VI.2 The overall pattern: matriculations and foundations

VI.2 The overall pattern: matriculations and foundations

In order to determine who was liable to pay fees and elegible to enjoy the benefits of university membership, universities had to keep records of enrollment, normally known as matriculation. Within the German lands, most universities kept meticulous records of student matriculations throughout this period; and most of the surviving matriculation records were edited and published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The graph of aggregate matriculations in universities in the territory of modern Germany (Image 1) helps place the momentary crisis provoked by the Reformation within a longer trajectory.

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. But the recovery from this sudden shock was as rapid as the decline and was sustained over a much longer period. From the 1540s onward, enrollment in German universities grew rapidly, as inter-confessional competition and the consolidation of political authority at the territorial level increased the demand for educated officeholders, both clerical and secular.  By the 1550s, matriculations had regained pre-Reformation levels; by the 1560s, their rate of growth had recovered the pre-Reformation trend-line; from the 1590s they were growing even faster than before 1520; and by their peak in the 1620s student numbers in Germany had grown eightfold in eight decades, before the disaster of the Thirty Years War disrupted this century-old trend.

The pattern of academic foundations in all three main confessions across Europe (Image 2) suggests the same thing. Within the fragmented political and confessional geography of the Holy Roman Empire, every significant principality wanted a university to serve the specific confessional and political needs of its local ruler. Many counties and imperial free cities founded sub-university institutions to perform the same functions within even smaller polities. The result was a proliferation of universities, academies, and academic gymnasia within the Empire without parallel in the rest of Europe, which overflowed in the final 75 years of our period into the northern Low Countries as well.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)