Delft - The Prince's City

Compared to other prominent intellectuals of his time, Leeuwenhoek never ventured far from home. He was born in Delft and spent his whole adult life there.

Why would Leeuwenhoek want to live anywhere else? Delft was a quiet city in the most prosperous, educated, tolerant country in the world. It was the spiritual home of the Dutch Republic, since its "father", Willem, Prince of Orange, had made his headquarters there, was assassinated there, and is buried there. Delft in its Golden Age was a fortuitous match of time, place, and a pioneering scientist who measured his work in decades.

Delft is only seven miles (12 kilometers) behind the dunes lining the North Sea. It is about the same distance north of the Maas River. In its natural state (below right), this area is a flat, swampy, boggy marsh riddled by seasonal and tidal creeks. Fresh water from the great rivers out of Germany and France deposits clay in the marshes. Salt water from the North Sea deposits sand in the creek beds.

For birds, it's a paradise. For people, it's uninhabitable. If Leeuwenhoek's ancestors wanted to live on dry land, they had to make it.

Delft began as a lintdorp, a ribbon village built along the Schie, a sandy creek bed that the people widened and straightened. The Schie was diverted into a second, parallel canal, the lower arm of the red < added to the map below; the top of the map points toward the southwest.

What remained, a sandy ridge between the two canals, was firm enough for driving the poles to build houses on. The word "Delft" comes from the word "delven", to dig. The first canal, the upper arm of the red <, became known as the Oude Delft, loosely, the old dig. The second canal, the lower arm, became known as the Nieuwe Delft.

Anonymous map of Delft, 1536, looking southwest.
Stedelijk Museum Prinsenhof, Delft

Above is the oldest known map of the city, painted just after the fire of 1536 that destroyed most of the city. The Oosteinde neighborhood at the bottom left of the map (southeast), where Leeuwenhoek grew up, was spared. The Hippolytusbuurt neighborhood where he lived as an adult was totally destroyed. The three largest buildings, all of stone, are the Oude Kerk and the Nieuwe Kerk and the Stadhuis tower between them across the open square from the Nieuwe Kerk.

  Delft's Population
1246 1,400
1300 2,000
1400 6,500
1550 22,000
1560 14,000 - after plague
1600 17,500
1620 20,000
1630 21,000
1670 25,000 - after immigration
1680 24,000
1705 18,000
1735 15,000
  source: Macht en gewoonte

What was Delft like in Leeuwenhoek's time?

As one of the increasingly small percentage of native-born Delftenaars as well as a member of the prominent van den Berch and Hogenhouck families, Leeuwenhoek contributed his talents to Delft as a court official and city inspector.

In the absence of a census, the population figures in the table are estimates generally shared by historians. The Delft of Leeuwenhoek was a busy city of small businesses full of recently built shops, houses, warehouses, and public buildings like the Stadhuis and the Vleeshal. The page on the prosperity of Leeuwenhoek's family divides the population into five socio-economic groups by income, from the tenth living at subsistence level to the six to eight percent who were the wealthiest regents.

Much of Delft -- the canals, streets, squares, and many buildings -- has not changed since Leeuwenhoek's time. There are very few cars in the old city today, but there aren't many horses, either. The murmur of voices echoing under the canopy of trees over the canals must be what Leeuwenhoek heard as he walked along those same canals wondering where in the world those little animals came from.

The binnenstad or inner city of Delft is everything within the singel or wide surrounding moat. The medieval city is roughly rectangular, a mile (1.6 km) long by half a mile (.8 km) wide. This shape was established in the 1400's. The city was surrounded by a canal, on the inner banks of which was an earthen and brick wall covered with thorn bushes. Six gates controlled access: Rotterdamse Poort, Schiedamse Poort, Waterslootse Poort, Haagpoort, Koepoort. Only one remains, the Oostpoort, in the top right corner of the map below. (North at the top was not yet conventional.) Spaced between the gates were ___ towers. In addition, several windmills stood even taller than the towers and provided clear views of the surrounding countryside. Four of the gates were at the ends of major inter-city canals with regular boat traffic.

The Waterslotse Poort is in the lower center of the map above and in the center of the painting below.

Vroom's view of Delft from the west in 1615

For tax purposes, the city was divided into sixteen districts. For defensive purposes, it was divided into four districts for the city guard to patrol and defend.