On May 12, 1364, King Casimir III the Great established a university in Kraków. Today known as the Jagiellonian University, it is the oldest university in Poland, the second oldest university in Central Europe, and one of the oldest surviving universities in the world.
Since Mieszko I first unified the Polish lands at the end of the 10th century, laying the basis for the development of a Polish state and integrating Poland into the prevailing European culture, Poles had been ruled by the dukes of the so-called Piast dynasty, who regarded themselves as descendants of the semi-legendary Piast the Wheelwright (Piast Kołodziej).
But the 12th century brought fundamental changes to the structure of Polish society and its political system when, upon the death of Duke Bolesław III Wrymouth in 1138, Poland was divided among his sons. The resulting internal division eroded the initial Piast monarchical structure and Poland entered a period of feudal fragmentation which lasted about 200 years.
The University of Kraków
Poland, as a unified political entity, would not be re-established until the 14th century and the reign of Casimir III the Great, the last ruler of the Piast dynasty, who inherited a kingdom weakened by two centuries of war and fragmentation.
Aiming to strengthen the kingdom’s judicial system, Casimir realised that the nation needed a class of educated people who could arrange a better set of laws for the country and administer its courts and offices. His efforts were rewarded when Pope Urban V granted him permission to set up an institution of higher learning in Poland.
On May 12, 1364, sixteen years after the foundation of Charles University in Prague, a royal charter was issued by Casimir the Great, confirming the establishment of a Studium Generale in Kraków, comprised of three faculties: liberal arts, medicine and law. But upon the death of its founder, the development of the University of Kraków, as it was known back then, stalled and the Studium Generale eventually ceased to exist.
The Royal Jagiellonian College
The University was re-founded in 1400 by King Vladislaus Jagiełło and Queen Jadwiga, who contributed to the restoration by leaving a considerable portion of her private estate to the University in her last will. Initially called the Royal Jagiellonian College, the restored University never again interrupted its activity and placed Kraków among the most important educational centres in the region.
The University flourished throughout the 15th century, attracting students from all over Europe as it became known for providing education in the fields of law, mathematics and astronomy. In 1491, the world famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, whose seminal work De Revolutionibus can be seen today at the university library, enroled as a student in Kraków.
But during the second half of the 16th century, the Reformation and religious divisions of Europe, combined with the creation of many new universities, such as the ones in Vilnius and Zamość, led to a decrease in the influx of foreign students. The divisions continued into the 17th century with the Jesuits’ efforts to seize control of education in Kraków.
It was during that period that John Sobieski, future king of Poland and savior of Vienna in 1683, graduated from the University.
The Jagiellonian University
Two decades after the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 established the Free City of Cracow as a semi-autonomous city republic, and the university was give its modern name: the Jagiellonian University. Incidentally, the Congress also cut off Warsaw from the university in Kraków and resulted in the establishment of a Royal University in Warsaw in 1816.
But the failure of the Kraków uprising in 1846 led to the dissolution of the Free City and the incorporation of Kraków into the Austrian Empire. As a result, the Jagiellonian University was reorganised according to the Austrian model and German became the language of instruction.
Yet, the second half of the 19th century saw crucial changes in the University’s situation as the Austrian authorities took on a new role in its development and provided funds for the construction of a number of new buildings, including the neo-gothic Collegium Novum, which opened in 1887. Polish was reinstated as the language of tuition.
Surviving World War II
The development of the Jagiellonian University continued after Poland regained its independence in 1918, and by the late 1930s, the number of students at the university had increased dramatically to almost six thousand.
But following the German occupation of Poland, 184 professors of the Jagiellonian University were arrested and deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp during the Sonderaktion Krakau. The university, along with the rest of Poland’s higher and secondary education, was closed for the remainder of World War II.
With education in Polish banned and punished by death, many professors organized clandestine lectures held in small groups in private apartments. This network of underground faculties spread rapidly and by 1942, it included approximately 800 students, one of them was Karol Wojtyła, who later became Pope John Paul II.
After the Second World War, thousands of new students enrolled in at the Jagiellonian University as it became became a safe haven for scholars who had been forced to leave Lviv and Vilnius due to the changes of Poland’s eastern borders as well as those who could not return to Warsaw because of its destruction.
But the communist authorities soon started to impose its control on the university. Many professors were arrested by the Secret Police and books were censored. On the other hand, education in Poland became free of charge and an increasing number of young people were able to receive state scholarships.
After a brief period of liberalization, the government started a severe crack down on universities and on freedom of thought. Unrest grew among the students and culminated in waves of student demonstrations against the regime, most notably in 1968 and in 1981, which eventually led to the collapse of communism in 1989.
The Jagiellonian University today
Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004 has proved instrumental in improving the fortunes of the Jagiellonian University, which has seen huge increases in funding from both central government and European authorities, allowing it to develop new departments, research centres, and better support the work of its students and academics.
Today, the University is composed of sixteen faculties, employs roughly 4,000 academic staff, including over 650 professors, and provides education to about 40,000 students. It is traditionally considered Poland’s most reputable institution of higher learning and is generally ranked above the University of Warsaw.
As previously mentioned, its alumni include astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, Polish King John III Sobieski and Pope John Paul II, but also the President of Poland Andrzej Duda as well as some of us here at Kafkadesk!
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.