Part 3: Development of Universities

The Middle Ages

The universitas magistrorum et scholarium (community of teachers and learners) was a term forged in the twelfth century after Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa issued an edict called authentica habita. Hereby he protected roaming scholars, who were teaching at many places, and guaranteed that they couldn’t be captured by local nobles and kept for their own purposes. Obviously, it was a hard time. . . .

Soon afterward the first “universities” were founded, first in Italy (both Salerno and Bologna). The university movement spread at the beginning of the thirteenth century to France (Paris, Montpellier), England (Oxford, Cambridge) and Spain (Valencia and Salamanca).

These groups of scholars were basically workgroups of less than ten students and a single teacher, but they had—which separated universities from “academies” until the twentieth century—a royal or imperial license to create new “magisters.” Especially new bureaucrats who could serve the ruling nobles were needed. So the first topic was law, combined with theology.

Medicine (adopted from Arabian “high schools”) joined law soon after as a course of study. Then the seven “free arts” were formulated as preparing subjects. These consisted of the three social or language-based sciences of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic/logic—the so-called trivium (three ways)—and the four natural sciences of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy/astrology called quadrivium (four ways). As can be seen from the fact that these are subjects today taught at middle and high schools, the universities started from a much lesser knowledge base, and in fact the students were often much younger than today.

All the subjects taught were mainly based on the works of Aristotle, read in the Greek original or Latin translations. The term “read” must be taken literally. The professor had the only copy of these books, and the students all made efforts to write anything of importance down on their scrolls. In German, a university class is still called “Vorlesung” (reading) today, but I can assure you that the methods have massively changed since the Middle Ages.

When the universities became larger, the students were organized in groups. First they founded “nations,” grouping students by origin. Paris had four of them; “Gauls” (French, all other Roman languages, and “Orientals”), “Picardians,” “Normans,” (all French) and “Englishmen” containing all other North- and Central Europeans. The not-really-country-oriented partitioning was not as bad as it would be today, because everybody spoke Latin anyway.

These “Landsmannschaften” existed for a long time, but were as an organizing unit soon replaced by guildlike organizations containing one or more magistri, several praeceptores, and a horde of studentes all learning the same subject. These units were called ordines or facultates. During the time four different faculties emerged, the arts, jurists, theological, and medical.

For students from abroad, so-called collegias were founded, in Germany called “Burse” (from the German term for moneybag “Börse”), where the students could live and learn supervised by a magister regens or prior. This prior was also responsible for introductory courses in Latin or mathematics.

The first university in “Germany” (read: Holy Roman Empire) was founded in 1348 in Prague, which was a bad day for the city of Erfurt as we’ll see later.

The Early Modern Era

Omitte Traurigkeit!
Pergamus omni studio
Sa lustig allezeit
Bon vivum ist kein Bauerntrank,
Das Zerbster Bier macht gar nicht krank,
Das Hälslein wird nur weit.Burschenlied aus dem 17. Jahrhundert
Omit sadness!
Let’s continue to make every effort
to be happy at all times
The good life is not a farmers’ potion
The beer from Zerbst doesn’t sicken,
Only the throat gets wide.Fraternity song from the 17th century

The development of “modern” universities began with the invention of printing. By the end of the fifteenth century, it had become a common craft; books could be produced for an affordable price. The Hierana, the University of Erfurt (=>) was founded prior to that date, and the university claims that the student Johannes de Alta Villa (Eltville on Rhine between Wiesbaden and Rüdesheim) is in fact Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg, whose family lived in Eltville at that time.

The so-called era of Renaissance (meaning re-birth) started a new interest in the classical era, and writings from Greek or Roman authors were rediscovered and reprinted. The study of these classical books was now considered a base for modern education. At the Imperial Diet in 1495, the seven Electors were instructed to improve existing universities and found new ones within their principalities.

EFB19-wttnbrgThe Saxon Elector followed this order, and founded the Leucorea, the University of Wittenberg (=>), in 1502.

The university education was organized in three levels like crafts. Students in the first years, like apprentices, were only learning. Then they became baccalaureus, a neo-Latin word created from bacalis (full of berries) and laurus (laurel), and like journeymen were required to “work,” helping professors. The last step was the magister (master), which permitted—or sometimes forced—the scholar to teach. Some faculties called their “masters” doctor (teacher) or their bachelors licentiat (permitted). At that time there was no habilitation, each magister could be hired as teacher in a university.

The exams were held in the form of “disputations,” public discussions in Latin, where the examinee had to present a theory (thesis) and to defend it against questions and anti-theses from other members of his faculty.


There was no regulation on what studies had to be taken. The students studied as long as they had money. This was only necessary for living; the universities in Germany (except partially the “elite” university in Erfurt) didn’t charge a fee. Instead the teachers were financed by land yields and foundations. For poor students, stipends were funded by sponsors.

Some detailed information exists for the University of Wittenberg. In 1564, Elector August, duke of Saxony, donated a sum of 30,000 guilders, which yielded an annual interest of 1,500 fl. Twenty-seven students from Saxony were supported by this money. Students of law (2) and medicine (1) received a hundred; theologians (4) ninety and students of the Arts (20) forty guilders each. The rest of forty guilders was given to a professor of this university to keep an eye on these students. The seven large tuitions required the students to have finished the study of arts. Twice a year all those students had to take an exam proving their progress. Those twenty-seven students also were given rooms in the former monastery of the Augustinians, which had been inhabited by the late Martin Luther and his family. The university bought the monastery from the heirs for a total of 3,700 fl. and invested another 3,000 fl. for a renovation. Afterward, the rooms were rented out for eight to ten guilders annually.

When the university grew, the “Collegium Augusti” was expanded, a total of ninety rooms furnished, and the number of students receiving the Elector’s tuition set to one hundred and fifty (nearly half of the number of students in that time). Their stipend was given in board and lodging and a pocket money of six guilders annually. Eight of the most advanced students were given the task of regularly going over the actual topics with these scholarship holders.


The available subjects in the early modern time (the Arts, Law, Theology, Philosophy, Medicine) were over the centuries gradually extended by new sciences (like Anthropology or Archeology), and the sciences often divided into subparts. Dedicated studies of countries (Anglistics, Americanistics, et cetera) were introduced early, too.

Engineering, however, always played a subordinate role compared to “pure” scientific subjects. Technical universities have existed since the eighteenth century, the miner’s university of Freiberg being one of the first. Nevertheless it took until the early-twentieth century for Engineering to become a regular part of the curriculum and issuing doctorates.

But arts, science and technology make up the whole existing menu of studies. All other possible jobs in Germany are not taught at universities. Crafts are still taught the same way as in the seventeenth century.

American universities and colleges provide courses in diverse major studies such as Education (teacher training); Economics and Accounting; Political Science; Liberal Arts; Music; and many others.

Although Comenius (=> Part 2) was already advocating education for girls and women, it took until the middle of the eighteenth century before the first woman was—by explicit order of the Prussian king—allowed a doctorate. But she and her few successors during the next century were the exceptions to the rule that there were no women in the academics.

Not before 1888 were women officially allowed at Germany’s universities.


And now the most important German universities of the 1630s in chronological order. “Most important” for now means Central Germany in reach of Grantville.

The University of Erfurt (1389)

The Hierana, named after the creek Gera that flows through Erfurt, was the first university in central Germany.

CoC3-rfrtIn the fourteenth century, Erfurt hosted a flourishing academic school. Although the students could not receive an official graduation there, it attracted many young men, because the universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford were much too far away. Then the University of Prague was founded, and the number of students declined precipitously. Erfurt’s position as an academic leader was seriously diminished. So the council of the city—not the Archbishop of Mainz, who would have been responsible for this—sent an emissary to Avignon in 1378 to get a papal license (the Church was in the process of “schisming”) for a university. They got it after one year, but before they could found the university, the schism was over, the pope in Avignon history, and the license void.

Since the hopeful university founders had been supporting the wrong pope, the chances for a renewal of the license were bad, until Cardinal Philip of Avençon visited Germany and could be convinced by the Erfurters to support their wishes. So in 1389, they got a new license, and after three years of preparatory work, including purchasing a building and hiring a total of eight professors, the university opened.

The university was an immediate success. Five hundred twenty-three students enrolled in the first two years, and afterward, a constant inflow of about one hundred students per semester had the university bursting at the seams. The size of the university at Erfurt brought back many of the students and professors from Prague, they returned to Erfurt even though about ten other universities had been founded in Germany in the meantime.

The organization of the university changed very much between the late-fourteenth and the early-seventeenth century, but there are some facts, which are still interesting. In fact, Erfurt was the first “elite” university, especially directed to richer students.

The aforementioned community of students and professors was enforced by a law that all students (even local ones) had to live in Burses. One professor was head of the Burse, and all learning took place there. The Latin term was “collegium,” which until today didn’t change its meaning very much. The Erfurt Burses were from the beginning organized as faculties, students from all countries studying the same subject lived together.

Since the area containing Erfurt belonged to the archbishopric of Mainz, the archbishop was (until 1631) always the chancellor of the University, even if the real supervising was done by the vice-chancellor. The head of the university, the Rektor was elected for one semester by all students and professors. The Rektor was responsible for representing the university to the outside. All the insignia he needed were kept in a wooden box, the cista universitatis, which will play a role later.

The funding of the university at Erfurt was rather complicated. The theological professors were priests, on leave from their normal duties, but still paid by the church. The professors of the artistic faculty were sent and paid by three different clerical orders (Augustines, Franciscans, and Dominicans).

The professors of the other two faculties (medicine and law) were paid by the city, with the exception of the professor for canon law, who was paid by the church again. The city also paid for the other employees, and had the nominating right for all these posts.

The university also demanded a number of different fees from the students. The matriculation fee started with ten Groschen in the fourteenth century, but rose to thirty in the sixteenth. Even the poorest students had to pay at least six Groschen, which were loaned to them until their first graduation. Students on scholarship sometimes stayed up to ten years at the university without starting their graduation, because they had no money to pay back the loan. Graduations had to be paid, and all fines for bad behavior were to be paid in cash.

All in all, the University of Erfurt became one of the richest (and most snobbish) at the time. The study was strongly regulated. All students had to study arts first; only magisters of art were even allowed to start studying one of the other three subjects, finishing with a doctor graduate.

Especially the study of the laws, (ius civilis and ius canonici) took a long time. A doctor utriusque iuris (doctor of both laws) had finally spent no less than fifteen years at the university, but this graduation was the most reputable in all of Europe north of the Alps. Erfurt was even called the “German Bologna.”

Yet, only 30 percent of the students took even their first graduation, only 2.5 percent finished one of the three major subjects.

Time of the Reformation

In the early-sixteenth century, the university was apparently flourishing with over one thousand students. The city itself, which still had to fund a part of the university, was rather broke. The students grew younger and younger, beginning as young as thirteen years and sometimes graduated at sixteen. On the other hand, the professors grew older and older. Martin Luther is quoted with “In Erfurt you need to be fifty to graduate as doctor of theology.”

By the way, Martin started studying arts in Erfurt in 1501, graduated as magister artium in 1505 with barely the mandatory age of twenty-two, and started studying law, before a personal experience during a thunderstorm made him leave the university and join the Augustine monks. He was ordained in 1507, and started studying theology in Wittenberg in 1508. Luther’s career will be discussed in the section on Wittenberg.

In 1509, the city of Erfurt declared bankruptcy. It was saved and supported by the Wettin princes, and by the archbishop of Mainz, but exactly this fact led to enormous political problems. All the more, when the Wettins suddenly left the Catholic church and turned Lutheran completely.

Before these events, the situation in Erfurt got out of control at a county fair in August 1510. Students started to fight against mercenaries, and citizens of Erfurt intervened. Cannons were turned against the main building of the university and several of the Burses were plundered; inventory and books destroyed or looted. Especially the Burses “the Dragon” and “the White Wheel” where completely destroyed.

With the start of the Reformation in 1517, the problems in Erfurt reached new heights. Most of the clerics remained loyal to the archbishop, but the students eagerly supported Luther. In 1521, the “Pfaffensturm” (cleric storm) happened, and all the houses of Catholic clerics were systematically plundered by students.

The city council (still nearly bankrupt) waited until the parishes offered them protection money. The same year, a plague wave swept the town. Afterward, nothing was the same.

The matriculation numbers went down to under thirty per semester. Most humanists had left Erfurt, the theological professors turned Protestant, and only one Catholic professor stayed. During the sixteenth century, the city zigzagged between Catholic and Protestant, finally ending with only 2,000 Catholics of the nearly 20,000 inhabitants in 1620.

The Catholic mass was forbidden at the university in 1525, and the matriculation number hit rock bottom with only thirteen new students.

After the Reformation

With the treaty of Hammelburg in 1530, freedom of belief was introduced in Erfurt. Eight churches stayed Catholic, including the cathedral; the rest of the thirty-eight churches in downtown Erfurt became Lutheran.

After 1529, no further doctors of Catholic theology graduated until 1629. New professors were hired for mathematics and natural sciences in 1531.

During the sixteenth century, the university in a Catholic enclave suffered more and more. After the Schmalkaldian war, the universities in Wittenberg and Leipzig were temporarily closed, the students came from those universities to Erfurt. However, this was only “a drop in the bucket.” New Protestant universities were founded in Marburg and Jena, stripping Erfurt from its hinterland.

With the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the archbishop’s aim to restitute his former properties in Erfurt was forfeited. The Hammelburg treaty remained in force.

The city council founded a gymnasium in 1556 as the feeder-school for the university. It was established in the Augustine monastery, whose last monk had just died.

Ten wealthy citizens funded a professor of Protestant theology and a professor of Greek, and so a Protestant theological faculty was finally founded. That made Erfurt the first university in the Holy Roman Empire where both confessions were taught.

The late-sixteenth century saw the economy in Erfurt finally blooming again, thanks to the enormous amount of woad (a plant-based dye for the color blue), which was grown in the farm villages around and sold in all of Europe—until the plague swept through again in 1597 and killed eight thousand people, thought to be a third of Erfurt’s inhabitants.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Catholic church stepped up efforts to “reform” (=counter reformate) their properties. The Jesuits roamed the cities and the country areas trying to convert all Protestants back. In Erfurt, they founded a “Kolleg” (another name for a Latin school) in 1611. It started with five classes up to Secunda, and then in 1618, a Prima was added. The year 1618 marked the climax of autonomy of Erfurt. A treaty between the archbishop, Johann Schweikard von Kronberg, and the city council confirmed the freedom of religion and extended it to all villages around Erfurt within the properties of the archbishop. On the other hand, the city had to restitute all former properties with the exception of the gymnasium buildings.

The Thirty Years’ War

In the first decade of the Thirty Years’ War, the city of Erfurt tried to keep out of trouble by buying several “salva guardia” (writ of protection) from the Imperial leaders for a total of more than 100,000 guilders, but the area was plundered and devastated anyway.

The university was nearly not in existence in these days. A handful of professors and a larger handful of students tried to keep it alive.

Still there were no new doctors of theology, because they had no doctor of theology who was allowed to perform the promotions. The faculty swallowed the bitter pill and accepted the principal of the Jesuits’ school, Dr. Johannes Bettingen from Trier, as member, even dean, of the faculty. In 1629, finally two new doctors were promoted. Peter Jacobus Zelierus of the Augustine order from Diedenhofen (Thionville) in Lorraine, and Caspar Heinrich Marx, a son of Erfurt, born in 1600.

Caspar had been inscribed at Erfurt University at the age of seven, but was denied, because the boy didn’t manage to recite the required oath. He then attended school and university of the Jesuits in Mainz, but returned to Erfurt at the age of twenty-four to be ordained. Being hired as “Kanonikus and Kantor” at the cathedral St. Mary’s, gave him the opportunity to finish his studies at the university. He also worked as parish priest.

During the year 1629, he had to endure three disputations to be graduated. All protocols of these events were immediately printed (most likely for propaganda purposes).

Marx soon gained a reputation for his controversial writings. In 1630, he wrote “Anti-Coronis Meyfartica . . . pro . . . Mertani Becani” (against the conclusions of Meyfarth to support Martin Becanus) against a writing of Matthäus Meyfarth, who was director of the gymnasium in Coburg at that time.

Contemporaries praise the courtesy and friendliness that both theologians used in their publications, which was completely unusual at that time.

CoC3-gstvWhen Bettingen was elected as principal of the university in 1631, Marx was appointed dean of the theological faculty on September 30, 1631. Two days later the Swedish army, led by Wilhelm von Saxen-Weimar, occupied the city, and on October 3, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden entered the town in a triumphal parade after the victory at Breitenfeld.

This was another turning point for the fate of the university. All the properties of the archbishop were dispossessed and given to the Lutheran city council with the requirement to rebuild the university to its former (but now Lutheran) glory. The Swedish king became chancellor of the university.

Soon afterward, the city council, awaiting the arrival of several Lutheran professors with a new dean, prompted Marx to return the cista universitatis mentioned above. To Marx, at that time the only professor of the theological faculty, the trunk represented the Catholic history of the university, and the legitimacy of his post. So he refused to return the trunk, and started to assail all possible persons with—very politely written—letters (some of them still existing today) pleading his cause.

A Short Trip into the Old Timeline

After Gustav Adolph’s death in December 1632, Axel Oxenstierna became chancellor of the university, and massively enforced the Lutheran influence. To him Erfurt was a symbol of the Lutheran victory over the Catholics, militarily, politically and educationally.

The removal of the trunk from Marx’s apartment by the “Pedell” (caretaker) on July 2, 1633, Marx’s last sermon in the cathedral on the morning of July 11, and Matthäus Meyfarth’s first sermon on the afternoon of the same day marked the final confessionalization of the university.

Meyfarth reformed the theological faculty not only from Catholic to Lutheran, but also by introducing new methods for the education of pastors. Church history, or oriental languages, had never been subjects at the university before; rhetoric had been taught during the trivium, mostly by the gymnasiums, for use during disputations, and not as part of a “vocational preparation” for pastors-to-be.

The matriculation numbers rose to one hundred forty men per semester, and the whole theological faculty became quickly reputable again. Meyfarth is in hindsight called a “light house professor” by modern writers. The new university laws of 1634 emphasize on the “personal role model” the professors had to be for their students.

The personal struggle between Marx and Meyfarth about the trunk never really ended. They had a polite correspondence during the following years. In May 1635, the Peace of Prague restituted Erfurt and its surroundings to the archbishop of Mainz. Suddenly the university lost all its income, and the Lutheran professors were forced out of their official residences.

In September 1635, Meyfarth held his last sermon in the cathedral. On September 30—again—an election for the post of dean of theological faculty was held. In fact, there were two elections, one for the Protestant dean, and another for the Catholic one. That brought Marx back on his post, and in the position to reclaim the famous trunk.

His death from the plague on December 19, 1635 ended his part of the game, but the trunk stayed the bone of contention between the declining Protestant faculty and the Catholics regaining strength over years.

Nevertheless, it took the Catholic professors, supported by an Imperial commission, until 1649 to find and return the trunk to the now again Catholic principal.

The New Timeline

After the Swedish troops moved on to southern Germany (as described in 1632), it’s most likely that the struggles between Protestants and Catholics lasted in Erfurt. Although the city became a member of the New United States in late 1631/early 1632, it certainly took its time to settle the problems.

It’s not documented who became principal instead of Meyfarth (who went to Franconia during the events of 1634: The Ram Rebellion). But it’s certain (and in the meantime canonical, see “Ein Feste Burg, Episode 8” in Grantville Gazette 47) that Marx kept “his” trunk as he had done OTL. Since the relations between the Catholic Church and the political authorities in Thuringia developed more to a teeth-gnashing cooperation instead of open conflicts, the auxiliary bishop decided to send him into the Thuringian diaspora to Eisenach instead of enduring his constant nagging.

The University of Leipzig (1409)

The Alma Mater Lipsiensis is the second-oldest university in Germany (after Heidelberg), which still exists today without interruption. Erfurt was closed in 1816 and reopened in 1994.

The University of Prague was nearly torn into pieces through the papal schism, when King Wenceslaus ordered all clergy in Bohemia to stay neutral. From the four student nations at the university, only the Bohemian one obeyed, and was by royal decree privileged with three votes in the council, while the other nations (Bavarian, Saxon, Polish) each had only one. The Bohemians even demanded to combine the other nations into one and give them only one vote.

As a consequence, nearly one thousand professors and allegedly twenty-four thousand students of these three nations left Prague in 1409.

CoC3-slBetween four hundred and two thousand professors and students arrived in Leipzig shortly thereafter. They were welcomed by Magister Vincentius Gruner, former professor in Prague and now living in the monastery of Altzelle. Vincentius immediately contacted the Saxon Elector to initiate the founding of a university in Leipzig.

Friedrich “the Belligerent” and his brother Wilhelm “the Rich” immediately reacted; Friedrich allegedly to take a swipe at the Bohemian king, who had denied him the hand of his sister earlier.

The faculty of Arts received a papal license in the same year—in their case from the “official” pope in Rome.

Two buildings in Leipzig were given to the university, exempted from all taxes and the town’s jurisdiction. More buildings followed in the next years, and then again after the Reformation.

The salary for twenty magisters was guaranteed by fiefs. The university was (OTL until the eighteenth century) organized into four nations: Meißen, Sachsen (including all of Northern and Central Germany), Bayern (including southern Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal) and Polen (including the east European countries down to Hungary).

The university immediately gained a positive reputation, becoming a home for high nobles and clerics, mostly because the Elector paid for reputable magisters from all over Europe to teach in Leipzig.

During the sixteenth century, the teaching was organized into the four normal faculties.

The massive size of the university and the large number of professors allowed the Arts to cover many more different subjects such as History, Roman, Greek, and Poetry.

The law faculty started with two professors (canon law and Roman law), but the latter was soon subdivided into specific classes. There was a dedicated professor for contract law, and especially one to interpret the Roman law and teach his peers.

The latter institution increased the reputation of the university. Princes, cities and courts sent inquiries about the meaning of the laws. They shaped a new generation of rules independent of the medieval interpretation of the glossatores (commentators of law), mostly from Bologna, and integrated the native German law of the Sachsenspiegel from the thirteenth century, which had been ignored during previous centuries.

When the Reformation, massively supported by the Ernestine Saxon Electors from Thuringia, came into being, the University of Leipzig—along with the Albertine Wettins in Saxony—refused the ideas massively. The famous disputation between Martin Luther and the Catholic professor Johannes Eck from Leipzig was held here in July 1519, observed by the anti-Lutheran duke Georg “the Bearded.” The town and university burst at their seams from visiting theologians and other scholars. According to contemporary sources, the university was “like a madhouse full of arguing lunatics.” Only after Georg’s death in 1539 and the succession of his brother Heinrich “the Pious” did the university turn Lutheran.

The Reformation then brought new sources of income from former monasteries, and allowed the university to hire professors of anatomy and surgery. Elector Moritz added the income of five more villages to the budget of the university to fund more stipends for poor students.

After these events, nothing notable happened here until the year 1631. Nothing is written about this university in the 1632-verse.

The University of Wittenberg (1502)

Back at the end of the fifteenth century, the Electorate of Saxony was ruled by the Wettin family as a whole, Friedrich II “the Gentle” had died in 1464, and his two oldest sons Ernst and Albrecht ruled together. But as always (at least in German history) that didn’t last long. In 1485, they decided to split their property into two parts. This is not really exact, because the whole area consisted of about ten distinct parts. Two of them in Lusatia the brothers continued to rule together. The Ore Mountains and the Elbe valley with Dresden and the capital Meißen went to August, along with the northwestern wedge from Leipzig to Langensalza. Several small principalities were embedded into the rest, so Ernst’s parts—Eisenach and Gotha; Weimar, but not Erfurt; Coburg in Franconia, the Vogtland around Plauen, and a small stretch between the Augustine properties, containing Altenburg, Grimma, Torgau and Wittenberg—were rather rugged.

Ernst died one year later, and his son, Friedrich III “the Wise,” took over at the age of twenty-three. He invested a lot of money into building a castle in his new capital Wittenberg. He was a famous collector of relics, so his first shopping spree took him to Jerusalem, accompanied by his personal physician, Martin Pollich from Mellrichstadt (called Mellerstadt). It is not exactly documented what caused Friedrich to decide to found a new university, the order of the emperor, or the constant nagging of his doctor, who had fallen out of Leipzig. But after the two had returned from the Holy Country, they both started a well-organized campaign for a new university.

Mellerstadt used his connections to hire the most famous scholars from Leipzig, Prague, and especially Tübingen, which had the most reputable theological faculty of that time in the whole HRE (and still today in Germany). Friedrich wrote to the Emperor—not to the pope as all founders of universities in the Germanies had done before—and soon received a universal license. He afterward contacted the pope for an agreement, but when the new University of Wittenberg Leucorea celebrated its opening on October 18, 1502, it was still eight years before the arrival of the final papal license.

When the number of new students stalled in the third year—mostly because Frankfurt/Oder in Brandenburg now had a university of its own—Mellerstadt, in the meantime chancellor of the university, started an advertising campaign as never seen before.

He commissioned a book, which told the story of a young student from Freiberg meeting an older student on his way to his new alma mater in Cologne. The older student paints the advantages of Wittenberg in the most radiant colors, until the younger one agrees to start his studies in Wittenberg, too.

When Christoph Scheurl became principal in 1507 he praised the pleasant, plague-free climate in his inaugural speech, emphasizing that living in Wittenberg was—for only eight guilders a year—only half as expensive as in Leipzig.

The university register in the winter semester 1508/09 shows the name “Frater Martinus Lüder de Mansfelt Augustianus.” Martin Luther had been sent after his ordination by his vicar general Johann von Staupitz from Erfurt to Wittenberg to fulfill his duty of teaching arts—in this case ethics of Aristotle—and at the same time study theology.

The young monk needed only one semester to graduate as Lizentiat and already prepared himself for his first exam in the next semester, when he was unexpectedly relocated back to Erfurt. Not before he had left his home country for the first time for a journey to Rome, he returned to Wittenberg in fall 1511.

He needed only one more semester before he was appointed doctor of theology. Staupitz resigned and transferred his professorship to the young man. The rest is history.

After Martin Luther’s death on February 18, 1546, the university fell into a deep hole. Historians debate if his death was the trigger for the Schmalkaldic War that broke out the same summer, or not. The Protestant princes of Germany, led by Duke Johann Friedrich I, Elector of Saxony, decided to fight against the Catholic Emperor Charles V before he would be able to mobilize his troops.

In June, Rektor Johannes Marcellus told all students that they would be free to participate in the war, but the classes would carry on. The summer semester went normally, but in October Moritz, the Lutheran duke of Saxony, having declared his loyalty to the Emperor, besieged Wittenberg. Philip Melanchthon, who had taken over many of Luther’s duties emigrated to Braunschweig. He returned after the war, and was head of the theological faculty for another decade, but never completely made a home there; his family stayed in Northern Germany.

In spite of the war, the classes continued—more or less. Moritz didn’t manage to take the town, nevertheless he won the war, became Elector and was given a big part of the former Electorate, including Wittenberg.

The new Elector declared that he would not make himself “dependent to popish abuse” and instead wholeheartedly supported the Lutheran Church in his principality, which now hosted two universities, Leipzig and Wittenberg. In October 1547, the classes started anew, and in January 1548 the university was formally renewed. New properties were assigned as income, and soon students flocked into Wittenberg again.

Even the fact that the university temporarily had to move to Torgau in 1552 to avoid a plague wave didn’t diminish its reputation. The only notable person who left the university in these years was Matthias Flacius, because he considered Melanchthon as too gentle against the Catholic attempts to suppress the Lutheran doctrine.

In the years leading up to 1560 most of the original reformators died, and their sons, sons-in-law or nephews took over.

The next decade was shaped by the so-called Crypto-Calvinism. While the new Elector August, who had grown up in Vienna as a close friend of later emperor Maximilian II, first openly declared his sympathy for Calvinism, Wittenberg tried to follow a moderate Lutheranism in opposition to the orthodox movement in Jena, which in turn led to them being suspected for being hidden Calvinists when August himself turned to an orthodox point of view.

While most historians praise August for his economic reforms that led to Saxony accumulating a lot of money, the theologians in Wittenberg called him a despot. Letters between Lutheran scholars didn’t reach their recipients but ended up in August’s hands. The current dean of theology, Melanchthon’s son-in-law Caspar Peucer was ordered to show up in Dresden, imprisoned and forced to sign an admission having introduced an “alien doctrine” in the duchy. He was released on parole, but continued his fight for what was called Philippism, the Lutheran doctrine according to Philip Melanchthon. He was imprisoned again and only released in 1586, shortly before August died.

The university’s chancellor Georg Cracow, son-in-law of the late dean of theology Johannes Bugenhagen was not as lucky and died in prison in Leipzig. More university teachers were imprisoned, released after they signed admissions, but dismissed and had to leave Wittenberg.

New teachers were hired by the Elector. When Martin Oberndörfer held his first sermon, ranting against “deviants and heretics” he was interrupted by foot shuffling, coughing and “other unrulinesses” by the students. At least he was quick-witted enough to immediately change his behavior.

Several members of the second generation mentioned before returned to Wittenberg, allegedly to exterminate Philippism, but tried to cheat their way through.

All these quarrels led to a constant decrease in numbers of teachers and students, not only in the theological faculty but in all of them. All professors who were suspected to sympathize with the “Crypto-Calvinists” were fired, but not always replaced. Their Elector-approved successors often couldn’t meet the requirements.

In 1580, a new constitution for the university was created by the Elector and his council of orthodox theologians. The number of positions and their titles stayed the same, but their job descriptions were worked out in minute detail leaving no room for interpretation. Draconian penalties were pronounced for straying away from the path of the new constitution.

When August died in 1586 “few hours after a stroke” his 26-year-old son Christian immediately did a one-eighty concerning the university’s policy. He turned away from the Catholics and sided with the Calvinist Count Palatine Johann Kasimir. For the university that meant that all oppressions were lifted, reading the works of Luther and even Melanchthon now became part of the curriculum. The teachers who had been placed into the university more for their political loyalty than for their teaching skills quickly quit and disappeared into friendlier parts of Germany.

Christian died in 1591, his oldest son only eight years old, and the dukes of Brandenburg and Saxe-Weimar were appointed legal guardians. The latter, Friedrich Wilhelm, was appointed administrator of Saxony. He was a strict Lutheran, and orthodoxy returned to Wittenberg. The more liberal professors left again or were thrown out quickly and never returned.

The following time was rather uneventful, the plague waves hitting town and university roughly twice a decade didn’t really diminish their size, between 550 and 600 students kept the university running well. The Thirty Years’ War mostly spared Saxony, because the new Elector, Johann Georg, was on the emperor’s side. That changed, when Gustav II Adolf came to Germany, more or less forced the Saxon Elector on his side, and crossed the Elbe at Wittenberg on September 1, 1631, to challenge Tilly’s army that occupied Leipzig.

The city welcomed him heartily. His only son, Gustav Gustavsson, enrolled at the university and was given the title of “Rektor.” This was not an unusual act; all high nobles that attended the university were given that title, while a professor as “Prorektor” had to perform the necessary functions.


To be continued (Part 4 contains the University of Jena, and the sources)