Unesco adds KU Leuven archives to Memory register


The archives of the early modern and medieval University of Leuven have been awarded Unesco's Memory of The World label

The memoirs of a university

Last month, the archives of the medieval and early modern University of Leuven were added to the Unesco Memory of the World Register, a list of the world’s most important documentary heritage. We took a trip down memory lane to explore both the university library and the Leuven repository of the State Archives in Belgium and learned that this written history of long-gone times is both exemplary and unique in the development of Western European universities.

“These bulls, charters, letters and other documents illustrate the vivid and idiosyncratic biotope the academic world was during the Ancient Régime, with all sorts of privileges for its members,” according to an archive administrator. “They take us back to a time when people weren’t considered equal.”

These archives point to the larger backdrop of crucial developments in those times – primarily the birth and spread of humanism and the introduction of the Catholic Reformation. With trailblazing scholars, such as cartographer Gerard Mercator, anatomist Andreas Vesalius, philologist Justus Lipsius and “Prince of the Humanists” Desiderius Erasmus, all teaching in Leuven, the international appeal of the university grew steadily.

In the 16th century, Leuven became the second largest university on the European continent – only Paris had one bigger.

But in addition to illustrating the university’s then vanguard intellectual role, the archives offer a crucial and sometimes surprising insight into an institution that — between the 15th and 18th centuries — was very much a world of its own.

University superpowers

Dr Eddy Put, head of the Leuven repository of the State Archives, where 170 metres’ worth of these old university records are stored, explains that the university boasted its own beer and wine cellars, tribunals and prisons.

Leuven was a hotspot for the intellectual elite

- Archivist Marc Nelissen

“It’s hard to imagine, but if you wanted to have the same authority now that the rector had back then, you would have to be at least mayor, judge, priest and taxman combined,” he says. “Needless to say, once enrolled, you became part of a protected community and received all kinds of privileges.”

Which brings us to one of the key pieces in the archives: the “matrikel” books. “If you wanted to obtain the social, legal and tax status of the university community, you had to go to the rector in person,” explains Marc Nelissen, archivist and team leader of the university archives, an independent unit of the university library, which stores the most important and valuable pieces in the old archive, good for an additional 30 metres.

“Once you paid the tax, the rector personally recorded your name in the ‘matrikel’ or enrolment register,” Nelissen continues. “All these books, with the complete lists of students, are still intact.”

To be exact, 175,000 students between 1426 and 1797.

The list’s international range of names is striking, and Nelissen explains that they often receive requests from Germany, Hungary, Poland and other countries, for information about people who studied at the university.

“In the 16th century,” he says, “Leuven was a hotspot for the intellectual elite. But also in the 17th century – when there was a big inflow of Catholic refugees from Ireland, Scotland and England to the Catholic university – the university kept its appeal, leading to the foundation of the Irish College, for instance.”

A tense relationship

Closer inspection of the old documents reveals that there are very few references to the educational task and activities of the institution. “Supervising the property and protecting its rights was far more important for the management of the university,” says Nelissen.

This is where the collection of charters – the Dutch word oorkonde is so much nicer – comes in. These showpieces of the archives, all written on parchment and often still sealed, contain all the papal and princely privileges granted to the university. Nelissen says these charters gave the institution the legal foundation to exercise such extensive powers, leading to the university’s centuries-long bloom.

“The city, as well as the diocese, had to yield jurisdiction to the rector, so police and city courts couldn’t interfere with internal affairs,” he explains. “The exercise of these privileges was often contested. As you would expect, the situation created a lot of jealousy and a rather tense relationship between the academics and the local Leuven crowd.”

Nowhere in Europe were the typically medieval academic immunities developed to such an extent as in Leuven. But the charters exceeded the judicial realm. They, for instance, also granted members of the university the right to continue receiving their income from ecclesiastical benefices while studying, freeing them from liturgy during their academic careers in other Flemish towns.

Clipping the university’s wings

An important historical turn was marked with the Visitatio of archdukes Albert and Isabella in 1617, by force of which the local rulers took over parts of the administration of the university, limiting its autonomy and the influence of Rome.

If you wanted to start a doctor’s office or a law service, you needed a degree from Leuven

- University archivist Marc Derez

“At the same time their charter played a key role in the organisation of higher education in the Low Countries,” says Leuven university archivist Marc Derez. “If you wanted to start a doctor’s office or a law service, you needed a degree from Leuven. The charter officially registered and protected the academic professions, with a monopoly for the university.”

Browsing the archives, Nelissen points to another piece with great historical significance – the first design of the index of prohibited books. “In the context of increasing religious unrest, Charles V asked Leuven theologians – this again emphasising the importance of the university – to make a list of books that ought not to be read. This list, dated 9 May, 1546, was horrid, but, considering its implications, it’s now a top piece in European cultural heritage.”

Other items in the archives provide a rather amusing small-town picture of the academic community. Leuven was one of few universities with an officer responsible for maintaining order and combatting crime. The archives of its four courts reveal that some students, for instance, failed to pay their kotmadam (landlady) and were involved in bar fights.

Together with the archives of the university police and prison, the court documents offer an intimate look at university life during the Ancien Régime. The university also had its own beer and wine cellar, and the accounts show the impact of tax exemptions granted to the institution.

An archival homecoming

Internationally, Leuven holds one of the most extensive and best preserved university archives. “French and Italian universities were preserved rather sloppily,” Nelissen notes. “And they lack the homogeneity, which allows us to study the reality of an early modern university from many different perspectives.”

Getting the Unesco label means greater visibility and prestige

- State archivist Eddy Put

“There’s no money involved in getting the Memory of the World label,” says Put, who heads a federal archival department whose staff was recently reduced from 11 to 7. “It only means greater visibility and prestige, but that’s a start. We have a yearly restoring budget of no more than a few thousand euros. The designation will probably help us initiate some crowdfunding initiatives.”

The very existence of the archives of the medieval and early modern University of Leuven may come as a surprise. Just think of the city’s destruction during the two World Wars and the fires that twice burnt down the university library – a low in the history of Western European cultural heritage, which is explored in the excellent Ravaged exhibition at Museum M.

That the university archives were not in Leuven at those times could be called a lucky roll of the historical dice. “It’s a complex story,” says state archivist Put. “We’re talking about the old university, founded in 1425 and dissolved in 1797, a few years after the French troops approached the city, confiscated large parts of the archive and eventually stored it at the State Archives in Brussels.”

When a State Archives repository was set up in Leuven in 2001, the archives returned to their hometown.

Cherries on the cake

“The archival fund preserved at the State Archives mainly contains administrative records,” explains Nelissen. “But during the French Revolution local professors had hidden the cherries on the cake, bringing them to safety abroad in the Netherlands, Germany and even Denmark.”

In particular, the unique collection of 375 bulls and charters, indicating the old privileges, “underwent a real odyssey,” continues Nelissen. “They were smuggled out by the last librarian and archivist of the old university, Jan Frans Van De Velde.”

One part made its way to a seminary at ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, where Van De Velde had friends. It remained hidden until about 1909. In 1983, it came into the hands of the present-day Leuven university (KU Leuven) thanks to an exchange with the archdiocese in Mechelen.

“I remember the homecoming of the old bulls and charters in the 1980s,” says Derez. “They came in a cardboard refrigerator box. When we could finally lift the box, it was torn, and we saw a piece of a papal seal at the bottom. Everyone saw it would need a lot of restoring, but still we were thrilled because it was the first step in a long-term plan for the recuperation of the old archive – a dream of the late KU Leuven archivist Jan Roegiers.”

Another part of the collection ended up in the archives of the seminary of the diocese of Ghent and was returned to KU Leuven in 2001.

That leaves one central piece still missing, and, unfortunately, it can never return: The original bull of foundation from 1425, signed by pope Martin V. “At the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the current university, the Diocese of ’s-Hertogenbosch decided to donate the bull it had preserved since 1794,” Nelissen says. “Only a few years later, when the Germans invaded Leuven in 1914, it was lost in the fire. But since notaries made copies of all the charters, we can still admire the so-called chartulary.”

Photo: Belgian Unesco chair and former KU Leuven rector Marc Vervenne and Belgian Unesco chair Philippe Busquin (second from left) inspect charters in the Leuven repository of the State Archives in Brussels

University of Leuven

Established almost six centuries ago, the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) is one of the oldest universities in the Low Countries. International rankings consistently place it among the best universities in Europe.
Papal founding - It was founded as a Catholic university by Pope Martin V in 1425.
Bright minds - Over the centuries, it attracted famous scholars like Justus Lipsius, Andreas Vesalius, Desiderius Erasmus and Gerard Mercator.
Micro and nano - KU Leuven is home to the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (imec), a world-class research centre in micro- and nanoelectronics.
11 544

staff members in 2013

40 069

students in 2014-2015 academic year


million euros in annual research budget