A successful start in 1460

On 12 November 1459, Pope Pius II issued the Bull of Foundation for the University of Basel. Following a short and intensive phase of planning, the university was ceremoniously opened soon thereafter, on 4 April 1460. During its initial semesters, the institution saw a significant influx of students and succeeded in attracting internationally renowned professors to Basel – flourishing in this first generation despite funding problems, growing competition, and disputes over how it should be organized internally and the areas of knowledge on which it should focus.

In securing papal privilege to establish a university from Pius II, Basel had also succeeded in winning the pope himself as the institution’s founding patron, a role usually accorded to a city or sovereign. After a short and very intensive phase of preparations, the members of the City Council were able to present the Founding Charter to the bishop of Basel and chancellor of the university, Johannes von Venningen, on 3 April 1460, just one day before the university was officially opened. The opening festivities the following day then coincided with the feast day of St. Ambrose, the Doctor of the Church, as the bishop celebrated an inaugural mass in the cathedral in the morning, with the entire clergy and political elite of the city actively taking part. The next day, lectures commenced in all four faculties (theology, law, medicine, and the liberal arts), and just two days later, on 7 April 1460, the rector, Georg von Andlau, publicly announced that the institution had been opened, inviting all those who wished to “acquire the pearl of science” and drink “from the spring of learning” to attend.

This announcement, a mere five months after the pope had issued his bull, capped a founding process that was carried out unusually quickly, even by the standards of the time. This swift pace continued when the council issued the Letter of Freedoms detailing statutes for the university in May 1460, which guaranteed its members special privileges. On 6 September of the same year, the rector and the university officially gave assurance in return that they would not abuse these privileges. These legal foundations of the university were then publicly read out once a year and reaffirmed by the city’s burghers through their representatives when the council was reconstituted.

Over the following months and years, the rector and the four “deputies” in charge of the university were fully engaged in building up its operations. Work to produce university statutes began immediately under the first rector, Georg von Andlau, and was initially concluded in 1477. Disputes arose primarily over the status and direction of the Faculty of Law and thus over the question of which organizational model Basel wanted to follow, which became particularly clear in the discussions about the mode of electing the rector. From its beginnings, the University of Basel had been organized into four faculties, with its first professors hailing both from the region and from places farther afield, such as Heidelberg, Erfurt, and Cologne. Particularly in the field of law, efforts were made to attract internationally renowned Italians to join the faculty – and thus also to attract students from among the nobility, who traditionally studied at Italian universities. The hope was that these students might become interested in Basel on their way south.

With 226 and 228 enrollments in its first two years, recorded dutifully in the magnificent matriculation books that still exist today, the Hohe Schule, or Advanced School, got off to a thoroughly successful start, even though new enrollments soon settled at a much lower number. Until about 1490, Basel had clearly bested its main rival, Freiburg, for the number of annual enrollments. It was only after a generation that it increasingly lost students from the Anterior Austrian territories and was overtaken in enrollment by Freiburg, which continued to draw students from the Old Swiss Confederacy. In competition with the other Upper Rhine universities of Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Tübingen, which likewise belonged to the group of smaller universities within the Holy Roman Empire, Basel was thus able to hold its own for the first thirty years of its existence.