Was it a sinecure?

Many 20th century biographers treated Leeuwenhoek's camerbewaarder job as a sinecure. Dobell translated it as chamberlain. The magistrates needed a glorified janitor, someone to keep the fire going and the room tidy. So they paid Leeuwenhoek a good sum plus enough to hire someone else to actually do the work.

The sinecure idea seems to have begun with Haaxman's 1875 biography. He wanted to make Leeuwenhoek, from whose sister Haaxman was a direct descendent, seem heroic and extraordinary. He wrote that Leeuwenhoek "was endowed by the managers of Delft with a job that provided him with a not inconsiderable income for the time, while the services associated with it were low, so that he had enough free time left" for his research (p. 19). To support his claim, Haaxman asked city archivist Jan Soutendam to look for evidence. Soutendam found a document in the Thesauriers-rekening van Delft van 1661 fol. 113 en 114 that seemed to indicate that Leeuwenhoek did very little for a handsome salary except supervise the person who cleaned the magistrates' chamber.

„Antony Leeuwenhoek, Camerbewaarder van de Raateamer twee hondert 't sestich gl. over één jaar wedde, verschenen den 24sten January 1661, dus: ijc lxgl."

„Den selven voor het schoonmaeken van de Schepenen- Vroetschap- ende Schutterskamer; Item voor de behoeften die hij daer toe van nooden heeft, de somma van liiij gl."

"Alzoo te samen een tractement van ƒ 314. De „Stads-secretaris," zoo schrijft mij Mr. Soutendam, ontving te dien tijde, behalve het „tabbertlaken of stedekleeding" en den „vrijdom van Stads-accijns ƒ 800 'sjaars." Het baanlje was ook (altijd volgens Mr. Soutendam), niets minder eervol, dan dat van Kamerheer aan 't Hof, „mutatis mutandis;" natuurlijk zal Leeuwenhoek het vuile werk wel door een bode of bediende hebben laten waarnemen.

"Antony Leeuwenhoek, Camerbewaarder of the Council chamber two hundred sixty guilders salary over one year, due on 24 January 1661, thus: CCXL gl."

"The same for the cleaning of the Schepenen-, Vroedschap-, and Schutters (Shooters) Chambers; the same for what he needs to do that, the sum of LIIII gl."

"Together a salary of ƒ 314. The City's Secretaris," so writes Mr. Soutendam, received in that time, in addition to the material for his official robes and "freedom from the City's excise taxes, ƒ 800 per year". The little job was also (always according to Mr. Soutendam), not less honorable, than that of the Kamerheer of the Hof (Chamberman of the Court), "mutatis mutandis" (changing only those things that need to be changed); of course, Leeuwenhoek will have to supervise the dirty work.

Baas-Becking contributed to this idea in an article titled "Immortal Dilletante" in 1924.

His influential relatives secured a position for him - in that age of nepotism - when at forty he had failed in life, when he had neither acquired learning nor money nor power to make himself esteemed, by the burgers of his native town.

In his 1950 biography, Shierbeek wrote that back in 1924, he had asked Delft's then archivist J. Bouricius to return to the city archives for more documents about Leeuwenhoek's civic career. Bouricius ended up with enough material for two articles, but was not able to clarify the nature of the camerbewaarder job. Schierbeek wrote (my translation): "He was given by the managers of Delft a job that provided him with a not inconsiderable income for the time, while the services associated with it were low, so that he had enough free time left" for his research. Note that Schierbeek used begiftigd, which implies that Leeuwenhoek was given something that he may not have merited.

It is certain that Leeuwenhoek was trained as a cloth merchant and that he ran a goods store. It is not known who gave him the job, it may have been his richer relatives, but the possibility is great that his ingenuity and integrity had already attracted attention in little Delft, where everyone knew each other, so they chose him on the grounds of his own personal merits! Nothing has been found in the archives that points to an interference of oudside forces. Mr. Bouricius checked everything thoroughly at my request. He found a lot of news at the time, but nothing that points to nepotismism. He did find many things that give us a different view of the position and development of Leeuwenhoek than Haaxman has given us.

He is now not seen as a rich man who devoted his time to his studies and his hobby and was endowed by his fellow citizens with a well-paid sinecure, but as a hard-working tradesman who had a relatively simple job with the city, gave preference to his shop, which was so satisfactory that he was given raises that allowed him more latitude. His personal merits now come out better!

Several problems with Soutendam's interpretation:


Why would the City fathers grant such a large sinecure to a 28-year-old dry goods merchant? He was not yet doing the research for which he became famous. He was not the ne'er-do-well son of a beloved city father.

Was it a sinecure for his predecessor, Jan Strick? These various camerbewaarders were among the highest paid minor city officials. Why was the job a sinecure?

If it was only supervising someone keeping the room open, warm, and tidy, what do these items in his appointment refer to?

  • diligently to perform and faithfully to execute all charges which may be laid upon him
  • do all that is required of and that pertaineth to a good and trusty Camerbewaarder

A decade later, Leeuwenhoek was also appointed a curator, one of the very few men in that position who were not notaries. Where the notaries' pages have "Nots." after their name, Leeuwenhoek's has "Camerbewaarder." Being a curator of insolvent estates was one of those charges that the magistrates laid upon him.

In any event, giving money to someone for doing nothing is not very Dutch, to say nothing of Calvinist, the religion of the all the magistrates.


What evidence is there of other sinecures in Deflt or the Republic?

In the Delft archives, OAD 347a [c. 1650-c. 1692] is titled Registers van kleine ambten en officiën, waarvan de benoeming geschiedde door burgemeesters, lists about two hundred minor officials who are named by the mayors. Both of Leeuwenhoek's civic appointments, camerbewaarder and city inspector (wijnroeier), are listed. Taken together, the two hundred job titles paint a picture of a small group of what we would now call civil servants. The regents were rich and made all the big decisions. Then these minor officials made it all work. I see no evidence that any of the jobs was a sinecure and no special distinction made for Leeuwenhoek's.

Were the other jobs sincecures? If so, who actually ran the city's offices? If only some were sinecures, which ones? Were only all the camerbewaarder positions sinecures? Only Leeuwenhoek's?


Because most of the minor civil and criminal problems in Delft were dealt with among the parties and often a notary, only the most heinous or egregious reached the Magistrates' chamber.

  • On Mondays, the magistrates met in their chamber with other Heren van de Weth (Gentlemen of the Law): the mayors, sherrif, pensionary, and secretary.
  • On Tuesdays, they met by themselves in their chamber.
  • On Wednesdays and Saturdays, they convened in the Burgerzaal as the Vierschaar, the public court of justice.

These magistrates had clerks to organize the documents and write down their procedings. That was a desk job. The closest other civil servants are the court messengers and summons officers (gerechtsboden and deurwaarders). This was a time before local post offices; their jobs involved going to private homes and businesses to take information to and from the court.

Whose duties involved dealing with those who gathered at City Hall with a claim on the attention of the magistrates? On Tuesdays, there would be attorneys and witnesses, plaintiffs and victims, notaries and their clerks. For many contracts between private parties to be enforceable, the document had to be witnessed and signed by two magistrates. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, add the families and the public crowded into the Citizens' Hall.

Who kept order in this court? Who organized it? Who managed the flow of people around the proceedings, the principals, the attorneys, the witnesses, the public? If it was the camerbewaarder, then nothing that took up that much time can be considered a sinecure.

My interpretation

These phrases refer to Leeuwenhoek's main duties: "diligently to perform and faithfully to execute all charges which may be laid upon him" and "all that is required of and that pertaineth to a good and trusty camerbewaarder". This was the ordinary part of the job. He got 260 guilders per year for organizing the magistrates' dealings with the public. Given the broad range of responsibilities of the magistrates, these duties would not be routine. But they were worth more than the services provided by almost any other civil servant in Delft. He did such a good job that he was eventually given further responsibilities of curator of insolvent estates and finally city inspector of liquid imports and exports (wijnroeier).

The next part was separate. Leeuwenhoek received an additional 54 guilders to hire and supervise someone to keep the room clean and the fire lit. Oh, and dispose of the ashes any way you please.

In this role, he was deeply involved in the daily life of Delft long before he began his observations and letter writing.