Robert de Sorbon, a chaplain and confessor to King Louis IX, founded a college in 1257 for poor theology students in Paris. It would later become the University of Paris, when additional courses of study were added. The Sorbonne established itself in areas around Notre-Dame Cathedral as a "universitas magistrorum et scholarium," a guild of masters and scholars. There were four faculties: Arts, Medicine, Law and Theology. The Faculty of Arts was the lowest in rank, but also the largest, since all students had to graduate from there before being admitted to one of the higher faculties.
Early student life was ruled by a rigorous class schedule that began in the early morning hours and stretched late into the evening. Students would sit on bales of hay to hear lectures given outdoors in the medieval streets. Professors enforced a regimen of strict discipline, both academically and physically.
By the 14th century there were as many as twenty thousand foreign students enrolled at the Sorbonne, making Paris the capital of knowledge of the Western world. The students were divided into four "nations," according to language or regional origin: France, Normandy, Picard, and England (the latter came to be known as the Alemannian [German] nation and included students from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe).
Then, as now, the Sorbonne and its students dominated the Latin Quarter, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. The Latin Quarter takes its name from the fact that students and professors spoke Latin, up until the French Revolution of 1789.
Cardinal Richelieu was elected president of the Sorbonne in 1622 and embarked on a major building program. The Sorbonne Chapel was begun in 1635, and it is the only building still standing from that era. This chapel, where Richelieu was entombed after his death in 1642, dominates the Place de la Sorbonne today.
Place de la Sorbonne and the chapel from the Richelieu era.
Richelieu's tomb in the Sorbonne Chapel
The Sorbonne's close association with the church resulted in its being closed down during the French Revolution for nearly twenty years; it was reopened by Napoleon in 1808 to serve as part of the University of Paris.
Between then and 1885 the Sorbonne served as the seat of the university's theology faculties and of the Académie de Paris. At the end of the 19th century, the Sorbonne became an entirely secular institution, and the Sorbonne was rebuilt in 1883 in order to provide more room for the increasing needs of students. Amphitheaters, test rooms, labs, a library with over 2 million works, and an observatory were all built for the growing student body.
A block of 19th-century university buildings, including the Observatory.
The Sorbonne’s international reputation has always placed it among Europe’s most important universities. During medieval times it was considered one of the “four points of light,” along with the universities of Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca. It remains a vital part of a long university tradition.
Since medieval times, students have taken to the streets to demonstrate at the drop of a hat. The most significant crisis in modern times was the student riots of 1968, which resulted in severe wreckage to the university area, with streets piled high with refuse, cobblestones pulled from the pavement and thrown at police, barricades, burnt-out cars, chopped-down trees, and twisted railings hanging from university buildings. In 1968, the Sorbonne was thus the starting point of what became a cultural revolution, commonly known as the French May, resulting in the closing of the university for the third time in its history (the second having been during the invasion by the German army of 1940). Subsequently, major reforms were carried out, and the University of Paris was divided into thirteen different universities in 1970.
Photos showing the architectural distinction of the 19th-c. university buildings: