An atlas of Dutch crime and punishment

Cover "Historische atlas van misdaad en straf"- image WBOOKS, Zwolle

When creating texts nowadays it is challenging not to test here (yet!) the notorious ChatGPT tool, but we often try to get a good view of ideas and themes by creating a mind map. In this post I will look at a book promising to offer a historical atlas of Dutch crime and punishment. Paul Brood and Martin Berendse have recently published a series of fine historical atlases, and now Paul Nieuwbeerta joined them for the Historische atlas van misdaad en straf. Nederlanders over de schreef (Zwolle, 2022). Last year I did not want to review thrice a book on Dutch history hence ny choice to bring it only now to your attention. In September 2022 our indefatigable colleagues at Ghent University already provided a brief description of this book in the monthly Rechtshistorische Courant, pointing also to a book announcement by Leiden University.

Overstepping the marks

Let’s introduce first of all the three authors. Paul Nieuwbeerta teaches criminology at Leiden University. Martin Berendse is director of the public library in Amsterdam and a former General Archivist, the head officer of the Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague. Paul Brood worked as an archivist at the Nationaal Archief, too, and at the Drents Archief in Assen. He is also the editor of the series of guides to procedure at regional courts published by the Foundation for Old Dutch Law, and indeed a most prolific author on Dutch (legal) history. Brood and Berendse present their series of atlases for Dutch history on their website Kaartmannetjes, the name itself a pun on the Dutch name of a bird (Panurus biarmicus) and the pair of a bearded ornithologist and poet promoting on television bird watching in my country. The web page on this book is nicely illustrated, a strong feature of the book, too.

The subtitle of their book, Nederlanders over de schreef, Dutchmen overstepping the mark, hints already at the clear objective of this well-organized book. The introduction brings four major questions: what is crime, how much and what kind of crimes are there, what is their origin, and lastly how are crimes punished? Five chapters deal in chronological order with these core questions, starting in the Middle Ages upto around 1570. The period of the Dutch Republic is covered in the next chapter that ends in 1795. A short chapter (pp. 74-93) deals with the period from 1795 to the mid-nineteenth century, followed by thirty pages leading you to 1940. The fifth chapter brings you right to the present. The book closes with ten pages on statistical data and trends, and a chapter with references for further reading, research, websites and also visiting interesting historical locations.

One of the threads in this book is the changing nature of both crimes and punishments. In particular the early nineteenth century is highlighted as a pivotal period in the wake of the French Revolution. You might object to the frequent statements about the development of a more human way of punishment. This by now somewhat old-fashioned vision of progress leads to some awkward pages. The abolition of the death penalty in the Netherlands in 1870 was indeed early in an European perspective (pp. 106-107), but the authors ignore here the fact that it continued to be used in Suriname, the Dutch Antilles islands in the Caribbean and the Dutch Indies [see Sanne Ravensbergen’s essay in Wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland, L. Heerma van Voss et alii (eds.) (Amsterdam 2018) pp. 439-444]. Luckily at some other points they do look beyond Dutch frontiers.

Some remarks

It is perhaps better to state here immediately some major characteristics of this atlas. With only some twenty-five historical maps this book is not exactly an exhaustive atlas as the four other volumes of the series of atlases co-authored by Berendse and Brood. The presence of numerous telling and lavish illustrations and its large format (25 by 31 cm) make clear this book with just 176 pages aims definitely at the general public. Each chronological chapter contains a two-page timeline of a particular period, and every page shows at least one illustration.

Interior of the Weteringschans prison, Amsterdam, ca. 1850 - drawing by Willem Hekking jr. - source:
Interior of the Weteringschans prison, Amsterdam, ca. 1850 – drawing by Willem Hekking jr., Stadsarchief Amsterdam – image source:

The distinctive approach of this book is in my view probably due to criminologist Paul Nieuwbeerta. If he had in mind creating an attractive introduction to historical criminology for the Netherlands I can only applaud the result. In fact I think it would have been great to have been able to find such a work when I set my first steps on the road to legal history decades ago. From a scholarly point of view, too, it is refreshing to see this book with clear constraints on its subject and generous space for telling illustrations and maps. As for the selection of references, websites and locations some of the more general museums are indeed relevant, but I do not mention them on my own web page about museums and legal history. However, the authors did not add the URL’s of the websites for these museums. The credits and references for illustrations are too concise, and the numbering of the photos refers only to the paragraph numbers. The references to relevant literature and websites are beyond such reproach.

How should one do justice to this book? Did the authors themselves overstep the mark?! In the end I think it is genuinely important to have this most inviting introduction to the history of Dutch criminal law. It judiciously brings the qualities of modern historic criminology on a much broader canvas of Dutch legal history, however, without clearly affirming the existence of Dutch legal history as a larger subject for study or a discipline with the fields of legal study. For this omission Dutch legal historians can alas point to the rapid disappearance of their subject as an obligatory element in the educational program of some Dutch law schools. In my view legal historians should by all legal means try to reaffirm the necessity and vitality of legal history as an essential subject in studying law and jurisprudence. It will not do to have some scattered chairs for the history of criminal law, public, private or international law to deal with the historical dimensions of law. it is a bit ironic to write these words a few days before the start of the very interesting and lively Belgian-Dutch Days for Legal History at Leuven (March 30-31, 2023). The book by Nieuwbeerta, Berendse and Brood contributes certainly to the visibility of a part of Dutch legal history. Others should do their best to make more of it visible, attractive and meaningful for our time. The abundance of continituity and discontinuity within Dutch legal history and the interaction with a wide context should prove most helpful to achieve this aim. Hopefully Dutch law students, too, will pick up this book, and question its merits and omissions.

Paul Nieuwbeerta, Paul Brood and Martin Berendse, Historische atlas van misdaad en straf, Nederlanders over de schreef (Zwolle: WBOOKS, 2022; 176 pp., ISBN 978 94 525 8494 5)

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