Kanisstraat: exploring a street name

We live on a small, traffic-free street, Kanisstraat, in the historic center of the Dutch city of Alkmaar. Kanisstraat has been our address since 1982, when the neighborhood was run down and houses cheap. We’re just a minute’s walk from the town’s most impressive structure, the cathedral of Saints Laurence and Matthew, completed in 1518 after several generations of construction.

Nudged by curiosity and with assistance from staff at the nearby Regional Archive, we’ve recently done a little historic research and, in the process, found a book on the origin of central Alkmaar’s street names, including ours.

We learned that in the fifteenth and most of the sixteenth centuries, the Kanisstraat was just outside the town’s western border. Before the expansion and fortification of the town in 1573, our little street was much longer, extending out into the countryside. The further end was populated by the poorest people of the city, the ones who, for various reasons, were relegated to the outskirts: the unskilled, the disabled, widows, the mad, the otherwise unsavory. They mainly lived by begging. In the process of wall and canal construction due to Alkmaar’s enlargement, the hovels of the poor on the Kanisstraat were torn down.

The houses on the Kanisstraat closest to the center were more substantial. At  Kanisstraat 1, next door to us, stands a building that was, in those days, the Opmaar Inn. Built in 1540, it’s among Alkmaar’s oldest surviving houses. The alms house across the street from us, a four-sided structure with a garden in the middle, was founded by the families Paling and van Foreest in 1540.  It’s in approximately the same location as a former convent of Poor Clares. The section of the alms house on the Kanisstraat side was added in 1670. In 1880, six small houses for workers, each building five meters wide, were erected; what structures they replaced we don’t yet know.

To our surprise, in his entry on Kanisstraat, the author, T.P.H. Wortel, city archivist, drew attention to one of our favorite paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, “The Seven Works of Mercy,” a work whose maker is known only as the Master of Alkmaar. It was created about 1504 and originally hung in the cathedral. In the seven panels, one sees Alkmaar as was at the time, including some of its populace — both the well-off and the poor and crippled.

Christ is in each panel but in several is easily overlooked. Among the beggars in the first panel, there he is — the gray-robed, un-haloed man quietly gazing at the viewer rather than, like the others he is with, focusing on the married couple who are distributing bread to those in need. Without words, the panel bears witness to the text from Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you fed me.” Each of the seven panels is a reminder that what we do to the least person, we do to Christ.

In the foreground of the first panel, pay attention to the indigo-jacketed man. A noteworthy detail is the wicker basket, called in those days a kanis, that we get a glimpse of on his back. The kanis was for collecting bread, the staple food of the poor. It was standard equipment for beggars. (The word kanis has a Greek root, kanistron, meaning “bread basket.”)

Were the name of the Kanisstraat translated into English, it could justifiably be called Beggar Street.

— Jim Forest

Suggestion: Look at all the panels in the Works of Mercy painting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157623272202186

1 September 2019

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From Oude Alkmaarse Straatnamen, by T.P.H. Wortel, Alkmaar city archivist (translation by Nancy Forest-Flier)

Op 4 June 1573, two businessmen of the city of Alkmaar met at the Opmaar Inn run by landlord Jan Gerrytszoon “on the corner of the Canysstraet” [in today’s spelling Kanisstraat]: the skilled and well-known surveyor Louris Pieterszoon and his young and lesser-known colleague, Adriaen Anthoniszoon, who later became famous for his construction of city fortifications. What they ate for the 27 stuivers they paid is unknown to us, but we can suspect that they were discussing the construction of Alkmaar’s new fortifications to the west and the east of the city. This same Kanisstraat was very much affected by this work. Before this time, the Kanisstraat was a long street almost completely located in farmlands that ran straight from the old Geest Gate to the Wognum District. Now most of it was disappearing for the creation of the new city wall and wide canal that would surround the city. Before the siege began [in the war against the Spanish in 1573], the Kanisstraat was reduced to a narrow side street of the Geest and ended in a dead-end at the new city wall. On the north side of the street were the dwellings of the Paling and Van Foreest Alms House [still in existence], established in 1540, and on the south side were a few modest little houses, one of which must have been the Opmaar Inn on the corner of the Kanisstraat and the Geest.

So before 1573, the Kanisstraat was a long street that ran outside the city limits. A list of principal occupants of these houses dated March 1519 reports no fewer than 41 names! Among those occupants were a few craftsmen: a cooper, a weaver, a blacksmith and two furriers. Claes de Lombairt will have lived there, whose name suggests he ran a “table of lending” (a “bank”), and Herck the ferryman may have operated the Bergen ferry that ran to the lake just past the Wognum District. Next to him were two sisters, Aef and Lijsbet, who may or may not have answered to the name of Rondebillen (Round Bottoms).

The 1493 registry of revenues collected from the “hearth tax” “in the Kanisstraat” lists 21 stone hearths. Interestingly, at the bottom of the list of residents are these words: “The people living in the Canisstraet live mostly on bread.” So there were many poor folks on the Kanisstraat who lived by begging, and in those days beggars usually carried a basket in which to carry the bread and other foodstuffs they were given.

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Kanistraat as it is today, looking from its west end (photo: Jim Forest)

A view of the Kanisstraat from the east end; the house on the corner, originally an inn, was built about 1540.
Kanisstraat 1 as it was in 1935.
Cornelius Drebbel’s map of Alkmaar as it was in 1597, 24 years after the town was expanded both on its west and south sides. The truncated Kanisstraat is one block below the fortified bridge over the Singel.
Detail of Jacob van Deventer’s map of Alkmaar, 1560, showing the full extent of the Kanisstraat before the town’s enlargement in 1573.