Inside the Bourgeois Tavern
The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama
Few of these establishments were brothels in the modern sense of being places where customers came specifically for sex and completed the transaction on the premises. More commonly, client and prostitute would meet at a musico, a place of drinking and entertainment and dancing known for its girls, and run by a procuress-cum-hostess. Gaming-cards, backgammon or dice-was also an important part of the recreation, so that the hostess profited directly from liquor and gambling and indirectly from sex by charging the girls a rate for the use of her premises to make their contacts and for their out-lodgings (about twenty-five stuivers, or a higher rate of about four guilders if they actually boarded with her). Whether the girls lived in or out, though, they were very definitely the creatures of the procuress, usually an ex-whore herself who had saved enough to go into the entrepreneurial side of the trade. As in all the great metropolitan centers of Europe in the early modern period, this was almost exclusively a female-dominated profession. The exceptions seem only to have been men like Mouring, who were in the business of supplying traveling whores mobile troops for fairs and kerrnisses around the country and who followed in the train of quacks, peddlers, Gypsy fortune tellers, and acrobats. The urban procuresses flourished, in effect, through a diversified array of semi-criminal activities: receiving stolen goods, smuggling salt seems to have been a specialty organized music and dance entertainment, drink and tobacco supplies and, of course, sexual procurement. The girls were indebted to the procuress, not just for food and board as well as their share of earnings from sex, but for the extravagant dress that was thought to be indispensable for the job. In some cases the procuress supplied needed shelter and security to girls who were a long way from their rural birthplaces or from towns in Germany or Danish Jutland. But in the majority of cases, the prostitutes came from localities in Holland itself, so that many may well have migrated to Amsterdam in search of a decent or indecent livelihood.
Like their modern barstool counterparts, the "hostesses" were expected by their procuress to persuade their clients to drink as much as possible of the notoriously filthy liquor before doing any of their own sexual business. And 't Amsterdamsch Hoerdom attempted to alert prospective customers to the various ruses awaiting them in the musicos. Some of the "wine" was nothing other than candy syrup, sometimes it was adulterated and stretched. Beneath the long bench tables at which whores and men caroused would be the sand and sawdust bins into which the adroit whore would empty her glass, both to invite her "host" to buy her another and to avoid a drunken stupor of her own. Indeed, if the client became too drunk for sex, it was common for the prostitute to make good her loss of income by depriving him of his purse, or at least that part of it that would have paid for her services. And the most successful whores were also accomplished pickpockets who used sexual cunning to distract their customers from their second line of work. 't Amsterdamsch Hoerdom (in graphically obscene style) showed one whore at work, helping herself to the purse of a typical customer, a peasant or farmer who had come to town to market his produce and had stayed to drink off some of the proceeds before returning home.
|"Come lovey," said
the whore to the boer who was by her side. "Won't you feel
me, and see if I do not have a fine mussel [vaginal] on my belly?"
The boer stuck his hand under her skirt and with two fingers
felt inside her hole and said, "You are certainly well set up!
In all my life I have never had a bigger kwedio [pussy] in my
hand." "I can well believe it," said the whore, "that's
why I'm called Beeletje [little picture] with the Great Cunt, and I
can tell you that in all the city of Amsterdam there is no tart with
so great a meat cleaver as me-for you know I can hide a pint can up
"What a devilish cunt is that," said the boer. "Let's feel it again" (he duly discovered it to be so). "Now what do you think of that" said the whore. "Come let me feel you now and see if you're as well equipped as me," and she stuck one hand in the front of his breeches and with the other removed his purse. That was so light, however, that he could scarcely have paid her. "You have a big boy in your pants there-we shall go well together." "That's fine with me," says the boer.
The whore then disappears to relieve herself, and that was the last the boer saw either of her or of his purse.
A lot of this comic business comes straight from the rowdy kluchtspel farce tradition of the Amsterdam stage, in which bawds and procuresses were stock figures of low cunning and greed. And it also drew on the older conventions of "rogues and vagabonds" lore for good measure. But for all its lewd farce 't Amsterdamsch Hoerdom is not a work of fiction. Its account of the low-life entertainment provided in the musicos is evidently faithfully observed and described. The fancier establishments featured hurdy-gurdies, harmoniums or even small organs and competed for the services of Ashkenazi Polish Jewish fiddlers who absented themselves on the Sabbath days of Friday and Saturday. These musicians worked hard from four in the afternoon to eleven at night without much rest, since the clientele, whether seamen or country folk, were eager to hear and dance to their favorite airs.
If the scene became too rowdy and drunken, if customers (as very often was the case) threatened the whores or the procuress, there were some men on hand to deal with them though in more than one case it was evident that the lady of the house was more than capable of acting as her own bouncer. Pimps, the pluggen, were much rarer than in modern prostitution, and were more usually the protectors of the common street whores than of the girls of the musicos, but all gaming, drinking and whoring houses had some servants on hand to cope with trouble. Is it sentimental to see some element of solidarity in their shared occupational habits and risks? (Honor among the dishonorable?) This precaution did not, of course, prevent the periodic brawls that erupted after a particularly juicy exchange of insults, or accusations of petty theft or client-stealing. "Your cunt must attract flies as well as other stuff," yelled one of the girls in 't Amsterdamsch Hoerdom. "I shit on you, Marie, and I stick my arse on your head." She might as well have used the choice abuse of mockegout (she stinks), extracted from the ripe repertoire of private slang through which prostitutes, like other semi-criminal types, safeguarded their sorority.
The key figures in the trade were the procuresses. Northern art had traditionally represented them as shriveled hags, the better to express their moral infirmity in outward vileness. The reality was rather different. The majority were only somewhat older, in their thirties or early forties, than the three to five whores whom they ran, and some were even younger. "Cathalyn," who went by several aliases and who was picked up with six women in 1634, had a fairly elderly m6nage by the standards of the time. Forty-four herself, she kept three whores in their mid- or late twenties, one of whom was her personal maid; another, "Anna with the jacket," was thirty-six, and the third was a still more veteran soul of fifty. More typical was "Rebecca Frans" of Delft, who was only twenty-five but who kept two other whores a few years younger than herself.
Introduced into a musico, the new prostitute would probably have been given a working nickname, which sometimes marked her origins, like that of Catryn Davids of Copenhagen, who was called Northern Katie, and sometimes picturesque, like that of Annetje Hendricx, who was known as Anna in de Stal, and sometimes much cruder, like that of Krentecut (Currant Cunt) or that of the fifty-year-old procuress Catalyn Laurens, who had always been known as Soetecut (Sweetie Cunt).
However prudent they were, it was not always easy to get out of the way of the casual violence that flowered in the hard-drink-swigging, knife-toting world of the Amsterdam whorehouses and gaming dens. The girls who were in the keeping of a well-established procuress stood better chances of self-preservation than their back-alley sisters, who not infrequently did their business in the lane to avoid paying for bed and lodgings. And it was the thirty-to-forty-year-olds, riddled with the "Spanish pox," their bodies marked on the outside by flogging and branding and on the inside by mercilessly bad alcohol, women who were shunned by all but the most desperate and transient men the dregs of a seventeenth-century seaport that made up the most wretched casualties of a commercial culture.
Though the thought would have horrified the prim ministers who every Sunday summoned fire and brimstone to punish Amsterdam for its whores and whore-mongers, the city's sexual entrepôt in some ways was a distorted mirror image of its more licit commerce. Just as its city district snaked round the docks, wharves, barge stations and warehouses, so its buyers and sellers of sexual services faithfully followed the geography of Amsterdam's trading network, with steady business coming from the Baltic trade and the hinter-land of the German river basins, punctuated by occasional bonanzas when the high-spending but notoriously unreliable East India fleets came home. In the moral economy of the Dutch Republic, the whorehouse, with its own family hierarchy, language and habits, was a kind of anti-home, one in which the control functions of domesticity had been turned on their head. Instead of home filtering out the dirt of the world, as all true burghers endeavored to guarantee, the bordeel was a place where the world (and its devil, said the predikants) made the comforts. And as much as orthodox wisdoms, humanist as well as Calvinist, insisted that the health and prosperity of the common-wealth required the absolute cleansing of such abomination, their less than diligent practice suggests the truth of Mandevilles perception. Virtue needed vice as a civic prophylactic, a sponge that could soak up all the loathsomeness that would otherwise seep into the purer body of their community. And virtue needed vice to mark off borders just because its own frontiers were so uncomfortably indefinite. Seen in the dim twilight of a guilty commercial conscience, it was all too possible for the wrinkles of pious reflection on a Bible-reading matrons face to transmogrify into the shriveled lines of the vicious hag.