of trade, merchants, sailors, soldiers, immigrants, tourists etc., created a huge labour market for prostitution. Don’t forget, Amsterdam was, behind London and Paris, the third biggest city of Europe and one of the most dynamic in the world. During the Dutch Republic, Amsterdam had just as many whores as the other two cities, at least according to contemporaries (Van de Pol 1996). Estimations are Amsterdam counted about 800 whores on a population of 200,000 at the end of the seventeenth century, a population of which the majority was female. Of the foreign whores, most originated from coastal areas of northern Germany (De Graeve 2010). Dominating the European charts, it’s justified to say prostitution in Amsterdam was endemic.
how prostitution was organized
The feast of Sinterklaas ‘Saint Nicholas’ is popular in the Netherlands, and in different variations also on some of the Wadden Sea islands of Ostfriesland in Germany. Saint Nicholas is also known as Νικόλαος ὁ Θαυματουργός ‘Nikolaos the Wonderworker’. He was of Greek descent, coming from Myra in Asia Minor, modern Turkey. Nicholas lived between AD 270 and 343. Furthermore, faithful Saint Nicholas is, among others, the Catholic patron of sailors and fishermen. His family were namely wealthy fishermen. Nicholas’ feast-day is on the 5-6 December. This date traditionally marked the end of the sailing season for Frisian seafarers. In medieval Frisia, faithful Saint Nicholas of Myra was one of the most popular saints (Bremmer 2021).
Less well-known is that Sint Nicholas is also the patron of unmarried women, virgins, and prostitutes. Legend has it that once upon a time there were three sisters who wanted to get married but who were too poor to save enough money for their dowries. Their poverty and despair was about to lead them into prostitution. Now Nicholas enters the scene. For three nights he secretly throws a purse full of money through the window. For every girl a purse. On the third night, however, he gets caught but instructs the young women not to tell anyone (Shore 2019). Now you know why giving (chocolate) money is part of the tradition of Sinterklaas to this day. Faithful Saint Nicholas, you might say, is the embodiment of the theme of this post, namely sailors and the sea, women and prostitution.
Unfortunately, miracle worker Saint Nicholas wasn’t able to prevent all poor and unmarried women from prostituting themselves, recognizing of course that poverty is but one of the reasons for women to become a sex worker. And giving money made of chocolate, doesn’t help either. The flipside is, because of his shortcomings as a patron of unmarried poor women, we could write this post. Offering a peek into, in our opinion, a remarkable history.
At the beginning, in the sixteenth century, prostitution was still predominantly a personal affair of women prostituting themselves. The ZZP’ers, zelfstandige zonder personeel ‘self-employed without personnel’ of the sixteenth century. Officially, with the arrival of Protestantism brothels were closed. Protestantism was harsh on all types of hoererij ‘whoring’. Whoring encompassed all forms of sex outside marriage, and no difference was made between paid and unpaid sex. It was all named whoring.
Prostitution, as a paid sex service, continued to find its way on the streets and via disreputable taverns where whores first of all stimulated guests to drink and eat as much as possible, and to be treated with drinks and food as well. A percentage of these earning was paid out to the women. Whores pretended to drink along with the costumer, but secretly threw their drinks offered onto the floor. Floors of these taverns were covered with sand to absorb the purposely spilled wine and beer, so the guest would not notice. Of course, if a guest wanted to have sex and still wasn’t too drunk to be up for it, the girl would take the john to her room. Perhaps by then he was so drunk, she could suffice with only a hand job. Anyhow, by then the whoremonger better had enough ready cash on him.
Although prostitution was prohibited from the end of the sixteenth century, soon it became clear the authorities were fighting a losing battle. Brothels re-appeared publicly, but also speelhuizen ‘music halls’ and ‘bad’ taverns and inns where one could find prostitutes as well. Speelhuizen, also called musicos, with names like Jonckr Pover, Meniste Bruyloft, Pakhuis, Wijnvat, Papatie Noorman, Ryck bancket, Joode Tryn, Scheele Kaet, were a typical feature of Amsterdam. Halls; where music was played by a small ensemble and where people came dancing and drinking. An ensemble of a more upmarket place consisted of a harpsichord, violin, and bas. Simpler places only offered a violin player. Besides music and dancing, you could find prostitutes too. A prostitute would take her client to a whorehouse, since at speelhuizen no, or few rooms were available. Speelhuizen and strumpets ‘prostitutes’ were a real attraction for tourists in Amsterdam. Not much has changed, perhaps.
Due to the fact a visit to these houses wasn’t considered dishonourable, speelhuizen enjoyed much popularity. The music entertainment was a façade, and these halls therefore weren’t considered a brothel. According to the Devil in the book ‘Amsterdamsch Hoerdom’, see below, speelhuizen once started as Mennonite weddings, where people could have a truly decent good time. Only later whores were taken to these feasts.
‘t Amsterdamsch Hoerdom – A blockbuster in its time already, was the book ‘Menifte Bruyloften of ‘t Amfterdamfch Hoerdom’ (Mennonite Weddings or the Amsterdam Whoredom), published in the year 1681. It had many reprints. The writer remained anonymous. The story is about the Devil, known as myn Leidsman (my leadsman), that appears in a dream of the main character, and shows him all the bad inns, brothels, houses of prostitution, and music halls of Amsterdam. Something the main character only heard about during his travels, ahum. The book describes everything very realistic and in great detail, and therefore is a very informative and much quoted source of historians. Back then, it was especially a great source for tourists visiting the infamous city, and not ao much for historians. Chapter Entertainment & Drinking of a Lonely Planet city guide to know where to go for fun and, indeed, more.
In one of the taverns the main character and his Leidsman visit, they observe the innkeeper promoting his red wine and whores to two guests. They were two Vrieffche schippers ‘Frisian skippers’ sitting together with two Juffertjes ‘whores’. The way the innkeeper advertised his red wine, and implicitly his whores, was as follows:
“ […] want fe is foo foet als fuiker, fe ruikt als kaneel, en fmaakt niet anders, als of je al de lekkernyen des wereldtste gelyk in de mond had.”
[…] because she as sweet as sugar, she smells like cinnamon, and tastes no different, as if you have all the delights of the world in your mouth at once).
The two Frisians immediately ordered two extra cups of wine for the whores.
In one of the dialogues between the Devil and the main character, an explanation is given why prostitution cannot and should not be banned:
“Wel, fou ‘t niet beter wefen, vroeg ik, dat men fe altemaal uitbande, gelijk men in andere Steden doet? De weereld, antwoordde mij Leidsman, is met de Bybel in de hand niet te regeeren, andere fteden, daar men geen hoeren gedoogen wil, hebben fulk een toeloop van Vreemdelingen en van Vaarens-gezellen niet […] die zich dagelycks, als fe aan de wal zyn, zat en vol zuipen en die al foo rouw en onbuigfaam zyn [..] om een grooter kwaad voor te komen, te weeten, ’t aanranden en fchenden van eerlijke Vrouwen”
Well, would it not be better, I asked, if they were banned al together, like they do in other cities? The world, my Leadsmen replied, cannot be ruled with the Bible in one’s hand, other Cities, where whores are not accepted, do not have this many Foreigners and Seafarers […] who every day, when they are ashore, get drunk and who therefore are rough and hard to handle […] to prevent an even greater evil, namely, assaulting and violating of honourable Women
From around mid-seventeenth century, prostitution became a professional women’s affair. By this we mean prostitution had become a specialized branch, and almost completely managed by women as well. They were procuresses, brothel keepers, whore madams or bawds. It’s also from this time that prostitution and fornication were being distinguished as separate things. As said, till then all forms of sex outside marriage and other indecent behaviour fell under the umbrella term of whoring. Albeit the business was dominated by procuresses, also procurers or pimps existed, in Amsterdam slang called a pol (Thuijs 2020).
Prostitutes, often no more than two, lived in a whorehouse owned by a madam. Here the prostitute received her clients, and the brothel keeper also provided safety. Part of the household could be just as well the husband of the bawd, but he would have his own job outside the house and, in general, played no role in his wife’s business. About 80 percent of all whorehouses was run by women. Until the second half of the eighteenth century, these houses continued to be primarily small enterprises. The eighteenth century was a worse period for prostitutes too. There was more poverty and men were getting involved in the prostitution branch and incomes their decreased (Van de Pol 1996).
Besides prostitutes in whorehouses, there were also kruishoeren ‘streetwalkers’. The old Dutch verb kruisen meant to walk/to stroll and is related to the English verb ‘to cruise’. The word hoer means ‘whore’. So, cruising-whores. Streets where these hookers operated during the night were named kruisbaan. Their services were provided in porches, parks, and alleys. In The Hague, the wooded area of the Haagse Bos was a popular love ‘shack’.
High-end courtesans, another form of prostitution in the early modern period, were scarce. The only place in the Dutch Republic where these high-end prostitutes had a market, was in The Hague because of the presence of the international diplomatic corps (Van de Pol 1996). The rest of the Republic was a civilian society with only a modest court life. Closest thing to a royal court were the small palaces of stadtholders of the House of Orange. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876-1917), also known as Mata Hari, is the most famous Frisian courtesan, albeit of more recent times. She also worked in Paris.
To remain competitive, a whorehouse needed to ‘refresh its merchandise’ periodically to keep regular clientele coming and to attract new ones (De Graeve 2010). For this, whores were being exchanged among houses, within towns and between towns. Girls were, in fact, sold because a new madam would pay the outstanding debt of the girl to the former madam. Rotations of whores happened each three to four months. This practice was especially in place from the late seventeenth century and during the full eighteenth century. At the end of the nineteenth century, this was referred to as white slavery. It became a moral panic and people petitioned the government to halt this. Advised by the abolitionists it led to restrictive policies against procuring and trafficking of women, and brothels were shut down. Driving prostitution underground, again. History repeating.
As noted earlier, prostitutes were mainly working in the garment and textile industry before, and, to a lesser extent, former cleaning maids. A profile applicable throughout the seventeenth century until around 1720. Not so much housemaids of earlier profession. Housemaids were often better paid and enjoyed accommodation. More or less the best job a lower-class girl could obtain. Average age of whores was between 21 and 25 years, and prostitutes older than 30 years were a unicum. An exception to the rule was Marrij Pieters alias Noordse Marrie ‘northern Mary’, who at the age of 48 still walked in the alley Jan de Vriesesteeg, a streetwalking zone in Amsterdam, in the year 1709. At the age of 54, Marrij was apprehended again. With that, she is the oldest documented sex worker traced in the city records (Thuijs 2020, Dussen 2020). Of the prostitutes apprehended in Amsterdam, only about 20 percent was born in Amsterdam. The rest came from other towns in the Republic, or from Scandinavia and northern, coastal Germany (Van de Pol 2010). At the same time, Dutch and German women were working as prostitutes in England as well (Cordingly 2001). Prostitutes in the early modern period tended to come from disrupted family environments. For example domestic violence, death of a family member or abandonment by the husband (Pluskota 2017).
During the seventeenth century, bordello paintings called ‘bordeeltjes’ were very popular in the Republic. Typically, these merry paintings depicted a whore, a procuress, and, of course, a male client. The whore always beautiful and being cheerful, the procuress always old, wearing a white head cover and eager to make money, and the whoremonger always foolish and drinking alcohol. Again, cunning, coquettish women seducing innocent, defenseless men. Oysters and lutes, symbols of sex, were often added. To avoid any misunderstanding where the jolly scene was all about. However, these duplicitous portrayals of prostitutes had nothing to do with their true profile and nature, as briefly outlined above (Stamler 2016). Different explanations are given by scholars why bordello paintings were of high demand. We guess it was simply early porn in disguise.
With the ‘professionalization’ of prostitution from around mid-seventeenth century, whores became more and more dependent on madams and other whoremasters. It’s also from this time, to be an attractive and desirable prostitute, a girl needed to possess specific clothing. This were fanciful, colourful garments with flower motifs, and thus very expensive. Painted cloth was expensive. The masses were clothed in grey, and even referred to as het grauw ‘the grim’ by class of regents in the seventeenth century. Whores imitated with their cloths the fashion of higher-class women. Standard garments of a whore was a black tabbaard ‘tabard’ and a colourful samaar ‘chamarre’, a loose outer garment. Made of silks and satins. Also, a whore needed to have make-up, something that was adopted from the theatre. They whitened their faces, gave their cheeks a red blush, and painted some black mooches on their face. Wigs too, often were worn. Lastly, a whore had to pay rent for the room, which was about half of her weekly earnings. The whore madam would rent her whores beautiful cloths, jewellery, and provide make up.
Additional to all the costs above, girls were confronted with expenditures on unwanted pregnancy, a continuous risk for prostitutes, and expenditures as a result from recovering from venereal and other diseases. Care, food, bed etc. delivered by the whore madam while being sick had to be reimbursed. You don’t get something for nothing, as the saying goes. Result: a whore was indebted to her madam, thus dependent on her. Never to be able to repay her madam. Sounds familiar still, maybe?
Clientele of whores in Amsterdam, and other seaports, weren’t only sailors, people from the countryside and tourists, but also skippers and barge hands of inland river navigation. The latter even in quite significant numbers. The overwhelming share of johns in Amsterdam were however sailors. The Dutch Republic counted between 50,000 and 60,000 mariners working on ships. Be it ships of the VOC, the WIC, the cargo shipping to the Baltic Sea, British Isles and Scandinavia, the Arctic whaling industry, the navy, or the privateering.
Sailors and prostitutes were very much connected to each other. Not only because sailors when they returned from the seven seas, spend all their money on drinking parties and whores. Also because brothels themselves fulfilled a central role in the communication between sailors, wives and family members back in patria, the fatherland (Van de Pol 2011). Oral messages and letters on the weal and woe of sailors and family were communicated through sailors back and forth via brothels. Since most sailors were illiterate, whoremasters in brothels could organize a message being written down. Going to a brothel, therefore, was the best place for a sailor’s wife to learn news on her husband in foreign lands.
Ties between prostitutes and sailors were so confident that sailors often gave personal valuables to whore madams for safekeeping while they were at sea. As said earlier, sailors regularly picked their bride from a spinhuis ‘correctional institute’, also indicating the close relations between both worlds. A final note is that it wasn’t always about sex. From different studies we know that sailors and whores surprisingly often had a pseudo marriage, meaning sailors would return to the same whore once back in the fatherland and both would live as being a couple for the time the sailor was on leave (Van de Pol 1996, Cordingly 2001). So, sailors, like most people, also had the need of traditional female companionship, which they practically weren’t able to have. Almost human, those seamen.
alternatives to prostitution
As set out above, lower-class women had in several aspects a more vulnerable position in north-western Europe during the early modern period, when compared to men or with other parts of Europe. Limited honourable jobs available, most jobs were reserved for men, wages were much lower when compared to those of men, and on average marrying at older age than elsewhere in Europe. In general, women had to take care of themselves between sixteen and twenty-five years. Furthermore, women in this coastal region migrated a lot, towards the towns and cities to earn an income. All in all, lower-class women could end up away from home, alone without a social network and no income (Dekker & Van de Pol 1989). Involving in criminality was sometimes a desperate way out, also explaining the significant share of women in crime.
Assertive Friesche Aefje – A young woman who rebelled against her desperate social position was Friesche Aef ‘Frisian Aef’, born in 1610, from Dokkum in province Friesland. An outspoken and unmarried woman. She had moved to Amsterdam. When she was 18 years old, Aef or Aefje shows up in the city’s criminal records for the first time. After that, a series of convictions for prostitution, robbery and fencing etc. follows, mostly with banishment, flogging and branding as sentence.
Aefje was always very clear and explicite to her high-end judges, namely that she would never respect their verdicts not to return to Amsterdam. One of her cases attracted much attention those days. It took place in 1631.
Aefje was heavily pregnant when she turns up in the city despite her previous banishment. She purposely had herself arrested, so she could deliver her child under relatively favourable conditions, with food and shelter in the spinhuis ‘women prison’. Moreover, during her public trial, she boldly and falsely accused one of the schepen ‘judges’, the influential Pieter Jansz. Hooft, to be the father of her unborn child. Demonstrating guts that was unheard of.
Aefje had prepared her acquisition carefully. According to her fabricated story, schepen Pieter Jansz. Hooft had taken her to a little arch one night where they had sex for money, and is when had become pregnant. For the court this was reason to torture her to know if it was true she said. Also, a fellow inmate betrayed her. Her lies came true. Not long after her conviction she managed to break out of the spinhuis.
In 1633 she was convicted again. During this trial, assertive Aefje made clear that for women like her there was no future, and the path of crime was the only alternative. In 1634, 1638, 1641 and 1644, Aefje showed up in the criminal records once more. After that her faith is unknown (Thuijs 2020).
Wives of sailors in service of the VOC or WIC had an additional challenge, namely that their men would be away for sometimes two years. In the meantime, they had to survive without a husband helping the household with income too. Moreover, many sailors died of illnesses and shipwrecked. Many sailor’s women became widow. Confirmation that their husband had perished, often came late or never at all. Confirmation of death was a prerequisite to receive a modest allowance.
So, besides criminality and prostitution (or finding a rich husband as the Dutch Minister of Housing, Hugo de Jonge, recommend a young women in 2023), what were the other options?
An intriguing, women-dominated business was the recruitment of sailors in Amsterdam. These women were known as zielenverkoopster, literally translated as ‘souls broker’ and were wives or widows of sailors, or former prostitutes. It was a trait specific to Amsterdam. As we’ve seen earlier in the case of Harlingen, normally it was male solliciteurs ‘recruiters’ who organized sailors to man ships. Zielenverkoopsters were owners of so-called bad boarding houses or inns, where young men stayed who wanted to sign on at the VOC to sail to dangerous and debauched apenland ‘monkey land’, as the East Indies was dubbed among sailors back then. An aspirant sailor had to make debts for food and lodging while staying in the city before he could embark on a ship. The landlady of the boarding house, also called slaapbaas ‘sleeping boss’, provided in advance food and accommodation. And she organized via a network of agents that her guest was signed on a ship. In return, she received from the VOC a so-called transport ceel . Value of a transport ceel was normally 150 guilders, meaning a sailor wouldn’t in practice earn any money for the next eighteen months (Bruijn 2016). With the transport ceel, a warrant, she, or whomever would bear the ceel over time, was entitled to be reimbursed by the VOC out of the sailor’s salary for the advance lodging and food once the sailor concerned had returned. That could be years later.
Ceels itself were transacted too. The ceels were traded for lower prices than the official value, given the uncertainty you could ever claim the money somewhere in the future. Sailors could die or desert the VOC in the meantime. Worth of ceels was subject to speculation. News or rumours concerning wars, piracy, weather or diseases overseas influenced the value. Typically, ceels were sold at a price of 70 or 80 guilders (Van der Pol 1996, Bruijn 2016). In other words, calculation based on harsh-life experience that taught about 50 percent of the sailors wouldn’t make it back to collect their gage. Sailors died of scurvy, typhus, yellow fever, accidents, and shipwreck (Cordingly 2001). Once the sailor had died the transport ceel lost its value and considered quaad geworden ‘turned bad’. But if, however, the sailor did make it back to patria, and you had bought his transport ceel for about half price, you made a nice profit.
The Dutch word ziel for ‘soul’ sounds much like ceel. Hence, these women were called zielenverkoopster ‘soul brokers’. This practice of selling ceels lasted well into the eighteenth century. If you come to think of it, the zielenverkoopsters were selling souls to the ferryman. Check our post Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the Ferryman of Solleveld about another ferryman just south of Amsterdam.
women in masquerade
At the end of the sixteenth century the phenomenon of women cross-dressing as men appears in Europe, but by far the most cases are found in the north-west of Europe and especially in the Dutch Republic, England and Germany. This tradition of travesty continued to around the year 1800 in the Republic, and a bit longer in England and the United States. France picks up the tradition at the end of the eighteenth century with many women enrolling as men in the revolutionary army. In the nineteenth century, the tradition of female travesty more or less suddenly disappears (Dekker & Van de Pol 1989).
Because many jobs were reserved for men and lower-class women often had no social (family) network to fall back on, another option to survive was to disguise as a man. Prostitutes and female cross-dressers had a similar age and backgrounds. As a man, women could get access to male privileges and freedoms. You could try to enroll in the army, the navy, or as sailor of the different multinational corporations sailing to the East and the West. So many young women did. Below a sea shanty originating from the eighteenth century that Dutch people can sing to this day.
Daar was laatst een meisje loos,
Die wou gaan varen, die wou gaan varen,
Daar was laatst een meisje loos,
Die wou gaan varen als lichtmatroos.
There was recently a girl of loose moral, | Who wanted to go sailing, who wanted to go sailing, | There was recently a girl of loose moral | Who wanted to go sailing as ordinary seaman.
Most women impersonating men had had a troublesome youth and often lost one or both of their parents. Unbearable situations with step-mothers and domestic conflicts or violence being part part of their youth, are frequently encountered in the archives. It forced them to leave their family and hometown to seek a better future elsewhere. A third of the women pretending to be men identified in the Republic were migrants, mostly from the cities Emden and Hamburg, and from Westphalia.
There’re many cases known where women have been unmasked being woman, and have been brought for court. Pretending to be a man as such was not considered dishonourable, but it was against the law of the Almighty Creator. Woman could be revealed only within days after they commenced going through live as a man, but there’re also cases testifying of women functioning for six years on end as sailor without being discovered.
Pretending to be a man, demanded more than wearing men’s cloths and cutting their hair short, i.e. just below the ears. These women also had to behave like men, and when being a sailor that meant showing rough behaviour, singing, cursing, visiting brothels and drinking a lot. Yes, they even had liaisons with women to mask their true gender. Also, these women had to be able to perform heavy work not inferior to men.
Interestingly, some women serving in the army as male soldiers made fame after they unmasked themselves. A famous, eighteenth-century woman is Hannah Snell (1723-1792) from Worcester, England who had written an autobiography about her adventures going through life as a man for many years. She allegedly married a Dutch sailor named James Summs. He turned out to spend all their money on whores. When Hannah was carrying seven months, her husband left her. Hannah’s child died after seven months. After this tragedy Hannah tries to find Summs to seek revenge. She ends up in Coventry and here, in 1745, she joined the army as a man under the name James or Jemmy Grey. Between four months and two years she served in the army. In 1747 she joined the navy under the same name James Grey. A year later at Cuddalore in India, she was wounded during battle and was hospitalized for a year. After serving some more time in the nave she returns to England in 1750 and was paid out by the navy. Only then she revealed in a tavern to her comrades who and what she was, with the words:
“Jemmy Grey will cast his skin like a snake and become a new creature. In a word, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell.”
Hannah died in a mental hospital in 1972. Twelve years before she had been declared insane. The part of her biography being married and her pregnancy might be fictional (Stark 1996).
Another famous autobiography is that of Mary Read. Mary married a Dutchman as well and set up a tavern in the town of Breda, when her husband died soon after. She decided to join the VOC as sailor. Her ship was captured by pirates, and eventually she became a notorious pirate. Yet another, very vengeful, female pirate was Jeanne de Clisson (1300-1359). She possessed a fleet and hurt the French at sea. Besides Hannah, Mary and Jeanne, there’re many more. Also think of the sailor women Mary Lacy and Mary Ann Talbot (Grundner 2008). Check note 2 at the end of this post for more names of women disguising as men in the early modern period.
Besides seeking employ as a cross-dresser as sailor or soldier, women who went into a life of crime often dressed as a man too. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the cities of the Republic experienced a criminal subculture with its own language and nicknames, and in which women played a prominent role (Dekker & Van de Pol 1989). As said before, about a third to fifty percent of all crimes in Amsterdam was committed by women. And a lot of these women were wearing trousers, partly as a disguise, partly as an expression. Travesty and criminality aren’t far apart from each other, and have violation of ethics in common. Not only in cities were women active as criminals. They also participated in criminals gangs, including the infamous Bokkenrijders ‘Buckriders’ in the south of the Republic, dressed as men and as cruel as men.
Except for better job opportunities, patriotism and being active in the criminal underworld, motives of women impersonating men could also be of personal and intimate nature. It could also be to preserve their virginity, which in those days was very import value, an almost sacral status. Going through life as a men, these women could avoid being married and preserve their virginity. And don’t forget, in the Protestant society women didn’t have the option to enter a monastery as nun anymore. And, of course, it could also be love. Young sweethearts, trying to stay with her lover and follow him abroad at sea for example.
A final remark concerning personal motives for cross-dressing was homosexuality, somehow trying to live a couple in the early-modern society. Sexuality between women was very different from today. A woman loving another woman meant she had to reject her gender. Having such feelings for another women implied she actually must be a man. Sex was phallocentric. If no phallus was involved in the deed, it simply wasn’t sex. If a woman had feelings for someone of the same gender, she therefore must be a man, or at least aspired to be one. Lesbian women, therefore, often doubted their gender. This early-modern understanding of sexuality made travesty in these cases a kind of psychological or mental ‘correction’ (Dekker & Van de Pol 1989).
emigrating to the colonies
Another option to make a living, albeit only possible for a few, was to emigrate to one of the colonies of the VOC, like the New Netherland colony in America. This could be an option for both man and women if for some reason they had lost their honour and needed to start with a new slate.
A remarkable woman who perhaps emigrated because of such reasons, was Grietje Reyniers (1602-1669). She was the wife of Anthony Jansen, or Jansz. van Salee (i.e. the city of Salé in modern Morocco), alias The Turk, who was half Moorish. Some say he was a son of a pirate. In 1630, they emigrated to New Amsterdam, modern New York City. Here she started a tavern and she (still) prostituted herself. For some time she was the mistress of the Director of New Amsterdam, Wouter van Twiller. There were complaints filed at the town council about her offensive behaviour. For example: When she was standing at the Strand one day, sailors on board of a departing ship chanted “Whore, whore, two pounds butter’s whore!” She blatantly responded by turning her bottom towards the men, lifting her petticoat, slapped her backside, and shouted: “Breathe me in there!” Indeed, the seventeenth-century version of ‘kiss my ass’. Of course, nobody was indignant over the sailor’s offensive chanting.
Another testimony about Grietje concerns when she had given birth to a child. Grietje’s first question to the midwife was whom the child resembled; a certain man called Andries Hudde, or her own husband? The midwife answered:
“If you do not know who the father is how should I know? However, the child is somewhat brown.”
In the year 1639, Grietje and The Turk were expelled from New Amsterdam, and again it was time for them to move on in life. They settled on Long Island Waterfront and began farming. For long, their place was known as Turk’s Plantation, on modern Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn, near modern Bath Beach.
More women in the New Netherland colony owned a tavern, like Maria Goosen and Lysbeth Cornelisz. Also Maria Goosen was banned, in this case from the town of Beverwijck what’s modern Albany. The reason for her being expelled, was because she had been selling booze to an Indian woman, which was prohibited (Lucas 2021).
A last remark on the New Netherland colony, the word ‘hooker’ originates from the neighbourhood of New Amsterdam named Corlaers Hoek, with hoek meaning ‘corner area’. Later in the nineteenth century, the name was written as Corlears Hook, and was a vice and crime area next to the shipyards, ferry terminals, iron works and coal dumps in Lower East Side New York, including many brothels and streetwalkers. Indeed, hookers. The hook, as commonly abbreviated, was a wild area known to sailors all over the world. Find more information about the New Netherland colony in our post History is written by the Victors – a history of the credits.
crossing borders and conventions
With a certain contempt, lower-class women living in the Republic in the early modern period, were regarded as witty and assertive by contemporaries. What they failed to see, is that female sex workers, criminals and cross-dressers were in a way avant-gardists, trespassing unjust social borders and conservative conventions. Going back and forth between lower and upper classes, between law obedience and rebellion, between male and female, between hetero and gay. Being dressed as a man when committing criminal acts, and back being a woman when not. Living outside the bounds of acceptable cultural standards (Stark 1996). Putting the social order on its head, and therefore travesty was quite subversive (Dekker & Van de Pol 1989).
Firstly, being a prostitute meant these women dressed, against the social codes and rules, as upper-class women. Of course, secondly, their clientele partly belonged to other, even honourable classes. Using make-up was a third element of crossing social conventions, because initially use of make-up was restricted to male theatre players. Prostitutes started to use make-up, maybe inspired by the stories and images brought from Asia too. Fourthly, as mentioned before, women accounted for much of the crime in big city crimes. Lastly, women living as men, and indirectly claiming equal rights, was crossing social borders and conventions in optima forma, something modern society clearly still is struggling with.
Maybe one final, sixth element questioning traditional conventions, was that prostitution indirectly stimulated empowerment of women too. Earning their money by selling sex, and (implicitly) deciding that as women they were in charge of their own body and sexuality, is important. Having an independent sexuality as a woman was, and is, hard to accept in many societies. It led to containment and stigmatization of women and certainly of prostitutes. Getting rid of old, negative social stigmas of selling sex, is a prerequisite to break down restrictive and inferior concepts concerning women in general. Breaking from centuries-long general accepted views like carrying the original sin, being a necessary evil, being idle and susceptible for evil, living in disgrace, having a lacy and perverted nature, being a dangerous enchantress for men etc.. Prostitutes and female cross-dressers contributed to tearing down these frames. The heroines.
However, in most parts of the world selling sex and working as a sex worker, still isn’t regarded as a woman’s own labour. Sex worker’s labour is seen as private services or obligations to men (Blanchette 2017). The number of countries in the world where selling sex and intimacy services, and/or where brothels are banned, is truly overwhelming to this day. In the words of a whore madam of the vice district Barbary Coast in San Francisco, Madam Reggie Gamble in 1917, when the city council tried to clean up the city and to get rid of prostitution (Anderson 2016):
“You don’t do us any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”Madam Reggie Gamble (1917)
And let’s take this opportunity to end the dubious expression that prostitution is the oldest profession of the world. It’s not. One had to pay a whore from money he earned elsewhere.
A Farewell to Bums, Brothels and Bars
Shipping and sailors shaped Rotterdam. A modestly big city that is world’s sixth biggest harbour, and number one in Europe. Prostitution was part of its identity. Especially from the nineteenth century onwards, red-light districts developed. Taking advantage of opportunities seamen offered when it comes to paid sex. Zandstraat and Schiedamsedijk were the first rosse buurten ‘red-light districts’.
After the destruction of the city in the Second World War, prostitution moved to Katendrecht, an area nicknamed De Kaap. Here a Chinese community, preserving much of its own culture and identity, had developed as a result of the many Chinese ships plying the harbours of Roffa. Unfortunately, De Kaap became infested with drugs, vice, dodgy bars and klappers, the local term for a whorehouse. In the early ‘80s, the city council decided to close all brothels in De Kaap. Whores and sex houses got dispersed over the city (Koolen 2014).
Besides a though city administration, the number of sailors decreased too, having a negative impact on the prostitution labour market too. These days, only a handful of mariners is needed to operate even the largest of ocean vessels. Moreover, the amount of time allowed to seamen for shore leave when the ship is offloading and loading, is much shorter now. Docking fees in a seaport are exceptionally high. So, mooring times are minimized. Too few men and too little time in port towns in terms of enough demand for sex.
Because of these developments, classic harbour saloons have disappeared as well. Bars and cafés where sailors, dockers, truckers, business men and bums used to meet. In 1996, a group of journalists, businessmen, local politicians, and one maritime doctor, founded the Slauerhoff Genootschap ter instandhouding van Rotterdamse Havenkroegen ‘Slauerhoff Society to preserve Rotterdam Harbour Bars’. Already in 2001, the society dissolved itself because no typical harbour bar was left anymore. Café De Ballentent supposedly is the last classic harbour tavern of Rotterdam. There’s, to our opinion another one left, namely café ‘t Zielhoes in the hamlet of Noordpolderzijl in the north of province Groningen, a former smuggler’s haven. Classic fake, red-Persian cloths on tables included. We welcome names of any other harbour saloon that survived along the North Sea coasts of Flanders, the Netherlands and Germany.
Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936), after which the society was named, was a Frisian poet and writer. Born in the town of Leeuwarden. By profession Slauerhoff was a medical doctor, and he roamed the world’s oceans as ship surgeon. He suffered from tuberculosis, which he didn’t treat. The reason why talented Slauerhoff died at an early age. His poems are loaded with themes like: seaports, foreign, decay, death and whores.
Below, in concluding this post, a poem of Slauerhoff called De Vluchtelinge ‘The (female) Refugee’, about a whore who wants to escape her misery and fate, but cannot…
Soms weent zij uit: dat zij niet meer kan blijven
Onbevlekte in verblijven, waar bedreigen
Haar offerpijn en floers, waaronder lijven
Den Dienst der wreede liefkoozingen bedrijven.
‘k Geloof haar niet, maar neem haar lijfsgewaden.
Nog, naakt vernederd, smeekt zij genade
Te mogen gaan. Ik spot: “Ga zoo, mijn gade!”
En sliep in zekerheid… Zij is gaan waden
Door diepe sneeuw en zich aan kuisch ijs wonden.
Zij dacht rechtuit te vluchten, liep een ronde:
Des morgens aan een muur is zij gevonden,
Teruggedragen binnen mijn verblijven,
Waar maagden haar bevrozen leden wrijven,
Hervoorbereiden voor het feest der lijven.J.J. Slauerhoff
Sometimes she weeps out loud: she cannot stay anymore | The immaculate in enclosures, where threatening | Her pain of sacrifice and crape, underneath which flesh | Perform the Service of cruel caresses | I don’t believe her, but take her flesh-robes. | Still, nakedly humiliated, she begs for mercy | To be let go. I mock: “Go then, my consort!” | And slept knowing… She went wading | Through snow and injured by chaste ice. | She thought to run a straight line, ran a circle: | In the morning, she was found near a wall, | Carried back into my enclosures, | Where maidens rub her frozen limbs, | Re-preparing for the feast of flesh.
Note 1 – Random list of whores, mainly from America, the Dutch Republic and England in seventeenth until the nineteenth centuries.
Zeeuwse Aagte, Aaltie de cous coopster, Isabelle Adriansen, Friesche Aef, Maria Agges, Alet, Seeuse Anna, Rotterdamse Anne, Annetie van de Overtoom, Geertruy Lucassen van Apesteyn (nickname Truy Labberlot), Anna Bekkers, Brabants Betkin, juffr. Beuckelaers, Helene du Bois, Louise van den Bossche, Marie de Bouck, Eliza Bowen Jumel, Brechie, Lucy Ann Brady, Julia Brown, Caetje, Eva Campinga, Hendrickie de capmaeckster, Catryn de naeyster, cleijn hoofie (only known by her nickname), Maria Colyn, Rebecca de copster, Marie Livine Corneels, Agniet Cornelis, Stientje Cornelisz, Therese Deon, Philippine Deynaert, Catharine Françoise Diericx, Maria van Dijkhuizen, Helene Dubois, Margriet Elfman, Marianne Eliasz, juffr. Emans, China Emma, Joan Fairmanners, Hester Fonteijn, Margriet Fonteijn, Marie Fonteine, Elisabeth Freriks (nickname Noordse Louise), Marie Henriette Gerards, Marri Gerrits, Celia Geuseramos, Gode for Eve, Jacoba de Graaf (nickname Schele Coba), Sibilla Gramsbergen, Long Grete, Derktje Groenewoud, juffr. Groenhoven, Lijsbeth de Groot, Elisabeth Hagtmans, Caatje Harmens, Catrijn Hancock, Harhopsasa, Anna Harstens, juffr. Heerings, Marie Heggers, Femmetje Hendricks, Wyntje Hendriks, Elisabeth Henninckhuijsen, Jacoba van de Heyden, Marie Joanne Heysse, Fanny Hill, Marie Catharine Hussel, Anne Huybrecht (denied prostituting herself), Marretje Jacobs, Jannetje de wieldraeyersdochter, Aeltje Jans, Lena Jans, Marrij Jans (nickname Besje met de tanden), Christina Jordens, Christina Jorse, Princess Julia, Schotse Katelijne, Kaetie, Wytske Katoen, Geertrui van Keeten, Anne Kerkhove, Joanna Kloppenborgh, Marija de Lange, Flemish Lysbet, Theresia Langemuer, Sophia Laurens, Ceulse Marie, Marie Limbourg, Joanne Loppens (denied prostituting herself), Marie Josephe le Maitre, La grosse Margot, Joanne Maron, Margriet de Meyer, Adeline Miller, Grietje Muylman, Marie Therese De Muynck (denied prostituting herself), Anna Nederman, Marie Joanne van Nieuwenburg, Catrijn Nieuwlant, Antonia Wilhelmina Nijbroek, Damaris Page, Angelique de Paris, Paulijn, Anne Marie Peeters, Johanna Pelt, Marrij Pieters (nickname Noordse Marrie), juffr. Pieternel, Ariaantje Plankman, Jacoba Pluym, juffr. Du Pree, prince neus (only known by her nickname), Marie Josephe Raimbeaux, Therese de Remont, Rensie op Boomsloot, Grietjen Reyniers, Lijsbeth Riesenbrinck, Marie Rossel, Caatje Rykmans, Saartje Samuels, Marie Santé or Santie, Isabelle Brigitte Schabel, Elsie Schilsema, Elsje Schreuders, Margriet Scoonenbou van Hoogendorp, Fijtje Sevenhoven, Ching Shih, Anne Marie Simoens, Moll Stephens, Mietje van der Stiebel, Arendje Storm, Catrijn Straetman, Elisabeth Taphoorn, Alida Tiken, Barbara Tiras, Madaleentje Tobias, Agnes Touhout, La Trécourt, Sara Walense, Lijsbeth Walna, Catryn Warmeling, Maria van Weste, juffr. Weylandt, Cornelia van Wijk, Joanne De Wilde, Maria Williamson, Agnes Willoughby, Anna Winters.
Louisa Baker (aliases Lucy Brewer, Lucy West, and Eliza Bowen) and Almira Paul are famous whores in literature, but fictional personalities. This same goes, by the way, for the Mary-legend of the nun Beatrijs (Beatrice) in the fourteenth-century Dutch poem. A nun who prostituted herself outside the monastery, prayed to Mary, showed remorse and returned to the monastery, where -miraculously- no-one was aware Beatrijs had been gone for some time.
Note 2 – Random names of whore madams of the (early) modern period.
Wietske Albers, Anna Barkels, Bastiaantje Bongen, Bette Caens, Catryn Christiaans or Catrijn Christiaens (owner of bar and whorehouse De Bogt van Guinee), Moeder Colijn, Mama Engelbregt, Reggie Gamble, Grootma, Trijn Jans, Christina K., Mama Lefeber, Memme Metje, Marij la Motte, Madame Olij, Elisabeth Ottens (nickname Noordse Lijs), Lijsbeth Poll, Neeltje Sijtsma, Madame La Touche, Willemijn Touw, Margriet Valkoen, Margaretha van uit Vlaanderen.
Note 3 – Random names of women who cross-dressed as men, often as sailor or soldier, mainly in England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
De Amazone van de Nieuwendijk, Hendrick Albertsz, Barbara Pieters Adriaens (alias Willem Adriaens), Anna Alders (nickname Wisjewasje), Maria van Antwerpen (aliases Jan van Ant, and Maggiel van Handtwerpen), Annetje Barents (alias Klaas Barends), Stijntje Barents, Johanna Bennius, Antoinette Berg, Claus Bernsen, Maeyken Blomme, Renée Bordereau, Elizabeth Bowden, Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel (alias Cornelis Brugh), Griet met Broek, Aart den Broekman, William Brown, Geertruid ter Brugge (nickname La Dragonne), Lysbet Jacobs de Bruyn, Antje Burger, Christian “Kit” Cavanagh (nicknames Lady Redcoat and Mother Ross), Grietje Claas, Anna Chamberlayne, Jacomijn Cornelis, Cornelia Margriete Croon (alias van Deventer), Johanna Catharina van Cuijlenberg, Christian Davis, Joonas Dirckse, Sara Dircxdr. (alias Salomon Dircxz), Engeltje Dirx, Aal de Dragonder, Marij Dragonder, Geertruid van Duiren, Catalina de Erauso, Anna Maria Everts (alias de Kwee), Jenneke Everts, Catarijn Fiool, (Vrouwtje) Frans, Mary Frith (nickname Moll Cut-purse), Isabella Clara Geelvinck, Willempje Gerrits van Emden, Dirk Ghereytsdochter (nickname Ruyter Dirk), Maria van der Gijsse (alias Claes van der Gijsse), Francina Gunningh Sloet (alias Frans Gunningh Sloet), Johanna Dorothea Heeght (alias Johannes Hegt), Phoebe Hessel, Geertruida Sara Catharin van den Heuvel (alias Jacobus Philippus Vermeijl), Anna Catharina Hilleghering (nicknames Anna de Moffin, and Dikke Anna), Geesje Hoogmeester, Marijtje van den Hove (alias Alemondus van den Hove), Elisabeth Huyser (alias Jan Drop), Anne Jacobs, Jacoba Jacobs (alias Jacob Jacobs), Aeltje Jans (alias Jan Jansse), Anna Jans (alias Jan Jansz), Janneke Jans, Maritgen Jans (alias David Jans), Maeijken Joosten (alias Pieter Verbrugh), Trijn Jurriaens (alias Hendrick Brughman), Petronella van de Kerkhof, Grietje Harmense Knipsaar (alias Dirk Jansen), Johannes Kock, Mary Lacy (alias William Chandler), Catharina Lincken, Francijntje van Lint, Hans Lose, Margarita, Marinos the Monk, Johanna Martens, Anne McLean, Ann Mills, Maria Elisabeth Meening, Maria ter Meetelen, Adriana La Noy, Anne Marie Piernau, Annetje Pieters, Jannetje Pieters, Marritgen Pieters, Pietertje Pieters, William Prothero, Geneviève Prémoy, Mary Read, Margareta Reymers, Jannetje Gijsberts de Ridder, Antonia Rodrigues, Catharin Rosenbrock, Mother Ross, Debora Sampson Gannett (alias Robert Shirtliff, nickname Lady Patriot), Franziska Scanagatto, Maria Schellinck, Hendrickgen Lamberts van der Schuyr, Hilleke Sell, Trijntje Sijmons (alias Sijmon Poort), Hannah Snell (alias James, or Jemmy, Grey), Elisabeth Sommuruell (alias Tobias Morello), Maria van Spanjen (alias Claas van Vliet), Maria Sophia Stording, Anna Sophia Spiesen (alias Claas Paulusse), Johanna Elisabeth van Swole (alias Leendert van der Zee), Marrija Margriet Sonnevelt, Mary Anne Talbot (alias John Taylor), Aagt de Tamboer, Francijntien Theunis (alias Jan Theunis), Margaret Thompson (alias George Thompson), Lumke Thoole (alias Jan Theunisz), Tiesheld, Maria Jacobse de Turenne, Loreta Janeta Velázquez (alias Harry T. Buford, nickname Lady Rebel), Cattarina Vizzani, Gerrit Jansz van Vlissingen, Lena Catharina Wasmoet (alias Claas Waal), Marij Jacobs Weijers, Jochem Wiesse, Lijsbeth Wijngraef (alias Cornelis Wijngraef), Betty Wilson (alias James Wilson), Rebecca Young (alias Billy Bridle).
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