Traces of 3 October: 450 years of the Relief of Leiden
This year Leiden will be celebrating the 450th Relief of Leiden, and the city is doing this in style. The long history of this period is still visible in the city. Leiden master’s students are researching this history as part of the ‘Traces of 3 October’ project.
What exactly happened 450 years ago, and what can still be seen of those events in and around Leiden? History students Alexander Nuijten and Marieke Nolten, and archaeology students Lisoula Feenstra and Kim Taal are finding out during their internship with Leiden City of Knowledge. They are working on the Traces of 3 October project, where knowledge and cultural institutions together relate the stories of the Relief of Leiden based on surviving traces. These stories will appear every month in Leiden’s daily newspaper, the Leidsch Dagblad, and there are plans for a book, a series of podcasts and a documentary. The students meet every week in the City Hall, along with archaeologist and journalist Ruurd Kok who will write the articles and produce the documentary.
Traces in the Leiden Heritage archive
The history students spend a lot of time in the Leiden Heritage archive. ‘We’re mainly examining court records. We transcribe these documents and also look for secondary literature’, Marieke explains. They learned the weather conditions that the Geuzen [The Sea Beggars, a group of privateers who helped lift the Siege of Leiden, Ed.] had to contend with. ‘For example, we read about children throwing snowballs in February 1574.’ Alexander: ‘As well as this research, we’re also holding meetings within the municipality and for interested parties, and we’re coming into contact with all kinds of people in the city. These are very valuable experiences that you don’t usually have within a study programme.’
Early modern manuscripts are the highlight of the project for Marieke. ‘When I started the research I thought: what have I got myself into?’ she says. ‘Clerk Jan van Hout’s handwriting in particular is completely illegible. But it’s such a fun challenge and it’s getting better all the time! Alexander and I work on it together, which is a great help. Sometimes one of us can decipher that very word that had the other stumped.’
No evidence, no publication
‘What’s different in this project from during your studies is the way we handle findings. Here, we learn to think about how we can use the findings for publication in newspapers and on websites. Unlike in an academic essay, in these media there’s no room for contradictions. If you can’t absolutely prove something, it simply doesn’t get into the newspaper’, Marieke explains.
Pioneers in archaeological research
Archaeological research on the period of the siege and Relief of Leiden is proving more challenging. ‘We are studying excavation reports and mentioned old foundations and burnt layers in the soil mentioned in these reports,’ says Kim. ‘Then we can support what is written in the historical sources. But not a great deal has been excavated, and that makes our work difficult.’
You are dependent on material remains for archaeological research on this period, says Lisoula, ‘If nothing ends up in the ground, you won’t find any evidence. The most concrete traces that we can point to are from the large-scale demolition in 1573. But if no research has taken place on these locations, the information that we have is very fragmentary.’
Kim and Lisoula are pioneers in this respect. ‘It’s frustrating, but we can turn it into something inspiring, like a research proposal for Leiden Heritage.’ They hope this will get archaeological study of the period of the Spanish Occupation and Relief higher up the agenda. ‘This isn’t only of historical importance but is also crucial for Leiden’s identity’, says Lisoula.
The students try to work together as much as possible. When Marieke and Alexander find something in the court records, Kim and Lisoula try to support it with archaeological evidence. They also wrote an article together for Leidschrift, an academic-historical journal run by history students. ‘That’s what I like so much about this project. Normally you’re working within your own little bubble, but now we’re also learning to work with other disciplines,’ says Kim.
Video Traces of 3 October
In this video (in Dutch), the team talk about the project, the research and what is happening in the run-up to the celebration on 3 October.
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The project ‘Traces of 3 October’ came to fruition through the initiative Learning with the City. They approached history and archaeology professors who were very enthusiastic about having their students collaborate on research. Additionally, students from mboRijnland are participating in the project, contributing with an Epic Quest, a website, and a social media campaign.
Text: Jip de Bloois