Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Commemoration and Community. Local memories of the Dutch Revolt, 1566-1700

This subproject examines the development of memory cultures, the meaning of memories of the Dutch Revolt, the multimedia aspect of the creation of a local memory culture, which artefacts were used to keep memories alive and the differences between local memory cultures in the Repubilc and the Southern Netherlands.

2008 - 2013
Judith Pollmann
NWO Vici NWO Vici


The siege and relief of Leiden in 1573-1574 is one of the most famous episodes in the history of the Dutch Revolt. After the sieges of Haarlem and Alkmaar, the Spaniards decided to fight the rebels in Leiden by starving the townspeople into submission. Soon food shortages made the situation more and more unbearable. Just in time, however, the town was saved, after the Beggar armies cut the dikes, and brought in supplies of bread and herring. Or that at least is how the story goes. In recent years it has been proven that the food shortages were not as bad as always had been assumed; in fact, it was plague rather than hunger that caused thousands of townspeople to die. Nevertheless commemorations of the siege were from the start focusing on memories of starvation, rather than on pestilence. Apparently the story of Leiden’s siege does not primarily tell us about what happened in the town during the Revolt; it mainly reflects what contemporaries thought was worth remembering, and what they considered had best be forgotten. 

Local memory cultures

Politics probably played a key role in the creation of local memory cultures of the Dutch Revolt. Leiden’s authorities focused the commemoration of the siege squarely on the famine in the city. Pestilence was seen as a form of divine punishment, and so perhaps not a suitable focus of commemoration. Hunger, on the other hand, had allowed the magistrates to demonstrate their leadership skills. Moreover, since hunger had affected all the townspeople, its commemoration could be used to heal the rifts that had emerged in the urban community during the Dutch Revolt. At the same time, the hunger narrative obviously struck a chord in the local community, so that personal and public commemoration could easily coincide. 

Several groups were involved in the construction of memory cultures within the urban community. The local government and the churches were concerned with the political implications of certain memories. Their opponents might equally appeal to war memories as a benchmark for their own patriotism or political correctness. Not all cities were in a position to look back on the Revolt with pride. For many cities in the Southern Netherlands, memories of their support of the Revolt were painful. And for a town like Amsterdam, that had sided with the Spanish, memories of the Revolt were an embarrassment rather than a source of pride. Religious minorities also could find themselves out of sink with local memory cultures; for Catholics in the Republic, the Revolt evoked losses rather than gains.

Personal agendas
Personal agendas also affected local memory practices. Leiden’s burgomaster Pieter van der Werf, for example, worked hard to maintain and expand his reputation as a war hero, and his family traded on this long after his death. Remembering could become a serious business for individuals and families in the short and/or the long run. Apparently Magdalena Moons did not want others to know that she had once been married to Spanish commander, Francisco de Valdez. When her story resurfaced in the mid seventeenth century, nevertheless, her family hastened to stress her virtue and confirmed from family memory that she had played an instrumental role in saving Leiden. A century after the siege, Moons became a local heroine. But lower on the social ladder, too, war memories could be vital to support pleas for appointments and rewards, or simply to maintain local prestige. Conversely, it was also desirable to forget or adjust other elements of the past. The development and constant adaptation of local memory cultures was part of everyday life in the Low Countries during and after the Dutch Revolt. The first aim of this project is to see how these memory cultures came into being. 

Memory transfer
Memories were passed on in many shapes and guises. Annual memorial days, historical documents, plays, sermons, plaques on houses, public buildings or spaces with a connection to the Revolt, memorial plates in churches, tapestries, paintings and local histories were all used to convey images of the Revolt. While some of these media, such as history plays and paintings in city halls, have been studied before, they have so far mostly been considered in isolation. The second objective of this project is to consider the way in which different media were deployed, to consider how they interrelated, and to establish what audiences they might have reached.

'Relics' of the Revolt

Special attention will be devoted to ‘relics’ of the Revolt. Individuals and their family cherished objects that could serve to illustrate or ‘prove’ their involvement in past events. Some contemporaries also collected memorabilia. In some cases such relics passed into the hands of the community, and were put on display. These ‘collections’ are an extra and potential source of information about the material side of memory culture. We will examine what the function of these memorabilia was, and how their uses changed when they changed hands or location. Context is crucial. Artefacts change their meaning when they are moved to a different location and can be used for other purposes. The object needs a story to tell what it is about and which memories it can portray. When the story changes, the object’s meaning will change as well. This way an artefact can lead to conflict because it has meaning to more than one group. On the other hand objects can also be reappropriated for new purposes. The pigeons in Leiden that had been used to communicate with the Beggar armies, initially were just a source of status to their owner. When the pigeons died the owner presented the stuffed animals to the local government, who put them on display at the town hall as a public memorial of the Revolt.


Besides the multimedia approach, a comparison of towns in both the North and the South of the Netherlands will play a significant role in this subproject; it will help us to understand the emergence, continuation and perhaps also the absence of local memory cultures.. In the Republic local memories were central to the commemoration of the Revolt and some local memories eventually became part of national history. In a decentralised polity like the Republic this comes as no surprise. Much less is known about local memories of the Revolt in the Southern Netherlands. One key question is whether the more centralised political structure of the South also affected local memory cultures, or whether these developed more or less along the same lines as in the North.


In short the purpose of this subproject is to examine: 

  • The development of memory cultures in the towns and to reconstruct who (individuals, families, churches and local governments) played an important part in the creation of a memory culture (including heroines and heroes) and why they did this.
  • What memories and commemorations of the Dutch Revolt meant for local communities. How did different groups within the community react or contribute to memory cultures? Could a (new) harmony or consensus be established within the community after the Revolt?
  • The multimedia aspect of the creation of a local memory culture. Which media were used to send which messages? How did they interrelate and which audiences did they reach?
  • Which artefacts were used in the seventeenth century to keep memories of the Dutch Revolt alive? Why were these ‘relics’ kept and by whom?
  • The differences and similarities between local memory cultures of the Revolt in the Republic and the Southern Netherlands.
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