The Universities of the Renaissance and Reformation*

Article excerpt

A persistent view holds that Renaissance universities were conservative homes of outmoded knowledge. Professors droned on about Aristotle when they should have been teaching Copernicus and Galileo. Innovative research and religious revolution went on outside the lecture halls. Students came to the university only to get the all-important arts or law degree that would give them entry into the expanding bureaucracies of government, the important areas of life. Once in the university, they spent their time brawling and laying siege to the virtue of the women of the town. So goes a stereotypical judgment on Renaissance universities.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Universities across Europe played extraordinarily significant roles in the Renaissance and the Reformation. They hosted innovative research in many fields and changed forever European religion and society. They were strife-ridden but seldom boring. Universities and their professors may have had greater influence on society in the Renaissance and Reformation than in any era before or since. That influence endures to this day. This lecture explores some of the roles that universities played in the Renaissance and Reformation.


Renaissance Europe inherited from the Middle Ages twenty-nine functioning universities in 1400 (see fig. 1). It then created twenty-eight new ones in the fifteenth century, almost doubling the total (see fig. 2). Another eighteen universities appeared between 1500 and 1625, making a total of seventy-three, as two disappeared (see fig. 3). The new universities appeared everywhere, but especially in central Europe. Between 1400 and 1625, Spain added eight, France nine, the present-day Netherlands and Belgium three universities, Switzerland two, Italy seven, and the present-day Germany fourteen. Scotland, which had no medieval universities, now had four. Scandinavia, which lacked universities in the Middle Ages, established the universities of Copenhagen and Uppsala. Only England did not found any new universities in the Renaissance. But both Oxford and Cambridge added several new colleges.

Renaissance rulers and city governments created new universities because they believed that society would benefit from university learning, and because Europeans thirsted for knowledge. On 4 March 1391, Pope Boniface IX issued a bull authorizing the establishment of a university in Ferrara. In grandiloquent language, it explained that a university would produce men of mature advice, crowned and decorated in virtue, and learned in the principles of different subjects. Further, the community would have a flowing fountain to quench the thirst of all who desired lessons in letters and science. (1) Other bulls for other universities echoed such sentiments, sometimes in the same words. (2)

Princes and leaders of city governments believed that scholarly expertise and analysis were needed to resolve difficulties, to create solutions, and to attain desired goals. Humanism was essential to this attitude; its critical perspective and habit of seeking knowledge and inspiration from the ancient world honored and supported scholarly investigation. Men also came to universities in order to acquire the degrees and marketable skills enabling them to secure good positions in society. But the kind of marketable training that universities offered was scholarly analysis, the ability to think carefully and to apply analytical reason to a problem. This was the deep university fountain that quenched the thirst for learning.



Southern and northern European universities were very different from each other, although the differences are little understood beyond the circle of historians of universities. Organization, the relative importance of disciplines, the distribution of faculty and students, and the level of instruction largely determined the roles that southern and northern universities played in the Renaissance and Reformation. …