Before getting to Malle Babbe, let me thank those of you who wished me good health. I hope and intend to take up regular blogging again, but this will still take a little time. For a more detailed personal status update, see my post at StayOnTop today.
For now, here is Malle Babbe (“Loony Babbe”, Babbe being short for Barbara). She was a woman with mental problems who lived in the 17th century in the Dutch city of Haarlem; her full name was Barbara Claes. Few inmates of any 17th century asylum have ever been honored with a statue, but Babbe eventually was!
We do not know much about her: not even exactly when she was born or when she died. But Babbe was saved from oblivion by artist Frans Hals (1582-1666) who in 1635 painted a famous portrait of her, in his loose almost impressionist style that was very unusual for that time. His painting shows Babbe enjoying herself in a pub, holding a huge jug of beer and with an owl perched on her shoulder:
Art experts differ about the meaning of the owl. Some think that this owl, being the classic symbol of wisdom and sagacity, was meant as a kind of counterpoint: as a contrast to Babbe’s own unrestrained spontaneous lunacy. Others think that the owl simply refers to a common Dutch saying at that time: “being as drunk as an owl”.
In the 1600s Haarlem had an asylum just outside its city walls, known as Het Dolhuys, which literally translates as “The Madhouse”.
At the time when Frans Hals painted Babbe’s portrait, she was not yet living in the asylum. Roaming the city streets like many mentally ill people both then and now, she was an unusual but harmless person who had achieved some notoriety for her wild, loud, unrestrained behavior. Who knows, had she lived today, she might have been a typical Bag Lady…
Het Dolhuys was meant not just to keep the worst mental cases off the streets, but also to protect some from their own insanity. In 1642 painter Frans Hals’ own son, Pieter Hals, lost his mind and for a brief time he had to be put in Het Dolhuys. And Babbe? Four years later, in 1646, her public behavior (doing intolerable things like “lifting her dress”) had grown so annoying to decent citizens that she was locked away in the same asylum indefinitely.
This photo shows the oldest still-existing part of the Haarlem Dolhuys: the tiny corner part of the building has a keystone from 1564. Today, the asylum buildings house a psychiatry museum.
Babbe lived here for at least 17 more years. Once again, sources differ about this: some say she died in the asylum in 1663, but most probably it was 1666 when she died there.
Babbe as an Icon
What exactly was wrong with Babbe? The most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that she may have suffered from “cretinism”: an illness of the thyroid gland caused by chronic iodine deficiency. When manifesting itself in childhood, this illness could cause both physical growth problems and mental “retardation”. In other words, Babbe’s so-called lunacy may well have been caused by a physical inability to adapt, perhaps worsened by alcoholism: leaving her mentally unable to take proper care of herself.
Thanks to Frans Hals’ painting, she was never forgotten. In 1973 singer Rob the Nijs recorded the song Malle Babbe that became a hit in the Netherlands. In his song he wrongly portrayed Malle Babbe as a prostitute who was an example of sexual liberty: he idealized her as some kind of 17th century hippie girl who dared to flout the hypocrisy of common citizens. This was pure fantasy, but the song contributed to Babbe’s iconic status. Here it is:
Rob the Nijs – Malle Babbe
In 1978, sculptor Kees Verkade made a small bronze statue of Malle Babbe that clearly was more closely inspired by the real Babbe, as once painted by Hals. Verkade’s statue of Babbe now stands in a street in the old city center of Haarlem:
What more shall we say about this poor woman, who died so long ago after many years in an asylum?
She must have had a hard and troubled life. But judging from Hals’ original painting, at least she must have known some moments of happiness and elation too, in spite of her mental problems.
I feel happy that unlike most people who landed in a mental asylum centuries ago, Babbe was never entirely forgotten. In a way, in the lasting image of her, all those others live on too.
- The original 1635 Malle Babbe portrait by Frans Hals is now in the Gemäldegalerie (Paintings Gallery) museum in Berlin, Germany. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has a slightly different copy that most probably was made some years later by one of Hals’ pupils.
- Wikipedia has a page in English about the ancient Dolhuys asylum in Haarlem, and the psychiatry museum that is located there since 2005.
- Rob the Nijs, the singer of the Malle Babbe song, born in 1942, is still active as a performer today (2015). Here is a link to his official Rob de Nijs website (in Dutch).
Actually de Nijs wrote the Malle Babbe song for singer Adèle Bloemendaal, who in 1970 recorded it for one of her albums. But it was de Nijs’ own version that a few years later made the hit charts.