The cortege in 2016. Photo Gerhard Taatgen, ©RUG

Corona ruins 400-year-old tradition

The cortege you’re missing out on

Every year, a procession of Groningen professors makes its way from the Academy building to the Martini church during the opening of the academic year. But this year, the coronavirus is messing with a four-hundred-year-old tradition. So what are we missing out on?
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Door Christien Boomsma

31 August om 16:40 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:16 uur.
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By Christien Boomsma

August 31 at 16:40 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:16 PM.
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Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

This year, UG professors won’t be changing into their robes in the Senate room. They won’t be forming a procession and walk from the Academy building to the Martini church as they have been doing since the university was founded in 1614. There will be no beadle proudly leading the procession with his beadle staff. The Vindicat students will not be there to sing ‘Io Vivat’.

Simply put, there will be no cortege this year.

PhD ceremonies and speeches had already been moved online, so now it was time for an online version of the traditional procession of professors. University historian Klaas van Berkel got an e-mail which asked him to send in a photo of himself in formal attire. Can a video replace a four-hundred-year-old tradition?

The real cortege dates back to the foundation of the UG. Van Berkel even knows of two that were organised before that.  Back then, it marked the start of a special Senate session, which is what the group of professors was called. ‘It was always used to show the hierarchy of the university professors’, he says.


The procession is led by the beadle, who holds a staff that also dates back to 1614. Next comes the rector magnificus, the formal head of the university. Behind the rector are the professors of the faculty the former is part of. ‘Then there were the faculties in a prescribed order’, says Van Berkel. Theology came first, followed by the Faculty of Law and the medical faculty. ‘Next came philosophy, which until 1815 was split up into mathematics and physics and the arts, with the former two preceding the latter, based on the French model.’ 

Streamer: You might get away with wearing a blue suit, but brown was a big no-no

What about the other faculties, like economics and business, spatial sciences, or behavioural and social sciences? These younger faculties had to walk in the back. 

When Van Berkel joined the Groningen university in 1988, this tradition and order were strictly maintained. Normal professors walked in front of professors by special appointment. The older, more prestigious fields were given precedence over the more modern ones. ‘That meant surgery came before anaesthesiology’, he says. This tradition was not to be messed. Even famous anatomist Petrus Camper was chastised when he tried to steal a competing professor’s seat in the church. 

Black cloak and beret

The clothes the participants in the procession have to wear are a serious matter. The Groningen robes, a black cloak and black, unadorned beret, have to be worn over a black suit and black shoes. ‘You might get away with wearing a blue suit, but brown was a big no-no’, says Van Berkel. Professor have to wear a black beret and white bands. 

While other Dutch universities might add a colourful tassel or a decorative cord to celebrate their particular faculty, like they do at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, or three Saint Andrew’s crosses on the sleeves like they do in Amsterdam, Groningen keeps it simple. Boring? ‘Stylish’, says Van Berkel.

No one really knows where the rule that everyone has to wear black comes from. Van Berkel says it’s not derived from what sixteenth-century academic traditionally wore. Sure, they wore cloaks, but they were always fur-trimmed, and not necessarily black. ‘It’s probably a remnant from when the Spanish were here. Black was associated with Spanish noblemen and important officials.’

Clown suit

The professors did wear colourful robes between 1811 and 1814, when the Groningen university was part of the French ‘imperial’ university and had to conform to its attire. ‘In 1815, they quickly switched back to the black worsted or light woollen robes, out of disgust for that whole charade’, says Van Berkel. ‘They didn’t think the French clown suit properly conveyed the venerability of professors.’

Nevertheless, you might be able to spot a little bit of colour in between the dark clothes the professors wear. Just after the war, the professors were given permission to display honorary degree medals from other universities: it was usually an extra small cloak, also known as a cappa, or a sash.

Streamer: It allows to you to talk to people you wouldn’t meet otherwise

It’s a sign that the tradition is slowly changing, says Van Berkel. The university has slowly started letting go of the strict hierarchy since he started working here. ‘Everyone just mingles around’, he says. ‘Which is good, since it allows you to talk to people you wouldn’t meet otherwise.’

The difference between the regular and special professors has also disappeared. While Vindicat used to be the only student association allowed in the procession (their first time was somewhere around 1850), these days, a variety of clubs carry their banners in the cortege.  

Unfortunately, no one will be carrying anything this year. ‘It’s a shame’, says Van Berkel. New professors at the university won’t be able to make their debut. Retiring professors won’t get their last chance to be part of the academy. And students will miss out on the impressive opening ceremony.

The procession of professors arrives at the Martinikerk in 1909, with rector magnificus J.W. Moll in front. Photo University Museum

Professors on the Grote Markt in 1914. The procession celebrates the 300-year anniversary of the UG. Photo University Museum

The first cortege after the liberation, in 1945, leads past the battered north side of the Grote Markt. Photo E. Folkers/Groninger Archieven

Rector magnificus Folkert van der Woude (left) in the doorway of the Senaatskamer, sometime between 1994 and 1998. Photo Elmer Spaargaren

The procession with among others board president Jouke de Vries passes by the UB in 2018. Photo Rob Siebelink


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