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Leiden Classics: 5 questions about our motto Praesidium Libertatis

Our motto is Praesidium Libertatis, or ‘bastion of liberty’. How did it come into existence, and in what way is Leiden University staying true to its meaning? Five questions about our motto.

1. Where does it come from?

You can read the motto
'Praesidium academia lugduno
batava libertatis' in the floor of
the Gewelfkamer (vaulted room)
room in the Academy Building.
It means: Leiden University is a
bastion of freedom.

To trace its origins, we need to go all the way back to the birth of the university itself. In 1568, the Low Countries rebelled against Spanish rule and the Catholic Church it supported. The nobleman William of Orange became the leader of the Revolt, and he felt that the nation-to-be needed its own university to educate Protestant ministers and other scholars. He chose Leiden as the location for this new university, probably to reward the city for its dedication and resolve during the Siege of Leiden (1573-1574). The Spanish besiegers were ultimately driven out in 1574, and the university was founded a year later. At the time this young, Protestant university was known as a bastion of freedom in a continent still largely ruled by the Catholic Church.

2. So the motto was chosen in 1575?

The historical Deed of Foundation
by William of Orange.

No, it was only officially chosen at a much later date. While William of Orange did describe the university as ‘a solid supporter and keeper of freedom’, the current motto was only introduced during its third centennial celebrations by prorector Matthias de Vries. In a lecture, he stated that William of Orange had envisioned a university that would serve as a ‘bastion of independence and civilization’ (‘libertati humanitati praesidio futuram’). Incidentally, that statement wasn’t new, but was originally coined by classicist Petrus Hofman Peerlkamp in 1839. De Vries attended his valedictory lecture, and was moved by the interpretation of the university as a ‘libertatis praesidium’. However, the motto wasn’t added to the university’s new seal until 1917 – Academia Lugduno-Batava Libertatis Praesidium.

3. But then why do we usually talk about ‘Praesidium Libertatis’. What is the correct order of the words? 

The motto wasn’t added to
the university’s new seal until 1917.

Praesidium Libertatis became popular at a later date, though we don’t know why. But we do know that people originally used ‘Libertatis Praesidium’, both orally and in writing.

4. Do the university's scientists and board members still draw inspiration from this motto?

They do often refer to it, 

A total of seven North Korean
exiles spoke at the two-day
conference in Leiden. Third
on the right is Professor Breuker.

for instance when campaigning for academic and scholarly liberty alongside other universities. Numerous research institutes and faculties also regularly organise conferences that focus on human rights and freedom of speech. Was it a coincidence that North-Korean dissidents chose Leiden as the location to talk about the dictatorial regime in their country? As Professor of Korean Studies, Remco Breuker, said at the time: ‘Bastion of Liberty isn’t a PR slogan; it’s a genuine policy in Leiden to guarantee the liberty of its scolars.’ An even more recent example can be found in the speech by the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Rick Lawson, given on the 8 January 2015. At the protest rally held in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, Lawson argued that: ‘A university carrying this motto in its seal cannot remain silent, but has to speak out on behalf of freedom of speech.’

5. What else does the university do to stay true to its motto? 

The university grants honourary

Nelson Mandela, former
President of South Africa,
received an honorary doctorate
from Leiden University in 1999.

doctorates to scientists and freedom fighters, like Sir Winston Churchill (1946) and Nelson Mandela (1999), who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support the principle expressed in our motto. This year, an honorary doctorate will be given to lawyer and human rights activist Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, for her work on behalf of the rights of women. The university also grants the William of Orange Medal to statesmen who promote liberty. The medal has been granted to, among others, UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon and Vice-President Boediono of Indonesia. Furthermore, through dozens of events and the appointment of a new Cleveringa Professor, the university also annually commemorates the brave protest lecture given in 1940 by Rudolph Cleveringa, then Dean of the Faculty of Law, condemning the dismissal of his Jewish colleagues. And then there’s the annual Freedom Lecture, a initiative of the University, the LUMC and the municipality of Leiden. The city’s motto, ‘Haec libertatis ergo’ '(This for the sake of liberty), also refers to liberty.

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