University
Adri van der Laan in the former hospital ward of Aduard Abbey. Photo by Reyer Boxem

Treasures of the North5

Classic education was invented in Aduard

Adri van der Laan in the former hospital ward of Aduard Abbey. Photo by Reyer Boxem
Within cycling distance of Groningen, you’ll find the remnants of one of the most important monasteries of Europe: the Aduard Abbey. It’s where the first Dutch humanists would get together and come up with the ideas that would lay the foundation for the University of Groningen.
30 January om 9:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 1 February 2024
om 9:32 uur.
January 30 at 9:59 AM.
Last modified on February 1, 2024
at 9:32 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Christien Boomsma

30 January om 9:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 1 February 2024
om 9:32 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

January 30 at 9:59 AM.
Last modified on February 1, 2024
at 9:32 AM.

The monastery isn’t exactly visible. Entering the village of Aduard, you’ll mostly see modern houses. It’s not until you get to the village centre, that you suddenly find yourself in front of an imposing façade made out of thirteenth-century brick.

The Aduard Abbey

The Aduard Abbey was founded in 1192. The abbey belonged to the Cistercian order, devoted to the holy Bernard of Clairvaux. During its heyday, it was one of the biggest abbeys in Europe.

The building itself is no longer standing, but the former hospital ward, now used as a Protestant church, is still standing. Tours are available. 

The abbey museum can be found in one of the oldest houses in Aduard, which was built somewhere around 1600. There is a tea garden behind the museum.

This is the last visible remnant of what was once the biggest and most important monastery in the Netherlands, as well as the first one that could measure up to the big ones in Europe: the Aduard Abbey. The complex housed approximately one hundred monks, more than ten ‘outworks’ – farms that were run by hundreds of lay brothers – and lots and lots of land. When the Reformation made the monastery redundant, it owned more than five thousand hectares. 

Today, the enormous complex has been buried by the houses in the village. The only thing left is a single building: the former hospital ward that became a Protestant church after the Reformation. 

Virtual reality

Nevertheless, it’s worth it to take a look. Not only is there a little museum with ever-changing expositions on what monastery life was like in the Middle Ages, but this museum also developed a virtual-reality app with which you can take a tour through the village to see what the monastery looked like in its heyday.

According to classicist Adrie van der Laan, it must have been an impressive sight. ‘The only picture we have is an engraving of the city of Groningen, with the monastery’s church in the background. That’s how big it was.’

If you were looking for a scholar in the north, the Aduard Abbey was the place to be

But that’s not why Van der Laan is interested in the monastery. Much more interestingly, at the end of the fifteenth century, a group of learned men were invited by abbot Hendrik van Rees. This group became known as the Aduarder Kring (Aduard circle). There, the first humanists north of the Alps laid the foundations for not just the Groningen university, but also the way we approach education today. ‘If you were looking for a scholar in the north, the Aduard Abbey was the place to be’, says Van der Laan.

Rudolf Agricola

Members of the group came from all over the northern provinces, from Deventer to East Frisia. Among them were intellectual heavyweights such as Wessel Gansfort and Rudolf Agricola. Especially the latter, who was born Roelof Huesman in the Groningen town of Baflo in 1443, is very important. ‘He is the founder of humanism in Northern Europe’, says Van der Laan. ‘He studied in Italy and created a huge network. He was one of the first people north of the Alps who could speak Greek and is a very inspiring figure.’

Even Erasmus, the biggest humanist of them all, greatly admired Agricola. He first met him as a teenager when Agricola visited fellow Kring member Alexander Hegius at the Latin school in Deventer, where he left a huge impression. ‘Erasmus later collected and published all of Agricola’s work.’

In the Cistercian abbey, ‘a monastic order that valued intellectualism’, a place one could walk to in just two hours from the Martini church, Agricola and the other members of the Aduarder Kring wrote the earliest humanist treaties in the Netherlands.  

‘They’d have these kinds of presentations’, Van der Laan says, ‘that they would afterwards discuss. The make-up of the group would change, not everyone attended every meeting, but I think there were, on average, between five and twenty attendees.’

Latin

The humanists wanted to bring back Latin because it was correct and precise

Don’t think the group’s impact was any less important because it was relatively small, says Van der Laan. ‘These days we’re all about quantity, but back then they weren’t, especially not in those days. It was all about the passion and knowledge of the people in the group.’

The early humanists focused on one thing in particular: language. They favoured Latin. The subject is more modern and topical than you might think. ‘The humanists wanted to bring back the Latin used by Cicero and Quintilianus’, Van der Laan explains. ‘Not because they liked the language, but because it’s so correct and precise in its use.’

Even though Latin was spoken everywhere in Agricola’s day, since it was the international working language of scholars, like English is today, ‘the humanists felt it had been perverted. People no longer possessed a vocabulary big enough to express exactly what they meant’. 

Medieval Latin, for instance, barely distinguished between the words ‘passim’ and ‘ubique’.  While both mean ‘everywhere’, ‘ubique’ implies greater density than ‘passim’, like in a field full of cows where grass density is higher than the density of cows.

Civilisation

That was an issue. ‘The humanists were all about three connecting pillars: language, morality, and education. They felt the foundation of civilisation hinged on being able to express yourself as accurately and interestingly as possible’, says Van der Laan. 

A ‘real person’, humanists like Agricola said, is a civilised person. ‘A person that has been moulded. Someone who has been educated in and formed by language, morality, and ethics.’ 

In a society, you have to be able to properly express your thoughts

Most people only remember the second part, that people should be ‘decent’ and behave properly towards others because that ultimately benefits society. 

But everything hinges on language and its correct usage. If you want to discuss complex issues, you need exact knowledge of the language. According to the humanists, that’s something people were lacking in the late Middle Ages, says Van der Laan, and it’s also what they are currently lacking in English. ‘We can all pretend like everyone is fluent in English, but that’s simply not true. My English isn’t bad at all, but my Dutch is much better.’

Language

In the decades that followed, the ideas of humanists like Agricola and Erasmus spread quickly, and they’ve influenced how we think of education for centuries. There’s good reason that Agricola is seen as one of the founders of the Groningen university, even though that wasn’t established until 1485, 129 years after his death.

Education is supposed to civilise people, and language is an important pillar in that. Latin schools and later the grammar schools invested heavily in teaching their pupils Latin. But now, Van der Laan says, that focus has been lost. 

He’s not against internationalisation, but he does feel educational institutes should do more to teach people the language. ‘It’s obviously fine to pick a single language to communicate in, but surely we can expect a minimum level of quality? Why does no one ever talk about that? You don’t have to all agree to have a functional society. But you do have to be able to properly express your thoughts.’

So what about Agricola? He left Groningen in 1484 to study Hebrew in Heidelberg. He died there, a year later. This year also marked the end of the Aduarder Kring.

The abbey itself was seized by the state troops in 1580 and mostly destroyed. The last abbot, Willem van Emmen, moved to the Blue House at the Munnikeholm, where the Aduard monks could hide in emergencies. He turned the building into a guesthouse and left to eight poor women, who were allowed to live there for free. It was renovated in 1775. The Aduarder Guesthouse still exists, and currently houses students.

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