Just as the British well to do had houses to which to retreat to, immortalized in the books of Jane Austin, to so it was with the Amsterdam gentry. The Canon, of course, always tries to paint as rosy a picture as possible. There’s not a word in it, I believe, about the plaques that repeatedly scourged the city. These, of course, did not affect the rich very much as they would escape to their country houses during yet another outbreak.
However, for the city, these country houses had consequences, and I intend to expose them.
Most country houses were built during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Country houses are still as popular as they’d ever been. Most of our famous rich citizens have one, many live there permanently, after all, there’s nothing like a bit of peace in the countryside.
The Canon of Amsterdam matches history to tangible evidence, preferably buildings open to the public to visit.
It makes history come alive, they say, and I agree. However, I think you hear a “but” coming up. There has to be some historical value to the building, and while there’s plenty to see on the outside, the insides remain mostly locked.
There was plenty of reason to escape the city besides the peace already mentioned; I’ve also already mentioned the epidemics, but not the stench. The well to do live on the canals, in stately richly ornated 3 story homes. But when it got hot in town, these lovely canals would begin to stink. Sewage was still in its infancy, and most of it ended up in the just mentioned canals. So did garbage; garbage collection was not nearly as advanced as today, rats were a continuous problem. But hey, if things got unpleasant in the city, the gentry would pack up and leave, leave the city and the poor to deal with things instead of taking responsibility.
As I said before, the canon of Amsterdam writes quite trivially about the country houses, in very much the same way Jane Austin writes about her country residences. Here follows a translated quote from the canon:
And so it was that the well to do citizens of Amsterdam had created and assured themselves of a ring of small paradises around the city. Sometimes they would even add a tiny aviary or a greenhouse in which they cultivated exotic plants and flowers, perhaps a cave made out of seashells. Still, certainly, a teahouse (that was a must) in which to receive their visitors, pour them a cup of tea and enjoy in a calm and dignified way their carefree existences.
The other side of the coin
As the local gentry had the opportunity to escape all unpleasantness by running to their country residences, not a lot was done to improve things in the city. There were outbreaks of disease that were the direct result of environmental pollution, there was an outbreak of smallpox in 1809 as a result of this, in the years 1833, 1866, 1871 and 1894 it was cholera, in 1880 and 1881, there was a horrible disease going around that effected the eyes, it was caused by ammonia like gasses that arose from the canals. Of course, we haven’t mentioned the plaque yet; in 1624, ten per cent of the population died, and in 1663, the pestilence revisited us.
1883 was the year that saw Europe faced with a cholera epidemic of unknown proportions. It wasn’t until years later that the connection between cholera and contaminated water was discovered. The same was true for the plaque, rats and contaminated water.
You could conclude that the existence of country residences stood in the way of preventing life-threatening diseases.
Tangible evidence of country houses are easy to find, leave the city and drive along the Amstel river; another river that features many country residences is the Vecht; some of these places even resemble castles. The canals were considered in a far different light in those days than today; I haven’t mentioned that while today they are mostly decorative, they were fully functional waterways on which almost anything was transported.
It was the plague (the black death) that hit Amsterdam the hardest. On the location that once a “pesthouse” stood on, later a hospital was build. A pesthouse was where sufferers from contagious diseases were brought to and separated from the healthy.
I came across a rather interesting document; it contains old drawings of the former pesthouse. It was once publicized by Elsevier magazine. It’s available HERE if you’d like to download it (Dutch only).
The only thing that, as far as country residences being mentioned in the canon of Amsterdam is concerned, that would plead in its favour is that all tangible evidence of those horrible outbreaks of disease has pretty much disappeared (with the possible exception maybe of family graves).
One tale about the crosses of Saint Andrew that grace our city emblem is that they stand for the three plaques the city suffered from. Water, fire and the plaque. I don’t believe that the crosses go way back to one of the earliest families around Amsterdam who had them in their crest. The first physical evidence available is a pair of pliers with the city’s crest on them. It dates back to 1350. (link.)
Country houses in window number 21 in the Canon of Amsterdam.