Coimbra, University of

views updated


A Portuguese university of medieval origin under the jurisdiction of the ministry of higher education. Founded in 1290 by King Dinis, the University of Coimbra is among the oldest European universities in the world. It was originally established in Lisbon, where it remained until 1308. Subsequent years, however, found the University shifting back and forth between Coimbra and Lisbon, as circumstances demanded: 1308 to 1338, Coimbra; 1338 to 1354, Lisbon; 1354 to 1377, Coimbra; 1377 to 1537, Lisbon. In 1537 the University was permanently established in Coimbra. These continual changes were not unusual in a period when educational installations and equipment were naturally still rudimentary. Although another university was founded in Évora in 1559 under Jesuit direction and continued in operation until 1759, it lacked Faculties of Medicine and Civil and Canon Law, leaving Coimbra the center of Portuguese cultural life until the 20th century, when the Universities of Lisbon and Oporto were founded in 1911.

Early History. Until 1290 education in Portugal had been limited to the primary and secondary levels offered in parish, monastic and cathedral schools. Famous among the monastic schools were the Cistercian monastery of Alcobaça and the Augustinian monastery of Santa Cruz de Coimbra, whose pupil Fernando de Bulhões, later known as St. Anthony, became a Doctor of the Church. Previous to this time Portuguese students in pursuit of higher learning were obliged to go either to the University of bologna in Italy, paris in France, or salamanca in Spain. To avoid the inconveniences of travel abroad, King Dinis founded the first Portuguese university, which Pope Nicholas IV confirmed, granting the new institution, among other privileges, the ius ubique docendi and ecclesiastical immunity.

The University was composed of four Faculties: Medicine, Civil Law, Canon Law and Arts, which included the trivium and the quadrivium. There was no Faculty of Theology, which the Church, with the intention of preserving unity of faith, reserved to the University of Paris. Doctors and lawyers, however, could now be educated in their own country, a fact that led to their increase in number and to an educational self sufficiency that the University has preserved throughout the centuries.

As a cultural center, in the 14th century the University probably devoted time to the study of astronomy, thus preparing the way for the geographical discoveries for which Portugal is renowned. In the 15th century Prince Henry, a famous leader of the maritime enterprises, became the protector of the University, now deeply committed to the study of mathematics. It was not until the 15th century that theology was introduced into the course of studies.

In 1537, when King John III established the University permanently in Coimbra, he undertook a complete reform of studies, not sparing any effort to place the University of Coimbra among the most famous institutions of the Renaissance. The professors included both outstanding Portuguese and foreign scholars, among them the Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes and the Spaniards Martin Azpilcueta, a famous canonist and the learned anatomist Guevara. Erasmus also was invited to the University. Among the students who have left their names to posterity is Luis de Camões, author of the Lusíadas, the Portuguese national epic. King John III initiated the foundation of the Coimbra University colleges, the majority of which belonged to religious orders, to enable their members to attend the University. These colleges increased in number until religious orders were suppressed in Portugal in 1834, when they totaled 23. To this day the buildings are used for various purposes and contribute in large part to Coimbra's architectural distinction as a university city.

Decline and Restoration. The early period of University splendor, enhanced by King John III's protection, was followed by one of decline, to which two major factors contributed: (1) Spanish domination toward the end of the 16th century, which came to an end in 1640 with the restoration of independence; and (2) the subsequent period of political conflict, in which both students and professors took part and which terminated with the peace of 1668. Despite the unrest, however, the University had its notable professors, among them the well-known Jesuit scholastic philosopher Francisco suÁrez. The University's greatest decline, in comparison with other European universities, was noted in mathematics and experimental sciences. This was remedied, however, by the large-scale reform undertaken in 1772 by the Marques de Pombal, minister to King Joseph I.

Pombal's reform was preceded by the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal, who since 1555 had influenced or directed University education. The reform, which had the support of the founder of the Oratorians, Philip neri, among other things substituted St. Augustine for Aristotle, qualitative for quantitative physics and created the Faculty of Mathematics and the Faculty of Philosophy, the latter including natural history, experimental physics and chemistry. It relegated metaphysics to the background and provided for properly equipped facilities in line with the new educational orientation, for example, the observatory for astronomy and the botanical gardens, both of which are still worthy of admiration. The Faculty of Theology continued to function until early in the 20th century, when it was replaced by the Faculty of Letters.

Bibliography: h. rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, eds., f. m. powicke and a. b. emden, 3 v. (new ed. Oxford 1936). m. brandÃo and m. lopes d'almeida, A Universidade de Coimbra: Esbôço da sua História (Coimbra, Port.1937).

[s. dias arnaut]