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RM24012 –  Amsterdam’s new town hall 



In my podcast on this subject, I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Maurits den Hollander. In the blog-text accompanying the podcast we decided to post a short summary of our discussion at the end of the text below. This is my description of the fascinating history of the birth of Amsterdam as a city, based on the specific rights it received in the 12th and 13th century.  

As an introduction, Maurits den Hollander is a historian who specializes in legal and institutional developments in the late medieval and early modern period (around 1300 – 1700). Throughout his work, Maurits strives to embed legal developments into their broader social, economic, and cultural context, taking into regard both local, regional and global dimensions. In 2021, he defended his dissertation about insolvency legislation and practices in 17th century Amsterdam at Tilburg University. He continues to work at this institution as assistant professor of legal history.  

His current research, supported with a Starter Grant, is named ‘Professionals and the People’. With the support from colleagues, he seeks to further our understanding of processes of law- and policy making in premodern cities in the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam, Dordrecht, or Zwolle. Who were, just below the level of influential and powerful regents, the most important urban officials (supporting staff)? Understanding the lived reality of day-to-day governance in the past allows to reflect on crucial elements of the new culture of governance that is widely called for in the present. 

The project fits in wonderfully with a common interest that I share with Maurits: what happened every day in Amsterdam’s new city hall, which opened in 1655? Mwah, … is that interesting? We certainly think it is given its present stature. From 1808 the building functions as the Royal Palace on Dam Square. But how did it function from 1655 to 1808, as a town hall? We plan to dedicate a publication to this rater mysterious period.  

The listener/reader is therefore actually a participant in a study in progress. Comments are certainly appreciated. 

1 Amsterdam – A world city 

When Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam in the 1630s, the city was an economic world power. From the end of the 16th century, it had steadily expanded and become economically more powerful and thus more attractive to live and work. In Rembrandt’s early days there, the city was at the centre of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and at the height of its influence and wealth. Batavia was founded in 1619 (present-day Jakarta in Indonesia), New Amsterdam followed in 1624 (present-day New York City), and in 1652 Cape Town in South Africa was established. The Republic had indeed become a world power. 

In 1640, the Amsterdam City council (Vroedschap) decided to build a new city hall. It was to be located right behind the old town hall. However, after the decision had been taken, it would still take another eight years before building work actually commenced. The new city administrative centre was opened in 1655. This is the building that since the early 18th century has functioned as the Royal Palace on Dam Square.  

The building will come to be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world! It was praised for its beauty, with a size and splendour that the city administrators believed was in keeping with the dignity of the administrative authority and the city’s position in international world trade. This global trade was achieved in part thanks to an enormous influx of migrants. I refer to my podcast RM24007, ‘Amsterdam – City of Migrants’ where I note that Amsterdam presented itself as the centre of world trade: in fact, as the centre of the world. Under the statue of Atlas on the top of the building, the City Virgin of Amsterdam is surrounded by people offering her goods from all over the world. The tympanum emphasizes Amsterdam’s unprecedented economic power. The city was home to the most powerful commercial and military Dutch ships that transported all kinds of ‘treasures’ from around the world back to the Republic, mainly Amsterdam. 

The City Hall symbolized Amsterdam’s (trade) prosperity and its pretensions as a city-state with worldwide influence. At the same time, the building was a monument to peace. In 1648, the Peace of Münster (Treaty of Westphalia) ended the Eighty Years’ War with Spain. The Republic was recognized as a sovereign state by Spain. In effect, the federal political (provincial) structure in the Low Countries remained the same, except for the military. This was in the hands of the States-General, overarching these seven provinces. But the real power lay with the major cities and their merchants. As a result, politics and trade were dominated by the province of Holland, and Amsterdam in particular. 

Evidently, the peace called for a lasting memory of this momentous event: after 80 years of war, the Dutch and the Spanish had finally made peace. The event took place on 15 May 1648 in the town hall of the German city of Münster. See the painting by Ter Borch. 

[Gerard ter Borch, Het sluiten van de Vrede van Munster; The conclusion of the Peace of Munster, 1648; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] 

In the painting, the Dutch negotiators are on the left and the Spanish negotiators are on the right. On the table in front of them lie the two copies of the peace treaty, which would be sent to Madrid and The Hague in the boxes next to them. Ter Borch recorded the moment like a true photographer – anyone who mattered was to be depicted, all men (around 78, I read somewhere). But no symbolism whatsoever has been added, such as an olive branch, a goddess, a reference to an old Greek war, or a boy wearing oak leaves (as in Rembrandt’s Night Watch). No, this is a neat, incorruptible group, gathered for a summit meeting. There is no dynamic soulfulness and the free expression that Rembrandt used in his Night Watch. This is Dutch sobriety at its very finest! 

The new City Hall demonstrated the unbridled ambition of a city that only had 30,000 souls a century after it opened. The building was the largest built in Europe at the time. You can compare it to St. Peter’s Basilica in 1626 in Rome or the extension of the castle of Versailles in 1661, buildings that undeniably have a religious or royal purpose. Amsterdam, on the other hand, only intended to honour its world trade by displaying an enormous Atlas on top of the building. Amsterdam consolidated its power and fame by presenting itself as a ‘self-aware city-state’. The term is coined by Frijhoff and Prak (2005). One eyewitness (William Lord Fitzwilliam) wrote in 1663: ‘… the town house of Amsterdam … is one of the wonders of the world. Within the house you see nothing but marble: the ground wheron you tread and the pillars and all other ornaments are of marble rarely cut out, and all adorned with precious pictures’ (Van Strien (1998), p. 32). 

[Gerrit Berckheyde, Het stadhuis op de Dam in Amsterdam; The Town Hall on Dam Square in Amsterdam, 1672. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam] 

2 Amsterdam’s city governance: architecture 

The city of Amsterdam was governed by four mayors who held office for two years, one of which changed every year. The mayors were supported in the day-to-day administration of the city by a sheriff (schout), whose job it was to maintain public order. Additional support was provided by nine aldermen (schepenen), treasurers who handled finance, and the City council (Vroedschap), consisting of 36 persons. In addition, the town hall accommodated numerous committees and support functions. The mayors’ position was supreme as they had the right to appoint certain persons to all these positions within the city government, and also to positions at many other urban institutions.  

Not only that, the mayors also had major influence on regional, national and international politics. Amsterdam paid the most taxes and was therefore the most powerful member of the Dutch States-General. The governmental functions in Amsterdam were performed by a relatively small group of people who were often connected to one another through family ties. Powerful regent family names were Bicker, De Graeff, Huydecoper and Hindelopen.  

This regent elite was composed of rich merchants who would develop to become full-time rulers in the course of the 17th century. For distinguished families from within Catholic, Remonstrant, Lutheran or Mennonite circles, entry into the government of Amsterdam was virtually excluded. Many wealthy families remained in Reformed circles either due to lack of ambition outside the governing elite or because the ‘house’ of the ‘family government’ had already been boarded up.  

At the time of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, the city administration was subdivided into a ‘magistrate’ and a ‘vroedschap’. In Amsterdam, the administration of justice was entrusted to a bench of nine ‘schepenen’, i.e. aldermen or magistrates and one or more mayors. See for further details below. 

3 Not a country, more a landscape of cities  

How could a city become so powerful? For the real reason, we have to go back some 750 years. Between 1213 and 1484, dozens of cities emerged on the territory of the county known as Holland, transforming it over this period into a ‘landscape of cities’. Usually, growing to become a ‘city’ depended on the natural benefits of a particular location in a water-rich environment, like that of Holland. In the early 1600s, 193 cities across what is now the Netherlands had been granted ‘city rights’. Besides these ‘cities’, there were many hundreds of villages (a location with a church tower) (Cox (2005), p. 18) dotted across the landscape.  

In the Low Countries, especially in the West, such a location is often a place that offers protection against flooding, but also against attacks from third parties. Once established, a need arose for residents to continue living and working in that location, even after a devastating flood or the death of a large section of the population (dozens or hundreds) due to a contagious disease. If there is a demand for vegetables or other food or drinks (such as cheese or wine) that citizens do not grow themselves, trade will flourish and marketplaces will develop. And so the phenomenon of ‘city’ was born. 

To provide some context, 275,000 people lived in Holland in 1477; 55% of whom lived in rural areas and 45% in cities. In 1500, more than 40,000 inhabitants lived in the Southern Low Lands (places such as Ghent and Antwerp), and more than 30,000 lived in Bruges and Brussels (all places in Belgium today). During the same period in the four largest cities in Holland (Leiden, Amsterdam, Delft and Haarlem), there were only between 10,000 and 15,000 people. In the late Middle Ages, Holland was therefore an area filled with small and medium-sized cities rather than dominated by a few metropoles.  

The ruling lord granted many cities ‘city rights’, which can be described as a system of rights and obligations. They were granted to the city by the country or city lord as a privilege, mainly in the form of a sealed city law charter. An essential element was that the place became administratively and legally autonomous in relation to the surrounding countryside and the customary or land law applicable there, and also semi-autonomous in relation to the lord or city lord. The residents of the city often also had the right to issue ordinances (keurrecht). See Cox (2011), p. 275.  

The granting of city rights by charter by the lord or city lord is an essential element in the process of recognition as a city. A long-standing urban settlement in a functional sense is institutionally (and also in a psychological sense) made into a city. In addition to this ‘constitutive’ effect of the earliest available city law charters, an essential element is the development of the autonomy of a city, when implementing the city law, and obtaining the ‘right to issue ordinances’ (keurrecht). This includes the authority to make laws or regulations themselves, deviating from applicable land law, and to impose them on the population. By acquiring the ‘keurrecht’, a city acquired the right for the aldermen of the city to change existing city rules on their own authority. Initially with the cooperation of the (land) lord or his sheriff. Later, the aldermen could introduce and establish new, generally binding regulations that apply to the residents of the city as well as to all other persons present within (the walls of) the city jurisdiction. In this way, the City council could contribute to continuous legal development and is no longer dependent on the lord or city lord for further adjustments and additions. 

In cities, consultations and decisions about these regulations and the coordination of their implementation takes place at the town hall (several words exist for this in Dutch: stadhuis, raadhuis, gemeentehuis or stadskantoor). This is a building, a location where municipal officials, the mayor and aldermen, work, where the municipal council normally meets, where support staff execute and implement decisions made and where residents of the municipality can go for all kinds of municipal services. Until the French Batavian period from 1795 to 1813, laying the foundation for the present Kingdom of the Netherlands, the practice of what we now call local government and local justice was in the hands of a limited group of people. They were often well-to-do regent families who divided the functions and offices among themselves. The rest of the educated bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie were excluded. The three powers known to us, separated into legislation, judiciary and administration, were unknown until the end of the 17th century. Dissatisfaction with this situation led the patriots to demand a revision of these city governments. 

4 Holland’s system of law 

The application of civil laws and regulations was in the hands of the mayors and aldermen. In Holland, the separation of powers model for the governance of a state (or a province) between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary was not yet developed. It slowly developed after the publication of the trias politica model inspired by the theory of De Montesquieu (1689-1755). More importantly, in Amsterdam the separation between legislation, implementation and case law was diffuse. In addition, in many areas, administrative, legislative and judicial activities were handled by the same persons as officers. In the 1650s in Amsterdam, many different committees were active that dealt with what we would now call public administration and matters of law.  

At the time of the Republic, the Supreme Court of Holland, Zeeland and West Friesland was the highest judicial institution, the territorial scope of which was limited to the provinces mentioned in its name. In the Republic, each province had its own judicial organization with a multitude of judicial authorities and procedural rules, age-old customs and privileges. The region of Holland (which included West Friesland) and Zeeland were an exception to this. With the Plakkaat van Verlatinghe (Act of Abjuration, 1581), the sovereignty of Spanish Philips II as sovereign of the Northern Netherlands had ended and – in the absence of a new sovereign – the regional States took over the Court’s powers, thereby retaining the existing judicial structure of four authorities. In the regions of Holland and Zeeland, those four bodies were the lower and upper jurisdictions, the Court of Holland, Zeeland and West Friesland and the Supreme Court (or: High Court) of Holland, Zeeland and West Friesland. In addition, there was a multitude of other judicial institutions, including the College of ‘Dijkgraaf’ and ‘(Hoog) Heemraden’ (for water management) and, for instance, a College of Justice for students at Leiden University. 

In the lower jurisdictions, both in civil and criminal cases, justice was done by a college comprising a sheriff (schout) and aldermen (schepenen), in the upper jurisdictions by a college comprising a bailiff (baljuw) and well-born men. Appeals against civil judgments by the aldermen’s college could be made directly to the Court of Holland (Hof van Holland) in The Hague. Usually, however, the lower jurisdiction was allocated to the cities. 

In addition, there were courts in the large Dutch cities that dealt exclusively with one specific area of ​​law. Bontemantel (1897), 505ff, reports that every year on the 4th of February, at the start of a city’s ‘…“government”, Mayors and Aldermen, the commissioners of the subalternate Banks of judicature’ were appointed. For Amsterdam, Bontemantel gives the examples: Marital Affairs (Houwelijxse saeken), Insurance Chamber (Assurantie-camer), Small bank affairs (Clyne bank), Maritime affairs (Zeesaeken), Abandoned and Insolvent Estates (‘Desolate Boedelskamer’) and Medical inspectors (Inspectores medici). The secretaries were also appointed on the same day.  

5 Amsterdam’s town hall 

[Pieter Saenredam. Het oude stadhuis te Amsterdam; The old town hall in Amsterdam, 1657, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam] 

This is the old, medieval town hall of Amsterdam as it looked before the devastating fire of 7 July 1652. It was painted by Pieter Saenredam, who viewed the image from the position of Dam Square. It does not highlight the devastating effects of the fires at the rear. These can be seen in Van Beestraten’s painting.  

[Jan Abrahamsz. Van Beerstraten, De puinhopen van het Oude Stadhuis te Amsterdam na de brand van 7 juli 1652; The ruins of the Old Town Hall in Amsterdam after the fire of 7 July 1652, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam] 

Van Beerstraten paints the rear, from – according to contemporary indications – the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal towards the Dam. In this way, part of the facade of the Wisselbank, the town hall tower and the back of the Vierschaar (court) are visible (from left to right). The Waag on Dam Square can be recognized in the background. 

Three days after the fire, Rembrandt made a drawing from the same perspective as that of Van Beerstraten. The caption reads: ‘vand waech afte sien stats huis van Amsterdam/ doent afgebrandt was/ den 9 Julij 1652/ Rembrandt’ [Seen from the Weighing House the town hall of Amsterdam / when it burned down / 9 July 1652 / Rembrandt]  

6 Amsterdam’s city governance: office holders 

The most significant office holders in the city were the following: 

Burgomasters (Burgemeesters) 

The four mayors were the most powerful, most influential people in the city. They determined policy and politics in Amsterdam, but also in relation to surrounding regions, other provinces, and with regard to other countries. They also determined who would be their co-rulers and who would be the public servants and other office holders. Well-known powerful mayors were Reinier Pauw (1564-1636), who held the office of mayor over 10 times as Johan Huydecoper (1625-1704) also did. Mayors, sheriffs and aldermen (schout en schepenen) were also called My Lords of the Courts (Myne Heeren van de Gerechte). Together, they prepared and established new city laws and regulations for Amsterdam. 

Sheriff and aldermen (Schout en schepenen) 

In the day-to-day management of Amsterdam, the mayors were supported by a sheriff (schout). The sheriff and aldermen (schepenen) had to ensure that law and order were preserved in the city. The sheriff combined the duties of what – in the present day – would be the chief public prosecutor (hoofdofficier van justitie) and the chief of police (hoofdcommissaris van politie). The nine aldermen were judges. The Amsterdam judiciary was largely autonomous and independent of the regional justice system (Holland, West-Friesland and Zeeland). 

The administration of justice itself was in the hands of a bench of nine schepenen, i.e. aldermen or magistrates and one or more mayors. A schepen was a lay judge who was recruited from the wealthier citizenry (the broad bourgeoisie) and who served for one year. The Stadholder would elect seven of these schepenen from a list of fourteen presented by the Vroedschap (City council). The list was dispatched on 28 January and the Stadholder had to make his choice five days later, on 2 February. This day is also known to some as Candlemass, a Christian Holy Day. It was also the day that one or more new mayors were sworn in for a period of four years.  

City council (Vroedschap) 

The Citycity council originally consisted of 24 persons, in 1447 of 36, in the 17th century 36, and later 40 people. These were all menmen, and they advised the mayors (unsolicited or at their request) in all kinds of matters, especially related to financial and economic policy of the city. Sometimes ‘provincial’ and national policy issues were also discussed. In Amsterdam, the Citycity council served as a legislative meeting of the city. The members of the Vroedschap had to be poorters, i.e. residents of the city, as evidenced by owning a home within the city walls. They also had to be a member of the (Dutch) Reformed Church.  

In addition to the mayor(s), the members of the City council also elected the provincial representatives who represented the cities at the Provincial Council meetings.  

The Amsterdam Vroedschap established the Stadsbank van Lening (City Pawnshop) in 1614. The bank was founded to combatcombat, usury and it still functions today. The Citycity council also decided on 30 January 1627 to set up a Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates (Camere van Desolate Boedels) which will be discussed later separately.  

Secretariat (Secretarye) 

The secretariat was a large administrative office. In 1571, there were seven and in 1663 twelve city secretaries who were appointed by the mayors. These secretaries were often still young and affiliated with members of the magistrate. Usually, they were each given a specific task: two worked for the mayor’s chamber and were present at council meetings, one worked for the alderman’s chamber, one for the treasury ordinary, one for the taxes collected from the secretary and one for every judicial college. The youngest in the profession was charged with recording the interrogations of people in prison chains (Boeien) and attending the ceremony in court. 

All other administrative tasks were divided equally among all the secretaries. These were many and included activities to assist with the sale of real estate (observed in turn by a secretary) or public auctions of household goods and the like. City secretaries were required to start ‘on time’ from Tuesday to Friday. On Saturdays and Mondays there was usually only one secretary because there was less work on those days. 

A number of clerks were employed to ease the secretaries’ workload. Around 1760, there were three first city clerks and ten regular clerks. The first city clerks, together with the two city secretaries of the mayors, had a small secretariat at their disposal from 1655 onwards. By far the largest part of the city registers was stored at the secretariat. Over the course of the 18th century, this grew to an enormous amount. People then had to move to other rooms and even to the gallery where all kinds of old books, protocols, registers and notarial documents were stored. 

General treasury (Thesaurier ordinaris) 

The most important office in the city was without a doubt that of the treasury. Traditionally, there were two treasurers (tresoriers) who were often former mayors. After 1663, seven treasurers may have been active. Their main task was to manage the finances and maintain public works. On the finance side, this involved receiving city revenues and spending money for the city. Revenue came mainly from the ‘large excise duties’ (grote accijnsen), the leasing (verpachten) of the ‘small excise duties’ (kleine accijnsen), money received from city citizens (poorters), proceeds from the city lands and income from, for example, the City Pawnshop and the Exchange bank (Wisselbank). On the expenditure side, costs were made for the construction and maintenance of public works, wages for all civil servants, wages for the city soldiers, the purchase of weapons, and interest on borrowed money. To take care of public works, the commissioners had a number of officials, including the city architect, the city stonemason, the city mason, the city boat maker, etc. In addition, on special occasions, the treasurers bought grain if a shortage was looming. This was later sold to the poor for a fixed, not too high, amount. This latter task must have been an important source for the decoration of the treasurers’ office. 

To alleviate the task of the general treasurer, the office of special treasurer (thesaurier extraordinare) was established in 1584. Its most important task was to receive the ‘verponding’, a regional tax on real estate located within the city walls. In 1654, three commissioners were employed in the office and by 1692 this had risen to four. In the mid-17th century the ‘verponding’ amounted to the 8th penny of the rent for houses and lands. When Rembrandt bought his large house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) on 5 January 1639, he had to pay this ‘verponding’, i.e. the 8th penny or 12.5 percent (over the purchase price of 13,000 guilders). By the mid-18th century this amount had risen to a 12th penny.  

For the benefit of the state of Holland, the 100th and 200th penny and the chimney or hearth (fireplace) fee (schoorsteen- of haardstedegeld) were also collected here and the tax on peat (turf) and coal was leased (verpacht). Part of these funds was used to pay some interest that the state of Holland had to pay. The remainder was taken directly to the recipient general of Holland. He would have been appointed by the States of Holland at the proposal of the mayors of Amsterdam. For the benefit of the city itself, the ‘bucket and street money’ (emmer en straatgeld) and the ‘lantern money’ (lantaarngeld) were collected in this office. 

(to be continued, see podcast RM24014 on www.rembrandts 

To conclude 

In the next episode of my podcastpodcast, I will explain some of the rooms in the (new) town hall in which institutional services (mainly ‘judicial’ work) were provided. An eyewitness, Thomas Penson, writes euphorically in 1687, having ascended the stairs to the first floor with all the different chambers: ‘Also festoons of fruit and flowers and instruments of music and other ornaments, so finely and tenderly performed that they would delight any curious eye to behold them. Nor is the outsides only thus beautified, but the insides also affordsafford brave paintings of great masters, …’ (Van Strien (1998), p. 38). You are surely very curious about what really went on from one day to another in these rooms and spaces in ‘… that overly artistic piece of work, and the world’s eighth wonder, the Stadt- or Readhuis’? These words were written 360plus years ago by Olfert Dapper in his book on the Description of the City of Amsterdam, a five-part book dedicated to Mayor Cornelis Witsen. More to follow in the next episode of this podcast Rembrandt’s Money. 

Summary of the conversation between Maurits den Hollander (MdH) and me (Wess.) 

Q1 (Wess.) Why did Amsterdam need a city hall of such enormous proportions, fit to be repurposed as a royal palace two and a half centuries later? 

A1 (MdH) Amsterdam had around 30,000 citizens at the time of the ‘Alteratie’ in 1578, which replaced Amsterdam’s Catholic government with a Protestant one. Since then, the number grew to roughly 150,000 by the year 1639, when Rembrandt purchased his large house and art studio in Amsterdam, to more than 200,000 at the end of the 17th century. 

This demographic explosion as well as the arrival of numerous migrants from the Southern provinces made it necessary to expand the local urban government as well. During Rembrandt’s lifetime (1606 – 1669, as from around 1631 in Amsterdam), there was a great increase in the number of policy areas in which the urban government was active, taking up tasks and services previously privately organized by citizens (think of poverty relief offered by the Church, religious organizations) or private specialists such as notaries (in part replaced by the Bank of Exchange, or courts like the Chamber of Insolvent and Abandoned Estates). 

Q2 (Wess.) How was the city’s government organized at the time? Did its composition also reflect these changes? Was this purely an aristocracy of regents, or did ordinary citizens also have influence? 

A2 (MdH) It is important to realize that rather than the national level, the local level dominated most domains of government and policy-making in the 17th century. In Amsterdam, four burgomasters were in charge. They were responsible for both general policies and foreign representation in, for instance, the States General. Besides them, there was the ‘schout’ or ‘sheriff’, who acted as chief prosecuting officer, and nine aldermen responsible for justice. In the course of the late 16th and 17th centuries further specialization occurred. New, specialized courts and offices are created to alleviate the burgomasters’ and aldermen’s workload. 

Only a small circle of regents could be burgomaster: at any point in the 18th century, for instance, only 11 burgomasters and old-burgomasters were functioning at any time. Important regents like Willem Pauw in the early 17th century, or Joan Huydecooper in the century’s its final decades, were elected for more than ten years. This illustrates the importance of family connections and tight-knit networks of those ruling the city. At the same time, wealthy ‘outsiders’ could wield influence through important offices such as that of city secretary (e.g. the descendant of Brabantine migrants Jacob de Vogelaer), and citizens from the broad middle classes could and did influence policy-making through petitions. The Dutch historian Maarten Prak argues that two-thirds of early modern urban bylaws were the direct consequence and sometimes literal reflection of petitions by guilds and other organizations from the civil society. 

Q3 (Wess.) The burgomasters at some point had almost 3,000 offices at their disposal, reflecting the substantial growth of Amsterdam’s public services over this period. What do we know about them? 

A3 (MdH) The majority of these offices consisted of civil servants with practical jobs, like those working for one of the craft or commercial guilds in an official capacity. One should think of those responsible for public works, or conducting quality controls for Amsterdam products. A smaller group worked at the city hall itself. Among them were important figures like Jacob de Vogelaer, who was present at all important meetings in order to register the minutes of the burgomasters and other officials. It is very likely that through their presence and their continuity in such offices, seemingly simple governmental officials could have a much greater degree of influence on processes of policy-making behind the scenes than we would assume at first sight. In my new research project ‘Professionals and the People’, I focus on this group of officials and their work, in order to increase our understanding of processes of law- and policy making in this period. 

Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Staalmeesters is another good example of this phenomenon. We see the waardijns of the important textile guild. Art historians long debated who these regents are, since they switched offices every year. The only person whose identity has always been certain is their assistant Frans Hendricksz. Bel, because he served the guild in that capacity for half a century. Bel can be credited with a number of important technical inventions. This indicates the importance of the ‘simple’ people working in the background, something which Rembrandt depicted so very well in this great work of art.  

Q4 (Wess.) What did the inside of the city hall look like in Rembrandt’s days, when he visited courts such as the Orphans’ Chamber or the Chamber of Insolvent and Abandoned Estates? 

A4 (MdH) It would have been bustling with all sorts of people: merchants going to the Bank of Exchange, criminals on trial, citizens registering their marriage or securing transactions at the Secretariat. Everywhere, one would have found cupboards and stacks of registers and papers, this was a heavily populated and used office space. During my research I discovered an account with detailed information on the amount of ‘writing needs’ or office equipment bought in a number of years around 1670. The Amsterdam officials used more than 30,000 sheets of paper on an annual basis! This is a clear indication of the amount of work that was conducted in what is currently a palace solely used for cultural and ceremonial purposes. 


Literature referred to can be found under Sources via  

Boots, Alice & Rob Woortman, Een geniale koopman. Dirk van Os en de invloed van Zuid-Nederlanders op de Amsterdamse geldmarkt, Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2023. 

Cox, J.C.M., Repertorium van de stadrechten in Nederland, Stichting tot uitgaaf van der bronnen van het Oud-Vaderlandse Recht, Den Haag: VNG uitgeverij 2005. 

Cox, J. C. M., ‘Hebbende previlegie van stede’. De verlening van stadsrechtprivileges in Holland en Zeeland (13de – 15de eeuw), diss. Leiden 2011.  

Dapper, O., Historische Beschryvinge van Amsterdam, (niet-gepagineerde ‘Opdracht’), 1663.  

Dieusaert, Tom, Rond de Kaap. Isaac le Maire contra de VOC, Ertsberg 2023. 

Go, Sabine, Marine Insurance in the Netherlands 1600-1870: A comparative institutional approach, PhD Amsterdam, 2009.  

Van Strien, Kees, Touring the Low Countries. Accounst of British Travellers, 1660-1720, Amsterdam University Press, 1998. 

Dehing, P., Geld in Amsterdam. Wisselbank en wisselkoersen 1650-1725. PhD Amsteram, 2012.  

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