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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > V > University of Vienna

University of Vienna

Foundation of the university

Next to the University of Prague that of Vienna is the oldest university of the former Holy Roman Empire. It was founded on 12 March, 1365, by Rudolph IV, Duke of Austria, and its charter confirmed on 18 July of the same year by Urban V, a faculty of theology not being included in the papal authorization. The school, planned on too large a scale and not sufficiently endowed, did not prosper; moreover the duke died on 27 July at Milan. About 1380 his successor, Albert III, called teachers from Paris and obtained permission from Urban VI, 20 Feb., 1384, for the establishment of a theological faculty. After the drawing up of the university statutes in 1385, and of the statutes of the faculties of theology, law, medicine, and philosophy on 1 April, 1389, the organization of the university on the model of Paris was complete. All members of the university, scholars, bachelors, licentiates (who were obliged to lecture for a certain period), and doctors, were divided into "nations", Austrian, Rhenish, Hungarian, and Saxon. Each "nation" elected a proctor from its membership; the head of the university was the rector elected semi-annually by the proctors, while his council was composed of the proctors and the deans of the faculties. The university was subject to the ruler of the country, who was its patron, but otherwise it was autonomous and had its own jurisdiction. The permanent ecclesiastical representative of the university was the cathedral provost of St. Stephen's, who was chancellor of the university and conferred the academic degrees.

During the first century of its existence the university repeatedly proved that it was founded as an institution of the Church chiefly for the extension and defence of the Faith. An address of loyalty (rotulus) was sent to each newly-elected pope with a request for the confirmation and increase of the privileges. As an ecclesiastical corporation the university took an active part in the Councils of Pisa (1409), Constance (1414), and Basle (1431), and in several provincial synods. In that era of incessant disorder and scanty revenues, the continued existence of a university was possible only when closely connected with the Church and under the protection of the papacy. The popes granted important rights, e.g., the privilege, granted on 20 Feb., 1384, and 27 May, 1399, that distant benefices of priests teaching and studying at Vienna could be administered by a vicar; the appointment of ecclesiastical conservators (17 Aug., 1411; 21 May, 1434; 12 July, 1513); ecclesiastical jurisdiction with the right of pronouncing excommunication (27 May, 1420; 16 Feb., 1441; 12 July, 1513; 1 July, 1517), and the right of trying and judging heretics (16 Feb., 1441). Physicians (28 March, 1452) were protected by a letter of the Bishop of Passau in 1406 excommunicating quacks. The subject matter taught was confined to prescribed books, the method of teaching rigidly scholastic. The theological students were limited to the Scriptures and dogmatic theology, pastoral theology and Hebrew being added later. At first, in the faculty of law, canon law alone was taught, but Roman law was added in 1484; medicine was still entirely under the spell of sterile Arabian theories. The widest range of subjects belonged to the philosophical (liberal arts) faculty, which, as the introductory course to the three "higher faculties", had the largest number of students. Among the celebrated mathematicians and astronomers of this faculty were Johannes of Gmunden (about 1380-1442), George of Peuerbach (1423-61), and Johannes Muller of Konigberg, also called Regiomontanus (14536-76). A distinguished theologian and statesman was Thomas Ebendorffer (1387-1464), noted for his part in the Council of Basle.

Period of prosperity and humanism

During the reign of Maximilian I (1493-1519) the university enjoyed its first period of prosperity; with the rise of Humanism about 1490, the influence of the Church steadily decreased.

Decline: reforms

The disorders after Maximilian's death and the appearance of Luther's doctrines in Austria caused the university to decline rapidly. As early as 1511 it refused to send a representative to a council. The laxity of the medical and philosophical faculties in regard to heretics obliged the theological faculty on 14 July, 1526, to give back to the bishop authority in such matters. During the years 1525-30 the number of students steadily declined, the faculty of law was hardly more than nominal, and in 1529 that of theology had but two professors. Only the strong hand of Ferdinand I (1522-1564) saved the university from complete decay; reforming statutes were promulgated on 2 Aug., 1533; 15 Sept., 1537, and 1 Jan., 1554. It was placed under the direction of a superintendent with large powers, who was appointed by the sovereign. Teachers having regular salaries were appointed to each faculty; the faculties of medicine and theology had each three such professors, the faculty of law four. The period of study was made five years, for the philosophical course two years. In the medial department more attention was to be paid to practical branches; in the law course Roman law was made the most important study. In 1551 Ferdinand I called the Jesuits to Vienna to revive the religious spirit and on 17 Nov., 1558, gave them two permanent theological professorships. The Jesuits established a Latin school and a house of studies, and gave philosophical courses that were largely attended.

Non-Catholic tendency and the Counter-reformation

From 30 March, 1546, each new professor was obliged to submit to an examination of his orthodoxy, in order to prevent the admission of heretics. This regulation was annulled on 5 Sept., 1564, by Maximilian II (1564-76), who also ordained that instead of the customary formal profession of Catholic Faith, the candidate for degrees had only to declare himself a Catholic--disregarding the Bull of Pius IV (13 Nov., 1564). The emperor withdrew one professorship from the Jesuits and, at the demand of the Diet, ordered the house of studies to be closed. During the reign of Rudolph II (1576-1612), who was by education a strict Catholic, a Counter-Reformation was begun. This was due to the efforts of the cathedral provost Melchior Khlesl, appointed chancellor of the university in 1579. The first step was the publication on 2 July, 1581, and 31 March, 1591, of the papal Bull of 13 Nov., 1564; the entrance of Protestants into the university was thus prevented. In 1565 the Jesuits attempted to obtain university degrees for the students trained at their school, but their appeal was rejected both at this date and in 1573. The university was not altogether wrong in regarding as an infringement of its privileges the permission granted the Jesuits in 1570 to hold philosophical and theological courses in their college. It felt its very existence threatened, especially as the Jesuits, e.g. in 1593, had one thousand students, while the entire university had but two hundred. The dispute was settled by Emperor Matthias (1612-19) on 25 Feb., 1617, who again granted the Jesuits two professorships in theology, and in addition three in philosophy. Finally, during the reign of Ferdinand II (1619-37), the entire theological and philosophical faculties were handed over to the Jesuits, and their college was incorporated into the university (21-22 Oct., 1622; 17 Nov., 1622; 9 Aug., 1623; Sanctio pragmatica of 13 Oct., 1623, confirmed by Ferdinand II on 4 May, 1640). The Society renounced in perpetuity any claim to the dignity of rector of the university, but on the other hand the rector of the Jesuit college had a seat and vote directly after the superintendent appointed by the ruler. The election of professors and the methods of teaching were left to the Society.

The intent of the Sanctio pragmatica was to make the University Catholic in its future development. This end was the easier to attain as the Jesuits controlled all the preparatory schools. The matter, however, was more difficult in regard to the students of law and medicine, among whom many were still openly or secretly non-Catholic. The restriction to Catholics was finally effected in these departments by decrees and by the edict of 17 Nov., 1651, which expelled all non-Catholics from the country. Following the example of other universities, as Paris, Cologne, and Mainz, Ferdinand III (1637-57) appointed (17 May, 1649) the feast of the Immaculate Conception as the church feast of the university; henceforth before attaining a degree, the rectorship, or a professorship, the candidate was obliged to profess his belief in the Immaculate Concetion. From 2 Dec., 1656, the dean-elect had also to make this profession. The Dominicans alone were exempted (31 Oct., 1649) from this obligation, but on this account they were excluded from the position of dean. Thanks to the zeal and learning of the Jesuits, the theological and philosophical departments flourished greatly; those of law and medicine, however, lagged behind. The reform of studies carried out by Ferdinand I had not the desired success in these two branches, as money was lacking, and the very scanty salaries of the professors were seldom paid. The great disadvantage in the faculty of law was that German common law, though necessary in practice, was not taught. The students of medicine were more fortunate, for after winning the baccalaureate they generally attended an Italian university, particularly Padua, where better facilities for study were offered, and a shorter period of attendance required. Thus the members of the faculty of medicine were generally physicians educated in Italy, as Johann Wilhelm Mannagetta (d. 1660), and Paul de Sorbalt (d. 1691). However, owing to the lack of students and of equipment, there was no stimulus to work. Numerous proposals of reform were made, such as those of 1629, 1687, and 1735, but all attempts to bring the two faculties to a higher level failed on account of the financial embarrassment of the Government.

Reorganization in the reign of Maria Theresa: university a state institution

During the reign of Maria Theresa (1740-80) the university was completely reconstructed. What led to this change was the calling to Vienna in 1745 of Gerhard van Swieten (1700-72), a medical professor at Leyden, as court physician and university professor. The reforms of the medical faculty, which he planned, went into effect on 7 February: i.e. the designation of van Swieten as director of studies, appointment of professors by the empress, not as before by the university consistory, rigid supervision of the examinations by the Government, establishment of a professorship of chemistry, founding of a botanical garden, and the delivery of clinical lectures in the hospital. They university soon excelled the University of Leyden, previously so celebrated; this was effected by the appointment of distinguished teachers, as, in 1749, for chemistry and botany, Alexander Ludwig Laugier, whose successor in 1769 was Nikolaus Jacquin; in 1754, for practical therapeutics, Anton de Haen, whose successor in 1776 was Maximilian Stoll; and Ferdinand Leber, in 1761, for surgery. The theological and philosophical faculties were reformed in 1753. The professors of philosophy were forbidden to dictate their lectures to the students as formerly, or to teach the Aristotelean doctrine. The plan drawn up for the reform of the department of law by Prince-Archbishop Count Trautson and Sigismund Popowitsch, professor of eloquence, was put in force in 1753. New courses in constitutional law, the law of nature, feudal law, the Theresian laws for the hereditary Austrian dominions, and, as an experiment, history, were established. The director of studies was Johann Franz von Bourguignon. Up to 1757 all matters pertaining to instruction were controlled by Prince-Archbishop Count Trautson, the "protector of studies". The position of superintendent was abolished in 1754.

These reforms took from the university the last vestiges of its former autonomy, made it entirely subsidiary to the purposes of the State, and turned the professors into state officials. Intellectual life was restricted by the directors of studies who prescribed the text-books to be used, and by the Government censorship of books. The medical faculty suffered least from these limitations and continued to develop. The aim of the prevailing system was to exclude entirely the influence of the Church and of the Society of Jesus; its leading spirits were van Swieten and, in the course of time, the freemason Joseph von Sonnenfels (1733-1817). Thus in 1755 the conferring of the degrees at St. Stephen's was abolished, and the influence of the chancellor limited; in 1757 the Jesuit rector was removed from the university consistory, and in 1759 the directors of studies belonging to the Society were removed. The court commission of studies, with van Swieten as vice-president, was created on 23 March, 1760, as the chief board of supervision. In the same year the commission made a request for the admission of Protestants to the courses in law and medicine, but did not secure this until 1778. From 18 Jan., 1782, the university was open to all creeds. The suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773 necessitated the reorganization of the theological and philosophical faculties. The property of the Jesuits went to the fund for stipends for students (Jesuitfond); ex-Jesuits were excluded from the new appointments to the theological chairs. The process of separating the University from the Church continued during the last years of the reign of Maria Theresa and still more during the reign of Joseph II (1780-90). Abbot Stefan Rautenstrauch of Branau wrote a text-book on canon law, pervaded with the spirit of Febronius, that received the approval of the Government in 1776. The oath before receiving a degree, and in general everything that had the appearance of an ecclesiastical celebration at the graduation exercises, was done away with in 1785. Prince-Archbishop Count Migazzi protested repeatedly, although in vain, in 1786 against the university text-books which contained false statements and attacks upon the Church. The university sank to a training school for government officials, the students of theology included. This intellectual servitude checked all scientific activity, and in the succeeding years brought the university into a condition of stagnation from which it could be rescued only by a fundamental reformation of the bureaucratic system.

Self-governing university since 1848

The first step towards self-government was taken (on 12 March, 1848) by a general assembly of the university, which petitioned Ferdinand I (1835-48) for freedom of teaching and study. On 20 March the newly-appointed minister of instruction, Freiherr von Somaruga, promised the speedy granting of academic freedom, and at the same time announced a reform of the courses of study. The medical faculty, still the most important one, made proposals regarding the restoration of the old autonomy, such as the election of rector and deans by the professors. On 30 Sept., 1849, this was granted by the provisional law on the organization of academic authorities. A distinction was made in the faculties between the group of professors and that of the doctors or teachers below professors in rank, each electing a dean. On 13 Oct., 1849, the "general ordinances concerning the system of studies at the royal and imperial universities", with exception of the theological studies, was issued; on 1 Oct., 1850, "the general regulations for studies". On 9 Jan., 1865, the year of the celebration of the fifth centenary of the existence of the university, fifty-eight professors presented to the minister of instruction, von Schmerling, a memorial which denounced the exclusively Catholic as no longer just. Pursuant to the law of 28 April, 1873, on the organization of academic administration, the attainment of an academic dignity is now independent of the candidate's faith. The Catholic character of the university is at present limited to the theological faculty, for the "Protestant theological institute" that was raised to a faculty in 1850 is not a part of the university. On 11 Oct., 1884, the new university building on the Franzen-Ring was dedicated in the presence of Emperor Francis Joseph. In 1857 the "new university house", built in 1756, was given to the academy of sciences. New statutes for the regulation of the examinations for the doctorate in the three secular faculties were issued on 15 April, 1872. The course of study in the medical school requires five years, in the other faculties four years are necessary.

The reform of the theological faculty indicated a complete break with the Febronian-Josephinist system. There was a meeting of the bishops at the invitation of the Government on 30 April, 1849; the assembly made the demand that the competent bishop should have influence over the appointment of professors, that he should appoint half of the board of examiners, and that all should be obliged before appointment to make the Tridentine Confession of Faith. This request was granted on 30 June, 1850. The plan of study approved by the Government on 29 March, 1858, and still in use, was worked out by Prince-Archbishop Rauscher. The present statutes governing the examination for the doctorate were issued on 16 Jan., 1894. In respect to the ceremony of conferring degrees it was ordained on 19 May, 1880, that the protector or the dean of the faculty of which the rector was a member should be the presiding officer in case the rector was not a Catholic.

On 18 Oct., 1849, temporary statutes were issued regulating the study of law and political economy; on 2 Oct., 1855, these ordinances were revised, and on 20 April, 1893, the present statutes respecting studies and examinations for the doctorate were promulgated. The original freedom of study was limited in so far that students must pass three state examinations at fixed times. The medical faculty, which even before 1848 had a high reputation, gained a world-wide renown both by the calling of foreigners to professorships, as Ernst Brucke (1849-92), Johann Oppolzer (1850- 71), and Theodor Billroth (1865-94), and others, and by the work of native investigators, as Karl Rokitansky (1844-78), Joseph Hyrtl (1845-74), Joseph Skoda (1846-81), and Ferdinand Hebra (1849-80). The statues of 1872, respecting examinations for the doctorate, those concerning the organization of the medical instruction (1 June, 1872) and of the practical tests in the examination for the medical degree (24 Oct., 1872), put an end to the institute for partially trained medical men (surgeons) and instead only permitted the gaining of "the doctorate of the entire science of medicine" (medicinae universae doctor), with which the right to practise medicine is united. On 21 Dec., 1899, a new series of statutes suited to modern needs was issued in regard to the examinations for the doctorate. In the philosophical faculty the former two years' preparatory course was transferred to the gymnasium (18 May, 1845); the departments of natural science (chemistry, natural history) were taken over from the medical faculty on 16 Nov., 1849. Besides increasing the number of professorial chairs, seminars and institutes for scientific research and for the training of teachers of the intermediate schools were established. Among the distinguished scholars of this faculty should be mentioned: in physics, Christian Doppler (1850-53); in astronomy, Karl von Littrow (1842-77); in photographic optics, Josef Max Petzval (1837- 77); in the history of art, Rudolf von Eitelberger (1852-85); in classical philology, Hermann Bonitz (1849-67).

University statistics (on 1 October, 1911)

Theology: 8 regular and 2 auxiliary professors, 4 Privatdozenten; law: 17 regular and 13 auxiliary professors, 41 Privatdozenten; medicine: 24 regular and 22 auxiliary professors, 197 Privatdozenten; philosophy: 54 regular and 25 auxiliary professors, 95 Privatdozenten, 255 lecturers and teachers. In the winter of 1910- 11 the total number of students was 9922. Of this number 241 studied theology, 3956 law, 2491 medicine, 3234 philosophy; in the summer of 1911 the student-body numbered 8457; 226 of its members studied theology, 3467 law; 2053 medicine, 2711 philosophy. Total amount of endowments 4,539,600 Kronen. The university and its institutes is supported by the treasury of the State.


KINK, Gesch. der kaiserlichen Universitat in Wien (Vienna, 1854); ASCHBACH, Gesch. der wiener Universitat im Il. Jahrhunde (3 vols., Vienna, 1865-88). Supplement to third vol. By HARTL and SCHRAUF (Vienna, 1898); Gesch. der wiener Universitat 1848-1898 (Vienna, 1898); WAPPLER, Gesch. der theologischen Fakultat (Vienna, 1884); SCHRAUF, Acta facultatis medicae (3 vols., Vienna, 1894-1904), covers the years 1399-1558; SENFELDER, Acta facultatis medicae, 1558-1724 (3 vols., Vienna, 1908-1912), a continuation of the preceding work. A complete bibliography is given in ERMAN and HORN, Bibliographie der deutschen Universitaten, II (Leipzig, 1904-5), 1051-95.

About this page

APA citation. Senfelder, L. (1912). University of Vienna. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Senfelder, Leopold. "University of Vienna." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael T. Barrett. Dedicated to the faculty and students of the University of Vienna.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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