The university takes shape

After the university was opened on 4 April 1460, and lectures had commenced, the following months and years focused on determining the concrete shape of the new institution – its constitution, organization, and academic direction.

As was common for other medieval universities, the University of Basel was endowed with special privileges. It thus shared in the idea of the “universitas” common to all late medieval universities and could confer universally recognized degrees and diplomas. At the same time, it constituted an independent legal entity vis-à-vis the city and its community. The relationship between the two corporations was regulated, for the city, by the Letter of Freedoms and, for the university, by the document known as the Concordata.

In the Letter of Freedoms dated 28 May 1460, the members of the university were assured free conduct for themselves, their servants, and their possessions. The city’s residents were to neither harm nor insult them in body or property, and they were exempted from all taxes, duties, and levies for cloth, wine, grain, fish, meat, books, and other daily necessities. Regulations issued by the faculties could not be changed by the City Council without the university’s consent, and university members were to be subject to their own university jurisdiction. For their part, the members of the university and the rector committed themselves with the Concordata dated 6 September 1460 not to abuse these legal and economic privileges. At the same time, they established a code for the university that was primarily intended to regulate the behavior of students and professors in their dealings with burghers.

The internal organization of the university
The papal Bull of Foundation had designated the bishop of Basel as the university’s chancellor, and Johannes von Vennigen had presided over the opening ceremonies ex officio. Thereafter, however, the bishop acting as chancellor played almost no role in the university’s activities. His significance lay, rather, in the fact that by virtue of his office he ensured the validity of the degrees conferred by formally approving the exams for the acquisition of academic diplomas and doctorates. It was the city’s deputies, numbering four since 1461, who carried more weight in representing the city’s interests when it came to financial matters, such as benefices, or the hiring of masters. Another position that was centrally important from the start was that of rector; it was he who managed university affairs and represented the institution externally.

From the very beginning, university operations were divided across four faculties – theology, law, medicine, and the liberal arts – which were modeled after the university in Paris, even as Bologna served as the model for the new Faculty of Law. At the same time that the City Council sought the papal privilege to found the university, it also attempted to hire promising scholars and teachers from Germany and other countries, such as France and Italy, appointing a number of masters in particular from Erfurt and Heidelberg alongside Italian jurists. 

Work on the statutes commenced quickly under the first rector, Georg von Andlau, and conflicts over the overall direction of the institution were particularly evident in the prolonged disputes, lasting many years, over the regulations governing the rector’s election. In 1465/66, the first definitive statutes came into force; they were revised in 1477 following the model of Erfurt and remained essentially unchanged until the Reformation. The rector, who had to be a cleric, was elected every six months. He kept the matriculation books; was responsible for accounting; and together with the deans of the four faculties administered the university treasury (which was secured with five locks) as well the documents endowing the university with its privileges, the university seal, and the university scepter. He also held legal authority to make judgments concerning university members, which he shared in the case of graduates with the entire university. The statutes meticulously regulated the hierarchy of university members, with the university bedell responsible for ensuring that protocol be upheld. He, as well as the syndicus and the notary (the university scribe), directly served the rector.

The University of Basel’s hiring policy in its first few years
The university’s decision to hire Italian jurists and model its structures after Bologna, which featured an independent university of law, entailed a focus on students from the aristocracy. This is made particularly clear by the case of Johannes Augustini of Vicomercato, who taught as a professor of imperial law in Basel in 1464 and 1465. Basel’s hope with such a position was to attract especially wealthy students on their way to Italy, and Vicomercato accordingly received an extraordinarily high salary by Basel standards, promising in return to bring three noble gentlemen as students of canon law and forty noble students of secular law to Basel within another year.

In general, professors in the faculties of medicine and liberal arts were less well compensated, though they in turn had more opportunities for supplementary income, ranging from leadership roles in student residences to the frequent conferral of doctoral degrees, particularly among liberal arts students, or through practical activities, as in the case of physicians who were paid to serve as the city’s doctor. Teachers who came to Basel from German universities were paid significantly lower salaries than the Italians. Nevertheless, the City Council also made efforts to recruit outstanding scholars from Germany with the hope of attracting students. In the first eight to ten years, the city’s greatest expenditures for the university were for faculty salaries, while these costs declined significantly in the following decades. Concurrently, from the late 1460s, the number of students also decreased significantly in several stages.

Bologna or Paris? Conflicts over the university model and the rector’s election
With its four faculties, the University of Basel followed the model of Paris, common to the regions north of the Alps. However, by 1462 conflicts had already arisen over the conditions for the rector’s election because students from the Faculty of Law, inspired by the model of Bologna, wanted to govern themselves and elect their own rector from among the student body. The petition they formulated requesting this change would have excluded graduates from the election. But this request – less about fostering democratic student participation, as has been repeatedly asserted in the literature, and more rooted in the aristocratic law students’ preoccupations with the privileges of their social estate – was unsuccessful. The appointed arbitrators declared that the university would continue to be led by a single rector; they also established a rotation principle among the faculties. Further disputes in this matter nevertheless arose, culminating in the 1466 with the students in the Faculty of Law electing an aristocratic student as their own rector, even though a regular election of a graduate of canon law had already taken place. Over the next few years, however, this position could not prevail, despite the fact that aristocratic students were repeatedly elected to serve as rector. By the 1480s, the practice shifted definitively towards electing graduates as rectors, seemingly abandoning the attempt to model the institution after Bologna.

The Faculty of Liberal Arts and the “dispute” about which path to take
While the conflicts with the Faculty of Law were primarily concerned organizational matters and closely related socioeconomic questions about the overall positioning of the new university within the European academic landscape, the Faculty of Liberal Arts was simultaneously grappling with the intellectual direction of the institution in what was known as the “via dispute,” or conflict about which path to take. Beginning at the start of the fifteenth century, this conflict – centered on the correct interpretation of Aristotelian texts – came to a head in the second half of the century in a controversy between nominalists and realists, with most universities then choosing one of the two directions.

In its inaugural year of 1460, the University of Basel recorded seventeen masters, mainly from Heidelberg and Erfurt, strongholds of nominalism. Accordingly, in Basel – as was the case in neighboring Freiburg, as well – only nominalists, i.e., representatives of the so-called via moderna, taught in the Faculty of Liberal Arts. This changed, however, in 1464, with the enrollment of the realist Johannes Heynlin von Stein, coming from Paris. Heynlin introduced the via antiqua in Basel. In 1465, the Faculty of Liberal Arts issued a new regulation governing, among other things, the coexistence of the via moderna and via antiqua. In the future, representatives of each path would alternate as deans; each was given separate examination dates and rules were established for the student residences where new students lived and studied.

By 1469, the two paths separated, each electing its own dean, and this separation coincided with growth in the faculty: while 240 baccalaureates were awarded doctorates in the first decade, the decade between 1470 and 1480 saw the conferral of over 460 doctoral degrees. This number then fell to 220 in the third decade. Nominalists predominated throughout the period, accounting for about two-thirds of the graduates. In 1487, a fierce dispute arose between the two directions. Finally, in 1492, the university as a whole decided to unify the two paths, though this could not prevent a further decline in examination numbers within the Faculty of Liberal Arts. A similar trajectory can be observed in other southern German universities: Freiburg, albeit reluctantly, introduced the via antiqua alongside the via moderna in 1484, while Tübingen offered both paths from its founding in 1477.