How the Prison Gate inspired Coornhert to write his book Boeventucht

What causes people to become criminals – and how is it possible to stop being one? During the middle ages, people did not think like this. Punishments were often gruesome and left permanent traces, assuming that one survived. Dirck Volkertsz. Coornhert (1522-1590) was the first person to think about the causes of criminality and the consequences of punishment. This was prompted by his own internment in the Prison Gate.

Portrait of Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert, Cornelis van Haarlem, 1586-1588, collection Frans Hals Museum
Portrait of Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert, Hendrik Goltzius, 1591-1592, collection Rijksmuseum

Why Coornhert was imprisoned

The year was 1566; the iconoclastic fury was breaking out and the Northern Netherlands was on the brink of civil war. Religious tensions, fuelled by high taxes and famine, gave rise to intense hatred of the Catholic Church and the Spanish reign of terror. Anarchy prevailed everywhere. It was at this time that the scholar Coornhert was imprisoned in the Prison Gate, on charges of heresy.

Coornhert stayed in the Knight’s Chamber. He was suspected of supporting the iconoclasts, something that was not entirely untrue. He was friends with William of Orange, who was leading the revolt against the Spanish. Moreover, he had entered into a debate between Catholic priests and reformers about original sin. This debate was about the wickedness of humankind. Coornhert, by contrast, believed in the goodness of people and in free will. Catholic or Protestant; it mattered little to him. Coornhert was concerned with tolerance, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

Inspired by the wailing of prisoners in the gaols

At his first cross-examination, he had to confess his activities surrounding the ‘new religion’, but he refused to give in. Whilst awaiting his second interrogation, he wrote various texts in order to prove his innocence. Impressed, the judges did not convict him.

In the meantime, Coornhert wrote the first version of Boeventucht, with the working title ‘Discourse on the improvement of those who are wise’.

It is likely that he was also inspired by the wailing of prisoners in the gaols, which was also audible in his own luxurious cell. The thirty-page booklet discusses how criminals can best be punished.

Forced labour is much more effective than cutting off people’s ears

The crime with which Coornhert was concerned was ‘idling’: doing nothing, being unemployed. This should be tackled energetically, because it led to theft and fatal muggings. The solution, according to Coornhert, was forced labour in the form of community service in penitentiaries, if necessary for life. This would keep criminals off the street and bring in money. It would be more effective than putting people in the pillory or cutting off their ears and fingers, because this could result in their going from bad to worse. Coornhert believed that one had to punish criminals, but also prepare them for their rehabilitation. Boeventucht was first published in 1587. Shortly after Coornhert’s death, in 1590, penitentiaries and workhouses were established in various cities.

Some four hundred years later...

After Coornhert, the debate about punishment and the rehabilitation of detainees in society flared up again. The ideas on this subject kept changing; in the nineteenth century, for example, prisoners were locked up on their own and only allowed to leave their cells for an hour a day, which could leave them completely exhausted. Much has been improved since then. Housing, work and income or benefits, medical and psychological care, and assistance with any debts: today’s prisoners have a right to all of these. But we are hearing calls for tougher punishments more and more often, certainly when innocent victims are involved.

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