Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 22
What Santa Claus Brought to the Youth
of Amsterdam

One of the few constants in history, regardless of country or culture, is how sensitive ruling elites are to criticism. Even democratic regimes are perpetually in danger of letting their elected representatives suppress unwanted critiques (as occurred with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 in the United States). The authorities that ruled 17th century Amsterdam were elected by co-optation, which was hardly a democratic procedure. Liberal as they may have been in some respects, they did not brook criticism easily. So it is not surprising to hear that, as soon as the anonymous pamphlet, called “The Mild Gifts of St. Nicholas to the Youth of Amsterdam or the Last Quarter of the Amsterdam Moonshine” (“St. Nicolaes milde gaven aen d’Amstelse ionckheyt. Ofte het laetste Quartier der Amsterdamsche Mane-schijn”), which invoked the names of many of the prominent citizens of Amsterdam, appeared in a few book shops at the end of 1640, the police of Amsterdam soon began to interrogate suspects and to confiscate copies of this “libel”.777 In reading the following account, which deals with other libels as well, it should be kept in mind that the New Amsterdam Theater (de nieuwe Schouwburg) had been inaugurated in January 1638, two years before these events. The authorities were apparently nervous about the mocking of its directors in these ephemeral booklets. One should also keep in mind that the police interrogations of suspects, as they were recorded in the “Justice” and “Confession books”, were not stenographic transcripts. The clerk only set down the questions and answers that seemed to be of primary interest or that he could keep up with as he went along.

The “mild gifts” in the St. Nicholas libel are those that the popular saint gave to good children on the day of his feast (December 6). But as the authors of the libelous pamphlet remark in their introduction, they had seen so many bad deeds “sitting on the mantlepiece” (where the good and bad gifts to children were exposed), which have been perpetrated by a multitude of evil-doers, that they could not forbear to at least warn the culprits in the hope of a betterment. They went on to rake over the coals “twice six pious men”, including (Michiel) Pauw, lord of Achttienhoven,778 Jan Six, and a certain Joncker Jan van Piepenfoye. They also alluded to the broker De Haes, and to Nieuwenhoven, (Werner) van Bassen, Bevers, and Cappit. They then ironized about the “high and clever mind” (hooch en cloecke geest) of six attorneys, (Jan?) Davelaer, (Nicolaes) van Loon, Kloeckje (Pieter Jansz. Cloeck?),779 Vogelzangh, De Raet, (Ernst) Roeters, and (Abraham) Oyens. Finally, they sent up a num

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