Universiteit Leiden

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How Leiden University celebrated its first day in 1575

Lifelike gods, provisional professors and the city militia with weapons a clanking. Leiden put on a colourful procession and drummed up hundreds of citizens to celebrate the foundation of the first university of the Republic of the Netherlands on 8 February 1575. 'It wasn't a party just for the sake of it.'

Historian Willem Otterspeer reconstructed the day of the foundation in the first part of his four-volume work 'Groepsportret met Dame' on the history of Leiden University. A selection of Otterspeer's evocative fragments:

Burgher or stranger

'It must have been cold and dark on Tuesday 8 February 1575. The huge Pieterskerk, stripped of its statues by a seething mob in 1566, filled with a crowd at seven in the morning. (…) It must have been busy in the church. The town council had ordered everyone present in the city, burgher or stranger, to put down their work and attend the church service.' 

Print of the Procession at the Foundation of Leiden University, 1575 ( anonymous, 1779 - 1781, UBL).

Streets decorated with olive leaves

'The council had also instructed anyone who owned a house on a certain, well-defined route through the city, to level the street and remove any obstacles and rubbish. On the day itself, they were expected to open their homes and decorate them with rugs, and to strew bay and olives leaves on the streets. The procession would lead through these streets after the church service.'

Triumphal arches

'At nine, a group of city militia under the command of captains Claes Hugyensz. Gael and Claes Diedericxsz. Van Muntfort congregated before the town hall. Bearing drums and banners they began to march along Breestraat to Hogenwoerdsbrug, where a triumphal arch had been erected, decorated with a red and white cloth. The group then continued via Steenschuur to Nonnenbrug, where a second triumphal arch stood, this time decorated with outstretched female forms. The procession then led along the eastern side of Rapenburg to the new academy building, the Barbara Monastery, which was the University's first accommodation.'

Medicina with uroscopy flask. Fragment of the print Procession at the Foundation of Leiden University, 1575.

Medicina with uroscopy flask

'The pièce de résistance of the procession was the allegorical part. At the front rode the only float, bearing Sacra Scriptura, the Holy Scripture, a woman in a plain white dress under a red canopy. She was accompanied on foot by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They were followed by Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding her scales and sword (...). Then came Medicina, also on a horse, with a medicine book and herbs and, if the print is true to life, a uroscopy flask in her hand (...). And finally Minerva, in a get-up that had taken a lot of work. Her cuirass was of starched fabric and Medusa had been painted on her wooden shield. Lackeys and halberdiers mingled with this part of the procession.'

Print of Caspar Coolhaes, the first Professor of Theology (anonymous, UBL collection).

Provisional professors

'Then came the dignitaries and professors. At the head was city pastor Caspar Coolhaes, who had agreed to give a number of theological lectures. He was accompanied by Gerard van Wijngaerden, the representative of the prince, and Jacob van der Does, from the Rijnland water board. They were followed by legists, physicians and philosophers who had all promised to teach a few lessons in their discipline. Each of these provisional professors was flanked by dignitaries of the city and States-Provincial, including Jan van der Does, the first curator of the University.'

Astonishing racket

'It travelled further, "with a large noise and the astonishing racket of muskets, calibers, pistols (…)."  From Nonnenbrug, the procession was accompanied over the water by a "triumphant ship" (…) with Neptune at the helm and carrying Apollo and the nine muses.'

The very first lecture

‘The Barbara Monastery had been adorned with a third triumphal arch that served as an entrance and was decorated with Corinthian columns (…). Caspar Coolhaes delivered the first lecture of the University on the first floor of the building, "speaking especial praise of theology". After the lecture everyone adjourned to the house of Master Naeltwyck, where the city had prepared a celebratory meal  (…). This was to the accompaniment of stringed instruments, bassoons and shawns.’

A pitiful hotchpotch

'It was a fine, but also somewhat odd, day. The city itself was strange. Surrounded by a plundered and flooded land and having survived a seige of almost a year, the image was of a decrepit house. The procession too, with things hastily ordered from local tradespeople – those dyed skirts and Turkish swords, that starched bunting, those simple triumphal arches – was a pitiful hotchpotch.'

Party for the sake of a party

'A procession like this was not a party for the sake of a party but a statement of principles. It put, for anyone with eyes and ears, into words what the new institution wanted to be (…). The foundation procession depicted, for instance, an ideal, namely that of an elevated eclectic, of reconciling extremes. The religion that fuelled the scholarship, the weapons that served the peace (…).'

Otterspeer based this description on Beschrijvinge der stad Leyden, among others, which Leiden city historian (and later mayor) Jan Jansz. Orlers published in 1614. He also used the archive of Jan van Hout, who was secretary of both the city and the University in 1575.

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