From Chapel to Madhouse

By: Corry van Straten

In the Middle Ages there was a chapel on the corner of Slijkeinde and Vleerstraat: the Saint Anthony Chapel. This chapel was run by a religious self-help group known as ‘de Crepelen’ (The Cripples). Both people with and without disabilities visited this place and even slept in the chapel to find healing. It was used a lot, so much so that the Crepelen built a small hospital next to it.

De Antoniuskapel in 1570, vermoedelijk door J. Stellingwerf, Coll HGA
Saint Anthony chapel 1570, most likely by J. Stellingwerf, Coll HGA

They also bought houses in the area near the chapel where the homeless, the poor, the helpless and anyone who had nowhere else to turn to, found food, warmth and a roof over his or her head. Even madmen, the gullible, the insane and those suffering from contagious diseases found shelter here. The city government was pleased to have the Crepelen provide such services and shelter.

Plague

In times of plague epidemics in The Hague, healthy inhabitants avoided visiting the chapel and the small hospital, as many plague victims were brought there. Yet there were always people who offered help and tried to alleviate the suffering. The Saint Anthony Chapel was freely accessible to everyone. The other churches in The Hague were  in those times closed to plague victims and their relatives. Fortunately, the Crepelen received many gifts, both in cash and in kind, so that they could continue their work, for all those who worked here did so voluntarily, out of charity. 

Saint Anthony, the abbot

Parnassia Group still owns a statue of St. Anthony, the namesake of the chapel. This Egyptian monk, born in the year 251,is also known as Anthony the Church Father or Anthony the Abbot. During his life he had many visions, which we now might call psychotic delusions. Antony found ways to cope with them while doing much for the poor and sick.

After his death in 356, the Church declared him a saint. In Western Europe, he gained a huge following. Numerous churches and chapels were named after him. People suffering from the painful fire of St Anthony also invoked him. St Anthony’s fire was a medieval illness caused by eating bread baked from mouldy rye. These patients had visions with neurological and psychiatric symptoms.

The statue shows Saint Anthony with a pig, a bell, a book and a staff forming a T-shaped cross. The book is the Bible. The bell drives away the devil(s). In the Middle Ages, pigs belonging to the Brothers of St. Anthony were allowed to roam freely with a bell around their necks. Nobody was allowed to do anything to them except fatten them up. On January 17, the feast day of Anthony, they were slaughtered for the poor.

Beeldje van Antonius. Nu in het bezit van Parnassia Groep. Foto H. van Straten
Statue of Saint Anthony owned by Parnassia Group - Picture H. van Straten

Plague- and Madhouse

After the Reformation, the chapel and the old hospital disappeared. But at the beginning of the 17th century, a new plague hospital and madhouse was built on the same spot. The care of people who were insane and/or infectious and of people who had nowhere to go continued. In times of war, room was made for wounded soldiers. Orphans and foundlings also found a temporary refuge here. In short, this was  a special place in the community of The Hague.

Detailkaart uit 1617 van A. Hierat en A. Hoogenberg, HGA. De waterput achter het Pest- en Dolhuys is goed te zien.
Detail of a map from 1617 by A. Hierat and A. Hoogenberg, HGA. The well behind the Plague- and Madhouse is clearly visible.

When the plague disappeared, only the function of the madhouse (“dolhuis” in modern Dutch) remained. Only people with a mental illness and/or with undesirable behaviour were admitted, temporarily or otherwise. But that was only possible if the mayors of The Hague granted permission. The Dolhuys (as it was known in the middle ages) was run by governors, called “regenten”. The daily care and management was in the hands of a caretaker couple, called the “binnenvader” and “binnenmoeder”, with the help of one or more maids. There was an optimistic idea in society at that time that seclusion, rest, regularity, nutrition, warmth, cleanliness and education with discipline and reward would cure the subjects. Subjects, in the sense of people being submissive, were all those who were taken in.

‘Asylum for the insane’

In the 19th century, the Dolhuys was renamed ‘Geneeskundig Gesticht voor Krankzinnigen’ (Asylum for the Insane). For a while it was also called the ‘Improvement House’, based on the idea that insanity and undesirable behaviour could be improved through good care and treatment. In 1912 the institute was moved to the grounds of the Oud Rosenburg country house at Oude Haagweg. Today, this site is one of the locations of Parnassia Group, a large organisation providing mental health care in the The Hague region.

If your Dutch is good enough, you can read: Corry van Straten (2021) Van Kapel tot Dolhuys. Haagse geesteszorg vanaf de Middeleeuwen tot 1700. Uitgeverij De Nieuwe Haagsche. Available online

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Tour Guide Jacqueline Alders
Personal, with humour!

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