Saturday 11 May 2013

The Conundrum of the Netherlands

Leiden Uni. The Most Civilised Place on Earth?

I have just taught an MA class at the University of Leiden, and fell in love with the institution. The chairs of both Latin and Greek are held by wonderful women, a situation I never expected to see at any university in my lifetime. The students have all learned their excellent Greek in state schools. They come from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds.  

Leiden was awarded its university in 1575 by William I of Orange, as a reward for holding out when besieged by the Spanish.  The foundation story claims that the citizens were offered a choice of reward--advantageous tax breaks or a university-- and chose the latter. The inhabitants of Leiden are still actually proud that their forefathers chose intellectual life over lucre.

Gulliver in Brogdingnag
The Leiden students, of both sexes, are so tall that I feel like Gulliver in the land of the outsize Brobdingnagians, whose advanced culture was based on the practice of reason. They are polite, but I am careful not to offend them. Remember the tackles with which the enormous Dutch national football team assaulted all opponents in the 2010 World Cup? These culminated in the final, with Nigel de Jong’s chest-high kicking of the Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso.  The (British) referee was so scared of de Jong that he only gave him a yellow card. 

Why I am careful not to offend Dutch people
Perhaps the Dutch are so tall because of the proteinous dairy products derived from their glossy Friesian cattle.  Perhaps it was an evolutionary adaptation which helped them fix their windmills without having to use ladders. Since the Renaissance, they have themselves traced their height to the rigorous physical training of their forefathers, the glorious tribe of the Batavi, whom Tacitus described as most courageous.

The Batavi were exceptional horsemen and swimmers and conducted rebellions against Rome when they felt they were treated disrespectfully.  In my favourite Latin inscription of all time, a Batavian auxiliary serving under Hadrian in AD 117 boasts, ‘I swam across the wide waters of the deep Danube with all my arms; and while a weapon from a bow hung in the air fell, I transfixed it with an arrow and broke it, I whom no Roman nor barbarian, no soldier with a javelin nor Parthian was ever able to outdo…’
Fectio, the Dutch Batavian Re-Enactment Society

The Batavians’ descendants, at least in their football stadiums, still systematically applaud when their stars execute violence against their opponents. I am finding this hard to reconcile with the rational organisation of society and high levels of civilisation and culture which the country has achieved. Please can someone enlighten me?

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