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Word of the day: ontzetten (relieve)

Each year October3 all Leidenaren (people from the city of Leiden) drinking a lot of beer and eating herring, white bread and ‘hutspot’. It is their local holiday. And it has been a memorable day every year since October 3, 1574 when the Spanish siege of the city ended. 

In the previous posting I discussed the word PENSIOEN because it was the day of my friend Arno’s retirement. Now that he’s gone to grass, he is ONTZET (relieved) of all his official duties. Arno was born and bred in the city of Leiden and today the third of October he celebrates another ONTZET (relief, a ‘het-woord’). Today is Leidens ONTZET (relief of Leiden). Though Arno lives in Zoetermeer, each year he returns to his hometown to join his friends during the festivities.

Roughly speaking, the verb ONTZETTEN has two meanings in Dutch: ‘relieve’ and ‘appal’, ‘horrify’ or ‘alarm’. In the sentence: ‘faced with the accusation of adultery, Clinton was horrified’ the latter part translates as: ‘Clinton was ONTZET’. For this posting, however, I shrug this meaning off and concentrate on ONTZETTEN as the opposite of BEZETTEN (occupy).

According to Nicoline van der Sijs the verb ONTZETTEN was first recorded in the 13th century. Originally it meant ‘to set aside’ or ‘to remove’. German ‘entsetzen’ has a similar meaning. The English verb ‘relieve’ dates back to the 14th century and it stems from Latin ‘relevare’ (alleviate, lift up, free from a burden). It came into English via French and eventually meant ‘come to the rescue in battle’.

When the Dutch speak of ‘Leidens ontzet’, they refer to a date almost four hundred forty years ago when the Spanish tried to capture the rebellious city of Leiden. The victorious outcome of the horrific Siege of Leiden took place in the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War, to be more exact in 1573 and 1574.

Not many people outside the Netherlands remember the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) when Dutch protestant rebels fought against the catholic king of Spain, whose family ruled large parts of Europe including the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. These were the days of the Spanish Inquisition and their reign of fear.

The Dutch rebels were called ‘geuzen’ by the enemies. The French word ‘geux’ means ‘beggar’ but the Dutch nobles assumed it as their new honorary title. Most of the counties of Holland and Zeeland were BEZET (occupied) by these ‘geuzen’ in 1572. They were fighting against the cruel Spanish Duke of Alba who was the governor-general of the Netherlands. The Duke of Alba used Amsterdam as his base of operations when he was trying to strike down the Dutch rebels. He used Amsterdam because it was the only city in Holland that had remained loyal to the Spanish government.

To cut a long story short. The Duke of Alba sent his armies to besiege the rebellious Dutch cities and he acted very cruel against their populations. In 1574 he laid siege to the city of Leiden. The leader of the Dutch ‘geuzen’, William of Orange, also known as William the Silent tried to relieve Leiden but his army was defeated in the Battle of Mookerheyde.

The Prince of Orange, however, was determined to relieve the city and asked the city to hold out for three months. He ordered his ‘geuzen’ to break the dikes on August 3, so that the sea could flood the polders and his ‘geuzen’ could sail to the rescue. Because the flooding was slow and the wind was in the wrong direction, the ‘geuzen’ could not advance to Leiden.

On October 1 the wind changed direction and blew the water into the polders. The fleet of the ‘geuzen’ was afloat and they were able to advance rapidly. On the night of the second of October, the Spanish saw them coming and fled.

On October 3 the ‘geuzen’ arrived at the city and treated the hungry citizens to white bread and herring. A little orphan boy brought in a pot full of ‘hutspot’ (carrot and onion stew, no spuds for obvious reasons!) that the Spaniards had left behind. ‘Het lijden van Leiden was voorbij’ (Leiden’s suffering was over).

‘Drie oktober’, Leidens ONTZET is a huge festival that is celebrated every year in Leiden. And each October 3 the municipality treats the citizens of Leiden to free ’hutspot’, herring and white bread.

William the Silent was so proud of this headstrong city and the first victory of his army of beggars the ‘geuzen’ that he awarded the municipality a university. The prince had realized that the Northern Netherlands needed an institution that could educate its citizens for religious and other purposes.

The University of Leiden (the first Dutch university), my alma mater, was inaugurated in the Saint Pieterskerk on 8 Februari 1575, only four months after Leidens ONTZET (relief).