On April 7, 1348, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV founded Charles University in Prague. Modelled on universities in Bologna and Paris, it is the oldest university north of the Alps and east of Paris, and one of the oldest in the world in continuous operation.
After a papal bull authorized the establishment of a Studium generale in Prague, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV founded a new university in the Bohemian capital in April 1348. Composed of four faculties (liberal arts, medicine, law, and theology), and divided into Bohemian, Bavarian, Saxon, and Polish “nations”, the university was officially opened the following year with Archbishop Arnošt of Pardubice as chancellor.
Centered around Charles University, the status of the Czech academic community was further strengthened under the rule of Charles’ son, King Wenceslaus IV. But as new students began pouring in from all over Europe, the young institution encountered several organizational problems, notably a lack of space for lectures and accommodation. So in 1383, it acquired the Old Town residence of a wealthy German merchant, the Karolinum, which has served as the seat of the university ever since.
A Protestant university
At the end of the 14th century, the Western Schism, during which Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon both claimed the papacy, divided the young university. Feeling that Gregory XII might interfere with his plans to be crowned Emperor, Wenceslaus denounced the pope, and ordered both the clergy and the university to observe a strict neutrality in the schism. But while the scholars of the Bohemian “nation”, with reformist Jan Hus as their leader, vowed neutrality, the three “foreign” nations opposed the Bohemian king’s request.
As a result, Wenceslaus issued the Kutná Hora Decree, which declared that the Bohemian “nation” would be given a decisive voice in the affairs of the university, and by May 1409, due to the change in the voting structure, the German rector was replaced by Jan Hus. Soon after, most German academics and their students left the university, which resulted in the foundation of the University of Leipzig and the isolation and decline of the Prague university.
With the Bohemian Reformation well underway, Charles University soon became a centre of the Hussite movement and the chief doctrinal authority of the Utraquist faction. During the social and political revolution that followed the execution of Jan Hus and the outbreak of the Hussite Wars, the university was reduced to a single faculty – the Faculty of Liberal Arts, which became a prototype for later Reformation academies.
During the 16th century, called by Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I, who sought to strengthen the position of the Catholic church in the Bohemian lands, the Jesuit Order arrived in Prague and founded a new academy in a former Dominican monastery, the Clementinum. But when the Bohemian Revolt broke out in the early 17th century against the election of Jesuit-educated Ferdinand of Styria as Crown Prince, the university fell under the strong political influence of the Protestants, and the Jesuits were expelled from Prague.
After the final defeat of the Bohemian estates at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, which brought two centuries of re-Catholicization of the Czech lands, the fiercely Catholic new Emperor Ferdinand II gave the Jesuits supreme control over the entire school system of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, and handed Charles University over to the Order. All four pre-Hussite faculties were restored, and the Karolinum and the Clementinum were merged into a single enlarged institution, renamed Charles-Ferdinand University.
Throughout the 18th century, educational reforms inspired by the Enlightenment deprived the university of many of its former privileges as it was slowly transformed into a state-governed educational institution. Following the abolition of the Jesuit Order, this gradual process culminated with reforms introduced by Emperor Joseph II, which established German instead of Latin as the language of instruction and granted non-Catholics the right to study.
Czech and German universities
Inspired by the events of 1848 in Paris, a popular uprising caused the breakdown of central authority in Vienna and spurred revolutions across the Habsburg Monarchy. In Prague, the university demanded that the Czech language be added alongside German as a language of instruction. But it soon became clear that neither the German-speaking Bohemians nor the Czechs were satisfied with the bilingual arrangement, and in 1883, Emperor Franz Joseph I divided the university into two independent institutions, with Czech and German as their respective languages of instruction.
By the turn of the 20th century, both universities had achieved a high academic standard. The German university was home to world-renowned scientists such as physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, Moritz Winternitz and Albert Einstein, and its students included prominent individuals such as future writers Max Brod, Franz Kafka, and Johannes Urzidil. The academic staff at the Czech University included respected figures who played a prominent role in the process of national emancipation – most notably Professor Tomáš G. Masaryk, who in 1918 became the first President of Czechoslovakia.
Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the two universities dropped the Habsburg name Ferdinand: the Czech institution took the name “Charles University”, while its German counterpart became officially known as the “German University in Prague”. But during the 1930s, as ethnic tensions intensified, the insignia of 1348 became a bone of contention between the universities as Czech politicians demanded that it was to be kept exclusively by the Czech university, the only successor to the original Studium generale.
A modern university
After the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the German University was incorporated into the Reich. But after student demonstrations were prompted by the death of Charles University student Jan Opletal, Nazi forces closed all Czech universities and colleges, had 1,850 students arrested and ordered the execution of nine student leaders. Charles University was unable to resume its activities until after the Second World War, when the German university was abolished.
But the renewal of free academic life at Charles University did not last long. After the communist coup of 1948, the new regime subjected education and research to tight ideological and political control, and continued to do so for the next four decades. Only in the late 1980s did the situation start to improve as students began organizing peaceful demonstrations against the totalitarian regime, eventually culminating in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, in which both students and faculty members played a large role.
After 1989, modern university life began to thrive, drawing strongly on renewed international cooperation. Today, Charles University consists of 17 faculties, based primarily in Prague, but also in Hradec Králové and in Plzeň. The publicly-funded university regularly ranks among the world’s best, and its alumni include the likes of Franz Kafka, Edvard Beneš, Milan Kundera, Ivana Trump, as well as some of us here at Kafkadesk!
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.