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Praesidium Libertatis – the University of Leiden

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 1575, the University of Leiden was founded, the first university within the territory of the modern state of the Netherlands. Its official name as given on its shield in Latin is “Academia Lugduno-Batava”; this comes from a long-held but mistaken belief that Leiden stands on the site of a Roman military camp called “Lugdunum Batavorum”, which was actually at Brittenburg, about 33 miles to the south. The Batavi were a Germanic tribe who lived in the Rhine delta, and their name is often used as a Latin demonym for the Dutch people; Leiden is therefore called “Lugdunum Batavorum” to distinguish it from the French city of Lyon, whose Latin name is also “Lugdunum”. (The “dun” element comes from the Celtic word for “camp”, and appears in many place names throughout the former Celtic lands.)

The university’s motto is also Latin, “Praesidium Libertatis – the bulwark of liberty.”; in this case, “liberty” means particularly the freedom of the Dutch Calvinists in the north of the Netherlands from the Spanish Habsburgs. Its founder, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, is also regarded as the founder of the modern Netherlandish state, since it was he who began the long-fought rebellion that ultimate led to the division of the Netherlands into a Protestant state in the north and a Catholic state in the south, which became the modern nation of Belgium (another Latin name, by the way.)

The period from roughly 1575 to 1675 is known as the Golden Age of Holland, and Leiden University played no small part in its glories. Many of the most famous scholars of the era studied and taught there, among them, Joseph Scaliger, who laid the scientific foundations for both the critical revision of ancient texts and the chronology of ancient history.

What I find particularly interesting is that most of these scholars were Calvinists, and therefore repudiated the use of Latin in church services, but their scholarship was still all done in Latin, and they are generally referred to even today by the Latin forms of their names. Joest Lips is known as Justus Lipsius, François Gomaer as Franciscus Gomarus, Hugo de Groot as Hugo Grotius, Jakob Hermanszoon (son of Herman) as Jacobus Arminius, and his theological school, which was very controversial within among the Calvinist churches as “Arminianism.” Scaliger was of Italian descent, and his family name is a Latinization of “Della Scala.” Although these men had separated from the Catholic Church and its theological tradition, and the use of Latin as a sacred language, Latin remained the means of scholarly communication across even the hardest drawn confessional lines.

(The logo of Leiden University; from Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0)

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