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Dutch women in 1593: amazing freedom

Printed From: History Community ~ All Empires
Category: General History
Forum Name: Women's History
Forum Discription: Discuss women in history and other historical topics from a feminine perspective !
Printed Date: 15-Aug-2022 at 08:37
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Topic: Dutch women in 1593: amazing freedom
Posted By: Aelfgifu
Subject: Dutch women in 1593: amazing freedom
Date Posted: 22-Aug-2007 at 15:27
In the Netherlands, women have always been very free. This is an amusing diary entry to show this. Fynes Moryson was a student making a Grand Tour of Europe, occasionally stopping somewhere to study at an university. In1593 he was at Leyden University, from where he made a number of trips though the Republic of the Seven United Low Countries (later to evolve into The Netherlands).


(This excerpt was translated into Dutch by a writer, and then translated back to English by me, and this line is a total disclaimer on everything. Wink)


Because a large number of men goes to sea, women seem to be the most numerous, and one sees up to five times more women and girls at assemblies as men and boys. The most beautiful women are to be found in Flandres and Brabant, the beauty of these is also heightened by their simple clothing with stark white linen hoods. The woman from Holland also wears this, but I cannot praise her in such way, except, if I do not deceive myself, the women of the town of Dordrecht, which is at an inner sea in Brabant. However, the most beautiful of all are the women of Zeeland.


The people seem rather simple, for when I traveled through the land with some English gentlemen, we were stupidly stared at by the people, as if they had never seen a foreigner before. And when we bought some necessities in Amsterdam, we were constantly followed, gaped at and discussed  by the youths of the town, who, with every item we bought, asked what we needed it for. But no matter how simple they seem, at trading they are extremely cunning, and in this they surpass all other nations in ability and zeal. And their shrewdness shows in their hoards of coins, which is bigger than that of any other country, though they do not possess any silver mines.

           Also proof of this cunning is the money they make on exchange rates for foreign currency, which they will raise or lower at will. And not only on the issue of money they are very resourceful. In politics also they show great ability and acuteness, even though so many of them have only modest education.


Some of their habits I found very strange. Like the event I witnessed in an inn in Dokkum in Frisia, where I had arrived after having endured a terrible storm at sea. Just before me, a number of distinguished and beautiful young ladies had entered the inn, and had their meal at the public tables amongst the common travelers instead of retreating to their rooms, as is the custom in England. When the meal was finished, all settled themselves before the hearth and placed the jugs of beer, which they take warm, near the fire. When now a man would toast to one of the women, he would hand her the cup, and kiss her, and when a woman would drink to the health of one of the men, she would hand him the cup and kiss him, without him having to present her his cheek. And only after we had spend some two hours in this cheerful way did we all retire to our rooms. This custom is very common all through Frisia. Sometimes it even aspires that the men will fight, because their wives or daughters are not kissed when the cup is passed on, as if they are unworthy of the courtesy, or worse, as if they are suspected of being lazy, or dirty, or of bad reputation. The oddest thing is that this whole custom is performed in great cheer and delight, and even so is completely clear of any suspicion of indecency.


I have already commented on the fact that the women outnumber the men, and it is them who run the household. They provide their men with drinking-money in the morning, who are then free to spend their day as they which, leaving their wives to the daily cares of the family and business. Yes, there is not a few women who travel to Hamburg for trade, while their husbands stay at home. Nothing is more common that seeing a sister talking down to an elder brother, taunting him and bossing him around; they are used to it from their tenderest youth.


Because the land to the north is open to the sea without any forests or mountains to shelter it, the winters are harsh. The women therefore wear warm underclothes of linen or silk, but generally women will warn themselves by placing a stoof under their feet. This is a wooden box with holes in the lid, in which a cup with burning coals is placed. They use these stoofs everywhere, at home, in church,  and even when traveling by boat or carriage. It has happened to one young lady, that the fire in her stoof set fire to the straw which was on the bottom of the carriage to keep the feet warm, and respectively to her clothes, to her great embarrassment. She had to let the men help her put out the fire, and only just escaped being burned alive.

            To keep their tiled floors clean, the Dutch strew it with sand, but because of the dirt on their shoes when they walk in, the sand wil l clot, so it looks like they soil their own floors out od fear others will do it.


The many rivers which run slowly through the country and end in the inner seas, allow the inhabitants to easily surround their lands and meadows with channels, and to dig canals from town to town. Because of the cold winters in these parts, these canals are frozen over for a large part of winter. This is the time that the young people especially will gather to make long walks outside the town walls, or glide over the ice that covers the water. For this, they tie pieces of wood with sharp strips of metal to their shoes. With an even movement, sliding and raising the feet, they can go straight or in circles. This did not seem proper for girls to me, as as soon as one stops, one can fall, and get seriously hurt if one is not agile at it. Sometimes up to four hundred people will skate on a surface, which, it seems, could not possibly support them. But even though the ice creaks omniously, many will dare it anyhow. Man and woman will each hold a corner of a handkerchief and slide along together. One can see many pairs like that, flourishing across any surface that will carry them. Sometimes they will line up in a row, each person holding on to a long stick with the same hand. If the frost will last some months, so that even the estuaries are frozen over, then people will go onto these too, either on skates, or horse-drawn sleigh, and along the smoothened paths there will be small boats with fire baskets in them, so people can warm themselves, and buy refreshments. Large bets are placed on when the ice will first break, and many a daredevil will lose his life at this time. In Delft a man took a bet he would skate on the city  canal at Christmas day and lose 300 guilders if the ice broke. In Amsterdam a man crossed the IJ for two pounds sterling. Who crosses an estuary during the thaw can earn around two rix dollars and a guilder drinking money.


The mothers in these countries give their daughters enormous freedom. If it happens to occur that a girl has spent too ling skating and finds the city gates closed, they will simply sleep in an inn in the suburbs, or will spend the night partying with youngsters from that area. They also make appointments with young men to make long sleighing- or skating trips, when they will visit towns up to 10, 20 or more miles away. They will spend the night there in the good care of the hostesses, so that any thoughts of indecency are avoided. Likewise, mothers allow their daughters to stay up after they themselves have gone to bed, to stay in the company of a young man and talk with him all night long, and even to walk the streets with young men at night.


Women hold their councils of war in kitchens: the knives are there, and the cups of coffee, and the towels to dry the tears.

Posted By: Reginmund
Date Posted: 23-Aug-2007 at 10:31
Extremely interesting.
It reminds me of a similar travel diary from about the same period, written by the Venetian sailor Pietro Querini (one of the major Venetian noble houses) who was driven off course in the North Sea and ended up in northern Norway. He writes a lot about the to him alien customs in this remote region, most curiously IMO how the women there are completely unabashed to walk around nude in front of each other or even the men. Querini tries to explain this by speculating whether this might be some hidden Eden, where the people are pure and innocent, untouched by original sin. However, my own experience with people from this region strongly suggests that is not so. Tongue


Posted By: morticia
Date Posted: 29-Aug-2007 at 13:40
Very interesting, indeed! I'm going to become a Dutch woman!


Trust in God: She will provide." -- Emmeline Pankhurst

Posted By: opuslola
Date Posted: 28-Oct-2009 at 19:21
It should not be strange for anyone who should investigate the word "Frisia" should not be drawn to the word "Free?" It seems that even into the modern era, that in parts of Scandanavia women can even name their sons as "Helgason" or something very similar! Can any one name another society where the family name comes from the mother?


Posted By: Eigon
Date Posted: 02-Nov-2009 at 13:05

That diary entry was fascinating!


It's kind of hidden in English, but think of surnames like Baxter, Brewster, Webster - all those names come from a woman following a trade.  In these cases it's Bake-sister, Brew-sister, and Weaving-sister, but any other surname ending in -ster also comes from an original late medieval woman who ran a business.


Posted By: Louise C
Date Posted: 13-Feb-2012 at 02:11
I suppose it all depends on what one considers freedom.  At one point in this account for instance, the writer says that the women give their men beer money in the morning, and the men are then free to spend the day as they like, while the women take care of the home and business.  You could argue that in this case, it is the men who have more freedom.

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