The birth of the Studium and the Commune

The history of the University of Bologna in the 11th and 12th centuries.

At the turn of the year 1000, Bologna was just a village with a few thousand inhabitants and little contact with the outside world.

What made it rise and stand out from other cities, turning it into a true medieval metropolis in a short space of time, was its Studium, established around 1088, which is the date that has been traditionally celebrated for 150 years.

Compared to universities founded later, whether on the initiative of a number of far-sighted teachers or at the behest of a sovereign, the University of Bologna arose spontaneously as a result of the initiative of several students, who got together in primitive forms of association, setting the teaching goals and overseeing their proper implementation.

The teachers, in turn, who were paid directly by the students, often welcomed them into their homes and built almost family-like relationships with them.

IrnerioThis is the case of Irnerius, who is often mistakenly remembered as the founder of the Alma Mater Studiorum.

The illustrious magister, like many others, had probably already gained extensive experience as a secular teacher of the Liberal Arts (Trivium: Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic), but compared to his colleagues he was among the first to study and popularise, with a scientific method, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, a Roman legal text on which the teachings of the Studium of Bologna would be based, as well as the entire legal system of modern Europe.

These were difficult and revolutionary times, during which static feudal systems were shaken by the roaring rise of the Communes, of their new social classes and by the increasingly precarious relationship between the Empire and the Papacy.

It was therefore necessary to find legal solutions that would help regulate and handle this difficult rebirth. It was Bologna and its School, which by then had become famous, that were called upon to shape the destiny of Europe.

During the Investiture Controversy, Irnerius himself supported the imperial cause and, given his prestige, he even managed to appease the wrath of Henry V, who was ready to punish the people of Bologna for having destroyed his fortress overlooking the city (1115).

This act of revolt and pardon sanctioned the birth of the Commune, officially recorded in 1116 and signed by the imperial chancellor Burcardo and by Irnerius himself, who can therefore be considered one of the fathers of the Studium and of the city’s newfound autonomy.

This cultural approach, even more than a political leaning, was adopted by his most illustrious disciples, Bulgaro, Martino, Jacopo di Porta Ravegnana and Ugo di Porta Ravegnana, when Frederick I (Barbarossa) called on them to settle the strained relations between the Empire and the cities of the Po Valley.

During the Diet of Roncaglia (1158), they confirmed the sovereignty of the Swabian dynasty, which a few years later was once again opposed by the Italian communes that had formed the Lombard League (1167).

Of the four favourite pupils of Irnerius, only Martino stepped aside. He was more ideologically aligned with the new School of Canon Law (ecclesiastical) founded in the mid-12th century, also in Bologna, on the initiative of the students of the monk Graziano.

The two schools, the school of Roman Law and the school of Canon Law, combined in the same Studium, focused the attention of the two universal powers, the Empire and the Papacy, on Bologna alone, which thus became the legal mediator of their delicate balance.

The internal relations between the Commune of Bologna, which desired freedom, and its University, which somewhat supported the empire, did not require any intermediaries.

Through the Constitutio Habita (1155), Frederick I had already taken action to grant personal protection to students and declare them free and independent from any political power.  

After all, the Commune could not afford to cause dissatisfaction among the students, since they came from all over the world and drew craftsmen and merchants to the city, who were ready to meet their daily needs and enriched the whole local economy, both directly and indirectly.

The city was also well aware of the international prestige it was gaining precisely because of its Studium, for which it was called “La Dotta” (The Learned) as early as 1118, and a century later it was also given the name “La Grassa” (The Fat).