Historical story

Kenau, mannequin for political ideals

From heroine to maligned ladyboy. Kenau, a woman from Haarlem in the sixteenth century, is the subject of Dasha Zonneveldt's profile paper. This student from Zutphen is awarded at the annual presentation of the Education Prize of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

According to legend, Kenau Simonsdatter Hasselaar led a women's army during the Spanish siege of Haarlem (3 December 1572 – 12 July 1573). She was a heroine in her own time and that is how she was portrayed in prints and plays. How is it possible that the word 'kenau' nowadays has the negative meaning of a nasty lady with hair on the teeth?

Dasja Zonneveldt of the Baudartius College in Zutphen sought it out for her profile paper. She examined how Kenau was written in different centuries and explains why this was subject to change. Kenau turns out to be a mannequin, used to hang various political ideals.

Winning Topics

Every year, a total of twelve profile papers compete for the KNAW Education Prize, in the categories Nature &Health, Nature &Technology, Economy &Society and Culture &Society. The Education Prize was awarded for the eighth time this year, but for the first time a distinction has been made between a first, second and third prize winner per category.

The profile assignment From Kenau to kenau. The literary imagination of Kenau from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century Dasha Zonneveldt won the third prize. The bulky yet pleasantly readable 55-page book is the only truly historical piece of work in the Culture &Society category. Kenau finished behind the winning paper on the genocide in Screbrenica (with policy advice to prevent a recurrence in the future) and the paper on prejudices based on social categorization or 'categorisation'.

No weapons, but a decent dress

In her profile paper, Zonneveldt investigated how the image of Kenau changed from the sixteenth century onwards. She did this on the basis of written sources such as plays, histories and poems from different centuries. She placed a number of works in a historical context per century and that is how she discovered that writers mainly wanted to propagate their political or social views and used Kenau for that.

Zonneveldt writes in her conclusion about the changes:“In the sixteenth century, the story of Kenau was used to activate and mobilize citizens to resist the Spaniards. A century later, it was used to give the fledgling Republic an identity. Kenau became an Enlightened hero during the eighteenth century:she had common sense in addition to authority and bravery. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the time of the French domination, Kenau was mainly used to convey a patriotic idea. However, the way she is depicted is completely different from all previous images. She is stripped of every weapon and decked out in a long, dignified dress.”

Brand awareness

But in the course of this century the picture about Kenau changed drastically. A new way of doing historical research, historicism, came into vogue. In this case, only data found in official documents are objective and therefore true. Historians found nothing in the records about Kenau's exploits and then dismissed these stories as mythological. As a result, Kenau disappeared from academic historiography and from collective memory.

In recent years, however, Kenau has once again been seen in a positive light. Recent research by Els Kloek shows that Kenau is more historic than was thought in the nineteenth century. In addition, a tough woman is appreciated again these days. In the 2014 film of the same name, Kenau, as a bold woman, directs a group of women during the Siege of Haarlem when the men fail. Kenau's name recognition among the general public is therefore greater than just the association with a bad man.

Zonneveldt:“Kenau has probably been in the dictionary as a woman with hair on her teeth since the nineteenth century. But nowadays she also symbolizes a tough woman. The political charge is off the picture.” Zonneveldt's main conclusion is that Kenau's actions are exaggerated or invented, depending on the writer's message.

“If an author wants her to become a symbol of nationalism, he makes her fight for the fatherland. If a writer sees her as a symbol of emancipation, she mainly highlights her gender. Kenau can actually be seen as a kind of dress-up doll, where everything can be set up. In this way the image of the Haarlem woman changed constantly. She went from a person to a concept, from Kenau to kenau.”

  • Second prize:Manon Michelotti and Nilam Chotkan – Emmauscollege, Rotterdam. Profile assignment 2016 C&M Boxed thinking
  • Third prize:Dasja Zonneveldt – Baudartius College, Zutphen. Profile paper 2016 C&M Kenau

Praise jury

Each category had its own four-member jury. Janneke Gerards, Raf De Bont, Irene de Jong and Gijs Scholten van Aschat judged Cultuur &Maatschappij. “The three winning papers are characterized by their original subjects and an excellent academic approach. The winning papers also stood out because of their independent approach, clear formulation and focus”, according to the jury report.

“The beauty of the epic piece about Kenau is that the author is not necessarily looking for the truth. She takes the reader along in a captivating story. It is clever and daring how Dasja Zonneveldt includes an enormous period of time in the research and it is special for a young person that she has been continuously aware of the connection between context and representation.”