Literature is flourishing in Utrecht. And not just since today or even yesterday. Of course, the city’s current environment, so favourable for all things literary, has everything to do with the presence of its talented and inspired authors, outstanding institutions and organisations, as well as an engaged readership. But the present vitality did not appear overnight. It is rooted in a long-standing literary tradition: in fact, the longest in the Netherlands. Below is a timeline with main historical figures and events, including links to Utrecht’s ten literary icons, such as the Utrecht Psalter, Belle van Zuylen and Miffy.
Photo: detail of the Utrecht Psalter
Roman Times: Trajectum
The origin of Utrecht
A Roman settlement lays the foundations for Utrecht. The Emperor Claudius decided in the year 47 that the river Rhine and Danube would form the northern border, the limes, of the Roman Empire. One of these forts was Trajectum, named after a nearby river crossing in the Rhine. The fort was built on the exact spot that is now the Dom Square.
Early middle ages
Cathedral city, centre of education and trade
An excavated metal stylus
In the remains of a settlement on the river Kromme Rijn, just outside Utrecht, a metal stylus was found dating back to the year 600-650: this is the oldest evidence that people in our country were writing.
The Utrecht Dom School
This early predecessor of the University of Utrecht, was established, the first educational institution in the city, enjoying a great reputation. The founding of the Dom School marks the beginning of the city’s literary history and that of the Netherlands.
The most famous medieval manuscript in the Netherlands is created. In 2015, it was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
Late middle ages
Main city in the Northern Netherlands
Utrecht receives city charter
In 1122, Utrecht was one of the first cities in the Northern Netherlands to be granted city rights. The first time the name of the city is mentioned can be dated back to around the year 1000 (Uut Trecht).
The start of the construction of the cathedral of the diocese of Utrecht.
The first printed book of the northern Netherlands
In the 1470s, the Utrecht printers Nicolaas Ketelaar and Gerard de Leempt printed the first dated book in the Northern Netherlands, the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) is ordained a priest in the cathedral of Utrecht.
First female author
Suster Bertken (1426-1514) becomes the first Dutch woman to have a poetry collection published.
Book of Kisses
Utrecht printer Harmannus Borculous prints the first edition of the Basia, the Book of kisses by Janus Secundus (1511-1536), a collection of poems acclaimed by Goethe, Lord Bryon and Montaigne.
Early Modern period
Meeting place for freethinkers
The Union of Utrecht
The beginning of the first Dutch constitution. This treaty was the foundation of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces (1588-1795). This was a confederation of provinces, largely covering what is now the Netherlands and what developed into an economic and political superpower in the seventeenth century. In the Netherlands, this period is still known as the ‘Golden Age’.
The Utrecht city library
Predecessor of the university library, opens in Saint John’s Church.
The French philosopher works on Discours de la méthode (1637) in Utrecht
Anna Maria van Schurman
This Utrecht student was Europe’s first female academic.
Foundation of the University of Utrecht, now ranked the highest among Dutch universities in the Ranking of World Universities
Another famous Utrecht academic was the British Enlightenment thinker John Locke (1632-1704), who worked on his most famous work here: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Treaty of Utrecht
The Treaty of Utrecht (1712-1713) made an end to two centuries of religious war and the War of the Spanish Succession. It is regarded as the birth of modern diplomacy and even as the beginning of a European way of thinking.
The predecessor of today’s Broese bookshop opens its doors for the first time
Belle van Zuylen
The Utrecht-born author makes her debut with the novella De Edelman (The Nobleman) and becomes one of the most prominent Dutch authors of the Enlightenment.
The future second president of America visits Utrecht. In 1786, three years before the French Revolution, the citizens of Utrecht dismissed the city council and replaced it with one they elected themselves. It was a revolutionary world first and inspired, among others, John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States and who witnessed the event.
The future third president of America visits Utrecht and is impressed by the Dom Tower, calling it ‘remarkable for its height’.
Utrecht as capital city
Utrecht becomes the capital city of Napoleon’s newly formed Kingdom of Holland.
A self-confident city
The oldest bookshop/publishing house in the Netherlands that has always been independent is opened.
Maartens writes the first Dutch detective story to gain international fame: The Black Box Murder. He became the most successful Dutch writer of all time in the English-speaking world.
A.W. Bruna publishing house
Albert Willem Bruna (the father of Dick Bruna) establishes a publishing house in Utrecht.
First public library in the Netherlands
In 1892, the first public library in the Netherlands opened. 125 years after it was first established, in 2017, the Public Library now has as many as thirteen branches in all corners of the city.
This writer, who has close ties with Utrecht, is born at Oudkerkhof 26.
Dada evening in Utrecht
“The highlight of the tour”, according to Dada leader Kurt Schwitters.
Literary activities in bookshop Broese
Director Chris Leeflang starts forty years of literary evenings in his bookshop.
Poet Nijhoff publishes his long poem Awater, a masterpiece of Dutch poetry that describes a walk through Utrecht.
Woolf visits Utrecht and is impressed by the books on offer in the city.
W.G. van de Hulst
In de Soete Suikerbol, a hit in Dutch children’s literature, by W.G. van de Hulst (1879-1963) is published. In total, more than 11 million copies of his books have been sold in the Netherlands.
The most famous murder in Dutch literary history: poet Gerrit Achterberg murders his landlady.
Poet and lawyer Hendrik Marsman (1899-1940) finishes his poem Tempel en kruis (Temple and Cross). Nearly all of
the stanzas in this masterpiece in Dutch literature can still be followed through the city of Utrecht.
The Utrecht-born illustrator/author Dick Bruna (1927-2017) publishes his first Miffy book.
Writer Jan Arends stays in the Willem Arntsz House mental institution in Utrecht and writes Keefman.
The Dutch Poetry night
The start of a tradition in Utrecht: the biggest poetry event in the Netherlands.
Utrecht Literary Activities Foundation
The establishment of SLAU, the Utrecht Literary Activities Foundation. With the arrival of SLAU, writers from Utrecht and the rest of the country were given a permanent stage.
The Utrecht Mafia
A group of upcoming young writers emerged in the 1990s, who met in Café De Bastaard, on an ad hoc basis and encouraged each other in discussions about literature.
A group of writers and poets, as well as musicians, designers, roadies, light and sound technicians and PR people opened up the circuit by organising anarchistic literary evenings in trendy bars, concert halls and squats.
The C.C.S. Crone Prize
The Municipality of Utrecht awards its literary prize for the first time, to Manon Uphoff.
International Literature Festival Utrecht (ILFU)
Utrecht gets its own annual international literature festival
The House of Literature
Utrecht becomes the first city in the Netherlands to get a House of Literature.