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University entranceway with French and European flags │ © Marko Kudjerski
University entranceway with French and European flags │ © Marko Kudjerski

The History Of La Sorbonne University In 1 Minute

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 6 September 2016
The Paris we know today might never have existed had it not been for La Sorbonne. The establishment of prestigious colleges on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the 12th century strengthened the city’s position as the capital of France. The Vielle Dame (or Old Lady) has withstood eight centuries of political and physical transformations and remains a potent symbol of the French national spirit.

The university takes its name from Robert de Sorbon who created a college in 1253 that accepted students based solely on their intellectual excellence. By the end of the Middle Ages, the combined University of Paris was the largest center of learning in Europe. During the Renaissance, François Rabelais mocked La Sorbonne for being too conservative but it was nonetheless consolidated with a unified set of buildings in the 17th century at the behest of Cardinal ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ Richelieu, who is interred in the university chapel.

Detail from the exterior of the Sainte-Ursule chapel © Andy Walker │ Students reading at a university library © Eleazar │ Full lecture at the university amphitheater © Ricardo Patiño

Detail from the exterior of the Sainte-Ursule chapel © Andy Walker │ Students reading at a university library © Eleazar │ Full lecture at the university amphitheater © Ricardo Patiño

The Age of the Enlightenment led to the University of Paris’s secularization and expansion. However, despite supporting the French Revolution, La Sorbonne and other French colleges were suppressed in 1793. Numerous reform projects were launched and abandoned in the 19th century and it wasn’t until the University of Paris was recreated in 1896 that things resumed their old stature.

The early 20th century was exceptional for La Sorbonne: faculty members Pierre and Marie Curie, Jean Perrin, Louis de Broglie, and Irène and Frédérique Joliot-Curie all won Nobel Prizes. However, it was hit hard by World War II, losing many of its Jewish students and teachers including Marc Bloch, Georges Ascoli, Victor Basch, Louis Halbwachs, Henri Abraham, Eugène Bloch, and Georges Bruhar.

Outdated facilities and inflated student numbers then led to the May 1968 protests. Although La Sorbonne wasn’t the starting point of events, it became a symbol of the uprising when the movement reached the Latin Quarter and occupied its buildings. Resulting reform led to the creation of 13 different universities.

Today, La Sorbonne is home to the Rectorat d’Académie, Chancellerie des Universités de ParisÉcole Nationale des ChartesÉcole Pratique des Hautes EtudesUniversité Paris 1 Panthéon-SorbonneUniversité Paris 3 Sorbonne NouvelleUniversité Paris IV SorbonneUniversité Paris 5 Paris Descartes, and the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne which stores over two and a half million books.