Paradox of Isolation: Amsterdam’s Pest Asylums and the City’s Continual Modernization | Sim Hinman Wan
Recognized as one of the most ambitious urban expansion projects in history, the seventeenth- century “Grand Expansion” of Amsterdam into a half- moon configuration exemplifies both the Renaissance attention to geometric order and the Baroque devotion to impressive spaces. The layout of three parallel canals as an arching belt, dubbed the Grachtengordel district, is still a visible feature that delights visitors and intrigues scholars today. With its perceptible contrast of the medieval core’s human scale and amorphous fabric, the Grand Expansion has long been characterized as a Dutch “golden age” accomplishment that applies urban design theories from sixteenth- century Italy and pre-figures the twentieth- century practice of visionary planning in Europe. For this reason, Amsterdam’s morphological transformation over time has not been assessed in relation to an integral facet of urbanization: the containment of pestilence. Since the medieval core’s development along the Amstel River during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the siting of asylums for pest bearers—most notably those bearing leprosy, plague, ergotism, and smallpox—had played a critical role in how this port settlement acquired its pre sent form. Amsterdam is certainly not unique in its history of sending contagious bodies to the outlying territories, away from the population at large. However, the city has been exceptional in preserving the imprints of pest asylums, for centuries after the physical structures had vanished and the collective memories had faded.
Between the fourteenth and the eighteenth century, Amsterdam had a number of locations for sheltering the contagiously ill. Besides monasteries and hospices, there were three key asylums operating successively as the municipal establishment for isolating a gamut of infections, especially those affecting the skin as a visible symptom. Most records indicate that the sites were known as Leprozenhuis (Leprosarium), Lazarushuis (Lazaret), and Pesthuis (Plague House). Lazaruhuis replaced Leprozenhuis in 1485 and was decommissioned as a pest asylum in 1609. Pesthuis was founded in 1616 and relocated to a newly constructed facility in 1630. These different names for the same type of establishment may suggest that the sites were connected to particular infections, but they simply reflect changes in the pest bearer’s social status. Medieval Europe was accustomed to equating various communicable diseases with leprosy. During the sixteenth century, Protestant reforms in poor relief looked to the biblical parable of Lazarus and Dives, from the book of Luke, to emphasize that pest bearers in economic hardship were an indigent group deserving of public assistance. Later, with the Dutch Republic advancing in science and medicine, pestilence was disentangled from religion. The referral to the pest asylum as a leprosarium in the fifteenth century and as a plague house in the seventeenth century also signifies that plague had superseded leprosy as the most notorious health threat.
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