1200-1585: the Early History

The Genesis of Amsterdam

Relatively speaking, Amsterdam is a late developer. Even though archaeologists recovered Roman coins from the Amsterdam soil, these desolate regions were largely uninhabited during the period we call Classical Antiquity. The first settlers came to Holland in the 9th and 10th centuries, at the time of the first reclamations. We do not know when the first settlers came to the area round the mouth of the river Amstel. Amsterdam’s infancy survives only in legends. One such legend has it that two men and a dog found a dry and fertile piece of land to live on after surviving a shipwreck. The legend found its way to Amsterdam's original coat of arms, the koggeschip (cargo ship). Many versions of this coat of arms show two men and a dog.

Reconstruction of the first settlements
by Jan Baart

According to the latest insights Amsterdam developed around a dam in the Amstel river round the end of the 12th century (roughly the spot were the National Monument commemorating World War II victims is currently located). Together with the Haarlemmerdijk, Nieuwendijk, Warmoesstraat and Zeedijk (Dutch "dijk" means "dike") this Dam formed a network of dikes stretching along the southern IJ bank. Archaeologist Jan Baart believes Amsterdam was founded by construction workers who came over from the Utrecht bishopric to build the dikes. A sluice in the dam allowed for the river water to flow to the IJ, while the canals - the Oudezijds and Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal - served the same purpose, the Oudezijds Kolk and Martelaarsgracht respectively serving as outlets to the IJ. According to Baart the network of dikes, of which the dam was an integral part, was built shortly after the major floods which took place around 1170. These floods left a thick clay deposit on top of which the earliest traces of habitation have been found. In about 1200 a small settlement existed, a ribbon-shaped development following the curves of the dikes on both sides of the Amstel river. Farmers, craftsmen and merchants made up the population. At the Nieuwendijk a forge was excavated.

of the Aemstel Castle

According to Baart the Lords of Aemstel owned a castle south of the present Nieuwezijds Kolk in the 13th century. Remnants of the castle were excavated in 1994 and 1999.

City Rights

Toll concession
October 27, 1275

The oldest surviving document mentioning Amstelledamme is the toll concession of Floris V, Count of Holland, dated October 27, 1275. It states that the inhabitants of the area around the Dam were exempt from toll payments to the county of Holland insofar as they transported their own commodities. This arrangement was essential since in the 13th century Amstelland, of which Amsterdam was a part, came under the jurisdiction of the secular authority of the Utrecht bishopric. In approx. 1300 Amsterdam was granted city rights by Guy of Hainault, bishop of Utrecht. Possibly, however, what we are concerned with here is a mere confirmation of the city rights granted by one of the Lords of Aemstel in the 13th century. Unfortunately the documents which could settle this issue are now lost.

The Rise of Amsterdam

At the Zeedijk a shipyard was excavated as well as a ropery and several workshops dating back to the first half of the 14th century. The discovery of a pilgrim's mark from Cologne dating back to approx. 1300 indicates that the Amsterdam population maintained contact with the Rhine area. The estimated population was approx. 1,000 round the year 1300 and 5,000 a hundred years later. Excavations underneath the Oude Kerk prove that in approx. 1300 a small chapel stood in the square which surrounds the church. In 1334 Amsterdam was allowed an independent parish.

The Damrak
Amsterdam's oldest harbour

Much farmland was lost in the 12th century floods. The population, no longer able to live on the proceeds of agriculture and cattle breeding, was forced to look for other means of support such as crafts, shipping and fishing. The construction of the dam and the sluices turned the mouth of the Amstel river into a natural harbour (the present Damrak), the oldest harbour of the city. Amsterdam had originally been a fishing port, but in due course the population increasingly concentrated on trade. The 14th century saw a gradual development of trade, when the fishermen started to take the surplus of fish to foreign markets. In the course of time they came to realise that, instead of sailing home with empty holds, they might as well carry other goods on the way back and finally they left the fishing to others and concentrated on the transport business. The wealthiest among them soon hired shipmasters and went into trade.

The rise of Amsterdam as an important commercial centre resulted from conducting trade with the coastal regions near the German part of the North Sea as well as the Baltic countries. The beer toll granted to Amsterdam by the Count of Holland in 1323 was the most important privilege the city ever managed to secure. Amsterdam was entitled to levy toll on all the Hamburg beer shipped to Holland. As a result Amsterdam developed into a major beer market. In 1369 one third of the entire Hamburg beer exports was shipped to Amsterdam. The activities centred around the "bierkaai" (beer quay), the western quay of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal between the Oudekerksplein and the present Damstraat.

Aerial map (woodcut)
by Cornelis Anthoniszoon (1544)

The beer toll was a determining factor in the growth of the Amsterdam cargo trade with Hamburg. After 1350 this line of business developed into a considerable corn trade with the Baltic countries (Schonen in southern Sweden as well as Prussia). After 1400 the cargo trade with the Baltic countries increased to such an extent that conflicts with the Hanseatic towns became inevitable. During the 14th century Amsterdam had associated itself with the Hanseatic League for the purpose of keeping open the Sont (the sea between Denmark and Sweden). However, from 1400 onwards, commercial expansion gave rise to an ever increasing rivalry which finally led to war with the Hanseatic towns (1438-1441). Several Dutch cities, Amsterdam among them, sent warships in order to secure free passage through the Sont. The victory in this war was the first step in the ascendancy of Amsterdam which finally led to Amsterdam controlling the Baltic trade from the end of the 15th century onwards. The city succeeded in breaking the Hanseatic corn trade monopoly and started to occupy a key position in this line of business. From approx. 1600 onwards over 50% of all ships passing through the Sont was heading for the Amsterdam staple market. For centuries this so-called "mother of trades" was to be the backbone of Amsterdam’s commercial success. Without it the Golden Age would not have been possible.

Wood construction

Churches and monasteries
(black and red)
in medieval Amsterdam

A moat, formed by the present Singel, Kloveniersburgwal and Geldersekade, enclosed medieval Amsterdam. The Waag (weighing house) at the Nieuwmarkt, the Schreierstoren (weepers’ tower) and the lower part of the Munttoren are remnants of the original medieval city walls, built during the last two decades of the 15th century. However, the most important medieval buildings are the Gothic churches (Oude Kerk and Nieuwe Kerk, consecrated in 1306 and 1414 respectively), the Olafskapel and the Agnietenkapel.

The raid of the Haarlemmerpoort
by the Sea Beggars. This picture clearly illustrates what medieval Amsterdam looked like

Throughout the Middle Ages wood was the building material par excellence for the construction of houses. However, owing to its vulnerability, by far the greatest part of the medieval vernacular architecture was lost. One survivor is the Houten Huis (Wooden House) at the Begijnhof (approx. 1425). However, medieval timber frames still support a surprisingly large number of more modern looking houses which were smartened up with elegant new facades the 17th and 18th centuries.

In brief, the medieval city largely consisted of wooden houses; stone being reserved for especially important buildings such as churches, monasteries and city gates. The disastrous fires of 1421 an 1452 consumed most of the wooden houses. Immediately after the last of the great fires a by-law was passed, prohibiting wooden side walls. The realisation of a city of stone, however, was a slow process. In spite of attempts to prohibit the construction of wooden houses, wooden facades did not disappear from the cityscape until the 17th century. The maps produced by Cornelis Anthoniszoon (Amsterdams Historisch Museum) clearly indicate that even in the 16th century Amsterdam was largely a city of wooden houses.

[Next page: 1585-1672]