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Top of the class: prize-books and prize-volumes

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From 5 February until 16 March 2001

Printed dedication with 1646 Amsterdam cities' arms for Paulus Junius Merula, student at the Nieuwe Zijde Latin School.The Amsterdam University Library exhibits so-called prize-books and prize-volumes, made from the beginning of the 17th century until the end of the 19th century. This collection shows in what subtle ways students at Latin schools were driven to compete each other in order to obtain a prize-book as the ultimate reward.

This exhibition is based on Dr. J. Spoelder's dissertation (Prijsboeken op de Latijnse school). He obtained his doctorate at Nijmegen University last year with a thesis on this subject. During his research he often consulted the collection of prize-books from the Amsterdam University Library.

Latin schools existed from approximately 1575 until 1876. These schools were municipal institutions that offered the elite's children, boys in particular, a smooth transition to University life. The most important, if not sole course these boys were given was Latin. Lectures were held in Latin and the boys were taught to read, write and orate in Latin. To keep up morale the schools organised an official meeting between students, teachers, rector and family members twice a year, at the end of a semester. As if some doctorate was at stake.

A meeting in Delft, circa 1728. The letter Y is printed on prize-volumes from this town. It symbolises th broad and narrow path; the broad path leads to a life of crime, the small path to paradise.

From the first half of the 17th century onward these official meetings in Amsterdam were held at De Nieuwe Kerk . The two best students (primus and secundus) of each class were given a luxurious prize-book.
Some students received an incentive prize. This policy was part and parcel of competition-based pedagogy. It also went along with the predominance of honour from that era, fed by the Humanists'ideas.
One could argue that prize-books were a cover-up to mask the education's limited content.

A prize-book's parchment or calfskin bound was stamped with the municipalities' arms. It contained a handwritten or printed dedication to the student, mostly signed by the school's curators and rector. A prize-book's content fitted the education given; it often contained editions of classic works, Latin texts et cetera. These were truely "erudite" books!

Prize-book from the town of Zwolle, end of the 18th century. In 1963 the Amsterdam University Library obtained an important collection of prize-books. It was then offered Mr. W.F.H. Oldewelt's (1875 - 1970) collection by the Vereniging van Vrienden van de UB. From 1950 until 1960 he was the chief Municipal Archivist of Amsterdam. This collection is still growing.
Latin schools faded away and were replaced by gymnasia around 1876. Competition (which could evoke jealousy) and Latin as prime scientific language also disappeared but the educational system got more varied. This would undoubtedly prove to be the better stimulus to students!


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Last modified: 16 January 2001
Editor: Monique Kooijmans (Thanks to Jan Spoelder and Bram Schuytvlot)
More information: Mieke Beumer, coordinate