Universiteit Leiden

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‘Friends can achieve a great deal together’

On 29 January, the Mayor of Leiden, Henri Lenferink, was awarded Leiden University’s Scaliger Medal. The longest-serving Mayor of Leiden was presented with the medal by the University’s longest-serving Rector Magnificus, Carel Stolker. Lenferink was awarded the medal in recognition of his achievements for the University.


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In his laudatory speech, Stolker said that Lenferink deserved the Scaliger Medal because in the 18 years he has been the city’s Mayor, he has consistently presented Leiden as a university city, particularly in international relations, setting an example for other cities and mayors. Lenferink also set up the Dutch Knowledge City Network and recruited professors as ‘congress ambassadors’, who endeavoured to bring academic congresses to Leiden, often with success. Lenferink was also one of the driving forces behind Leiden European City of Science, which is to be held in 2022. Another achievement is the Leiden Bio Science Park, a successful partnership between the University and the city, made possible despite the parties having sometimes worked against each other in the past. 

The award ceremony was attended by a select group of people: the Mayor himself, of course, Henri Lenferink, and Rector Magnificus Carel Stoker. Also present were Lenferink’s wife, Professors Schmidt and Honings, and Kasper van Ommen, who obtained his doctorate with a thesis on Scaliger in July 2020. Van Ommen is also curator of Western Printed Works and coordinator of the Scaliger Institute at Leiden University Library.

‘A university city sparkles’

In his acceptance speech, Lenferink said that soon after coming to Leiden from Arnhem, where he was alderman, he felt that a university city was different, that it had something extra. ‘You can feel a kind of sparkle’, he said, ‘one that’s not there in the middle of the summer when all the students have gone home and the city feels empty.’ His predecessors had already thought up the idea of Leiden City of Knowledge, and Lenferink understood it and used it. He read up on academic education and research, talked at length with the faculties, and invited professors to exchange ideas. ‘Always with a view to examining the question of what we could do with it as a city’, said Lenferink. And the city and university have indeed rediscovered each other and now help each other. Scientists and students are active in solving the city’s problems, and the city is facilitating and supporting the University. Lenferink said it was a pity that the Mayor of Leiden no longer chairs the university’s Board of Trustees (Executive Board, ed.), as was the case 50 years ago. ‘But friends can achieve a great deal together.’

The award ceremony was held ‘COVID style’ in the Great Auditorium; just a handful of people were present, with the beadle as host. The one-and-a-half metre distance rule was duly observed and the ceremony was streamed live for other interested parties. 

The city and the university were at times close, but there were long periods when this was not the case, said Ariadne Schmidt

Don’t cycle past Minerva!

In her lecture, Ariadne Schmidt, Professor of Urban Culture, and that of Leiden in particular, discussed the relationship between the University and the city, which at times was close, but at other times much less so or not at all. When the University was founded in 1575, Janus Dousa, a commander during the Siege of Leiden, was appointed curator, and Jan van Hout was secretary to Leiden City and the University of Leiden. The Mayor was closely involved in appointing professors, and the University enjoyed so many privileges, such as exemption from excise duty on beer and wine, that it was feared the majority of the population would apply for these posts. 

It was similar in the 19th century; professors gave public lectures to educate industrialists from Leiden, and at one moment there were 400 people from Leiden attending the lectures. But the city and the University spent entire periods each living in their own ‘bubble’. In 1920, Retha Huizinga, daughter of the famous Leiden historian Johan Huizinga, who grew up on Witte Singel, wrote: ‘We were barely aware of the fact that Leiden, as well as being a university town, was also a reasonably large city of trade and industry.’ As a girl growing up, you were taught that you were not allowed to walk or cycle past the Minerva Society, and that if you did, you were not allowed to look inside, but should discreetly look the other way.

In the mid-20th century, the city and the University once again became closer, and now the University organises public lectures and involves the city in producing scientific knowledge in the form of Citizen Science. 

Since 2017, Leiden University has awarded the Scaliger Medal to individuals and organisations that in their unique way uphold the values of universities worldwide. The medal is closely linked with the University Library, as is the Scaliger Professorship, an     additional title given to Leiden University professors with a particular interest in the Special Collections of Leiden University Library.

Leiden University spared no effort in bringing Josephus Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) to Leiden. The philologist and historian was one of the most famous scholars of his time. A Frenchman of Italian descent, he grew up in the second half of the 16th century in     a France troubled by religious wars. He himself was a Calvinist. Scaliger made his name through his writings on editions by Ausonius, Festus, Varro Tibullus and Propertius. He was also a specialist in chronology or historical computistics, for which he     developed a scientific basis. Scaliger is said to have spoken 13 languages, including Hebrew, Ethiopian and Arabic. It took two exhausting trips by representatives of Leiden to persuade him to come to Leiden, ‘City of Keys’. 

Scaliger was devoted to the University and the University Library, but far less to the city of Leiden and its inhabitants. He frequently complained about the inferior accommodation he had been given and about the people of Leiden. ‘Here, people are     allowed to upset their neighbours without repercussion. My neighbours shout loudly and I can’t stop them’, he wrote in one of the 1670 letters that have been preserved. He didn’t leave, however; Scaliger came to Leiden in 1593 and died here in 1609. A     passionate book collector, Scaliger left his extensive  collection of books and manuscripts from Asia and the Middle East to the     University Library. This enabled Leiden to become the important centre for Asia and Middle East Studies that it is to this day.

Unwell on leaving Leiden

Scaliger Professor Rick Honings, who specialises in Modern Dutch Literature, also noticed that any affection the 16th century scholar Josephus Scaliger had for Leiden was hardly long-lasting (see box). ‘It is striking that the man after whom my chair and the medal you are to be presented with today is named, had little affection for the city.’ This was despite the fact that Scaliger, the ‘gem of the academy’, was well looked after; he earned a considerable salary and hardly ever had to give lectures, something he did not particularly enjoy doing. 

It was for this reason that Honings went looking for poets who, just like the Mayor, Lenferink, did hold the city in high esteem. He discovered the 18th century poet Willem Bilderdijk (in Dutch), who became physically unwell whenever he left Leiden. A particularly low point was when he fled with his family in the middle of the night from Soestdijk Palace, where he was staying at the invitation of the king: he could stand it no longer. Not that he was completely happy in Leiden; he had wanted to become a professor, but that was not to be. It would have done him good to know that a room in the Academy Building had recently been named after him. 

Rick Honings: 'Lenferink has come to love Leiden, and several poets also became attached to the city.'

‘But no, dry the tears!’

Honings said that, like Bilderdijk, there was also François Haverschmidt (pseudonym: Piet Paaltjens) (in Dutch). He studied theology in Leiden from 1852 to 1858, and passionately enjoyed his student days. He became sad simply at the idea of ever having to leave Leiden, but that moment came nonetheless. ‘I felt so deeply unhappy that I feared my heart would burst in my chest. I prayed for tears, but I could not weep.’ The fact that he became a minister in a small town in Friesland, with only a housekeeper and mice for company, probably did not help. He attended all the University reunions, and then mourned those who were no longer there. But he also wrote poetry:

Maar neen, gedroogd de tranen!
We wisten het toch vooraf:
Wat liefheeft, dat moet scheiden,
Wat leeft, rijpt voor het graf.

(But no, dry the tears!
We knew beforehand:
Those who love, must leave,
Those who live, are preparing for the grave.)

Tex: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Monique Shaw

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