A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Those of you living in Leiden have surely seen, or heard, that this weekend one of the many Leiden summer events is taking place. Indeed it feels like between Kingsday in April and Drie Oktober, every other day there is something happening: a party in front of the townhall, a kirmes on the Beestenmarket, a food market next to the Pieterskerk oder a festival in the Hooglandskerk.
This weekend, it’s the Lakenfeesten! Ever heard of it? Leiden is quite a history-charged town, and as many other celebrations, also this one, literally the “sheet festival”, is a celebration to remember history.
Because I’m still in hard-study-mode I couldn’t go out and take many pictures of all the parades and games taking place, and I decided instead to take a little trip into history and tell you a bit about the background of all this hubbub.
Did you know Leiden once was the largest single textile centre in Europe?? One of the many important and interesting facts about Leiden I was surprised about when I first heard it.
After the relief of Leiden from the Spanish in 1574 (remember Drie Oktober! And hey, fun fact: apparently, the siege of the city of Leyden is believed to be the first instance wherein paper money was used. Aha!) and the founding of the University in 1575, the still ongoing suppression in the South of the Netherlands (now Belgium) brought a lot of refugees to the North. Many of those were specialised in textiles. Leiden was growing quickly and soon the cloth industry was booming. In the Dutch ‘golden age’ textiles from Leiden (apparently the famous ‘Leidse Laken’) were sold all over the world. The most important guild hall for the cloth merchants was, by the way, the nowadays museum Lakenhall – now you also now why it’s called like that!
Being up this high in the textile industry meant that many many people were necessary to produce the goods. And as it is still today, it was a little bit of a shady business already in the seventeenth century. Indeed, many of the workers were the children from Leiden’s by that time quite huge orphanage.
The orphanage Heilige Geestweeshuis (Holy Ghost Orphanage) in the Hooglandsekerkgracht was built 1583 and served as such for centuries. (Wanna hear more random but impressive fun facts? The orphanage had a mixed choir between 1796 and 1802 and was in fact the first mixed youth choir in Wester Europe! In case someone ever asks…) Apparently orphans lived here even up until 1961; today the building contains an archeological Museum and an organisation for children’s rights. That’s good to know!
On the sign in front of the building it says, after stating that there were really a lot of children orphaned in the old times, that “the textile industry could make good use of them”. Well, I guess that this is a bit of a euphemism. I did a bit more research and found out that between 1608 and 1643, 1,542 of the cities’ orphans were employed in the textile industry, and additionally even children from other cities were hired. The kids were as young as six years, and yeah, it was common in that time that children that young worked, but that doesn’t make it better. They worked to supplement the income of their orphanage, but mostly made only a couple of pennies a week. And, as you can probably already imagine, the working conditions were extreme and abusive.
Children were not the only ones on whose costs the wealthy business was working. Also Leiden’s widows, the other big group of employees, had a hard time. Women’s working standards were drastically different from men’s. And one more interesting, but shocking, fact: First attempts to improve working conditions for children and women were made in 1646, when their workdays were limited to fourteen hours a day – doesn’t sound too great to me, especially not in contrast to the one- to four-hour long working days of their employees. And nearly 400 years later, we can basically tell the same story about the global textile industry…
Today the Leiden Lakenfeesten are celebrated yearly to remember that the city once was a famous “Lakenstad”, with historical and costume parades, a textile exhibition in the Lakenhall, and of course lots of music, food and drinks. In case you’re still going out tonight or tomorrow to have a look around, I wish you lots of fun! But maybe also take the opportunity to think for a moment about where and under which circumstances the clothes you are wearing might have been produced…
Oh and for proof and in case you want to know more, here are my sources:
On the working conditions: The Public and Private in Dutch Culture of the Golden Age. edited by Arthur K. Wheelock, Adele F. Seef, London 2000, 243 (google books).