I.1. University foundations in Europe, 1400-1800

I.1. University foundations in Europe, 1400-1800

The university is one of the most enduring institutions created in medieval Europe.  In 1400, the oldest universities in Europe were already 300 years old.  Of around 50 which had been established at one time or another, 32 were still active (Image 1). By 1450, another 13 had been founded (Image 2); by 1500, 21 more (Image 3). The sixteenth century then saw an acceleration in this trend.  In the first half of the century, 28 new universities were established along with 16 sub-university institutions (Image 4).  By 1600, 46 new universities and 36 sub-university institutions (Image 5). During the first half of the seventeenth century, this rate was sustained, with the foundation of 25 universities and 47 academies (Image 6).  After that, the momentum slows dramatically (Image 7): between 1651 and 1700, 15 universities and 28 academies were established; in the early eighteenth century, these numbers drop to 12 and 16 respectively; while in the half-century before 1800 only 16 universities and 8 academies. Finally, in the decades either side of 1800, the number of universities in Europe actually fell: between 1793 and 1811, over 50 universities were suppressed, first in France and then in a rationalisation of educational provision imposed across Napoleonic Europe.
In short, the period before 1650 saw an enormous, sustained expansion of higher education in northern, western, southern and especially central Europe. The period after 1650 was, in comparison, one of stagnation and decline. This pattern raises two obvious questions.  One is chronological: why then was the earlier period – the late Middle Ages and the confessional era – so much more fertile of universities than the latter period – associated with the spread of scientific learning and the Enlightenment?  The other is geographical: why is the pattern of university and sub-university foundation in the Low Countries and central Europe so different from the rest of Europe?

Before addressing these questions, we need to confirm this general pattern with reference to more evidence (see next).

Sources: These maps and graph derive from the figures and data collected in Willem Frijhoff, ‘Patterns’, in Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (ed.), Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500–1800) [= A History of the University in Europe, vol 2] (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 43-110.

Credits: Howard Hotson (October 2017)