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What’s the meaning of the annual student procession that marches into Brussels? And who was Verhaegen, the man so idolised by VUB students? Archivist Frank Scheelings explains the meaning and the humour behind the St V parade. If it were up to him, the parade gets recognised as heritage.
Text: Dominique Soenens
It’s a glorious day on the Etterbeek campus. Historian and archivist Frank Scheelings leads us towards the heart of building B. He pushes a door open and lets us peek inside a big underground room, full of endless rows of shelves holding boxes of press cuttings, reports and other documents. The boxes are acid-free, Scheelings explains, so the papers can better stand the test of time. The room is also kept cold. Preserving history is a delicate job, but it’s well managed by Scheelings, who is immersed like no one else in the history of VUB – and that of Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen.
You could call Verhaegen the university’s patron saint, though he was strongly anti-clerical. Catholics were scandalised by his decision to have a civil funeral – a provocation of the sort you rarely saw at the time. How dare he? But that’s exactly why Verhaegen was such a cult figure for ULB/VUB, the university that threw off the shackles of Catholic domination. Verhaegen was given the nickname St V, an ironic sneer towards the Catholics. He died in 1862 and never knew his nickname, which came a lot later. But he would no doubt have been proud of it.
Verhaegen was a practical man, which came in handy during the establishment of VUB: he had connections as a politician, a freemason and lawyer, and knew how to inspire people to raise money for the university. It was 1888 when students first went to the statue of Verhaegen to salute him as a hero. Scheelings: “That was because of discontent among the students over what was happening at their university. In the beginning there was a Catholic government, which mainly supported Catholic education. The freedom of inquiry and education were under pressure. And the fact that there were a lot of conservative liberals on the board caused a lot of resentment. There were lots of progressives among the students, who wanted more participation and democracy. They made speeches and went with flags and banners to the statue of Verhaegen. He embodied their ideals of free, independent inquiry.”
It became a tradition. From then, students have marched into the city on 20 November every year.
Scheelings: “That’s right. They wanted to confront the city with the university and its critical attitude. ‘Brussels is ours, olé, olé’, you hear them singing today. On the floats they would use to march into the city, they sometimes showed what they did. Medical students might demonstrate a dissection, for example. But social criticism is at least as important. This criticism was often anti-clerical, but just before World War Two there was also criticism of Léon Degrelle, Hitler and the fascists. At the same time, it’s an ode to student life, and there will be drinking. It’s a party, with all the trimmings. To keep that within certain limits, a few years ago there was a switch to low-alcohol beer.
Last year the procession was banned by the mayor, because of the terror threat. Two hundred students ignored the ban and still went into the city centre. Presumably not everyone was happy with that result?
Scheelings: “I never expected anything else, given the tradition of the procession. Students at VUB will not be dictated to by religion, and absolutely not by fundamentalists who try to terrorise others. That’s in the students’ and the university’s DNA. It shows the rebellious spirit that is still valued at VUB, years after we were established. Apart from a student party, the procession is also an expression of socially critical thought. And if there’s been one time when we’ve needed to think critically about society, it’s been the past year, during the terror threat.”
The students are often sharp in their criticism, aren’t they?
Scheelings: “The student societies at VUB and ULB put their heads together every year to come up with a theme for the procession. That sometimes leads to serious discussions, and there always needs to be a societal element. In the 1980s, it was about apartheid; in 2008 about the financial crisis. But there is always humour there too. The St V celebrations must be funny and critical of society; that’s the soul of it.”
Sometimes the students wear a cap with a long peak. What’s the significance of that?
Scheelings: “That’s a snub to the Catholics. The cap has a long peak because above it, in the heavens, there is nothing to see. During the procession you sometimes hear the students shout: ‘à bas la calotte’: down with the Catholics.”
The Catholics seem to be a bit of a scapegoat.
Scheelings: “Yes, well those are the roots of VUB: anti-clerical. Now that’s in the background, but in the 19th century it was a real struggle.”
The students also march to that Brussels symbol, the Manneken Pis
Scheelings: “That’s right, with the motto ‘He pisses, and we are pissed’ (laughs). Nowadays the police have banned them from marching to the statue, but they still do it. And Manneken Pis wears a student costume for the occasion.”
It illustrates how important the link between VUB and the city is.
Scheelings: “Absolutely. The mayor of Brussels wanted to keep the event outside the city, at Heizel. But the students refused. VUB and the city belong to each other. Toots Thielemans received an honorary doctorate from us. The buildings used to be exclusively on the outskirts, in Jette and Etterbeek, but through the association with the university colleges we are now much more in the city itself. Brussels is the biggest student city in the country, with 86,000 students. That’s something to be proud of. Since 2007 there has been Cantus Bruxellensis, a big student event in the city. We also have a Centre for Urban Studies, in collaboration with the city. There, scientists examine the metropolitan situation in Brussels, in terms of diversity and multiculturalism. In the beginning, VUB was a Flemish spearhead in Flanders. That idea no longer exists. We are a minority, and from this position we can send out a few messages. The links between VUB and the city can be further tightened, and the new rector will work on it.”
Are all the students aware of the meaning and the background of the procession?
Scheelings: “Yes. Everyone knows who Verhaegen is, because of the procession. The student societies in charge make sure that new students know the background and the folklore, and why the procession is so important. But not all students are interested in it. Some just want to drink and join the party, that’s the way it is. As a historian, I have a dream: I want the procession to be recognised as heritage. I will work on it. It would be a pity if the meaning and the history of the procession were lost. It means too much for the university and the city.”
Frank Scheelings studied History at VUB, then Archiving at the Rijksarchiefschool in The Hague. He obtained his doctorate degree in 1990 and became head of archives and documents at VUB. He’s one of the founders of the master in Cultural Heritage and Records Management.