To the first governments of the in 1830 newly founded kingdom Belgium, education was not a priority. That is why the ecclesiastical government created a catholic university on June 10th, 1834. The result was that the monopoly of universitary education would fall under the reign of the church that only two years earlier had condemned any form of freedom of press, opinion and conscience in an encyclical.

The Brussels’ lawyer Theodore Verhaegen (St.V) was dismayed by this and mobilised his kindred spirits of the Brussels’ Masonry halls around the idea of another university, “with free inquiry as a foundation”. Already on November 20th - barely two weeks after the opening of the Catholic University in Mechelen - did it open its doors. The fact that the new university wanted to position itself independent of state and church, was not received with enthusiasm and the university did not have an easy start. On the other hand, as a result thereof, the predominantly French-speaking university also appealed to Flemish freethinkers and numerous key figures in Flanders/Belgium of the time, e.g. Jan Van Rijswijck, Cesar de Paepe, Tony Bergmann, August Vermeylen and Lodewijk de Raet, can be counted to the early alumni of the university. The principle of free inquiry has remained the foundation for education and research at ULB, and later at VUB that originated from it in 1969, throughout the years. And since it is not limited to words, but also found in the research that VUB’ers carry out - and carried out - averse from any conventions and prejudices, free thinking is often at the basis of the pioneering role that VUB more than often plays.

Source: De Vrije Universiteit Brussel, een jonge instelling met een oude traditie, Y.J.D. Peeters in Ons Erfdeel of 1976.


The joined hands

On 19 March 1970 the well-known shield with the beggar’s bag and joined hands - and not the Brussels’ Saint-Michael of ULB - became the emblem of VUB. The symbol was identical to the one found on the so-called “geuzen” coins and expresses a connection with these beggars who in the sixteenth century resolutely opposed the oppression of all free thinking by Philip II and his inquisition. The joined hands refer to the Eedverbond der Edelen, which in an appeal to Governor Margaret of Parma, demanded more freedom of opinion and less religious prosecution. A member of the court humiliated them at the time by mockingly referring to them as only “gueux” (beggars). To which the nobleman started taking on the insult as a veritable badge of honour.

Furthermore, the Masonic handshake can be recognised in the emblem.

Source: Frank Scheelings on cavavub.be


The beggar’s bag

The joined hands and the beggar’s bag do not feature on the seal of ULB, which since 1841 used torches to symbolise the light that science brought in the darkness. Later in 1988 it referred to Brussels with a depiction of Saint Michael who slayed a dragon and later still again to two torches and a pentagonal star like the original emblem. And for good reason, because the city of Brussels had supported the foundation of the university by providing buildings and infrastructure. The beggar’s bag on the VUB shield refers to the noblemen who in the sixteenth century resolutely opposed the suppression of all free thinking. They were reviled as “gueux” (beggars) and decided to turn that denominator into a badge of honour. Hence the symbolism of the beggar’s cup from which they drank wine and the beggar’s bag on which they swore to continue their struggle “until the beggar’s bag!” That turned out not to be a hollow phrase, since many a nobleman lost their homes and possessions as a result of their revolt against Philip II, some even lost their lives.

Source: Frank Scheelings on cavavub.be


The colours that were chosen for the university emblem at the foundation of VUB in 1970, refer to the geuzen that stood up for free thinking in the sixteenth century. Especially to their leader, the Prince of Oranje, who dared to go against the ever so powerful catholic Spanish ruler. Long after the Northern Netherlands had succeeded, the beggar’s symbolism continued to live on and was reignited with every new struggle for freedom of thinking and against the oppression thereof. Long before there was even a mention of VUB, the Flemish ULB student association carried the orange, white and blue colours in their hearts.

Source: Frank Scheelings on cavavub.be


Scientia Vincere Tenebras

”Won’t that come across as too elitist, such a Latin saying on our shield of arms? Maybe we should translate it? Or should we go with the motto “Tot de bedelzak toe”, that not only refers to the depiction in the shield, but also to the petulant noblemen who were willing to sacrifice lives and property for freedom of thought? Or maybe it is too old-fashioned to go back in history that far, shouldn’t we try to find something that appeals to the youth of today (i.e. 1970)? It was a long process - eventually the Board of Directors had to make the final decision - before in 1970 it was decided that the Scientia Vincere Tenebras from the ULB logo would be adopted on the new university’s own emblem. One of the reasons was that Latin had an international appeal, another even more crucial reason was the clear translation to the honourable mission of ULB and VUB. To translate “Scientia” plainly to science proves dishonourable to the original word, American philosopher Massimo Pigliucci states. “Because it entails both modern science as well as philosophy and the much broader concept of human knowledge. That is obviously exactly what universities ought to do, but it is hard to find a stronger and powerful wording of it than in the motto of VUB”

Source: Frank Scheelings on cavavub.be and Massimo Pigliucci on rationallyspeaking.blogspot.be

Het lied van geen taal

Golden thread throughout many a VUB student life over the generations, is the Lied van Geen Taal. Presumably written in 1952-1953 it originates from a much older tradition of Flemish nationally inspired students at ULB, where already in 1880 the student organisation “Geen Taal, Geen Vrijheid” (No Language, No Freedom) was founded. Hence the harsh wording such as “kaloot” (catholic) and “bekrompen franskiljon” (narrow-minded French speaker), as well as the student’s own denomination as being “van de Clauwaert ende Geus”, a clear referral to struggle for Dutch spoken education at universities. Although time may have caught up to the lyrics of the first verses, the student song has never fallen out of grace. Moreover, any modest attempt to update the lyrics has hitherto always been rejected firmly and strongly by students and alumni alike. The connection to preceding classes and the history of VUB appears to be more important than the humility about the pugnacity of old. And moreover, there still is the third verse, that aptly summarises the DNA of a true VUB’er past, present and future.

“Fiere dragers van de fakkel van de VUB,
Dragen w’in de wereld en doorheen heel Vlaanderen mee.

Onze wil tot leven vrij van dwang en levensblij –
Geen Talers blijven wij!”

Source: Het lied van Geen Taal, Tim Trachet in OSB-Briefing, February-March 2001


St. Vé

Theodore Verhaegen passed away in 1862 and the first St V-parade didn’t take place until 1888. The initiative to out-of-the-blue commemorate the founder of the university was not related to any anniversary. More so with an attempt by the students to keep the somewhat bourgeois university leaders on their toes and remind them of the original mission of ULB: to stimulate and safeguard free research. Hence the focus on the figure of Theodore Verhaegen and the initiative to honour him with a wreath and a march. Eventually, the floral tribute was adopted by the university government and the march evolved into a student parade along century old Brussels’ traditions: from the upper (richer) to the lower (poorer) part of town after begging for money to buy drinks.

Source: Folklore Academie and Wikipedia


The spirit of Poincaré

“Thinking must never submit itself, neither to a dogma, nor to a party, nor to a passion, nor to an interest, nor to a preconceived idea, nor to anything whatsoever, except to the facts themselves, because for it to submit to anything else would be the end of its existence.” The French mathematician and philosopher of science Henri Poincaré captured the essence of free inquiry so eloquently at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of ULB in 1909, that his famous words still linger on today. Where before the focus lay on not accepting dogmas and prejudices, that has somewhat shifted towards remaining independent since the secularisation of society and the increasing patronage from the corporate sector.

Source: ulb.ac.be