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Castle Arenberg, part of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.
The Catholic University of Leuven, or Louvain, was the largest, oldest and most prominent university in Belgiummarker. It was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V, and refounded in 1835 after the disruptions of the French Revolutionary Wars. The university split in 1968 to form two universities:

This entry deals with the historic university, 1425-1797 and 1835-1968: for the current successor institutions and their separate development since 1968, see the individual articles listed above.


The "Old" University (1425-1797)

In the 15th century the city of Leuven, with the support of John IV, Duke of Brabant, made a formal request for a university. Pope Martin V issued a papal bull dated 9 December 1425 founding the University in Leuven as a Studium Generale. As such it is the oldest Catholic university in the world still in existence today (and counting from the refoundation in 1835, the oldest with the name "Catholic University"). In its early days this university was modelled on the universities of Parismarker, Cologne and Viennamarker. The university flourished in the 16th century due to the presence of famous scholars and professors, such as Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens (Pope Adrian VI), Desiderius Erasmus, Johannes Molanus, Joan Lluís Vives, Andreas Vesalius and Gerardus Mercator.

The Catholic University (1835-1968)

In 1797 the old university, a bastion of reactionaries, was closed down by the French Republicmarker, as the region was annexed to France during the French Revolutionary Wars. When the region was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830), William I of the Netherlands founded a new university in 1816 in Leuven as a Rijksuniversiteit (E: State university). Belgium became independent in 1830, and the Belgian bishops founded a new Roman Catholic university in 1834, at Mechelenmarker, which in 1835 was able to return to Leuven, where the Rijksuniversiteit had been closed.

The split (1962-1970)

While the academic language of the "old" university had been Latin, the refounded university provided lectures in both Latin and French. By the end of the 19th century it was, in effect, a French-language institution. Lectures in Dutch, the other official language of Belgium, began to be provided in 1930. In 1962, in line with the constitutional reforms governing official language use, the French and Dutch sections of the university became autonomous within a common governing structure. The division of the university, however, continued to be a demand of Flemish nationalists, and Dutch-speakers continued to express resentment at privileges given to French-speaking academic staff and the perceived disdain of the local French-speaking community for their Dutch-speaking neighbours, in a city that lies within Flanders.

When a French-speaking social geographer suggested in a televised lecture that an objective case could be made for changing the administrative status of the city of Leuven, including it in a larger, bilingual 'Greater-Brussels', even mainstream Flemish politicians and students began demonstrating under the slogan 'Leuven Vlaams - Walen Buiten' ('A Flemish Leuven - Walloons Out'). Student demonstrations increased in violence throughout the mid-60s, and it was this issue that brought down the Belgian government in February 1968.

The dispute was resolved in June 1968 by making the Dutch-language section an independent Katholieke Universiteit Leuvenmarker, which remained in Leuven, while the French-speaking university, the Université catholique de Louvainmarker, was moved to a greenfield campus, Louvain-la-Neuvemarker, 20 km south-east of Brussels, in a part of the country where French is the official language. Acrimony about the split was long-lasting, but research collaborations and student exchanges between the two "sister universities" now take place with increasing frequency.


The University Library

The first library was located inside the university halls, and was enlarged in 1725 in a baroque style. In 1914, during World War I, Leuven was plundered by German troops, and a large part of the city was set fire to, effectively destroying about half of the city. The library was lost, as well as about 300,000 books, and a huge collection of manuscripts, such as the Easter Islandmarker tablet bearing Rongorongo text E. In the early stages of the war allied propaganda made much of this as a reflection on German Kultur.

The new main library was built between 1921 and 1928 and designed by the American architect Whitney Warren in Low Countries neorenaissance style. Its monumentality is a reflection of the victory against Germanymarker. It is one of the largest university buildings in the city. However, in 1940, during the second German invasion of Leuven, the building largely burnt down, including its (at that time) 900,000 manuscripts and books. It was rebuilt after the war in accordance with Warren's design and is now the Central Library of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The paintwork decorations of the original design were completed only in 2000, to mark the 575th anniversary of the university's foundation.

The split of the university into separate French-language and Dutch-language institutions in 1968 entailed a division of the central library holdings, which was carried out on the basis of alternate shelfmarks (except in cases where a work clearly belonged to one section or the other, e.g. was written by a member of faculty or bequeathed by an alumnus whose linguistic allegiance was clear). This gave rise to the factoid that encyclopedias and runs of periodicals were divided by volume between the two universities, but in fact such series bear single shelfmarks.

Notable alumni

:For post-1968 alumni, see Katholieke Universiteit Leuvenmarker or Université Catholique de Louvainmarker.

See also


  1. Jeffrey M. Elliot and Mervyn M. Dymally, eds., Voices of Zaire: Rhetoric or Reality, p. 53

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