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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > H > University of Heidelberg

University of Heidelberg

Heidelberg, a city of 41,000 inhabitants, is situated in the Grand Duchy of Baden, on the left bank of the Neckar. From the obscurity of a legendary origin the city emerges into the light of history in 1214, when the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II bestowed on Duke Louis I of Wittelsbach the dignity of Count Palatine of the Rhine on account of his faithful services; from that time, the fortunes of the Palatinate and its capital, Heidelberg, were bound up with those of its thirty counts and electors, until, by the Imperial Delegates Enactment of 1803 at Ratisbon, it passed from the ranks of German states and was partitioned among the neighboring states. The fame of Heidelberg is due to its university, which was founded in 1386 by the warlike Rupert I of Wittelsbach when he was over seventy years of age, on the model of the University of Paris. The same prince erected the Heiliggeistkirche, formerly the university church, which contains the graves of the Palatine Counts of Wittelsbach. After Pope Urban VI had issued the Bull of authorization (23 October, 1385), the founder granted the university a succession of privileges, exemptions, and prerogatives. It was to consist of four faculties, theology, law, medicine and art, each to have its separate organization. At first, the rector was elected every quarter, after 1393 semi-annually, and after 1522, annually, like the deans of the faculties. Teachers and students were provided with safe-conducts, were exempt from taxes and tolls in the electorate, and were granted all the privileges that obtained at the University of Paris. The Bishop of Worms, in whose diocese Heidelberg was situated, was judge in ordinary of the clerics. The regulations were publicly read and posted up in the Heiliggeistkirche every year.

On 18 October, 1386, the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, the university was solemnly opened with Divine service, and the next day lectures on logic, exegesis, and natural philosophy were begun. Dr. Marsilius from Inghen, near Arnheim, Guelderland, former representative of Nominalism in Paris, was chosen first rector. In accordance with the terms of the papal Bull of authorization, the provost of the cathedral of Worms acted as chancellor of the university, and until the end of the eighteenth century exercised in the name of the Church the right of superintending and sanctioning the conferring of academic degrees, either in person or through a vice-chancellor. Soon after the opening of the university the faculties of theology and law were reinforced by bachelors and licentiates from Prague and Paris. But as most of the students came from the Rhenish provinces, the custom followed by other universities of classifying them according to nationality was not imitated here. The faculty of medicine was not organized until 1390. the faculty of arts, the alma totius Universitatis mater, was here as everywhere else, the first in point of numbers. St. Catherine was the patron saint, and her feast day (25 November) was observed with great solemnity. In the first year of its existence the university had in its roll 525 teachers and students. The foundations of the celebrated library of Heidelberg were laid by means of donations from the bishops, chancellors, and early professors. Louis III willed his large and valuable collection to the university. Later, when Otto Henry had added the gift of his books and manuscripts, the entire collection received the name of Bibliotheca Palatina and was considered the most valuable in Germany. At the instance of Elector Rupert III, later German king (1400-1410), Pope Boniface IX, in 1399, relinquished twelve important livings and several patronages to the university. Rupert's eldest son, Louis III, changed the Heilggeistkirche into a collegiate church and united its twenty-four prebends to the university, a measure sanctioned by Pope Martin V.

Nominalism had been prevalent from the time of Marsilius until after 1406, when Jerome of Prague, the friend of John Hus, introduced realism, on which account he was expelled by the faculty which, six years later, also condemned the teachings of John Wycliffe. Several distinguished professors took part in the Council of Constance and acted as counsellors for Louis III who, as representative of the emperor and chief magistrate of the realm, attended this council and had Hus executed as a heretic. In 1432 the university, pursuant to papal and imperial requests, sent to the Council of Basle two delegates who faithfully supported the legitimate pope. The transition from scholastic to humanistic culture was effected by the learned chancellor and bishop, Johann von Dalberg. Humanism was represented at Heidelberg by Rudolph Agricola, founder of the older German Humanistic School, the younger humanist Conrad Celtes, the pedagogue Jakob Wimpheling and that "marvel in three languages", Johann Reuchlin. The learned Æneas Silvius Piccolomini was chancellor of the university in his capacity of provost of Worms and, as Pope Pius II, always favored it with his friendship and good-will. In 1482 Sixtus IV, through a papal dispensation, permitted laymen and even married men to be appointed professors in ordinary of medicine, and in 1553 Pope Julius III sanctioned the allotment of ecclesiastical benefices to secular professors.

In April, 1518, the Augustinian monks of Heidelberg held a convention in their monastery in which Dr. Martin Luther from Wittenberg participated. In a public debate he maintained forty theological and philosophical theses which maintained in part the uselessness of moral effort and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The university as a body looked quite unfavourably upon the reform movement which Luther and his followers had inaugurated. Pope Adrian VI, in a Brief, dated 1 December, 1523, warned individual members of the university who were inclined towards the new teachings, to oppose the Reformation in speech and writing and to guide back to the path of truth all who had gone astray - an admonition which the university accepted in a spirit of gratitude. But when in consequence of the attitude of certain professors, the Reformed teachings began to take a firmer hold at Heidelberg, Elector Louis V in 1523 ordered an inquiry. Matters did not then reach a crisis, though in spite of the Elector's exertions, the university became more and more unsettled, its revenues were considerably reduced, and the professors exceeded the students in numbers. In 1545 some of the citizens and university members declared themselves in favor of Luther's teaching; Elector Frederick II remained a Catholic, but his consort Dorothea, a Danish princess, and their household received Communion under both kinds on Christmas Day of that year. The last two Catholic electors, Louis V and Frederick II, with the support of learned advisers, had made repeated attempts at timely reforms in the university. The only outcome was a revision of the constitutions of the faculty of arts undertaken by the professor of Greek, Jakob Mikyllus, and approved by the university in 1551. To terminate the brawls between the occupants of the different students' halls, the three halls were, in accordance with the elector's desire, united in 1546 with the college of arts and by this means with the university proper, and were thus consolidated under their own statutes and administration. Frederick II also founded the Sapientia College in 1556, to accommodate sixty to eighty poor but talented students from the Palatinate. With the consent of Pope Julius III it was established in 1560 in the abandoned Augustinian monastery. Under Frederick III in 1561, it was transferred to the Protestant Consistory and turned into a theological seminary; as such it continued until 1803 when its revenues were given over to a more advanced institute at Heidelberg. In 1560 the grammar school which had declined under Otto Henry was revived as a preparatory college.

The university recognized the pope's authority for the last time, when, on the invitation of Julius III, it resolved to send two professors as delegates to the Council of Trent, an intention which was not after all carried into effect. Under Otto Henry (1556-59), who immediately after his accession established Lutheranism as the State religion, the last two Catholic professors resigned their chairs. Reforms affecting economic management and administration, faculty organization, number, subjects, and order of courses, and the appointment of professors, were carried out by Otto Henry with the assistance of Mikyllus and Philip Melanchthon, in 1556 and during the following years when the elector's brother, the Palatine Count George John, was rector. The latter chose a pro-rector from among the professors, and subsequently it became customary to associate a pro-rector with the rector magnificentissimus. Through these innovations, the university was transformed into a school of the Evangelical-Lutheran and later of the Calvinistic stamp. At that time, the rigid Calvinists of the theological faculty gave the Reformers their most important doctrinal formulary in the Heidelberg Catechism. As under Louis VI (1576-83) all the Calvinist professors were dismissed from the university, so under his successor, John Casimir (1583-92), the Lutherans were sent away and the Reformed readmitted. In 1588 some further regulations for the faculties, discipline, and economy were proposed and were carried out by Frederick IV. The university gained an international reputation, but its prosperity was destroyed by the Thirty Years War. In September, 1622, the city and castle of Heidelberg were taken by Tilly and the university practically abolished. It was reorganized in 1629 as a Catholic institution and some of the chairs were filled by Jesuits; but the tempestuous conditions then prevalent made the fostering of science impossible and the work was entirely suspended from 1631 to 1652. After the occupation of Heidelberg the Bibliotheca Palatina was presented to the pope by Duke Maximillian of Bavaria and sent in wagons to Rome, a fortunate arrangement for this collection which otherwise would have been burned to ashes, with the other libraries of the city, in May, 1693. In 1815 and 1816 a number of these manuscript were returned to Heidelberg. After the Peace of Westphalia, Elector Charles Louis restored the university as a Protestant institution and reorganized its economic management. On 1 November, 1652, it was reopened and a number of distinguished scholars were invited there, among others, Samuel Pufendorf, professor of natural and international law. The philosopher Spinoza also received a call to Heidelberg but declined it, fearing that on account of the religious conflicts philosophical teaching would be restricted within narrow limits.

In the Palatine-Orléans war Heidelberg was burned by the troops of Louis XIV. At that time the elector's castle also went up in flames. The foundation of this residence had been laid by the Palatine Count Rudolph I (1294-1319), who built for himself a castle on the Jettenbühl above the city, which is the oldest part of the entire structure. When Rupert III became King of the Romans (1400-10) he erected a stately building the interior of which was especially rich in design. Opposite, near the picturesque group of fountains, stood Louis's building. Both were fortified by Louis V, and the south wing was completed by his brother, Frederick II. The actual edifice dates from Otto Henry, Frederick IV and Frederick V. Otto Henry's building is in the classic Early Renaissance style adorned with numerous plastic escutcheons, ornaments, and statues. Of the later ruins, Frederick's building is best preserved. It was erected in 1601-07 by the architect Johannes Schoch, and, like Otto Henry's, is remarkable for its numerous ornamental figures. In addition to these there is the English building, with its exquisite, fairy-like gardens and fountains, built in Italian later Renaissance style by order of Frederick V and his wife Elizabeth, who was a granddaughter of Queen Mary Stuart. The castle was partly blown up and partly burned by the French in May, 1693. During these terrible times the professors and students sought safety in flight, and in 1694 established the university temporarily at Frankfort and then at Weinheim. In 1700 it was moved back to Heidelberg. Three years later, under the Catholic Elector John William of the House of Palatine Neuburg, the first Jesuits were appointed as teachers. A Catholic faculty of theology was established side by side with that of the Reformers and invested with equal prerogatives. The first Jesuit rector served during the year 1709. John William in 1712 began the new university buildings which were completed in 1735 in the reign of Charles Philip, who, in 1720 transferred the electoral residence, which had been maintained at Heidelberg for six hundred years, to Mannheim, where he built a new palace.

Through the efforts of the Jesuits a preparatory seminary was established, the Seminarium ad Carolum Borromæum, whose pupils were also registered in the university. After the suppression of the Jesuit Order, most of the schools they had conducted passed into the hands of the French Congregation of Lazarists (1773). They deteriorated from that time forward. The university itself continued to lose in brilliance and prestige until the reign of the last elector, Charles Theodore, of the House of Sulzbach, who established new chairs for all the faculties, founded scientific institutes such as the Electoral Academy of Science, and transferred the school of political economy from Kaiserslautern to Heidelberg, where it was combined with the university as the faculty of political economy. He also founded an observatory in the neighboring city of Mannheim, where the celebrated Jesuit Christian Meyer* laboured as director. In connexion with the commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of the university, a revised statute book which several of the professors had been commissioned to prepare, was approved by the elector, and the financial affairs of the university, its receipts and expenditures, were put in order. At that period the number of students varied from three to four hundred; in the jubilee year 133 matriculated.

In consequence of the disturbances caused by the French Revolution and particularly through the Peace of Lunéeville, the university lost all its property on the left bank of the Rhine, so that its complete dissolution was expected. At this juncture, the elector and (after 1806) Grand Duke Charles Frederick of Baden, to whom had been allotted the part of the Palatinate situated on the right bank of the Rhine, issued on 13 May, 1803, an edict of organization for the Baden dependencies and determined the rights and constitution of Heidelberg, now the State university. He divided it into five faculties and placed himself at its head as rector, as did also his successors. From a local college of Baden the present Ruperto-Carola became a renowned German university. In 1807 the Catholic faculty of theology was removed to Freiburg. Heidelberg then had 432 students on its register. During this decade Romanticism found expression here through Clemens Brentano, Achim von Arnim, Ludwig Tieck, Joseph Görres, and Joseph von Eichendorff, and there went forth a revival of the German Middle Ages in speech, poetry, and art. The German Students Association exerted great influence, which was at first patriotic and later political in the sense of Radicalism. After Romanticism had died out, Heidelberg became a centre of Liberalism and of the movement in favour of national unity. The historians Friedrich Christoph Schlosser, Georg Gervinus, and Ludwig Haüsser were the guides of the nation in political history. The modern scientific schools of medicine and natural science, particularly astronomy, were models in point of construction and equipment. The law faculty was for a time the first in Germany. Its most distinguished representatives were the professors of Roman law, Thibaut, and von Vangerow; K. F. A. Mittermaier in the departments of civil law, penal law, and criminal law; and in commercial law L. Goldschmidt. The division of political economy was represented for a long time by Karl Heinrich Rau, champion of the Liberal-individualist movement, which was greatly influenced by the English, and by Karl Knies, leader of the historic movement. Distinguished among the professors of medicine are the anatomists Henle, Arnold, and Gegenbaur, and the surgeons, von Chelius and Czerny, the latter the founder and head of the Institute for the Investigation of Cancer. Robert Bunsen and Gustav Robert Kirchhoff share the glory of the discovery of the spectrum analysis. Hermann von Helmholtz, inventor of the opthalmoscope Erwin Rohde, the classical scholar and philologian; and Kuno Fischer, historian of modern philosophy, should be especially mentioned.

In the summer of 1909 the family of the Mannheim machine builder, Heinrich Lanz gave one million marks ($250,000) for the foundation of an academy of science in connexion with Heidelberg University. At present the number of professors in Heidelberg is about 150; students, 2200.


HAUTZ, Gesch. d. Uníversität Heidelberg (2 vols., Mannheim, 1864); THORBECKE, Die älteste Zeit der Universität Heidelberg, I (Heidelberg, 1886), 1386-1449; WINCKELMANN, Urkundenbuch der Universität Heidelberg (2 vols., Heidelberg, 1886); TOEPKE, Matrikel d. Univ. Heidelberg von 1386-1662 (Heidelberg. 1884-); FISCHER, Die Schicksale der Univ. Heidelberg (4th ed., Heidelberg, 1903); PALATINUS, Heidelberg u. seine Universität (Freiburg, 1886); MARCKS, Die Universität Heidelberg im 19 Jahrhundert (Heidelberg, 1903); PFAFF, Heidelberg und Umgebung (2nd ed., Heidelberg, 1902); WALDSCHMIDT, Altheidelberg und sein Schloss (Jena, 1909).

About this page

APA citation. Hoeber, K. (1910). University of Heidelberg. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hoeber, Karl. "University of Heidelberg." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph B. Schwarzbauer.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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