The Burgher and the Whore: Prostitution in Early Modern Amsterdam

Petra de Vries finds an analysis of the Dutch sex trade vividly conjures the scene from the brothel

September 15, 2011

Many tourists are fascinated by Amsterdam's red-light district and its display of barely dressed "women behind the windows". The more adventurous among them stroll around the narrow streets of the old city to peep into the premises of a prostitute or two, while others voice their indignation about the shameless advertisement of sex and female bodies. But behind the windows, worries are of a different kind: a steady source of income is being threatened by recent local policies intended to "clean up the neighbourhood".

There's nothing new here, it seems. Lotte van de Pol's excellent and detailed study of prostitution in 17th- and 18th-century Amsterdam - the third-largest city in early modern Europe - reveals that it was already famous for its sex trade. For a wide range of visitors from different stations in life, "music houses" were the Dutch capital's most sought-after attraction. In the evenings, whores - the word prostitute was not yet in use - and their "bawds", or brothel-keepers, emerged from the narrow streets and alleys to make their way to the music houses where wine and music provided the atmosphere for a profitable carnal encounter.

Astonished, fascinated, curious and more often than not morally alarmed, many travellers recorded their impressions in travelogues. They were not the only ones whose gaze has been preserved in archives and books. Fiction on whores and brothels proliferated too, like the much-imitated and often-reprinted 1681 work Het Amsterdamsch Hoerdom (Amsterdam Whoredom). The gaze of the onlooker also focused on places where "whores" were even more overtly on display, such as in the Spin House, a kind of corrective workhouse, where one could stare at "indecent" and "foul" female prisoners - after paying a small entrance fee.

Alas, the authorities - members of the resolutely Calvinist and exceedingly powerful Dutch Reformed Church - effectively forced the music houses into decline in the late 17th century. Tourists stayed away, only to come back again when a blind eye was turned to prostitution in the final quarter of the 18th century. Thanks to the authorities' tireless attention to the "evil" of the sex trade, van de Pol has been able to analyse more than 8,000 court cases of the era, which provide rich detail on lives that were held up as the inverted image of the decent household of the respectable "burgher". Probably no other female profession has ever been so well documented.

The Burgher and the Whore is a significant contribution to the history of gender and prostitution and much more. It explores how the sex trade was embedded in Amsterdam's social, economic and judicial systems, and particularly its mighty port, and considers how legislation and policing were shaped by misogynist attitudes towards women and fear of God's wrath. It is a history of the Dutch Golden Age, but in this case a less glamorous one, as seen from the perspective of people living at the margins of society.

Such a complex project inevitably leads to some scholarly shortcomings. It is not entirely clear, for example, how the author decided to discuss particular themes rather than others, nor is there much debate with historians of the period or other scholars.

Inevitably in an English translation, some connotations are lost. Dutch 17th-century concepts and phrases do not translate easily into modern English. Comparatively few readers are likely to be able to unpick the nuances behind the terms "burgher", "stadtholder" or even "High German". Nevertheless, this book's translator, Liz Waters, has done a wonderful job, and van de Pol has discovered translations of Dutch historical material that previously had been incorrectly interpreted as being of English-language origin.

This book's few shortcomings are certainly outweighed by the strengths of its scholarly and original analysis, in particular its consideration of the meaning of the concept of honour for those living a "dishonourable" life. Above all, it is distinguished by its ability to tell the story of prostitution as if we were present ourselves at night in a brothel, in the courtroom or at scenes where women showed their bare bottoms to their adversaries in a gesture of contempt. In short, it is the perfect bedside book for the professional - and for the rest of us, too.

The Burgher and the Whore: Prostitution in Early Modern Amsterdam

By Lotte van de Pol

Oxford University Press

269pp, £28.50

ISBN 9780199211401

Published 31 March 2011

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