The Sorbonne in 17th-century Paris

It is hard to think of an institution of learning that has had more influence in the world than that of the Sarbonne over its 750 year history. Not only has it survived military occupations, religious upheaval, and revolutions, it often helped to instigate those very events.

Located in the “Latin Quarter”, in Paris’ Left Bank, Paris-Sarbonne Université currently has just under 24,000 students and is considered one of the world’s great universities.

However, its origins were humble.

Robert de Sorbon Teaching

The area had been a place for students for some time where the famous Peter Abélard taught, but it didn’t reach the height of its status until Robert de Sorbon established his institution in the 13th century.

Sorbon was a pious–and poor–cleric who caught the attention of Louis IX (later known as Saint Louis for his moral rectitude and crusading zeal). The king trusted him enough to appoint him as his confessor. From this honorable position, Sorbon developed a community of clerics dedicated to teaching poor theology students free lessons. In 1253, the Queen Regent Blanche of Castille made the first significant contribution by donating property on the rue Coupe-Gueule (‘Cut-throat street’, named for the eternal presence of thieves…not the grading curve). Sorbon himself established the institution’s library by bequeathing 67 volumes, all but four of which were in Latin. (In fact, the Latin Quarter earned its nickname from the scholars who would lecture and debate in Latin throughout the Middle Ages. While it was also the site of the Roman roots of Lutetia, most of that history had been forgotten.)

The institution grew quickly and within a hundred years it would boast as many as 40 colleges. But the university often existed as a city within the city with its own discipline (eventually under the aegis of the Church), economy (faculty charging whatever they want of their students), language (Latin), and culture (international rather than “French”).

Francois Villon

Francois Villon, Poet and Ruffian

Students, often abused both physically and economically, could prove to be unruly and had gained a wide reputation for rowdiness. The international flavor of the student body could also add fuel to the fires. National conflicts invariably turned into student scuffles. The poet Francois Villon (c. 1431-1463) was the poster-child for bad student behavior. In the worst of his many brawls, he killed a fellow clerical student. It was not uncommon for Parisians to get fed up with the problems. At one point, the cry even went up, “Kill them! Kill them! There are too many of them!” (Colin Jones, Paris: The Biography of a City)

The Sorbonne followed its founder’s particular interests and developed specialties in questions of morality, heresies, and cases of conscience. Popes and rulers across Europe often consulted the faculty at the Sarbonne on pressing issues. In the 14th century, the medical faculty earned wide acclaim for its report on the Black Death. By the end of the 14th century, the Sorbonne condemned 28 forms of witchcraft and magic which inexorably advanced events which would push Joan of Arc to her trial in 1431.

France’s Religious Wars in the late 16th century significantly diminished the student and faculty population. Richelieu stepped in and reformed the  weakened organization as an organ for his political (absolutist) and religious (Catholic) agenda.

The anti-religious Revolutionaries closed the Sorbonne at the end of the 18th century only to be reopened by Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century. However, the pendulum of political events for the next century did nothing to strengthen the university. At the end of the 19th century, the Sorbonne exhibited one of the first public showings of the novelty of motion pictures as captured by the Lumiere brothers.

The 20th century wasn’t any quieter. During the Nazi occupation, Jewish professors were forced to resign as France mostly chose cooperation over resistance. The first demonstrations against the Germans came from students from the Sorbonne, but it was short-lived and shallow. In the 1960’s, it was from a professor at the Sorbonne that launched the cultural war of language that resisted borrowing Englishisms and (curiously) bothered itself with debating the sex of the automobile.

Paris 1968

Paris riots of 1968

In 1968, the Sarbonne exploded with revolutionary zeal. The students complained about poor living conditions, inadequate teaching, and dismal prospects for employment after graduation. It took only minor goading by professors to broaden their complaints into a full-scale political revolt. The largest clash between city police forces and university students in centuries left hundreds of casualties and caught the government flat-footed. Unions went on strike and the economy faltered. Within a year, president De Gaulle resigned.

The university was “broken up” into a series of institutions after the upheaval. Several of the University of Paris institutions trace its lineage through the Sarbonne back several hundred years to the very foundations of European learning and thought.