Cities of Literature: Heidelberg


Heidelberg, Germany.  (Image Source)

Time to look at another City of Literature!  And for this one, we travel to the soutwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, and to the city of Heidelberg (pop. 160,000).  Heidelberg lies not far from Germany’s border with France, and occupies the banks of the River Neckar near where it debouches into the Rhine.  Of particular interest for our purposes today: Heidelberg University, one of the oldest post-secondary educational institutions in the world.  Read on…

Originally, like so many cities and towns in the Rhine area, Heidelberg was a Roman military camp, first established in about A.D. 40 during the reign of the Emperor Gaius (aka Caligula).  A civilian settlement grew up around the camp, and remained after the Romans were driven out by Germanic tribesmen in the mid-third century.  By the 14th century, Heidelberg was part of what was then the Palatinate of the Rhine, which itself was a territory of the Holy Roman Empire.  It was ruled by the Count Palatine of the Rhine, although after 1356 he also became known as the Elector Palatine.  I will spare you further details; they are not particularly relevant, and the unbelievable complexity of the history of the Holy Roman Empire and its politics and internal borders and rulers and sub-rulers and so on can cause a lot of confusion.


A 15th-century manuscript depiction of Rupert I, at left, with his two wives — note that he was not married to them at the same time.  (Image Source)

Suffice for us to know that it was an Elector Palatine of the Rhine, Rupert I “the Red” (in German, “Ruprecht der Rote”), who, in 1386, founded Heidelberg University.  It was, by my count, the 20th university founded in Europe, but only the third in the Holy Roman Empire, after Bologna in 1088 and Vienna in 1365.  And Heidelberg was the first university founded in the territory of modern Germany.  In recognition of its founder, the university in time became officially known as the “Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg.”

The founding of the university came about because Rupert I saw an opportunity.  The papal election of 1378 had resulted in what became known as “The Western Schism,” with one pope (Urban VI) elected in Rome, and another (Clement VII) subsequently elected and based in Avignon, France.  The Holy Roman Empire sided with the Roman pope, and one of the side-effects of that decision was that German students and scholars at the University of Paris were expelled from France (France, of course, was backing the pope in Avignon).  Noting both the sudden availability of a ready-made student body and faculty, and the fact that he had some leverage with the pope in Rome, Rupert opened negotiations with Urban VI, and on October 26th, the new institution was formally blessed during a ceremony at Heidelberg’s Church of the Holy Spirit.  The first lectures were held the next day.

Given that it is now more than 630 years old, it is no surprise Heidelberg University has experienced some turbulence in its history.  Martin Luther spoke there, in defence of his “95 Theses,” in 1518, as the Protestant Reformation gathered steam.  The subsequent Counter-Reformation made itself felt as well, particularly in the 17th century, when the university library was taken as war booty and donated to the Vatican (some of that collection has been returned since, but most of it remains at the Vatican).  Much later, during the dark days of the Third Reich, a number of odious things — book-burnings, eugenics projects, and the like — took place at the university, and there was further upheaval there during the 1970s.


The main building of Heidelberg University Library. (Image Source)

However, Heidelberg University is currently thriving; its library — and we have talked a bit about libraries already in this series — being a particular gem.  All told, the university’s library holdings now include more than six million works, and per Wikipedia it is the most-used library in Germany.  The university itself is spread over a three campuses in Heidelberg, with a student body of about 30,000 as well as 7000 staff.  56 Nobel Prize winners have had some connection with the university (link is a PDF).  And I could go on.

But what I want to do for the next post is go back to that autumn of 1386, when the newly-founded Heidelberg University saw its first lectures.  What did a medieval European university look like?  What was taught there, and who attended?  We will have answers to those questions, and there after we will look at our own Trent University, and see what parallels might be drawn.  Thank you for reading!



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