Prelude: the Council University and a founding boom

During the Council of Basel, a Council University established for the benefit of participants existed from 1432 to 1448, where prominent university promoters studied and taught who would later play a significant role in establishing universities in Freiburg and Basel during the second wave of university foundations in the Holy Roman Empire.

The temporary institution, operating as a Council University from 1432 to 1440 and as a Curia University from 1440 to 1448, acted as a catalyst for both Freiburg and Basel: graduates and members of the Council University played an important role in founding universities in both cities  – as learned councilors of the Habsburg Albrecht VI in Freiburg, and as advisors of the Basel City Council. During the council, initial doctoral disputations were likely held in the bishop’s auditorium, and the most important proponents of founding a university in Basel had themselves studied and taught at the Council University: Heinrich von Beinheim earned a doctorate in 1437, while members of the Curia University included Peter zem Lufft, the first dean in the Faculty of Law, and Petrus Testoris. Through them and others, links existed between the university during the Council period and the new institution founded in 1460.

Such connections also played a role in the founding of the University of Freiburg. Various advisors to Albrecht VI, its founding patron, were connected to Basel and the Council University, including Chancellor Peter Kotterer and Johannes Gemminger, who delivered the petition for the establishment of a university in Freiburg to the pope. Especially noteworthy was Arnold von Rotberg – bishop of Basel from 1451 to 1458, a theology professor at the Basel Council University, and later chancellor of the University of Freiburg. These German-speaking scholars and teachers probably remained in Basel after the end of the council, in an attempt to maintain a teaching program in the monasteries patterned after the Council University. Hoping that a replacement for the Council University would be established, they seem to have been the driving force for plans to found a university on the Upper Rhine. Arnold von Rotberg, as bishop, provided financial support to doctoral students in theology and canon law, ensuring the livelihood of his former colleagues, while Gemminger facilitated connections between this circle and Albrecht VI. Key prerequisites for the two Upper Rhine university foundations of Freiburg and Basel thus lay in the Council and Curia universities of the 1430s and 40s, respectively, just as considerable personal connections existed between the proponents of the new universities, who had shared experiences at the early, temporary institutions in Basel. Hence parallels and commonalities must also be taken into account, in addition to the often-mentioned competition between the two founding endeavors.

The second wave of new universities

Neither Basel nor Freiburg was alone in its desire to found a university: during second half of the fifteenth century, a series of new institutions were established, supported especially by regional rulers. The founding of these universities was motivated not only by princely prestige of having a such an institution and the need to professionally educate lawyers for each ruler’s own administration, but also by the significance of universities as pious work – as places where the light of wisdom would shine forth in the field of theology and beyond.

The 1450s, and again the 1460s, were particularly rich with new universities: Greifswald (1456), Freiburg (1457/8), Basel (1459/60), Ingolstadt (1472), Trier (1473), Mainz (1477), Tübingen (1477), Wittenberg (1502) and Frankfurt an der Oder (1506). Other attempts, such as in Pforzheim, Lüneburg, Regensburg, and Breslau, ultimately failed. In 1459, for example, the margrave of Baden, Karl, formally petitioned the pope in Mantua for a founding charter. The ultimate failure of the university he hoped to establish in Pforzheim can be traced not to inadequate preparations, but rather to the enormous financial consequences of the war following Baden’s defeat in the Battle of Seckenheim. The failure also meant the absence of another university that would have undoubtedly influenced the development of the institutions in Freiburg and Basel.

The founding of universities in Freiburg and Basel in the Upper Rhine region, so close to each other in time, took place within a dense field of parallel initiatives that, in the case of these two neighboring institutions, were clearly perceived as competing ventures. Such tensions are evident, for instance, in efforts undertaken by Freiburg at the papal curia – with imperial help – at the end of 1459, just months before the University of Basel was founded, to prevent a papal privilege being issued to the city. For its part, Basel tried to curry favor with the Austrian Duke Sigismund as a university that would serve the entire region of the Upper and High Rhine, while denying that there would be any possible competitors located nearby.

Two striking developments resulted from the boom of new universities in the second half of the fifteenth century. First, the number of university students increased dramatically, growing from about 3,200 enrollments in Heidelberg in the first quarter of the fifteenth century to 10,500 enrollments in total at the four Upper Rhine universities (Heidelberg, Tübingen, Freiburg, and Basel) in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The Upper Rhine universities thus all belonged to the group of smaller universities, behind the group of large (Leuven, Cologne, Leipzig, Vienna, and Erfurt) and medium-sized ones (Ingolstadt and Rostock). At the same time, a pronounced regionalization set in. The founding of the University of Tübingen in 1477, half a generation after the universities in Basel and Freiburg, with considerable support of the territorial ruler meant further competition that affected the enrollment numbers of the two earlier institutions. In the first generation up to 1490, Basel had clearly won the competition with Freiburg. However, at the latest since its accession to the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1501, it lost more and more Anterior Austrian students, while Freiburg continued to be a significant choice for students from Swiss cantons. As a result, Freiburg was ultimately able to eclipse Basel in the competition for student enrollments.

The planning phase in Basel

Since the early 1450s, Duke Albrecht VI had been making plans for a university in Freiburg under his patronage, with the corresponding petition to found a university receiving the approval of Pope Callixtus III on 20 April 1455. The public announcement of the new institution and deadline for any objections to its founding took place on 17 April 1456, in the diocese of Constance. On 28 August 1456, Albrecht declared, in his endowment deed, his intention to establish the university in his own name and that of his brother, Emperor Frederick, and his cousin, Duke Sigmund, “in eternal permanence and memory.” On 18 December 1456, the emperor then agreed to Albrecht’s wish to found a university in Freiburg “on our behalf and on behalf of the house of Austria.” On 21 September 1457, the foundation charter of Albrecht VI including the statutes for the university, known as the Albertina, was issued. The statues were solemnly read aloud eight months later, on 14 May 1458, by the city’s notary in a ceremony in the Freiburg Cathedral. With this, the university had been formally established, even if it had not yet begun its operations. At the beginning of May, however, Arnold von Rotberg, the bishop of Basel and chancellor of the University of Freiburg, died, and after Albrecht VI definitively left the Austrian Anterior Lands in the same year, the city of Freiburg itself had to assume an increasingly important role in realizing the university project. In the summer of the same year, 1458, Enea Silvio Piccolomini was elected pope as Pius II.

The situation had thus changed both at the episcopal and papal levels in such a way that former participants in the Council University were now actively pursuing the founding of a university in Basel. A commission was appointed, from which the “deputies” – the representatives of the City Council in university matters – would later emerge. In August 1459, the mayor of Basel, Hans von Flachsland, whose brother was a confidant of the new pope, congratulated Pius II in Mantua on his election and put forward, as one of three wishes, the foundation of a university in Basel. The petition met with the pope’s favor and so, after an intensive discussion revisiting the pros and cons of founding a university, the Basel City Council decided on 10 October 1459 to seek a papal bull of foundation. Instructions issued to Flachsland make clear that Basel was well aware of the potential conflict of interests with the house of Habsburg and Duke Albrecht VI’s project to found a university in Freiburg. Despite the resistance from Freiburg, however, Basel achieved success, with a founding charter conveying papal permission to found a university in Basel dated 12 November 1459.

In this same period, the Basel City Council intensively discussed fundamental issues related to the new institution. At first, the main focus concerned funding. The City Council solicited four legal reports from scholars on the establishment and organization of the new institution – all of which recommended that it be founded, with cost estimates ranging from some 600 to 3,000 guilders per year, depending on the university’s size and infrastructure. Thus, on 17 November, the City Council decided to ask the pope to grant benefices of 1,600 guilders for the new university – a request that was then in fact granted on the second day of Christmas in 1459, 26 December, when Pius II issued a bull granting benefices in the dioceses of Constance, Lausanne, and Basel to the university amounting to just under 900 guilders. Actually incorporating these benefices would occupy the university for decades and never fully succeed. Shortly thereafter, on 31 December 1459, the pope issued two further, important bulls, providing a dispensation from the residency requirement for benefice holders enrolled at the University of Basel and regulating the administration of these freedoms by the cathedral dean in Basel, the dean of St. Peter’s, and the abbot of the Himmelspforte Monastery.

Around the same time, the city purchased from Viola von Rotberg, the sister of the deceased bishop Arnold von Rotberg and widow of the chief guild master Burkhard Zibol, a building known as the Schalerhof on Rheinsprung Street, for 850 guilders to be paid in installments, with the aim of using it as a collegium for the university. The renovated complex of buildings contained four lecture halls for the faculties of Theology and Liberal Arts, two for the Faculty of Law, and one for the Faculty of Medicine, as well as the bedells’s residence, an auditorium, and a student residence with chambers. According to annual accounts, between the fiscal years 1458/59 and 1465/66, the city invested a total of just under 2,000 guilders in setting up the university. At beginning of 1460, with preparatory work well underway, the council then began planning the opening ceremonies with the bishop.