IM_Jan van Herwaarden _ foto door Levien Willemse
IM IM_Jan van Herwaarden Image credit: Levien Willemse

He began his career as secretary of the preparatory committee for a faculty of humanities, which was supposed to include history, general arts studies and general linguistics. History would be the advance party in this campaign: the programme was considered the easiest to launch because economic history, legal history and sociology were already being taught in Rotterdam. The outline of this History of Society programme can be seen in In Praise of History: Essays on history and society, edited by then-doctorandus Van Herwaarden. The compilation was presented on 8 November 1973 during the first anniversary celebrations of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Yet the History of Society programme would not start until 1979. The year before, Van Herwaarden had earned his doctoral degree cum laude for the monumental study Mandatory pilgrimages: a study of the practice of forcing pilgrimages (particularly in the urban court system) in the Low Countries in the late medieval period (circa 1300-1550).

Van Herwaarden taught courses on pre-industrial societies. Those who, like myself, had the pleasure of being taught by him, know how effectively he conveyed the importance of broad general historical and social knowledge. And for students who loved hearing stories, his lectures were quite a treat. He described his teaching style as associative: pilgrimages, crusades, legal history, city history, the Renaissance and, of course, Erasmus himself.

As a city historian, Van Herwaarden dedicated himself to a new contemporary history of Rotterdam, which was completed in 2000 and to which I contributed as one of the authors. In 1994, he was appointed to the Dr Elie van Rijckevorsel Chair as Endowed Professor of Cultural History, thanks to the Erasmus Foundation in Rotterdam. Van Herwaarden viewed his chair’s namesake – the meteorologist, ethnographer, collector and world traveller Van Rijckevorsel – to be ‘the Alexander von Humboldt of Rotterdam’.

While he deeply appreciated this endowed chair, he regretted having missed out on the grand prize of the chair in History of Pre-industrial Societies. This despite the fact that his work was held in high regard internationally, thanks in part to his pioneering role in Saint James-related research. Those who have read Van Herwaarden’s prestigious anthology Between Saint James and Erasmus, published by Brill in 2003, can easily imagine his disappointment. If plans for the faculty of humanities had gone ahead, he would undoubtedly have been given a regular chair. But as a historian of mentalities, Willem Frijhoff was a better match for the History of Society profile, and in 1982, Frijhoff was nominated as full professor rather than Van Herwaarden. While this was a personal disappointment, Van Herwaarden had the greatest admiration for his colleague Frijhoff. When Frijhoff transferred to VU University Amsterdam in 1997, Van Herwaarden saw it as a major loss for Rotterdam. Van Herwaarden was asked to fill the vacant chair on a temporary basis, but retained his appointment until he retired.

Van Herwaarden was a valued and respected colleague. As an administrator, he acted with sincerity and integrity – and was extremely high-spirited. His passionate mind could be quick to anger as well. He was the first to admit this, however, and sought reconciliation as soon as possible following an outburst. Van Herwaarden was at times too idiosyncratic to allow himself to be constrained by administrative frameworks, even when it would have been in his best interest to concede. Like they say in Rotterdam: he went against the current, when he had to.

As an Erasmus scholar, Van Herwaarden made a name for himself both inside and outside EUR. On 29 January 1998, his lecture on Erasmus in the Laurenskerk drew over a thousand listeners. He also penned a contribution about Rotterdam’s greatest son for the Rotterdams Jaarboekje every year from 1999 to 2004. Even after retirement, he continued to teach, including higher education classes for seniors. ‘As long as I’m able’, as he put it himself; he kept going as long as physically possible.

Van Herwaarden was the Erasmian conscience of our University: ‘ubi bene, ibi patria’, which he himself translated as ‘wherever you feel good, that is your homeland’. For him, that was Rotterdam, Italy and – above all – Krimpen aan den IJssel, in shared domesticity with family and good friends. Besides his extensive personal library, he was a loving husband, father, father-in-law and grandpa.

We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his tireless dedication to our School.

Paul van de Laar, Head of the Department of History