The first documentary evidence regarding the scheme that King Casimir the Great conceived of establishing a university dates from 1362. Urban V favored the plan, and King Casimir issued the charter of the university, 12 May, 1364. It was modelled after the schools of Padua and Bologna, consequently the faculty of law and the study of Roman law held first place. The pope gave his approval, 1 September, 1364, but excluded theology. Casimir's school however, was refounded during the reign of Jagiello and Hedwig of the house of Anjou. The consent of Boniface IX was given, 11 February, 1397, and King Jagiello signed the charter, 26 July, 1400. The university now included all four faculties and was, therefore, patterned on that of Paris. The first chancellor was Bishop Peter Wysz of Cracow, who also gave the opening lecture. The first professors were Bohemians, Germans, and Poles, most of whom had been trained at Prague. In the first year, the number of matriculated students was 205; in the course of the fifteenth century it rose to 500.
The university took an active part in the ecclesiastical controversies of the fifteenth century and showed itself a strong supporter of the conciliar doctrine : concilium supra papam (i.e., a council is above the pope ). It maintained nevertheless a strictly Catholic position during the Hussite troubles. In the struggle between the Nominalists and the Realists it took but little part, Realism having an almost exclusive sway at the school. Still the effect on the university of the active intercourse with the West was, at the time, but slight and transient. King Jagiello died in 1434; in the period following, the university was controlled by its powerful chancellor, Zbigniew Olesnicki, who was also Bishop of Cracow from 1423 to 1455. A circle of learned men who followed the new tendencies gathered around him. Among these scholars was Poland's great historian, Dlugozs. At the time of the Council of Basil, the university and its chancellor were partisans of the council, and Olesnicki even accepted the cardinalate from Felix V. After the Union of Florence, Olesnicki went over to the side of Nicholas V, but the university did not submit to the control of the Church until 1449. The age of Olesnicki was one of great scholars, among whom were: the physician and astronomer, Martin Krol; the decretalist, Johann Elgot; the theologians Benedict Hesse and Jacobus of Paradyz. St. John Cantius, student and later professor of theology, was distinguished for virtue even more than learning. He was born at Kenty, 1397; died, 1473; was canonized by Clement XIII, 1767; his feast is observed 20 October. Olesnicki showed favour to men who were not Poles, suppressed the Hussite tendencies with a firm hand, and was very generous to the university. He died in 1455.
The causes which finally brought the university into line with the new tendencies were various. Poland was then the great power of Eastern Europe, the court of Casimir of the Jagellon dynasty was a brilliant one, and Cracow was a very rich city. It was therefore, not surprising that many famous men were drawn to this centre. From 1470 to 1496 Callimachus was preceptor in the royal household. Attracted by the fame of Callimachus, Conrad Celtes, the celebrated Humanist, made his appearance at Cracow before the end of the century. Printing also soon had its representatives here; towards the close of the fifteenth century, Haller established his press in Cracow and began his patronage of arts and letters. In this way the number of those who followed the new humanistic tendencies of the West continually increased, but unfortunately there was also an increase in profligacy. In 1492, John I Albert, the pupil and friend of Callimachus, ascended the throne of Poland ; he did not, however, fulfill the expectations excited by him. Callimachus died in 1496; as time went on the seed which he and Celtes had sown produced its fruit, as is shown in Rhagius Sommerfeld, also called Æsticampianus, and in Heinrich Bevel. Thus, at the opening of the sixteenth century, the classic writers were more and more read, at first outside the lecturerooms of the university, in the students' halls. In 1520 the study of Greek was introduced to the university, the professors being Constanzo Claretti, Wenzel of Hirschberg, and Libanus. Hebrew was also taught, in spite of the opposition to the "Judaizers", and the notorious Italian, Francesco Stancari, arrived at Cracow in 1546.
In the midst of this progress, signs of decay were visible, thought the decline did not originate in the university itself. The national policies of Poland, the founding of the universities of Wittenberg and Frankfort-on-the-Oder, and a strong anti-German tendency, caused the university of Cracow to lose its original cosmopolitan character and become rather a national Polish university ; thus a gradual decline ensued. Nevertheless it maintained during this period a remarkably high standing. Such scholars as Martin Krol, Martin Bylica, and finally Adelburt Brudzewski made the school famous as a seat of astronomical studies, while the name of Nicholas Copernicus , the pupil of Brudzewski, sheds upon it undying lustre. Elementary studies we taught, consequently students of from fourteen to sixteen years of age entered from Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, Prussia, and the provinces of the Polish crown. At first the students lived in private houses, but gradually halls were established in which "commons" were provided, and a clerical dress was worn. The expenses of these halls were covered by the fees which the students paid for board, matriculation, room, rent, and fuel. The rector of the university was chosen by a committee of doctors and masters. Up to 1419 a rector was chosen for the whole year, but from this date till 1778 one was selected for each semester. Other officers were: the curators who watched over the rights and privileges of the university, the procurator and notarius, and the consiliarii who had to decide in case of an appeal. From the start the professors lived together in colleges, and were divided according to faculties. They had a common table, decided as to the reception of members, and bestowed the positions of canon and prebend, of which each faculty, with the exception of the medical, had often as many as twelve at its disposal. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the fortunes of the university sank to a very low ebb. J. Górski, in his "Apology" (1581), and Petrycy give as the chief reasons for this the utter insubordination of the students, complete indifference of the professors to the advances of learning in the West, and lack of means for the support of the university. Above all, there arose after the opening of the seventeenth century, a bitter conflict on the part of the university against the Jesuits, who on the strength of their constitutional privileges, had opened schools in Cracow, Posen, Lemberg, and other places, to protect Polish youth against the advances of Protestantism. The university, however, appealed to a privilege, the jus exclusionis , and demanded the closing of the Jesuit institutions. For nearly one hundred and fifty years this conflict was carried on with incredible tenacity. The common people, nobility, clergy, kings, bishops, and popes were drawn into it, and the struggle ended in the discomfiture of the Jesuits (cf. Zaleski, Jezuici ev Polsic, II, III). When towards the close of the eighteenth century, national misfortune overtook the country, and the three Partitions of Poland put an end to polish freedom, the life of the university came to a complete standstill. It is true that Bishop Stoltyk, and after him the energetic Koltataj, undertook a thorough reform by breaking with the medieval routine and giving prominence to the natural sciences. But the political conditions in the decades following these efforts were unfavorable to quiet and serious study.
After Cracow had become, in 1846, a part of the Austrian Empire, the central Government at Vienna endeavoured to make the university more German, but did nothing to improve it. A new era did not open for the school until 1861, when Francis Joseph I permitted Polish to be again used as the language of instruction and official life and the Government allowed a new building to be erected for the university. The number of professors and students now increased each year. While, in 1853, there were only 47 professors, of whom 37 were regular professors, 2 assistant professors and 8 docents, in 1900, the fifth centennial of the university, there were 103 professors; of this number, 48 were regular, 36 assistant professors, and 19 docents and lecturers. In 1907 the professors numbered 115. In 1853 there were 153 students; in 1893, 1320; in 1907, over 2700. The university library contains 250,000 works in 330,000 volumes; 5500 manuscripts in 7000 volumes (some of them very valuable and as yet unpublished); about 10,000 coins and 1200 atlases. The university has a college of the physical sciences, and a medical college for anatomical and physiological lectures; the medical school is entirely modern in its equipment and possesses very fine collections. There are also surgical, gynæcological and ophthalmic clinics, besides one for internal and nervous diseases: an agricultural institute is in the process of construction. Among the distinguished scholars connected with the university (1908) are: Professor Obszewski, the discoverer of a new method of liquefying gases, the surgeon Professor Kader, and Professor Wicherkiweicz, the oculist.
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