100 years of Celtic Studies in the Netherlands


‘100 years Celtic in Utrecht’, art made by Merel Reintjes

This year, the International Congress of Celtic Studies (ICCS) was organised by Utrecht University. That was because this year marks the centenary of the study of Celtic languages and culture in Utrecht (the Netherlands).

The first Dutch professor of Celtic, Anton Gerard van Hamel, established the Chair of Celtic Studies in 1923. Since then, a lot has happened. Celtic studies have a well-established place in education and research in the Netherlands right now, but this wasn’t always the case, as we have known some turbulent times. After every time that the study of Celtic languages was threatened to disappear over the past 100 years, we managed to survive and even thrive. But how did that happen? Why do we have the opportunity to study Celtic languages and culture in the Netherlands (of all places)?

Even though Celtic has been studied in Utrecht for 100 years, the Celtic languages have been studied in the Low Countries since the end of the sixteenth century. The Dutch humanists of that time were interested in languages and their origins, and there was especially an interest in Welsh. The last Dutch humanist scholar to study Celtic languages was Marcus Zuerius Boxhornius (1612-1653), who worked on his Originum Gallicarum liber, a collection of Celtic materials. After this, the interest in Celtic seemed to disappear. 

It was only until the end of the nineteenth century that Celtic studies in the Netherlands were resuscitated, but mostly in studies on modern comparative linguistics and after the publication of James Macpherson’s famous Ossian. Eventually, there was a professor of Sanskrit, J.H.C. Kern (1833-1917), who was the first to teach Old Irish at a Dutch university. After this, we encounter the first Dutch professor of Celtic Studies: Anton Gerard van Hamel (1886-1945), and that’s where the history of our programme at Utrecht University begins.

The name Anton Gerard (A.G.) van Hamel probably sounds familiar to those who attended the ICCS. Every attendee got a copy of his biography, which was published to celebrate the centenary. A.G. van Hamel was an extraordinary man for multiple reasons. He started as a private lecturer in Celtic at Leiden University before he brought it to Utrecht University. One of his other interests was the Germanic languages, and when he was offered the Chair of Old Germanic in Utrecht in 1923, he insisted that Celtic languages must be included in the briefing. He believed in the importance of comparing languages and was sure that studying Germanic languages and Celtic languages side by side other would be beneficial. During his life, he published an excessive amount of material on both Celtic linguistics and literature for an academic as well as a broad audience. 



 Photo of A.G Van Hamel

 Van Hamel was known for being a great teacher, and that was reflected in the work of two of his students: Theodor Chotzen (1901-1945) and Maartje Draak (1907-1995). Theo Chotzen made lots of contributions to Breton and Welsh studies before he passed away in prison during the Second World War. Maartje Draak, a successful and famous scholar of Middle Dutch and Celtic, succeeded van Hamel as chair after his sudden death in 1945 as a result of a disease.

Because of the sudden deaths of Chotzen and van Hamel, Maartje Draak appeared to be the only scholar of Celtic studies in the Netherlands, which put her in a difficult position. However, she was determined to keep Celtic studies alive here and asked for help from scholars in other parts of the world. She realised that Celtic studies can’t exist in just one country or context. With her hard work and the help of others, she ensured that it is still a possibility to study Celtic in our country today. She was succeeded by Doris Edel, and after her Leni van Strien held the position of chair. It was during her time, around the year 2000, that the Executive Board at Utrecht University decided to close the Department of Celtic studies because of budget cuts. Leni van Strien strongly disagreed with this decision, so she organised a ‘rescue mission’ that included angry letters and emails from Celtic scholars worldwide, all directed to the Executive Board. This resulted in the continuation of the programme, and it has been flourishing ever since. In 2002 the bachelor/master doctorate system was introduced, and there was a bachelor programme as well as a master programme for Celtic studies. 

The bachelor still exists to this day, and the master is now a track within the research master of Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

The bachelor is a three-year programme that allows students to focus mainly on translating texts in Old Irish and Middle Welsh and specialise in 'Language Contact and Language Change in Celtic' or 'Interpretation and Reinterpretation of Medieval Celtic Texts' (or do both specialisations at the same time, fun!). There is a wide variety of courses, as they cover modern and medieval Celtic languages, sociolinguistics, medieval literature, palaeography, historical grammar and linguistics. Besides our wonderful programme, there is the A.G. van Hamel foundation. It is an organisation that stimulates the research of all things Celtic. The foundation organises activities such as an annual colloquium, lectures, book markets, and it publishes a magazine called Kelten, which includes articles written by both professionals and students in an academic yet accessible setting. 

The international significance of the foundation is reflected by the project CODECS,  a catalogue consisting of references to anything that’s written on Celtic material. A very useful website and highly recommended! And then there is of course our lovely study association Asterix: a huge part of the experience of studying Celtic in Utrecht. The association is very active and organises all sorts of activities: lectures, movie nights, laser gaming, and even camps and study trips.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to study Celtic in the Netherlands, and I owe that to people like A.G. van Hamel, Maartje Draak and Leni van Strien. Because of their determination and passion for the field we still exist today and were able to celebrate the centenary this summer. To all of you who attended the ICCS, I hope we were able to show you how many great things we have to offer and how enthusiastic our teachers and students are!

Marieke Rotman 

Celtic Languages and Culture

Utrecht University  

Relevant literature




Gerritsen, Willem. 2019. Verhalen van de Drakendochter: Leven en werk van Maartje Draak (1907-1995) Hilversum: Verloren.

Jaski, Bart, Lars Nooij, Sanne Nooij-Jongeleen, Nike Stam (eds). 2023. Man Van Twee Werelden: Van Hamel als 

keltoloog en germanist. Utrecht: Stichting A. G. van Hamel voor Keltische Studies.



Knoops, Darina, Marieke Rotman, and Nike Stam, Podcast Op Zoek naar de Draak. Utrecht: Utrecht University. https://keltisch.sites.uu.nl/keltisch-2023/podcast-op-zoek-naar-de-draak/

Schneiders, Marc, Kees Veelenturf. 1992. Celtic Studies in the Netherlands: a Bibliography. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Avanced Studies.





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