I.3. University matriculations in Germany and England, 1400-1810

I.3. University matriculations in Germany and England, 1400-1810

Matriculation rates tell a similar story. The medieval and early modern history of the university in central Europe is one of sustained growth punctuated by one enormous rupture and ended by a second.

The first major crisis to hit the German universities – the Lutheran Reformation – was profound but transient.  By calling into question the utility of degrees in theology and canon law, the Reformation cut matriculations in German universities by nearly three quarters in the 1530s. The longer-term effect, however, was to accelerate the underlying rate of growth: by their peak in the 1620, German student numbers had grown eightfold in eight decades.

The second great crisis for the German universities was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  Proportionately, the effect was less than that of the Reformation: during the 1640s, the student population in Germany was cut in half.  But in absolute terms the crisis was greater and it marked a far more profound watershed in the history of the institution: numbers never fully recovered their pre-war level. Instead, matriculations stagnated for a century and then, from 1750 onward, dramatically declined – just like the pattern of university foundations more generally.

Although the English university system was the antithesis of that which had evolved in central Europe and its matriculation data is far more difficult to gather, a similar pattern is evident.  English university affairs were also dramatically disrupted by the reformations and counter-reformations of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary Tudor. But growth resumed from the Elizabethan settlement onward, peaking in the 1630s, before the outbreak of civil war in 1642 caused enrollments to slump in perfect synchrony with the German figures. The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 did not restore numbers to their pre-war levels and the university population declined in numbers and in intellectual vitality during the eighteenth century, despite growing collegiate wealth.

In short, the three data series surveyed here - university foundations in Europe, college foundations in England, and university matriculation in England and the Holy Roman Empire - all suggest the same thing: that the period 1400 to 1650 witnessed sustained growth in higher education. The Reformation initially disrupted but eventually only accelerated this growth, and it was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that stagnation occurred from which the European universities would only recover in the nineteenth century. 

In order to understand this pattern, we need to understand the nature and function of the late medieval and early modern university.
Sources: German data from Franz Eulenburg, Die Frequenz der deutschen Universitäten (Leipzig, 1904), excluding Königsberg, which Eulenberg counted amongst German universities. Including matriculations for the rest of the Holy Roman Empire – Prague and Olomouc; Vienna, Graz and Salzburg; Leuven and Douai – would maintain the general trajectory while reducing the depth of the disruptions in the 1530-40s and 1630-40s. English data from Lawrence Stone, ‘The Educational Revolution in England, 1560–1640’, Past and Present, 28.1 (1964), 41-80.
Credits: Howard Hotson (October 2017)