The scaffold as a deterrent spectacle: the 'Groene Zoodje'

Being punished in public: it’s inconceivable these days, but in the past, it was quite common in the Netherlands. It was symbolised by the scaffold known as the Groene Zoodje; a stone scaffold, outdoors and visible for all to see. The Groene Zoodje was built on a square close to the Prison Gate, on the corner of Plaats and Lange Vijverberg in The Hague. Public sentences were carried out there, in front of a crowd that trembled, screamed, revelled or wept in silence.

De Plaats with the Groene Zoodje, seen towards the Lange Vijverberg, Hollandse School, ca. 1555, Haags Historisch Museum
The Groene Zoodje, Haags Gemeentearchief
The Hofvijver as seen from the Plaats, Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde, ca. 1690, collection Haags Historisch Museum
The Plaats in The Hague seen towards the Hofvijver, Hollandse School, ca. 1592, collection Haags Historisch Museum

The executioner carried out the punishment on the scaffold, mostly for a large audience. The penalty might consist of corporal punishment, such as flogging with a whip or rod. But more severe punishments were carried out too, such as mutilation, strangulation, hanging, beheading or burning. Young thieves had an ear cut off, murderers were hung from the gallows, and counterfeiters disappeared into cauldrons of burning water.

Charles the Bold’s scaffold

The scaffold was repeatedly built as a kind of small theatrical stage on the square close to the Prison Gate, on the corner of Plaats and Lange Vijverberg. It was the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (1433-1477), who decided to replace the wooden scaffold, which used to be erected by the Prison Gate at regular intervals, with a permanent stone scaffold. Between 1473 and 1474, stone masons built a smart stone scaffold, covered in turf.

Owing to the turf, the people of The Hague mockingly called the scaffold the ‘Groene Zoodje [green turf]’; a name that would stick for centuries.

The Groene Zoodje remained there until 1719, whereupon local residents protested that they no longer wished to have a daily reminder of the executions. They made a successful plea for the scaffold to be dismantled. The Groene Zoodje disappeared; from now on, executions were carried out once more on a temporary wooden scaffold.

Stray not onto the path of evil

The scaffold was used to carry out punishments that had been pronounced by the Court of Holland, a regional court, and by the municipal court of The Hague. By punishing people in public, the government displayed its power and left no doubt as to what could happen to people who had strayed onto the path of evil.

Why the executioner had to be skilled in his trade

The executions were carried out by an executioner who had been appointed by the government. He had to be skilled in his trade, as some punishments required quite a lot of specific knowledge and skill. Decapitating someone with a sword, for example, took both strength and the right technique. Sometimes the executioner mishit, which could lead the crowd to turn against him. This was why the scaffold was guarded: to protect the servants of the law against possible public anger.

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