May 12th: Yet Another Rerun

I feel like I’ve seen this one before…

It starts out innocently enough: a bunch of guys between the ages of 17 and 25 get together at a house just off campus, have a few drinks, and shoot the breeze.  One thing leads to another, and before you know it they’re running naked through town, yelling incoherently, falling all over each other, and generally causing a Ruckus.  Sounds like last Saturday at your local university, right?

Studying the rules to a medieval drinking game

Wrong.  We’re actually talking about May 12th, 1364.  And yes, it was a Saturday.  The drunken students in question are celebrating the founding of Jagiellonian University (say it with me now: Ya-gyel-Oh-nee-an) in Kraków, Poland – the second oldest university in Central Europe (after Prague, in 1347), and one of the oldest in the world that is still operating today.  Now for those of you that are being especially attentive, you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait a minute, the university was only founded on May 12th, and it already had students?  And they’re already drinking?!”  If you’re thinking that, go ahead and deduct two gold stars from your name and see me after class for being such a smart-ass.  It happened, okay?  I have reliable documents that can prove it.  They’re just…in the manuscript shop…being dry-cleaned…to get out the beer stains.  Yeah.

Now the interesting thing about the Studium Generale in general, and this studium in particular, was where they got the funding for such a noble venture.  You see, there were these huge, multi-national banks that would offer a letter of credit to prospective students, who would then take said letter to the university and be allowed to attend classes until their funds ran out.  The nice thing about this was that the banks could charge interest on the money they lent, so that by the time the principal balance was paid back in full, the students ended up paying significantly more to the bank than if they had just payed the university in cash.  The other nice thing about this was that, since the tuition was generally being paid by rich banks instead of (generally poor) private individuals, the universities could charge an exorbitant sum, many times higher than a private student could ever hope to pay, and still get their money.  So everyone was happy making tons of money in the Business of Higher Education.  Except, of course, the students.

Actually, that last paragraph isn’t really true.  I was confusing my historical eras, so I apologize.  The real funding for the University of Kraków (as it was generally known at the time of its founding) came from the royal family of Poland.  Casimir III, King of Poland, lord and inheritor of the lands of Kraków, Sandomierz, Sieradz, Łęczyca, Kuyavia, Pomerania, and Ruthenia (to use his official title – it was typically shortened to Casimir the Great) actually provided all the initial funding for the professorial seats, which totaled 11 in all at the university’s founding.  Curriculum included Liberal Arts, Medicine, Canon Law (ecclesiastic law of the Catholic Church), and Roman Law.  Funding for the university was kept up by the profits from the royal salt mines in Wieliczka.  So here we see a king – a member of the highest, most privileged class in Europe – contributing his own funds and the profits from one of his personal business assets to the higher education of his subjects.  Curious…  Unfortunately, when the king died in 1370 (just six years after the university’s inception), the funding died with him, and development came to a standstill.  Fortunately for the thirsty (for knowledge, of course! What were you thinking?) Polish students, the university was reestablished by King Władisław Jagiełło and Queen Jadwiga in 1400.  Notice the similarity in names?  Yep, you guessed it: the university was renamed in 1817 in honor of the Jagiellonian dynasty of Polish kings and its founder who had saved the university from almost certain community college status.  Queen Jadwiga herself donated all her personal jewelry to ensure the university survived.  Curiouser and curiouser…  You see, back then the ruling elite realized the need for educated citizens so that the country didn’t fall into an oblivion full of Jersey Shore reruns (done by the traveling medieval troupe, of course), late night market square infomercials, and the degeneration of all conversation over a mug of mead to variations of the words “hurp” and “derp”.  Indeed, the University of Kraków was intellectually advanced for its day, outstripping even such illustrious universities as Paris and Bologna (which predated it by a good century or so), being the first university to offer independent chairs in Astronomy and Mathematics.  The university was so well-respected during the Renaissance that almost half of its students came from outside of Poland.  Some, admittedly, came for the party.  Others came for the renowned beauty of the Polish women.

Some of the most notable alumni of JU include:

  • Mikołaj Kopernik (aka Coperinicus), the famous astronomer that managed to convince Europeans (eventually) that the Earth actually revolved around the sun, and not vice-versa.
  • Jan III Sobieski, most famous of all Polish kings, who led the coalition of Polish, German, and Austrian troops at the Battle of Vienna to victory over the invading Turks, thereby saving Europe from foreign domination by the Ottoman Empire.  There is also a quite delicious vodka bearing his name.
  • Stanisław Lem, the famous science fiction author and satirist, best known for his 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into no less than three feature length films.
  • The late Pope John Paul II (born Karol Józef Wojtyła in Poland), the one and only Polish/Slavic pope to date, and the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century.  Best known to Poles for being a member of the underground intelligentsia in Nazi-occupied Poland; best known to the rest of the world for his bullet-proof Popemobile and exceedingly strange hat.

So check your dumb Pollock jokes at the door, please.  How many Pollocks does it take to found one of the oldest, most well-respected universities in Europe?  Just one, and he’ll do it while singlehandedly defeating the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald and saving Poland from the invading, power-hungry Germans…at least until 1939.  Had Casimir the Great been alive at that time, Hitler no doubt would have shat his khakis.

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