Super sleuth Gerda Huisman says goodbye
The hidden treasures of the UB
Originally, Gerda Huisman (65) wanted to be an archaeologist. But during her first year of studying history at the RUG, she discovered her true passion: hunting through the library. Back then, she was just ‘looking for things for school’.
In her second year, she started taking unusual courses such as mediaeval Latin and palaeography, as well as some art history courses. Her interest in the Middle Ages continued to grow. She was especially interested in the books from the time; not just their contents, but also the books themselves. ‘What materials are they made of; how were they constructed? It’s what’s known as book archaeology’, says Huisman. ‘So I became kind of an archaeologist after all’, she laughs.
She started her career at the university library in Nijmegen before she graduated. Her job was to catalogue mediaeval manuscripts from a monastery library. The job was supposed to last four years, but Huisman returned to her alma mater before her time was up, because the UB here offered her an amazing opportunity: to become the custodian of a large collection of literature about palaeography.
She is hesitant to toot her own horn. ‘Oh, listen to me rambling on!’ she says, after she’s given a short account of her career. She is not used to talking about herself at length; it’s the remarkable books she wants to focus on.
In the early eighties, mediaeval studies were all the rage at the RUG. There was even an interfaculty seminar which focused largely on mediaeval manuscripts. ‘The library and the arts faculty had invested a lot in a large collection of literature on palaeography’, Huisman says. ‘They needed an expert on the subject.’ They asked Huisman. It was the last job she ever took.
Over the past few decades, Huisman has made a number of interesting discoveries, which she has on display. She recalls one such discovery: ‘It was a hot day when I thought, this might be a good time to tidy up the book vault.’
The vault is a temperature-controlled room where the humidity is kept as low as possible. It’s filled with old, vulnerable collections that wouldn’t survive exposure to the outside air, such as old letters, parchment, and papyrus.
During her tidying up, Huisman found an unfamiliar collection of letters from the eighteenth century, written by a man called Herman Bosscha. ‘They were kind of boring: “the weather’s nice but I have to go now because my ship is leaving”, stuff like that’, Huisman says, clearly enthused.
The second Bosscha letter was much more interesting. The letter turned out to be from Johan Bosscha, Herman’s brother, a tutor who had moved to Paris. ‘Now look at the date’, says Huisman, holding the authentic letter in her bare hands. ‘August, 1789. An ominous year’, the book archaeologist lectures. ‘What we have here is a Dutch eyewitness account of the French Revolution. Bosscha also describes the storming of the Bastille. So that made this discovery very exciting.’
How has this treasure gone undiscovered for so long? Hasn’t everything in the collection already been looked at? ‘There’s looking at something and then there’s truly looking at something’, Huisman explains. The letters originate from a family collection that was spread out all over the Netherlands. No one had really looked at them when they came in. ‘We didn’t even know we had part of that collection. My predecessors didn’t know either. It was a total coincidence that I, a mediaevalist, came across these letters.’
It won’t have been the last discovery either; according to the book archaeologist, the UB’s storage is replete with historical treasures. ‘Anyone could walk into the UB and make an amazing discovery’, she says.
So what is it that makes an object special? That is to say, special enough to end up in the Special Collections? ‘I always joke that if something is special to me, it’s special, period’, Huisman smiles. But, she says, collections simply end up becoming special. In the RUG’s early years, the university bought many collections that were common back then. Nothing fancy. They only became special as they aged, and because they’re a snapshot of the times they’re from.
‘This one, for example, is so beautiful’, Huisman says, picking up a small stitched book the size of a notebook. It’s a printed almanac from 1608. It was written by Nicolaus Mulerius, one of the first professors at the RUG and a good friend of Ubbo Emmius. ‘They printed approximately ten thousand copies of this almanac, but almost none are left’, says Huisman. ‘This ephemeral piece of printing was thrown out at the end of the year, just like people throw away a free newspaper nowadays.’
This particular copy was found in an attic room a few years ago. What makes it so special are the notes in the margin. As a palaeographer, Huisman immediately recognised them. ‘It’s Mulerius’ own handwriting.’ The writer himself made notes in this unique copy of the almanac.
But Huisman’s favourites are the coloured engravings: books about plants and animals full of prints that were later coloured in by the owner. The colours on the pages have been perfectly preserved. ‘The colouring was done by hand, so each print is unique. Aren’t they amazing?’ Huisman beams.
Again with bare hands, she picks up a sixteenth century breviary, flicking through the beautifully designed work like it’s a magazine at the doctor’s office. ‘Look’, she says, when she’s done. ‘Isn’t this pretty?’ The parchment page contains curly letters on a golden background with small adornments. It’s a work of art. ‘I just love that.’
Huisman doesn’t intend to leave her curiosity behind when she retires. She will definitely continue her sleuthing, even after she says her goodbyes on 21 June. ‘I’m going to keep coming back. The great thing is that you don’t need a paid job to do this work.’