Historical story

Guest column on charity in the Golden Age

A guest column appears on Kennislink every two weeks. The columnist is always a different researcher, who writes from his or her field of expertise about the science behind a current event. This week on the occasion of Christmas and the radio campaign Serious Request :historian Danielle Teeuwen on charity in the Golden Age.

December is not only the time of family, gifts and conviviality, but also of charity and generosity. Earlier than in other months, we tend to give generously to charities. Since 2004, DJs from the radio station 3FM have been locked up in the Glass House in the week before Christmas to collect money for Red Cross projects.

This year, more than 12.2 million euros was collected in one week to reduce global infant mortality. In short, in December we like to show our best side.

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Golden Age, charity was a matter of course. Anyone who could spare was expected to contribute to the poor and needy. Poor relief was organized at the local level. In every town and village there were institutions, such as courtyards, guest houses, orphanages, and old men's and old women's homes, which took in the poor, the sick and orphans.

There were also institutions that provided weekly distributions of bread and money for needy people who did live independently. In particular, the aid to these so-called 'home-sitting poor' was largely paid for by donations. In many cities, collection was not only in the churches, but also monthly or even weekly door-to-door. A donation was expected from everyone, with the exception of the very poorest.

Also in case of disasters, such as fires and floods, or for persecuted Protestant co-religionists in other parts of Europe, large-scale actions were sometimes organised. Collectors would then go door-to-door with collection boxes throughout an entire province, and sometimes across the country. Just like today, such a large collection also received a lot of publicity:the city council drew up an official announcement and in the churches pastors urged the church people to give generously.

Open shell

Afterwards, when the proceeds were announced in various cities and compared with what had been collected in other places, the generosity of the population was celebrated in poems. Especially with these one-off fundraisers, the pressure to give was often heightened:not infrequently it was not only deacons and chaplains, but also pastors and even mayors who went door-to-door. They then used an open bowl, so that it was possible to see exactly what was being given. Then dare to say no!

The time around Christmas was especially dominated by charity. At this time, too, more than in the rest of the year, people were inclined to give generously to their poor fellow man. During church services, more was often collected and the proceeds of door collections were usually higher. In the winter months there was also more demand for care and the institutions could therefore use the money extra well.

In Delft, every year on Boxing Day, money was collected throughout the city for the poor fellow citizens, with an average of about 5 thousand guilders being collected in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century this amount even increased to almost 10 thousand guilders. These were huge sums at the time. This generosity earned the early modern Dutch the reputation of being the most generous population of the time.