Title page of Dimonstrazioni Matematiche by Galileo Galilei. Printed by Elsevier, Leiden in 1638. Leiden University Library.

The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) in Leiden offers visitors several exhibitions. Among them is a small one with twenty-five books. Do not be fooled: these books made history, so this is an important exhibition!

This exhibition’s central theme is the connection between the twenty-five books, their authors and publishing houses and Leiden University. Leiden University was founded by William the Taciturn in 1575. He financed his generous gift using confiscated Catholic property. Thus, Leiden University’s Academy building, which one passes on entering the famous Hortus Botanicus, used to be the chapel of a Dominican convent.

The first location of the university’s library actually was another former convent. What the library looked like and why it was founded, is explained in the exhbition as well. As for the books: each one is remarkable, though many look quite dull. One of the few exceptions is a wonderful atlas with coloured prints and lots of monsters, which should please kids.

The exhibition also explains who printed this atlas and the other books. Many of the printers and publishers came from abroad. Some of Leiden’s printers and publishers specialized in printing Hebrew, Arabic and other non-western texts. Many publishing houses no longer exist but Elsevier does: Reed-Elsevier.

All the books were chosen because they continue to influence our lives, ideas, opinions, society. Included are a book by Galileo Galilei, one by Hugo Grotius: his Mare Liberum. But there is also a manuscript with scribbles and remarks: Albert Einstein forgot to pack it.

Einstein left it behind, while visiting the university. He stayed at the house of Paul Ehrenfest, which still exists, but is closed to visitors. After Einstein forgot to take his manuscript with him, it apparently took him a few years to rewrite and then publish the book he was working on in Leiden. Important lesson for geniuses: mind what you pack in your suitcase.

Among the less familiar names is Jacobus Capitein. Kidnapped in Ghana, sold and traded as a slave, he was handed as a gift to a merchant of the West India Company. Jacobus van Goch took the eleven-year-old boy to The Hague and sent him to school.

A few years later, Capitein defended his dissertation De servitude, libertati christianae non contraria at Leiden university in 1742. In it, he defends slavery and makes a distinction between spiritual and physical slavery. Capitein returned to Africa as a preacher.

One wonders what Anton de Kom would have made of this, as he was a resistance fighter and anti-colonialist author from Suriname. He died in a German concentration camp. Of course, his We Slaves of Suriname is included in this exhibition.

Women? As in other countries, they were not welcomed at universities till the second half of the 19th century. However, there were exceptions like Anna Maria van Schurman. She was the first female student in the Netherlands to be admitted to a university – though in Utrecht; not Leiden.

Her Amica Dissertatio written in 1638 and printed by Elsevier in Leiden in 1641, is on show. In it, she argues that of course, a female mind is suited to study science. Once her dissertation appeared in print, it slowly altered how people thought about women and education.  Kate Deni    4th August 2022

Interested in learning more about these twenty-five books which made history, how and why they were selected? This exhibition closes 4th of September 2022 and is just one of several exhibitions at the RMO, Rapenburg 28, Leiden.