Louis Berkvens and Hans van Hall Louis Berkvens and Hans van Hall

Professor Louis Berkvens and student Hans van Hall

In Culture
Written by  Jos Cortenraad Monday, 18 June 2012 12:31

At the age of 10, Hans van Hall wondered why the Diepstraat in the picturesque town of Eijsden was so wide. Fifty years later he answers this question himself in his PhD dissertation, ‘Eijsden, een vrijheid met Luikse stadsrechten’ (‘Eijsden: Liberty with Liège City Rights’). “In the Middle Ages, this village had its own justice system. That was unique in the region we now know as South Limburg.”

They sit companionably side by side; supervisor Louis Berkvens and PhD candidate Hans van Hall. Both in their 60s, both at the end of first-rate scholarly careers. There are few signs of a typical student–teacher hierarchy in this relationship. “Absolutely not”, the professor says immediately. “We’ve worked on a great book together for six years; on a dissertation with more social relevance than the outside world initially suspected. And it’s been unlike any other PhD project I’ve worked on. Most of the time I spent on it was my own spare time. We usually met at some nice place in the city or at home with a cup of coffee. Pleasantly illegal, I’m tempted to say.”

Hans van Hall nods in agreement – although of course illegality had nothing to do with it. “No, it was just hard work”, says the archivist, who works at both the Regional Historic Centre Limburg and the Social Historical Centre for Limburg. “I was able to spend 40% of my working hours on this dissertation for 18 months – which in a sense is a form of subsidy – but in practice, it took a huge toll on my private life as well. I think my wife is happy the book is finally finished. Louis often helped me when times got tough and helped me overcome my doubts. But a dissertation is written in solitude, no matter how strong the bond with your supervisor is.”

Book of liberty

The interview takes place in the village of Eijsden, which, as it turns out, has been a town for almost 700 years now. “Right”, says Van Hall, placing the 500-page book on the kitchen table. “That’s what we establish in the dissertation. The main evidence was the socalled ‘book of liberty’ that I stumbled upon in the archives. It was dated 1321 and describes the Eijsden justice system with regulations on trade, taxes, punishments, foreigners and so on. At first I thought it was a fake, but the deeper I dug into piles of government documents, the more convinced I was that this was a unique find.”

That was a long time ago. Van Hall, who moved from Naarden to Eijsden with his parents at the age of 10, attributes his dissertation to his legal studies in Utrecht and Nijmegen. “From my bedroom window I’d look down over Eijsden. I was immediately fascinated by the structure of the city centre – the very wide Diepstraat, the relatively small residential lots, its location on the Maas. It was all very unusual, and quite unlike the surrounding villages. I wanted to know why this was, but the idea of doing a PhD on the topic was simmering well under the surface. It was Louis who eventually convinced me.”

“That’s right”, says Berkvens. “We’ve known each other for many years. So I know how captivated Hans is by the history of Eijsden. I ended up at Maastricht University in the 1980s. In my position at the Faculty of Law, and later as professor, I had a lot to do with the archives where Hans worked. He and his colleagues were involved in quite a number of PhD projects on legal history and other topics. After all, they really know their way around the archives. I think it’s important for academically trained archivists to do scholarly research. This leads to better knowledge and insight, and archivists with research experience are better able to help others. Next year, the two historical centres will merge into the Historic Centre Limburg, and the university intends to further intensify its existing collaboration with the new institute. A historical research workplace will be set up and, hopefully, there’ll be more space and research funding. Hans’s project can be seen as a prelude to this collaboration; an excellent example of relevant research.”

Right of asylum

How does society benefit from the knowledge that Eijsden is officially a town? Van Hall smiles. “Well, it teaches us a lot about the formation of towns in the Late Middle Ages; about the rise of justice systems and how rules were established, about how problems were solved, about the influence of larger cities. This region was very interesting in the Middle Ages and totally un-Dutch, with over 30 different ‘states’. Hardly a unified province at all. And having its own justice system made Eijsden extra special in that regard. The book of liberty from 1321, for example, gives us a detailed account of the rules and obligations of non-Eijsden residents when they moved here, and how ‘foreigners’ from outside the town had to be treated. Right of asylum avant la lettre, you might say.”

It came as no surprise to Berkvens that the auditorium and corridors were full to the brim during Van Hall’s PhD defence. “Half of Eijsden was there. It was very special. And the reason is clear: this dissertation says something about our identity, which is something that people find important.”

Louis Berkvens (1952) is a legal historian. He has worked at Maastricht University since 1985 and over the years has helped to shape the Department of Legal History.
He is currently endowed professor of the Legal History of the Limburg Territories.
Hans van Hall (1949) studied law in Utrecht and Nijmegen before training as an archivist.
He has been working at the Regional Historic Centre Limburg since 1976 and the Social Historical Centre for Limburg since 1999.

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