University of Paris

Global Influence
Former university

About University of Paris

By James Barham, PhD

Today’s immense University of Paris System of colleges and universities traces its roots to the school attached to the great cathedral of Notre Dame (which suffered a terrible fire in April of 2019). Like all cathedral schools, this one was an institution run by and for the Catholic Church to train young men for the priesthood and/or the monastic life.

Around 1150, a new corporation was chartered (i.e., licensed) by the secular power (King Louis VII) to establish and run a second school loosely associated with the Notre Dame cathedral school. It is the chartering of this corporation that is considered the founding act of the University of Paris.

In 1200, another charter was granted by King Philip II, and in 1257, a third charter for a school devoted just to theology was granted to one Robert de Sorbon by King Louis IX. With time, this latter entity—nicknamed “La Sorbonne”—came to outshine the other faculties of the new university. Thus, while, technically, “Sorbonne” never referred to the University of Paris as a whole, the name nevertheless came to have that meaning in the popular mind and in colloquial usage.

It is only since the vast expansion of the University of Paris System during the 1970s into 13 semi-autonomous, numbered entities (each with its own campus), as well as a large number of ancillary institutions, that the centuries-old, customary equivalence between “University of Paris” and “Sorbonne” has begun to die out—although to this today it is not entirely extinct.

In addition to the 13 numbered campuses, the University of Paris comprises a medical school (INSERM), a business school (INSEAD), an education school (CIEP), a performing-arts school (PSPBB), a technological institute (UTC), and a highly prestigious think tank (CNRS). Very recently, some consolidation of this expansive system has begun to occur, with more slated for the future. Eventually, the name of the entire system is due to revert to “La Sorbonne,” bringing the university’s history full circle.

It is important for statistical purposes to stress that what is perhaps the most prestigious of all Paris institutions of higher learning—the École Normale Supérieure (ENS)—is usually counted as a part of the University of Paris system during 50 years of its existence, from 1903 until 1953, but not before or after those dates.

The University of Paris started life with a bang. In short order—around 1225 or so—it effectively became the beating heart of high civilization in Europe, soon rivaling in philosophy and theology (if not yet in medicine and jurisprudence) such centers of learning as Baghdad, Damascus, and Bukhara, which were reaching their own zenith around this same time. Indeed, one of the main factors behind the take-off of the liberal arts at the University of Paris at this time was precisely the many translations of Arabic-language philosophical treatises that began to filter in from the geographical areas where the Christian and Islamic civilizations met, especially Spain and Sicily.

In Europe, too, many other universities were springing up at this same time; however, it was Paris that became the intellectual crossroads of Christendom. The Frenchmen, William of Auvergne and William of Auxerre; the Germans, Albert the Great and Meister Eckhart (Eckhart von Hochheim); the Englishmen, Alexander of Hales, Roger Bacon, and John Duns Scotus; and the Italians, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, along with many others, all studied or taught, or both, at Paris during the course of the thirteenth century.

In the following century, we may mention the astronomer Nicole Oresme and the great logician, philosopher, and scientific thinker, John Buridan. However, Paris’s intellectual prominence during the high medieval period was to destined to be relatively short-lived. After 1400 or so, the torch of learning passed elsewhere for a couple of centuries—first to Italy, then to Spain, then to the Netherlands, England, and Germany.

To be sure, some eminent scholars did continue to study at Paris even during the period of its relative decline, including, during the fifteenth century, the Italian humanist scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; and, during the sixteenth century, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, the French novelist François Rabelais, the French philologist Joseph Justus Scaliger, the Swiss Protestant theologian John Calvin, and the Italian anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

With the dawning of the modern era in the seventeenth century, the flame of learning came full circle back to France—but not immediately to the University of Paris. One of the first—and perhaps most-influential—thinkers of the new Scientific Revolution was the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. However, Descartes had to spend much of his life hiding out in the Netherlands—in order, he said, to avoid the fate of Galileo that awaited him if returned home!

Nevertheless, once the spirit of the Scientific Revolution had taken a more secure hold throughout Europe, matters moved quickly, and the University of Paris once again found herself at the cutting edge of intellectual innovation. Several of the greatest figures of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had University of Paris connections, including:

  • Scathingly satirical pamphleteer and novelist, Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)
  • Provincial lawyer – turned – Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre
  • Mathematician, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert
  • Perhaps the most significant of all the French philosophes, Denis Diderot

The last two individuals mentioned—d’Alembert and Diderot—collaborated on the massive Encyclopédie, one of the most influential achievements of the French enlightenment.

Many famous scientists and mathematicians have been associated with the University of Paris over the past two hundred years or so, including:

  • Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, inventor of the oxygen theory of combustion
  • Jean-Louis Pasteur, father of the germ theory of disease
  • Charles Hermite, pioneer of number theory
  • Claude Bernard, pathbreaking physiologist and originator of the concept of homeostasis (under the name milieu intérieur, or internal environment)
  • Henri Poincaré, founder of algebraic topology and dynamical systems theory

In the nineteenth-century, other Paris-connected people include:

  • Historian and statesman, François Guizot
  • Philosopher, Victor Cousin
  • Novelist, Honoré de Balzac
  • Painter, Edgar Degas

In the twentieth century, the University of Paris can boast some 50 Nobel Prize laureates, including:

  • Pierre and Marie Curie, Louis de Broglie, and Pierre de Gennes—physics
  • Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie—chemistry
  • François Jacob, Jacques Monod, and André Lwoff—physiology or medicine
  • Gérard Debreu—economics
  • Philosopher, Henri Bergson
  • Poets, T.S. Eliot and Giorgos Seferis
  • Novelist-dramatist, Romain Rolland
  • novelist Patrick Modiano—literature
  • German physician, musicologist, and humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer—peace

Among Paris’s 16 Fields Medalists, we may mention:

  • René Thom
  • Alexander Grothendieck
  • Alain Connes
  • Cédric Villani
  • Artur Avila

Other great mathematicians who called the University of Paris home during the past century include Élie Cartan, an important contributor to group theory, differential geometry, and general relativity; and Benoît Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractal geometry.

Other illustrious Paris-connected individuals of the past century include:

  • Novelists, Julien Gracq, Elie Wiesel, and Norman Mailer
  • Playwright, Jean Giraudoux
  • Philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze
  • American essayist, novelist, and culture critic, Susan Sontag
  • Filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard
  • Anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • Poet and first president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor
  • Current President of France, Emmanuel Macron

University of Paris's Online Degrees

What Is University of Paris Known For?

University of Paris is known for it's academic work in the following disciplines:

University of Paris's Top Areas of Influence With Degrees Offered

Who Are University of Paris's Most Influential Alumni?

University of Paris's most influential alumni faculty include professors and professionals in the fields of Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Literature. Here are some of University of Paris's most famous alumni:

Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas
An Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, Catholic priest, and Doctor of the Church.
Francis Xavier
Francis Xavier
A Navarrese Roman Catholic saint and missionary.
Andreas Vesalius
Andreas Vesalius
A Flemish anatomist, physician and author .
James Hutton
James Hutton
A Scottish geologist, physician, chemical manufacturer, naturalist, and experimental agriculturalist. James Hutton is .
Michael Servetus
Michael Servetus
A Spanish physician and theologian.
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot
A French economist .
Jean Gerson
Jean Gerson
A French academic.
Marsilius of Padua
Marsilius of Padua
An Italian philosopher .
Alexander of Hales
Alexander of Hales
An English Franciscan theologian and philosopher .
Ascanio Sobrero
Ascanio Sobrero
An Italian chemist.
Jan Zamoyski
Jan Zamoyski
A Polish magnate, statesman and military commander .
Domingo de Soto
Domingo de Soto
A Spanish theologian, jurist and scientist.

Image Attributions