The Founder of the First Catholic College
Master Robert, I should like to be known as a prudent man, but above all let me be one, and you may have the rest, for prudence is such a great and good thing that the word itself savors.
Thus spoke the great St. Louis IX to one of his chaplains, Robert de Sorbon. To our age, Sorbon (1201-74) is the founder of a college whose name has become so illustrious through the centuries that it now denotes the University of Paris as a whole, La Sorbonne. To St. Louis, he was a trusted advisor and friend renowned as a preudome, a word that defeats easy translation but which summed up the aspirations of the holy king and of his century. The famous line from the Song of Roland, “Roland est preux et Olivier est sage / Roland is brave and Oliver is wise,” aptly captures the truth that the tension between practical wisdom and manly strength is an inescapable feature of human life. In the mind of St. Louis, the preux d’homme, or man of prowess, needed also to be thoughtful, to be a man of prudence. It was on account of precisely this harmony, or perhaps due proportion, of his virtues that he thought so highly of Robert de Sorbon, a spirited man of action who was also a man of far-seeing consideration.
Born to a humble family in the eastern part of France, Sorbon studied the liberal arts in Reims and philosophy and theology in Paris. His clerical career included posts at the cathedrals of Cambrai and Notre-Dame of Paris, but his principal occupation was as a master of the university and a preacher. Known for his moral seriousness, he could be a stern critic, even of the holy king—“A la cort del roy chascun est por soy / At the royal court, it’s every man for himself”—but most especially of his fellow scholars: “These great doctors of Paris, who profess to teach theology, are men full of pride who don’t gain a single soul for the Lord in a year’s time…. The good pastor, the spotless pastor, without reproach, who with simplicity of heart keeps the law of God—behold the theologian whose lessons are profitable.”
Sorbon had a ready wit and loved to use concrete examples in his preaching. In one of his sermons, he railed against the kind of man who desires to marry a wealthy widow, saying that the priest should recite the banns of marriage in this way: “There is a promise of marriage between such-and-such a man and the wealth of Lady Mary, and not between the man and herself.” Then, on the wedding day, the priest should send the lady packing and bring her cattle and furniture to the altar. In a sermon to a group of students, he told a tale of two scholars. One worked night and day and barely stopped to say his Paternosters—he had only four students. The other owned few books but went to Mass every morning—he was rewarded with a room full of eager auditors. When the busy scholar asked the pious one for the secret of his success, he replied: “It is very easy. God studies for me while I am at Mass. When I return I know my lecture by heart.” Sorbon was particularly beloved as an apostle of the sacrament of penance, writing a treatise on the subject and frequently preaching about the importance of our reliance upon God’s mercy.
Although Sorbon was a man of uncommon good sense, he is chiefly remembered for his work as the founder of the first residential college in the University of Paris. At the time of the college’s founding in 1256, the university was disorganized to the point of anarchy. Classes were held in the houses of the masters, while the students lived wherever they could find a room. Our habit of mind is to associate colleges with ivy-covered walls and cozy dormitories. But that we do is thanks to Robert de Sorbon’s creative inspiration and faith. In his day, the university was a guild or corporation of teachers that exercised only a tenuous authority over its students. The only residential or collegiate living was that enjoyed by members of religious orders. The secular students—destined for lives as parish priests and as administrators in royal and episcopal chanceries—had to find rooms in garrets and make ends meet by carrying water from the Seine River to the town homes uphill. There were communal houses, of course, for students will always find a way to lower their rents. But none was a true academic community until Sorbon founded his college.
In the absence of collegiate regularity, student life at the University of Paris was notoriously riotous. The initial royal charter granted by Philip Augustus in 1200 was necessitated by a bloody town-and-gown disturbance. And several papal interventions followed suit in subsequent decades, as foreign students and Parisian tavern-keepers were often at odds. Young clerical scholars were paid stipends by older canons and left by themselves in the cathedral to sing the offices of matins, lauds, and prime in the wee hours, sometimes with questionable results, as this early-thirteenth century parody of a sixth-century liturgical hymn suggests:
Iam lucis orto sidere / statim oportet bibere:
Bibamus nunc egregie / et rebibamus hodie.
The sun is up already / so drink we must and right away:
Let’s take a long pull now / and keep drinking throughout the day.
In the face of such hijinks, Robert de Sorbon did not merely preach, he also acted, founding an institution that gave secular clerics the chance to live according to a rule of life whose ideal a later generation captured in the collegiate motto: vivere socialiter, et collegialiter, et moraliter, et scholariter, which may be translated as “to live as fellows and colleagues, with good morals and studiously.” Provision was made for poorer students who could not pay the full rent, and soon a chapel was dedicated, so that the residents could cement their fellowship in the common chanting of the divine praises. It was a model of undergraduate living that found imitators throughout Europe in the thirteenth century and afterwards and—consciously or not—still today in America.
In later years, no less a figure than the great Cardinal Richelieu would serve as the head of Sorbon’s college, or, in any event, enjoy its revenue. Today, although its name is known throughout the world, the Sorbonne’s Catholic founding has been forgotten. At its origin, it was a modest foundation, a mustard seed planted by a holy benefactor and his trusted advisor, a man who earned the praise and trust of his king because, to paraphrase Aquinas, his deeds were proportioned according to the spiritual splendor of reason.
The author gratefully acknowledges two splendid works on Robert de Sorbon: Astrik L. Gabriel, “The Spiritual Portrait of Robert of Sorbonne,” in The Paris Studium (Notre Dame, 1992), and P. Glorieux, Aux Origines de la Sorbonne, I: Robert de Sorbon (Paris, 1966).
This article first appeared in Crisis Magazine.
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