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Hunting for women in Leiden’s history

They existed and were important, but for too long they have remained invisible in historiography: women. Ariadne Schmidt, the Magdalena Moons endowed professor, researches the history of urban culture in Leiden. Women take pride of place in her research. Inaugural lecture on 28 February.

‘It’s crazy to brush aside half of the population,’ says Ariadne Schmidt, ‘but that’s exactly what happened for a long time.’ Until the 1970s, women were largely invisible in history. Apart from Magdalena Moons that is, who was a real person, but whose bravery has never been proven. Her heroism therefore belongs to the realm of fables (see below).


Women remained unseen for so long because they held few positions of power, at least not public ones anyway, says Schmidt. ‘That the economy would probably collapse if women were to stop doing all the things that they do didn’t cross anyone’s mind. The same is probably true today too.’

During the second feminist wave, in the 1970s, more attention suddenly started to be paid to the role of women in history, mainly by women themselves. Schmidt started university in 1990, but little had changed by then in the regular history programmes. ‘Right from the start I thought it was mad that it was as if women didn’t exist,’ says Schmidt. ‘I couldn’t identify with the figures who had made history, so I started hunting for the women in my own studies. And I wasn’t the only one.’

Inaugural lecture Ariadne Schmidt
Women often ran a small business or a shop. This painting by Hendrick van der Burgh shows what was at that time Groenmarkt looking out on the Stille Rijn canal in 1660. (De Lakenhal, Leiden).

Women and crime

The 1970s are over 40 years ago now, and the women’s canon has developed dramatically since then. Schmidt has played a not inconsiderable role in this because she has always remained true to the topic. She worked on a comparative research project by Leiden professor Manon van der Heijden into women and crime in the period 1600-1900. This debunked a few myths. Schmidt: ‘For instance, that women commit fewer crimes than men. That is true nowadays – women are 10 to 15% of all criminals – but at that time half of the convicted thieves were women. Nor is it true that they stole food for their children. There was very little bread theft, for example. Women stole things that were of value and then travelled to another town to sell them. ‘Very assertive,’ says Schmidt.


One focus of Schmidt’s inaugural lecture is on women’s work in Leiden in the early modern period. In comparison with other countries, women in the Netherlands were reasonably educated, but they faced many limitations. Married women were incapacitated persons by law, and their career options were limited. Unmarried women had a bit more freedom, but were certainly not allowed to do everything. Women in political roles? Forget it. But there was some wiggle room. Schmidt: ‘Women often worked for their husband’s company, and rather than remarrying widows took over their husband’s company instead. Women could also request an exemption from limitations from the town authorities in a form of a petition, and the authorities were flexible with these. Women worked in almost all market sectors.’

Inaugural lecture Ariadne Schmidt
Fishmonger at the fish market in Leiden, ca. 1700, Jacob Toorenvliet. Relatively many women worked as fishmongers. (Museum Lakenhal, Leiden)

Tax registers and letters

Historians have very many sources at their fingertips, some of which are quantitative sources. Thanks to town secretary Jan van Hout (1542-1609), Leiden kept real estate records at an early stage already. The town also held censuses, and tax registers have been preserved, which distinguish between men and women. Letters are fantastic sources, says Schmidt, as are the previously mentioned petitions, written requests sent by citizens to the town authorities in an attempt to try and improve their lot. These give an interesting glimpse at women’s often perilous circumstances, which made them want to continue working, for instance. Equally interesting are the civil affairs archives and the archives of notaries. In contrast to today, it was a notary who recorded testimonials. If a girl fell pregnant, she could testify to the notary about who the (alleged) father was; it wasn’t enough just to point the finger.

Linking files

There are also new ways to retrieve information. Schmidt explains the idea of a time machine, a new way to access sources that is linked to digitalisation, which is gaining ground, also in Leiden. This opens the door to data mining, the automatic analysis of large amounts of data. ‘And what is also important,’ says Schmidt, ‘is connecting digital sources with one another. This helps you draw links and find out more about a person or group of people.

One more step needs to be taken, says Schmidt: ‘Plenty of historical research into women has now been conducted and much has been published about this too. What we want to move towards now, however, is the whole story: the integrated history of men and women. Only then will we get anywhere.’

The Magdalena Moons Chair [in Dutch] is for the history of urban culture, of Leiden in particular, and the role of gender within this. It is the initiative of the Magdalena Moons Foundation, which comprises former members of the 3 October Association board. The Municipality of Leiden and the University support the initiative. Alongside research and teaching, the holder of the chair is expected to forge links between the city and the chair through activities that are open to all.

Magdalena Moons, from The Hague was the girlfriend and later wife of Spanish general Francisco de Valdez. She is said to have convinced Valdez to postpone a planned attack on the besieged and starving Leiden for a day during the Siege of Leiden from 1573 to 1574 because she had family and friends in Leiden. The Sea Beggars had broken through the dykes and the storm that took place on that very day drove the floodwater towards Leiden, causing the Spanish to flee. That is the legend at least.

Banner picture: scene from the Eighty Years’ War in 1574 by Simon Opzoomer, 1807-1877.  Magdalena Moons implores her fiancé Francisco Valdez to postpone the storming of Leiden for another night. The picture is a detail from the painting. (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) 
Above: detail of an engraving of Magdalena Moons by Cornelis Visscher (II), 1649. (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam) 

Text: Corine Hendriks
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