Multiple Underworlds in the Dutch Republic of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
It is no coincidence that the milieu of professional criminals is often denoted by the term underworld, which designates a circuit, a community, a society – in short a world – leading a shady existence. The term leaves little doubt about ranking: the underworld occupies a position below – not beside, and certainly not above – regular, established society. Members of the underworld occupy correspondingly low positions in terms of social status, although they may, in fact, figure among the top in terms of wealth. This concept of an underworld may strike a modern reader as an age-old, unchanging phenomenon. However, if we look at the historical usage of the term ‘underworld’ (onderwereld) in the Netherlands we are in for a surprise. In the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the area and period on which this contribution focuses – the term was unknown except in its classical meaning of netherworld, the world of ghosts and the dead. It does not figure even once in the many thousands of pages of criminal records composed by the judicial authorities which constitute our main source of information about the practice of organised crime in the Netherlands during this period. Nor was it used by the men or women themselves who belonged to the circles of professional criminals. Intriguingly, the term ‘organised crime’ (georganiseerde misdaad) seems to have been equally unknown at the time.
KeywordsEighteenth Century Criminal Record Gang Member National Archive Organise Crime
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