Leiden Classics: the man behind the beadle
Almost everywhere in the world where the post exists, the beadle is a ‘master of ceremonies’ who only makes his appearance on special occasions. In Leiden the beadle does much more. He is indispensable at dissertation defences and orations. He directs ceremonies and is a master at calming nerves.
‘Hora est!’ He has done it a thousand times by now: he announces ‘Hora est!’, a Latin phrase meaning ‘the time is up’, and he jingles with his staff, marking an end to the degree candidate’s speaking time. For Leiden’s beadle Willem van Beelen, this remains an important ritual. ‘It’s important for a university to have ceremonies and special moments if a dissertation has been completed successfully. And he feels that this is not only true for students and staff. ‘To the outside world the university is a hazy world. Enduring symbols and ceremonies give us something we can hold onto and are a symbol of continuity.’
When he first joined the university in the 80s, PhD candidates were less attached to rituals. They would often go to their defence without wearing a dress suit. But he has noticed that in the last few years candidates and their friends and family are more attached to traditions than ever. ‘Maybe it has something to do with the economic crisis. People are more serious and less sure about what the future will bring. So on an occasion like this they want to emphasise the fact they have completed something important.’
Van Beelen looks impressive in his black toga, his headdress, his staff with its little dangling silver coats of arms and his own personal trademark: a long grey beard. ‘I might not have had that beard if I had a different job,’ he admits. But Van Beelen has a feel for decorum like no other. ‘In a procession with professors you don’t want to look like a misfit. A beard like this suggests a bit of “grey eminence”.’
Leiden University has had a beadle since it was founded in 1575. Almost everywhere in the world where the post exists, the beadle is a master of ceremonies who only makes his appearance on special occasions, like the university’s foundation day or a high-level visit. But in the Netherlands the beadle also has a role in dissertation defences and orations. Van Beelen does much more than just walk ceremoniously into the room: he uses his fine penmanship to write the diplomas and also makes the wax seals himself. He also instructs the degree candidates and prospective professors on the protocol right before the tense day of the ceremony. And this is quite enough to keep his hands full. In the 80s there were about 140 dissertation defences annually; now there are at least 380.
While the ceremony itself is always the same, no two degree candidates or professors are the same; for each of them it is a unique day. ‘Each person deals with his nerves in a different way. With one person I make a little joke to make him relax, with another I just remain very calm so as not to make him even more nervous. Giving too many instructions doesn’t work, either. That just makes people more nervous.’
Van Beelen also plays an important role on special occasions, such as at a lecture held by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon late last August or, looking back further, when honorary doctorates were awarded to Nelson Mandela and then Queen Beatrix. Before such occasions he reads through a meticulous script, ‘as if I were preparing for a serious play,’ so he knows exactly where everyone is supposed to be. ‘To put it bluntly, sometimes I have to do quite a bit of pushing and pulling to get everyone in the right spot. But I do that in a subtle way, and I always stay calm. As the beadle you have to be firm. But that’s true for all people.’
(15 October 2013 - LvP)