Recruiting Early Modern Students in the Dutch Republic

By Andrew Pettegree and Forrest Strickland |


The publishers of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic produced some spectacular books, but the bread and butter of the trade, the work that kept the presses turning, was commissions from institutional customers: the state, city authorities and, increasingly, the universities. By the middle of the century the Dutch Republic had five universities, and these generated a mass of print: indeed at Groningen, Franeker, Harderwijk and Utrecht they played a large part in sustaining the local press. Much of this press time was spent printing student dissertations, but the administration of the university also generated a mass of work: lecture lists, announcements of the election of the rector, obituary notices. Since these were mostly broadsheets, intended for public display, most of this material has now disappeared.  Happily a major cache was preserved at the University of Groningen, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books library partners.

This may have been routine work, but it was executed with some care. The printers were well aware that their work presented the public face of the university, and they employed considerable typographical skill and their best paper.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a splendid broadsheet published in 1614, announcing the establishment of the new university.  We know that this was printed in an edition of 700 copies, for which the newly appointed university printer was paid the substantial sum of 65 gulden. For this he was expected to produce a work of some splendour, and he certainly delivered, in both typographical and rhetorical terms.


“The bread and butter of the trade, the work that kept the presses turning, were commissions from institutional customers.”


The placard begins by reflecting on how many great public leaders are distinguished by their patronage of the world of letters, none more so than Alphonso King of Spain, Aragon, Sicily, Sardinia, and Naples. He would ‘rather lose his kingdoms, of which he had all too little, than that he should be ignorant of books.’ An unlearned ruler, the placard avers, is like a donkey with a crown. Recipients of the announcement of the foundation of a Calvinist university might have raised a quizzical eyebrow at this paean of praise to the Catholic founder of the Academy at Naples, but the author moves swiftly on. The new university will offer a broad curriculum. The three higher faculties, theology, jurisprudence, and medicine will be taught as a matter of course, but also logic, ethics, physics, history, mathematics, Greek and Hebrew. This is an ambitious agenda, and to fulfill this remit, the university will reward professors ‘celebrated for their knowledge’, with liberal stipends. Students and teachers alike will receive local privileges, which in the Netherlands include freedom from the excise duty on beer and wine.  This generosity was underwritten from the income of confiscated monasteries.

The broadsheet reassured readers that the city was in an excellent location, where the air was pure and food abundant. The buildings and classrooms were prepared. All they needed now was to attract the students, and to this end this advertising brochure was dispatched to all corners of the continent, focusing particularly on German and Eastern Europe, the chief recruiting ground for foreign (Protestant) students who attended Dutch universities.


“Students and teachers alike will receive local privileges, which in the Netherlands include freedom from the excise duty on beer and wine.”


At present, the example preserved in the Groningen university archive and exhibited in the university museum (inv. 1934/1, 67) is the only copy known.  We hesitate to describe it as a unique survivor, as other copies might well be located through a thorough search of state and university archives in other parts of Europe.  Strangely, the broadsheet seems to have been something of an afterthought. The advertisement was printed only on 14 July, which, with classes due to begin on 22 August, gave little time for distribution, and for new students to make their travel plans.  In the event, it would be word of mouth, and the distinction of the teaching, that did most to recruit students.   In the case of Groningen these came particularly from the lands of central and Eastern Europe, attracted by a carefully cultivated reputation for theological orthodoxy.

In this both Groningen and Utrecht attempted to distinguish themselves from the more urbane atmosphere of Leiden, the first University of The Netherlands but notoriously the breeding ground of the Remonstrant heresy.  In the competitive world of seventeenth-century universities, each institution needed its unique selling point, and it was through rigorous adherence to orthodox Calvinism, rather than in the heritage of Alphonso of Naples, that Groningen created its reputation.


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Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He is the author of over a dozen books in the fields of Reformation history and the history of communication including Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge University Press, 2005), The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010) and The Invention of News (Yale University Press, 2014) and Brand Luther: 1517, Print and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin, 2015). His new projects include ‘Preserving the World’s Rarest Book’s’, a collaboration with the international library community funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His most recent book, Trading Books in the Age of Rembrandt (co-authored with Arthur der Weduwen), will appear in March 2019.

Forrest Strickland is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. He has served as a research student with the USTC since beginning his PhD in 2017.  His doctoral research investigates Dutch ministers and the culture of print in the Golden Age: their book collections and their use of print as a tool for persuasion in religious and public spheres. You can follow him on


Cover image used with the permission of the University of Groningen Library.

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