The Piast Origins of Cracow’s Academic Tradition

 The beginnings of academia in Cracow go back as far as the end of the Piast epoch, the Piasts being the first family to rule Poland, with later family representatives founding the State of Poland in 966AD. However, it took considerable time and effort before King Casimir III the Great (Kazimierz Wielki), the last monarch of the Piast dynasty, was able to obtain permission from the Pope to establish an institution of higher education in Cracow. The king’s efforts were rewarded in 1364 and the Cracow Academy was the second university to be founded in Central Europe. It preceded similar institutions which were inaugurated at a later date later in Vienna, Pecs and Heidelberg. The Academy in Cracow was opened three years after permission had been granted, on Wawel Hill near the royal residence. Its development was stalled by the death of the king in 1370, but the Academy was re-established in 1400, a year after Queen Jadwiga had donated all her personal jewellery towards its development. Queen Jadwiga herself is now, thanks to the decision of John Paul II, St. Jadwiga. It was at that time that a full, at least by medieval standards, university came into existence and it included Faculties of Theology, Liberal Arts, Medicine and Law. The royal donation was used for the construction of university buildings and by the following years Cracow’s scholars, e.g. Stanisław of Skarbimierz, one of the founders of international law, and Marcin Biem, who reformed the Julian calendar, were recognised and respected all over Europe.
In 15th century the high academic status of the University was reflected in the fact that its students came not only from all over Poland, but also from many other countries. Among its graduates were, e.g. Nicolas Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik) and many other distinguished scholars who played an eminent roles in the world of science. The Golden Age of the Cracow Academy came to an end in the middle of 16th century when it rejected the ideas of the Reformation, whereby German and Hungarian students, for instance, started to enrol at other universities and, in addition, more and more Polish and Lithuanian students went to Bologna or Padua to study at the universities there. Following this the Academy became involved in a violent conflict with the Jesuits and began to gradually sink into a long-lasting crisis. Some symptoms of change slowly became apparent, when in the second half of 18th century Hugo Kołłątaj became Rector of the University. He managed to organise fundamental reforms at the University, which started to adopt the ideas of the Enlightenment. The process of reform was halted when Poland lost its independence in 1795, with the status of the university reduced by the Partitioners. This was only changed when Austria, within whose borders Cracow was at the time, became a constitutional monarchy and granted autonomy to Galicia, that part of Poland which was under Austrian rule. It became possible once again to lecture in Polish at the University, which had been renamed the Jagiellonian University in 1817.
The University regained its independence and became a major academic centre. It was there that oxygen and nitrogen were liquefied from the air for the first time, the functioning of adrenaline in the body was explained and the typhoid microbe was identified. The humanities, especially history and law developed dynamically too. The University became central within Polish national life. When Poland regained its independence in 1918, Cracow’s scholars helped to restore the other Polish universities. As the State of Poland needed major modernisation at the time, the Academy of Mining and Metallurgy (the present AGH University of Science and Technology) was established in Cracow. Now it is the second largest technical university in Poland. In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Gestapo (the secret state police of Nazi Germany) arrested almost 200 of Cracow’s professors (mainly from UJ and AGH) and sent them to concentration camps. Many of Cracow’s scientists were killed by the NKVD (the public and secret police of the Soviet Union) in, among other places, Katyń. The universities were closed, their research equipment destroyed, but despite this they still worked illegally as part of the underground movement. They resumed their official activity in 1945 soon after the Red Army entered Cracow. However, Nazi occupation was soon replaced by Stalinist oppression. The freedom to undertake scientific research was limited and normal contact with the world of science could not be re-established. The University was deprived of its autonomy and was divided, with its Faculties of Medicine, Agriculture and Forestry, and the Department of Physical Education, transformed into new self-contained schools of higher education. The Faculty of Theology, whose last Reader was Karol Wojtyła, was closed completely. However, the University somehow survived, rescuing many of its achievements. After the political ‘thaw’ in 1956, it started to slowly to regain its high status in the academic world, using the celebrations of the 600th anniversary of its foundation as an opportunity to develop its facilities. Slowly, the other schools of higher education in Cracow also developed and many specialist institutes were founded. But it was only 1989 that brought a real breakthrough when Poland freed itself from a totalitarian regime and gained new chances to develop. Cracow’s academia still takes every advantage of all the opportunities which it is offered, thus remembering the humanistic tradition dating to its Piast origins.