New growth and internationalization in the sixteenth century

With the Reformation, the University of Basel became subject to civil authorities, yet decades of growth followed. Between 1550 and 1620, the institution had a considerable international impact – contrary to the general trend launched by the Reformation, in which universities became increasingly regional in focus.

With the reorganization of the university and the issuance of new statutes in 1532, the University of Basel became subject to civil authorities, who had taken the side of the Reformation. No references whatsoever were made to the privileges it had previously enjoyed: the Reformed City Council, it seems, wanted to tacitly avoid any invocation of the historical continuity that the university considered so central its own view of itself and to the universal validity it claimed for the degrees it issued. For the university, it was not the German statutes of 1532 or those of 1539 that constituted its founding legal documents, but the Latin statutes of 1533, which remained essential silent about its relationship to the city. Quite quickly, by 1539, it succeeded in revising the overly restrictive provisions of 1532 and largely regaining its corporate independence and rights of self-administration; nevertheless, the city’s deputies continued to play a part in appointing faculty.

Whereas the curriculum of the medieval, pre-Reformation university – as an institution rooted in the spiritual mission of the church – served to further primarily theological forms of knowledge, now it was preparation for practical professions that gained importance. The statutes of 1539 accordingly stipulated that the university should serve to educate pastors, officials, judges, teachers, and doctors. Yet the curriculum quickly took on a chiefly humanistic cast, following the emerging historical-philological method, while the fulfillment of confessional requirements took on a more pro forma character.

The following decades at the university were characterized by growth, as it repeatedly succeeded in attracting internationally renowned scholars – not least thanks to a flourishing role in book publishing and a comparatively tolerant religious attitude. Basel gradually became a fashionable destination for students of medicine and law and, after the middle of the century, drew more and more students from abroad. Despite the general trend towards regionalization spurred by the Reformation, then, the University of Basel had a considerable international impact in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Humanism and empiricism: two factors of internationalization
The empirical-practical orientation of medicine following Paracelsus and Andreas Vesal was the basis for University of Basel’s international reputation, which stood out as unique in this regard among German universities. Scholars in the Faculty of Law combined modern, in-depth source studies with references to the medieval tradition of glosses and commentaries, while those in the liberal arts emphasized ancient languages and the study of classical authors such as Homer, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Cicero, Livy, and Caesar, in addition to the Aristotelian texts that were traditionally the focus of university education. The education of theologians was based on philologically correct editions of the Holy Scriptures. Teaching methods overall were updated: the traditional practice of text dictation was supplemented by commentaries and glosses of the printed texts. Even the eminent Reformer Oekolampad provided German summaries with his lectures to facilitate understanding.

The intellectual profile of the university was shaped by figures such as the jurists Bonifacius and Basileus Amerbach, the physicians Felix Platter and Theodor Zwinger, and the scholars Celio Secondo Curione and Sebastian Castellio. These men contributed to Basel’s influence through their expanded cultural horizon and critical spirit, in addition to their extensive personal networks and specific scholarly achievements. Others scholars such as Paracelsus, Vesal, or Petrus Ramus left a lasting impression despite their brief stays in Basel, while men such as Martin Borrhaus, Sebastian Münster, Heinrich Panataleon, and Christian Wurstisen contributed to the humanistically motivated tolerance that characterized the university at the time. The anatomist and botanist Caspar Bauhin and the Buxtorf family of Hebraists should also be noted as figures of outstanding scientific importance towards the end of the sixteenth century.

All this meant that the university was able to attract a growing number of students in the following years. Enrollments grew from 18 in 1532, the year the university was reopened, to 175 in 1580, when new enrollments reached the highest level during the entire period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Of the 5,600 students who enrolled between 1532 and 1600, no less than one-fifth came from outside the German-speaking world, with 500 students from France, 250 from Friesland and the Netherlands, 150 from Poland and Lithuania, 100 from England, 70 from Italy, and 60 from Scandinavia.

The Alumneum, Erasmus Foundation, and other scholarships
One significant post-Reformation innovation was a number of scholarships created on 1 April 1533 by the City Council to provide a total of twenty-four boys with living costs and education paid for by church funds. Some of them were allocated to the Collegium alumnorum, demonstratively housed from 1545 in the former Augustinian monastery, known as the Upper College. The goal of this education was to recruit candidates for service in the church or in schools. Along with twelve local boys, foreign and international candidates were to be admitted for study and given residence in the Lower College.

Beginning in 1538, further scholarships were funded by the Erasmus Foundation, established from the estate of Erasmus of Rotterdam and managed by Bonifacius Amerbach. After the plague year of 1564, bequests from Basel burghers funded further scholarships. Under Basilius Amerbach, the Erasmus Foundation eventually granted scholarships to a total of 1,618 students, pupils, and scholars from 1562 to 1585, while the university itself awarded 716 scholarships between 1585 and 1600. The recipients always included a significant proportion of foreign students, many of them from Germany and the Old Swiss Confederacy, in addition to France, the Netherlands, Austria, England, Italy, and other countries. These students, too, contributed to the international scope characterizing the University of Basel during the second half of the sixteenth century.

Signs of consolidation
In 1650, one hundred years after the university had been founded, there were increasing signs that it had overcome the existential crisis of the Reformation era. It showcased its strengthened self-confidence with new building investments as well as with a cycle of stained glass windows, choosing a genre of self-presentation that was extremely popular and artistically ambitious for its time. Between 1558 and 1560, it invested in reestablishing the library, which was installed in the Lower College, received its own reading room, and decorated with ten heraldic windows for its inauguration. These windows represented the university as a whole and, through its members, the faculties, as well as important personalities such as the jurist Amerbach or the physician Keller. In 1560, it was also decided to establish an anatomical theater and to create a botanical garden. The particular scholarly emphases of the day thus found expression in the university’s building program.

However, signs of consolidation, growth, and international influence coexisted with conflicts and failures: Isaak Keller, a professor of theoretical medicine who had held the office of dean and rector, had to leave the university in 1580 because of an embezzlement scandal. At the end of the sixteenth century, the university made another attempt in the City Council to regain the privileges it had been granted in 1460. The Rector, Johann Jakob Grynäus, emphatically demanded that the university regain the freedom it had once enjoyed, and without which – he claimed – it could not survive. Given the increasing intolerance, bureaucratization, and turn towards church orthodoxy that had taken hold in Basel since the 1580s, it is not surprising that this effort was unsuccessful. Conflicts over the privileges of the university continued to shape disputes with the city throughout the entire seventeenth century.