European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

20 December 2013

Deventer does Dickens - and much more: literary heritage in a Dutch city

Deventer  is a town of about 100,000 souls, situated on the banks of the river IJssel in the East of the Netherlands. It was founded by the English missionary Lebuinus around 768. In the Middle Ages it was part of the Hanseatic League, which brought great wealth to the city. This can still be seen in the many beautifully restored old houses in the city centre.

One of these is the building of the Latin School (1300), where famous mediaeval scholars like Erasmus and Geert Grote, founder of the Devotia Moderna movement, studied and taught. Under the direction of Alexander Hegius, who introduced new study methods, the Latin School reached its peak. His new curriculum included Greek and required new text books, which were printed nearby by Richard Pafraet and Jacob van Breda.

Opening of 'Conjugationes verborum graecae'
Conjugationes verborum graecae (Deventer, [1488?]). British Library G.7536. One of Pafraet's textbooks; the authorship is sometimes ascribed to Alexander Hegius.

Deventer had been quick to adopt the new technique of printing with movable type and became a centre of the printing and publishing industry that continues to this day with offices of Wolters Kluwer publishing based in the city. Deventer also harbours the oldest scholarly library in the country: the Stadsarchief en Athenaeumbibliotheek (SAB), founded in 1560.

With such a strong tradition in learning, printing and publishing it may not come as a surprise that Deventer has two major book festivals. In August it hosts the biggest second hand book fair in Europe, with 6 km of stalls lined up along the banks of the  IJssel.  

In December there’s the Dickens Festival. This takes place in the medieval quarter of the city centre, the Bergkwartier, with its many beautifully restored houses. In 1990 the local inhabitants and businesses wanted to attract more visitors and custom to their area and came up with the idea to have a Dickens Festival, featuring concerts, Christmas markets and of course street performances by participants dressed up as Dickens characters, 950 in total this year.

Last weekend (14-15 December) saw the 23rd Festival, which attracted around 140,000 visitors, from all over the country and beyond. With a total city population of just under 100,000 that’s not bad going. Photos of the event are available on Flickr.

Almost exactly coinciding with the Dickens Festival in Rochester, Kent, it is rather  like a tale of two cities! 

Marja Kingma, Curator, Dutch studies


The British Library holds 115 titles published by Richard Pafreat, between 1477 and 1511, as listed in Johnson, A.F. and Scholderer, V.  Short-Title Catalogue of Books printed in the Netherlands and Belgium and of Dutch and Flemish books printed in other countries from 1470 to 1600 now in the British Museum (London, 1965) YD.2011.a.3918; RAR 094.209492 BL


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