KU Leuven: Charter collection of the Oude Leuven University restored

In recent years, the charter collection of the archives of the University of Leuven (1425-1797) has been completely restored and digitized. These documents provide a thorough insight into the workings of and life at the early modern university. The charters can now be consulted both physically and digitally.

The charter collection of the archives of the Old Leuven University contains hundreds of historical documents that determined the legal framework within which the university functioned during the ancien régime, from its foundation in 1425 until its dissolution in 1797. The collection contains papal privileges and other charters, often on parchment and with wax seals and seal tails in silk. In 2013, UNESCO recognized the archives of the Oude Leuven University as a documentary world heritage site.

Deed of amortization of Empress Maria Theresa, July 28, 1756. | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens
“The archive of the Oude Leuven University, which we share with the State Archives in Leuven, is unique because of its completeness,” says Marc Nelissen, head of the University Archives. “It is one of the most homogeneous university archives from the ancien regime in Europe. Apart from their institutional and legal significance, the charters also offer a unique insight into the functioning of and life at the early modern university, both intellectually and culturally, as well as socially and religiously. The charters reflect not only how the university functioned, but also the interactions between students, professors and the wider society.”

Optimally preserved for the future
The charter collection had an eventful history, with various wanderings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not until 1983 that the charters arrived in Leuven again and were placed in the University Archives. The wanderings had left their mark: most of the charters were in bad shape. That is why the charter project was launched in 2018, with the support of the Baillet Latour Fund of the King Baudouin Foundation. An interdisciplinary team from KU Leuven has restored and digitized the historical documents.

“The charters have not been kept in optimal conditions for a long time: many documents were distorted, the wax seals badly damaged and the delicate seal tails confused. Also, not all charters were accurately described,” said Professor Lieve Watteeuw (Book Heritage Lab KU Leuven), scientific coordinator of the project. “With the restoration and digitization of the charters, we are increasing the accessibility of these historic pieces. It is reassuring that they are now optimally preserved for the future.”

The charters can not only be consulted digitally via LIAS , but also physically in the University Library of KU Leuven. They are stored in specially designed rooms and cabinets that ensure optimum storage conditions.

Foundations of the University
The restored charter collection was presented in the presence of Rectors Luc Sels (KU Leuven) and Vincent Blondel (UCLouvain).

“This charter project is of great significance for the sister universities KU Leuven and UCLouvain”, responds Luc Sels. “These documents form the historical, legal foundations of our university. That history is literally becoming a bit more tangible now that all charters have been conserved and digitized. I would like to express my sincere thanks to the interdisciplinary team for this invaluable work. My great gratitude also goes to the Baillet Latour Fund of the King Baudouin Foundation for the financial support.”

“This realization underlines and reinforces the heritage and history that UCLouvain and KU Leuven share,” emphasizes Vincent Blondel. “This feels like a first important milestone on the way to the 600th anniversary of both universities. Thanks to this ambitious project, carried out with great expertise by KU Leuven, scientists and the general public can become acquainted with this unique archive collection.”

Marc Nelissen (scientific coordinator)

“A nice piece is the report of the meeting of the city and the university on Friday, September 6, 1426, a meeting that had to take place under time pressure … On Saturday, September 7, 1426, the day before Leuven Kermis, the new university would solemnly will be opened with a Mass for the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s Church, in the presence of many highly placed guests, with Nicolaas van Prüm being one of the brand new professors to deliver the homily. But on Friday evening, the city and university representatives had to arrange another emergency meeting to arrange the election of the first rector.”

“In this report, which was signed by both the notary of the university and that of the city, we can almost literally follow the negotiations. Willem Neve, the scholaster ( canon who supervised education) of the St. Peter’s Chapter, had obtained the foundation certificate as an envoy in Rome, but at the same time had stipulated that an additional sentence be provided that he could fulfill the position of rector during the first five years. The city did not feel like an exception rule from the start, and it was eventually decided that Willem Neve would take up the position of rector, but that he would spontaneously resign after six months. The reason for this spontaneity can be found in the Leuven city accounts from after 1426, which show that the scholaster received an annual allowance at the expense of the city. The history of Leuven University began with a compromise, an arrangement according to the rules of an art that we still manage today.”

Jarrik Van Der Biest (scientific collaborator)

“From my perspective as a historian, the following charter from 1516 aroused my interest: a papal dispensation ( exemption from a violation of canon law ) for bigamy, addressed to Jodocus Van Der Hoeven. The idea that there was a bigamist working at the university immediately caught my imagination, what a scandal that must have been! Closer inspection of the charter, however, revealed that our conception of bigamy differs greatly from that of the sixteenth-century Apostolic Penitentiary. As a member of the lower clergy, he had simply remarried after the death of his first wife, which meant that he was no longer entitled to his wages.”

“That for such a situation a charter had to make the entire journey from Rome to Leuven underlines to us how different the past is: special theological concerns, obscure canonical laws and complicated bureaucracy. At the same time, Josse’s widowhood strikes a human chord that proves impervious to the passing of the centuries. This interplay between distance and recognisability is exactly what fuels historical interest. The icing on the cake was that Josse turned out to be an acquaintance of the Desiderius Erasmus and had single-handedly brought the works of a certain Martin Luther from Leuven to Cologne to be examined there for the first time for heresy. It turned out that this ‘bigamist’ from Leuven had a hand in the course of history…”

Lieve Watteeuw (scientific coordinator)

“The charter collection of the Old University contains a papal bull of 1 March 1573 in which Pope Gregorius XIII (1502-1585) confirms and further elaborates the Leuven appointment privileges. Exceptionally, this extensive bull is not written on one large sheet of parchment, but is a quire. The document begins with the name of Pope Gregory in a large elegant elongated script. The margins of the charter were richly decorated in the papal chancery with floral pen drawings ‘ cum floribus ‘. At the bottom is a yellow and red silk cord threaded through the parchment and sealed with the lead papal bull. Attaching the seal to the papal document was a key step in the process of issuing a charter, the lead bulla.literally confirmed the legal person and authority of the Pope to the document, thus validating its contents. The mold ( casting mould ) for the image on the lead seal depicting the heads of Peter and Paul was designed in 1535 by the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.”

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