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Celebrated theological college of the French capital

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Sorbonne.—This name is frequently used in ordinary parlance as synonymous with the faculty of theology of Paris. Strictly speaking it means, as in this article, the celebrated theological college of the French capital. The title was adopted from the name of the university institute founded by Robert de Sorbon, a native of Le Rethelois, a distinguished professor and famous preacher who lived from 1201 till 1274. Sorbon found that there was a defect in the primitive organization of the University of Paris. The two principal mendicant orders—the Dominicans and the Franciscans—had each at Paris a college and delivered lectures at which extern students might attend without fee. In order that the university, which was already engaged in a struggle with the religious, might offer the same advantages, Robert de Sorbon decided that it also should provide gratuitous instruction and that this should be given by a society of professors following, except as regards the matter of vows, the rules of the cenobitic life. This important work was rendered possible by the high esteem in which Robert was held at Paris, together with his brilliant parts, his great generosity, and the assistance of his friends. The foundation dates from the year 1257 or the beginning of 1258. Nor was the aid he received merely pecuniary; Guillaume de Saint-Amour, Gerard d’Abbeville, Henry of Ghent, Guillaume des Grez, Odo or Eudes of Douai, Chretien de Beauvais, Gerard de Reims, Nicolas de Bar are but a few of the most illustrious names inseparably connected either with the first chairs in the Sorbonne, or with the first association that constituted it. These savants were already attached to the university staff.

The constitution of the society as conceived by Robert was quite simple: an administrator (provisor), associates (socii), and guests (hospices). The provisor was the head; nothing could be done without consulting him; he installed the members selected by the society, and confirmed the statutes drawn up by it; in a word, as his title signifies, he had to provide for everything. The associates formed the body of the society. To be admitted to it, the candidate was required to have taught a course of philosophy. There were two kinds of associates, the bursaires and the pensionnaires. The latter paid forty (Paris) pounds a year, the former were provided for by the house, which expended a like sum from its revenues. The burse could be granted only to persons not having an income of forty (Paris) pounds. There was a primus inter pares, the prior, who presided over all internal affairs of the house. Doctors and bachelors were alike eligible, but, owing to the number of the latter, the custom rapidly grew up of selecting only bachelors. Other persons were candidates for admission to the society rather than members of it. From the material and intellectual point of view they enjoyed the same privileges as the members: board, lodging, books, spiritual and scholastic exercises; but they had no votes. When they had fulfilled the condition of teaching philosophy, they were admissible as members. The course of studies lasted ten years, during which time their burses continued; but, if at the end of ten years, they had not given proof of their ability, either as teachers or as preachers, their burse was vacated. The ordinary lectures were public, and consequently were attended by students who belonged to neither of the divisions of the society. The doctors and bachelors were authorized to give shelter to other poor pupils. Besides the work of the classroom, there was the duty of preaching or laboring in the parishes. In preparation for this, the associates, on certain days, had to deliver sermons or conferences (collationes) in presence of the community. The purely spiritual side was not forgotten. Conferences, usually delivered by the prior, on this important part of the Christian and priestly life were given, if not exclusively, at least specially, to the interns. For twenty years the ability of the administrator, or provisor, corresponded to the foreseeing devotedness of the founder. This lapse of time showed the wisdom of the regulations and administrative measures, which Robert had adopted, after taking the best possible advice, and which he laid down in thirty-eight articles. This rule was directed towards the maintaining of common life, from silence in the refectory, which was not very strict, to simplicity of the authorized dress. As soon as circumstances permitted, Robert (about 1271) added to the theological college a literary college: this was the College de Calvi or the “little Sorbonne”.

Fruit of deep thought and personal experience, the constitution given by Robert de Sorbon to his college received the consecration of time, for it lasted through-out centuries. If Hemere saw in the project the conception of a powerful intellect, “Hoc primus in lyeaco Parisiensi vidit Robertus”, its realization was surely a work of genius. That this was so appears from the fact that, while Robert united in his work whatever good he found in the university, his college when completed served as a model to the others. It is unnecessary to dwell on each word of the original title, for some persons rather enigmatical, of the society. The expression “Pauvres maftres etudiants en theologie” seems to emphasize the two primary or essential characteristics of the society: equality in poverty, an equality so perfect between masters and pupils that it designated them by a common name; the poverty of the pupils, since most of them were bursaires; the poverty of the masters, since, content with what was strictly necessary, they renounced all other professional remuneration. This equality was always maintained with scrupulous care; the Sorbonnists repeated as an axiom, “Omnes nos sumus socii et aequales”, and referred to the college as “pauperem nostram Sorbonem”.

From the outset the college enjoyed the favor of the Holy See. Alexander IV (1259) urged the French bishops to support it, Urban IV (1262) recommended it to the goodwill of the whole Christian world, and Clement IV (1268) granted it papal approbation. Wealthy benefactors provided it with ample endowment. A high standard of scholarship was maintained and the severity of the “actus Sorbonnicus”, or examination for degrees, including the defense of the “thesis Robertina”, became proverbial. The professorial corps was highly respected, and from all parts of Europe different theological and even political questions were sent to it for solution. As the other teachers of theology in the university became members of the Sorbonne, its staff, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was practically identical with the university faculty. Robert de Sorbon had realized the necessity of a library and had taken measures to supply one. This increased rapidly, owing chiefly to numerous gifts. In 1470 the Sorbonne introduced the art of printing into France by calling to Paris three of Gutenberg’s associates, Gering, Friburger, and Crantz. Among its principal patrons and benefactors was Cardinal Richelieu, who held for a time the office of provisor and who, in 1635, laid the cornerstone of an edifice to be built at his expense for the use of the college. He was buried in the church of the Sorbonne, where his tomb is still preserved. The doctors of the college were loyal defenders of the Catholic faith against the inroads of Protestantism and against the so-called Enlightenment. On the other hand, they gave their support to Gallicanism and obliged their members to subscribe the “four articles”. This attitude naturally weakened the prestige of the Sorbonne as a theological school, and obliged ecclesiastical students to seek their education in the seminaries. The Sorbonne itself was suppressed by decree of April 5, 1792, but was restored by Napoleon in 1808 as the theological faculty of the newly organized university. It did not, however, regain its former standing or influence, though it continued in existence until 1882, when it was finally suppressed. In 1884 the construction of the present building was begun and it was completed in 1889. It is now occupied by the various departments of letters and science which form the “Ecole des Hautes Etudes”.


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