Every street and every house has a story everywhere, including Medemblik, the oldest city in West Friesland. Have you ever wondered what happened here long ago? Imagine, a time machine exists that can take you back to - let's say - the seventeenth century. What kind of world would you find? Maybe there was an orphanage in your backyard, or your usual fishing canal behind the house was full of ships where men worked with all their might. However long ago it was, an entire life was in motion that people generally do not stop to ponder each day. Except for one person: Peter Swart.
Historian and Medemblik resident Peter Swart takes us to the Golden Age (1600-1700), the century of Neerlands Glorie and the time of tempestuous changes, where citizens allowed themselves to be told what to do less and less and the Netherlands enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. The century in which enemies were defied and our country sailed the great seas. A unique period in Dutch history, which can also be found - or perhaps rightly - in the West Frisian town of Medemblik.
Without thinking, I drive in and out of Medemblik whenever I want. In the Golden Age, however, you had to pass through a city gate. There were two city gates, the Westerpoort at Radboud Castle and the Oosterpoort near the mill. If you wanted to leave the city by land late at night, you were out of luck because after nine the gates were closed.
On a beautiful summer morning I stand with Peter on the Dam, the heart of the city and the place where the citizens of Medemblik gathered. The spot where the citizens celebrated and rebelled and where the fair and the annual market took place. From the Dam, actually a wide bridge with canals at the front, the two main habitation axes arose: the Oude Haven and the Nieuwstraat.
The main building here was City Hall, where the city's administration and justice took place. While Peter and I are standing on the steps of the town hall and are only occasionally disturbed by a passing car or cyclist, I try to imagine the hustle and bustle that must have taken place here in the seventeenth century.
I see the drunken men in their big hats and collars walking in and out of the noisy inn on the Oude Haven, while the daily fish market in Nieuwstraat is frantically busy. It is better to hold your nose here, because the combination of the salty air from the Zuiderzee and the strong fishy smell is unavoidable.
Making plenty of noise, the people of Medemblik and the surrounding villages sell their freshly caught fish here. It is clear from the voices that wheeling and dealing is fast and furious here in this small part of Medemblik. But this is not the only spot that is busy.
At the carpentry yards, better known today as the Westerhaven, men are struggling to repair the ships that have suffered damage during their long and pitiful voyage over the world's seas. The carpentry yards were built in 1630 together with the Westerhaven and the Pekelharinghaven and consisted mainly of private shipyards. This place was the industrial zone in Medemblik during the Golden Age. In this time, the people of Medemblik primarily earn their living from sailing (transport) and the timber trade, which mainly includes ship building and house construction.
If you are good at farming, you buy a piece of land on the golden part of Medemblik and have an impressive canal house built here. I stand with Peter on the beautiful Westerhaven and although this harbour has been largely rebuilt or restored, we see some interesting details from the Golden Age in the facades, doors and windows of the imposing houses. Going back in time is often a matter of just looking up.
William of Orange granted Medemblik, and many other cities, permission to use former monastic buildings as orphanages.
Leentje has been living in the "rich" orphanage since her parents died. Fortunately, both her father and her mother came from Medemblik, otherwise she would have ended up in the poor orphanage, which is close to the wealthy orphanage. Although the same rules apply in both orphanages, the rich orphanage has more privileges than its poor counterpart. For example, if Leentje dies, she will be buried inside the church grounds. The children at the other orphanage are buried outside the church grounds. Leentje may also stay longer in the orphanage than the poor children. As soon as these children reach an age where they can easily work, they are thrown out.
Leentje attends the city school in Medemblik with the children of both orphanages. After school, rich and poor children play together in the streets. Fortunately, some things never change.
Back where we started and close to the town hall, the original centre of Medemblik, is the Bonifacius church. Nowhere is the Golden Age as tangible as here. View the beautiful stained glass window, a gift from the Schippersgilde in 1671 and experience Medemblik during the Golden Age in a nutshell.
I thank Peter very much for this interesting morning and start walking home. Along the way I catch myself looking at Medemblik with slightly different eyes than before.