Frits van Oostrom on forty years of professorship: “It is all about discovering beauty”

Prof. dr. Frits van Oostrom. Foto: Ed van Rijswijk
Prof. Frits van Oostrom. Photo: Ed van Rijswijk

Distinguished professor and Dutch linguist Frits van Oostrom will step down from Utrecht University on 12 May. In his study in downtown Utrecht, reflects on forty years of professorship. He talks about his love for literary history and the people who instilled it in him. And about the fox Reynaert, who always turns up somewhere.

Mr De Zoeten’s influence

Van Oostrom says he grew up in a book-loving environment. But although his father was a linguist, Dutch really only began to live for him in secondary school. At the Stedelijk Gymnasium in Leiden, he met Mr De Zoeten, a Dutch teacher. “A striking teacher, who taught Dutch literature brilliantly. Through literature, you learned to use the Dutch language in the process. That was his philosophy, I think.”

“In his lessons I learned about Reve and P.C. Hooft and,  also about the fox Reynaerd. Today, it’s the other way round: the focus in Dutch is on language skills and literature has been pushed more to the sidelines. As a result, the fun has disappeared a bit from the Dutch subject, in my opinion. De Zoeten really won me over to this school subject with his classes.”

As a medievalist I think the Middle Ages brought us nothing more beautiful than the university. Finer even than cathedrals.

Jigsawing with Middle Dutch

As his father and Mr De Zoeten, Van Oostrom also studied Dutch in Utrecht. Here, he increasingly immersed himself in medieval literature. “I found the technical side of medieval studies interesting. The puzzling. What do those old words mean? What does that parchment say there? It’s all not as obvious as Harry Mulisch, his work you can just buy. This adds an extra dimension, an extra challenge too. The texts are not written for us and then you still have to try to make something of them. I love that.”

Broker of beautiful things

In his years as a professor, Van Oostrom sometimes asked his students: from whom do you get your interest in literature or music or film? The answer was often relatable to him. “Some get the interest in a particular subject from home, but that is only a small group. Often you hear ‘a teacher’ anyway. The teacher then acts as a broker of beautiful things.”

Prof. dr. Frits van Oostrom
Frits van Oostrom in his study Achter de Dom

This, according to Van Oostrom, is what it is all about: discovering beauty. “Philosopher Maxim Februari said it so beautifully: ‘beauty is a human right’. I really believe that finding beauty in life, is good for people’s well-being.”

Searching for beauty in Maerlant’s encyclopaedia

For the book Maerlant’s World, Van Oostrom went in search of the beautiful in Jacob Van Maerlant’s Middle Dutch nature encyclopaedia. “I noticed that in addition to fairly technical descriptions of animals and objects, Van Maerlant sometimes said that something was ‘beautiful’. I then came up with the idea of checking this systematically. It was in the 1990s and there was no way to search such a work digitally yet. So I had no other options than to work through the whole text and note down every time something was called ‘beautiful’.”

Boekomslag van het boek Maerlants Wereld van Frits van Oostrom

“When I finally had that list, I noticed that Van Maerlant often mentioned the word ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful’ when referring to things with shine, when talking about objects like gems and feathers. A colleague pointed out to me that that makes sense, in a world that is otherwise dusty and drab. We think a lot of beauty and shine is normal these days - everything is lacquered and polished. But perhaps in such a world as the medieval one, a shiny thing almost takes on something heavenly.”

The importance of freedom

Van Oostrom has always felt a lot of freedom to focus on what he considers important. Freedom is very valuable, he believes. “If you have the opportunity, it is best to give people a lot of space. In my farewell lecture I quote from my letter of appointment with reason. It is one of the most enviable in the history of the university because of this sentence: ‘You can devote yourself in complete freedom to teaching, research and other activities.’ And they very much lived up to that.”

Farewell and a new book

The decision to quit as a university professor after forty years is not a simple one, but he bespoke an end date. A drastic event prevented him from completing everything he had envisioned at the end: “In 2020, I suffered a cardiac arrest. Because I was resuscitated in time, I luckily survived. But it was a huge blow, right at the time when I was to teach my last course, ‘Goed in Geesteswetenschappen’ which I had put a lot of energy into. I was supposed to do that for the fourth time and nothing came of it. The fact that that didn’t work out really affected me.”

Omslag van het boek 'De Reynaert. Leven met een middeleeuws meesterwerk' van Frits van Oostrom

What I did accomplish was writing a book about the medieval story that is a recurring theme in Van Oostrom’s life. His ‘The Reynaert: Living with a Masterpiece’ is about Reynard the fox , a medieval story that Van Oostrom says is still amazingly contemporary. The new book will be published on the day of his retirement. Van Oostrom laughs: “There is something cheerful about that. I don’t want to say: ‘you’re not rid of me yet’, but rather: here is a 600-page book indulge in.”

Writing for a broad audience

De Reynaert is the crowning glory of Van Oostrom’s impressive bibliography. The book is a good read for an interested reader even without much prior knowledge. Van Oostrom considers that important. He has been writing for a general public his whole career: “Writing in a public-friendly way has become second nature. For me, communicating research in an accessible way is also a transfer of my own discoveries. I am sometimes very surprised by things. I love such findings and don’t just want to enjoy them by myself in my study. I want to pass them on.”

More than mathematics, for example, Dutch literature tends to lend itself to being easily accessible to a wide audience, Van Oostrom believes. “Even outside the university, there are many people with a serious interest in language, literature, art, music and history: the fields of humanities. When you talk about the university’s societal role, public-friendly writing is part of it. Because yes, it is important that we can help solve the nitrogen problem, but we certainly should not forget nurturing beauty and culture as well.”

Public-friendly writing is part of the university’s societal role.

The university as a living institution

On the question of what he finds worth cherishing looking back on his forty years at the university, Van Oostrom responds: “I am a medievalist and I think the Middle Ages brought us nothing more beautiful than the university. Finer even than cathedrals. With all due respect, cathedrals are great, but they have become monuments. The university has not. It is a living institution. It is about young people. I think that it is important to recognise that as a student and as an employee of a university, you stand in a tradition that goes back centuries. And that that also creates a certain obligation.”

“But I think above all, whatever we do, we have to nurture our enthusiasm. I preached to students until my last lectures: ask yourself what you still want to do. You are in a system, of course, but ask yourself ‘what would I still want to do?’ and if you think something is not possible, go and ask it anyway. I would like to encourage people: above all, find something you are enthusiastic about and hold on to that and, as an organisation or institution, make room for it.”

Frits van Oostrom

Frits van Oostrom is a distinguished professor in Utrecht. He specialises in Dutch literature of the Middle Ages. He was awarded the Spinoza Prize in 1995 for his scholarly work. His book Maerlant’s World was awarded the AKO Literature Prize in 1996 and for the book Nobel streven he received the Libris History Prize in 2018. His full curriculum vitae can be found here.