A Brill Calendar: November 11

Fire on the Rapenburg

Few of the problems faced by Leyden University were as easy to solve as finding suitable accommodation for its scholars.

A ‘Universitas’ is, first of all, an abstract notion. In any case, little physical space was needed initially for a small number of Professors and students alike. There were some lecture halls and storage rooms; but no communal library to speak of. Like the other cities in the northern Low Countries busy with ousting Roman Catholic "rule", many monastic buildings, churches, nunneries, cloisters and their ilk were being deserted or standing empty, awaiting more worldly forms of usefulness. They had, after all, lost their function of serving the civic community by way of prayer & devotion.

Within Leyden’s city walls, female religious communities had been preponderant, numbering some fifteen in total. It is seldom that the notion of ‘functional inexactness’ in the study and epistemology of architecture is so strikingly illustrated. During the first six years of its existence the ‘Academia’ moved its headquarters twice: from the cloister of Saint Barbara, via the ‘Faliede Bagijnekerk’ to the church of the White Nuns at the Rapenburg.

Masons, carpenters and painters were commissioned to adapt the building for this different function in 1581 and this formerly sacred place and its immediate urban environment have since remained the hub and the heart of the Leyden Universe; including – as a matter of course – a number of printers, booksellers and publishers. ‘Stabilitas Loci’, stability of place, was already an old Benedictine monastic rule; with a long scholarly future at the Rapenburg since 1581. Even the fierce fire raging on the premises on November 11, 1616, didn’t annihilate this spatial constancy.