Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

10 The Opening of the Sorbonne

Universities spread the life of the mind

At the beginning of 1257, Robert de Sorbon was a master theologian teaching in one of the many small schools which made up the "Latin Quarter" of students on the left bank of the Seine in Paris. As the author of several learned treatises, he enjoyed a high reputation as a scholar. In addition, he belonged to the small circle of devoted friends who surrounded King Louis IX (Saint Louis). In fact, the King so appreciated his counsel that he chose Sorbon as his confessor.

As a youth before entering orders, Sorbon had experienced the difficulty of being a poor boy pursuing theological studies. Now, well-known and wealthy, he decided to endow a college for poor lay students in theology. He wanted an institution that would not be the type of mere rooming-house then reserved for the laity, but a college organized on the model of those enjoyed by the new Orders of Dominicans and Franciscans. He interested the King, the Archbishop of Paris, and even Pope Alexander IV, who all contributed to the endowment.

After a careful search, Sorbon bought some 65 houses near the cloister of Sainte-Genevieve (a site still occupied by the University of Paris) and drew up carefully planned statutes providing for the recruitment of lay students and for their common life -- the latter was to be "collegian, social, moral, and scholarly." The doors of the new college opened in October 1257.

Within a few years, the Sorbonne (for so the new college came to be known) had become the most celebrated of the houses at the university. The large classrooms helped to hold successful seminar meetings and scholarly discussions. The library was open to outsiders. And the Sorbonne's professors were increasingly among the most famous and popular of the university.

Until the middle of the 1100's, higher studies had been the responsibility of monasteries where only clerics, monks, and a few lay men (and some women) received a humanistic and theological education. But then the requirement of only the monastery, cathedral, or diocese had been envisaged. However, as monastic and agrarian organization gradually gave way to the beginning of urban culture, new schools began to emerge in the cities. They stood on ecclesiastical premises and were licenced by the chancellor of the cathedral. Their teachers, rather than the place, attracted students.

So attractive at the turn of the 1200's, were the communities of teachers and students in medicine at Salerno, in law at Bologna, and in theology at Paris, that they were granted statutes, privileges, and immunities by popes, emperors, and kings. Universities were thus conceived -- that is, corporations or communities of scholarly colleges where teachers dispensed instruction still mainly to clerics, but now only after receiving a licence from a more u"universal" authority than that of the local chancellor.

The Sorbonne started something entirely new. It was the first college established mainly for lay students, and the first to carry a strong and varied curriculum in subjects other than theology — that is in the seven liberal arts as well as well as in science, literature and general culture.

Students poured in from all countries, and Paris soon became the most celebrated teaching centre in all Christendom. Among the professors who gathered there in Sorbon's own lifetime were the great doctors and saints Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas.

The Sorbonne was imitated in Bologna, Oxford, Montpelier, and elsewhere, but it was the first college to have been opened for the purpose of furthering not vocational training alone but also the desire for a knowledge of the truth, for a knowledge transcending the needs of daily life. It became an oasis of freedom where questions were examined which were elsewhere suppressed, and people (such as Jews) were brought to teach who were elsewhere persecuted.

The Sorbonne became a stronghold of the faith, an instrument of religious orders and of popes, kings, and bishops who drew from it new generations of academically trained experts and officials. It also became the place where the thinkers of the Middle Ages started to lay some of the more important foundations of modern Scientific thought ... not to mention the habit of disciplined and critical thinking.

    Return to Table of Contents