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Castle Arenberg, part of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

The Catholic University of Leuven, or Louvain, was the largest, oldest and most prominent university in Belgium. The Old University was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V. After the disruptions of the French Revolutionary Wars, it was refounded in 1816 as State university of Louvain and converted into the Catholic University of Leuven in 1835.

In 1968 the university split to form two institutions:

This entry deals with the historic university, 1425-1797, 1816-1835 and 1835-1968. For the current successor institutions and their separate development since 1968, see the individual articles wikilinked 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 to the Vatican for a university.[1] 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 continuing to operate today and, counting from its refounding in 1835, the oldest with the name "Catholic University" as part of its title. In its early years, the university was modelled on those of Paris, Cologne and Vienna. 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 State University (1816-1835)

During the French Revolutionary Wars, France annexed this region. The anti-clerical French Republic closed the university in 1797, declaring it a bastion of reactionaries. The region next became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830), and William I of the Netherlands founded a new university in 1816 in Leuven as a Rijksuniversiteit (E: State university).

The Catholic University (1835-1968)

In 1830 Belgium became independent of the Netherlands. Belgian bishops founded a new Roman Catholic university in 1834, at Mechelen. In 1835 the Catholic University returned 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 the vernacular French. By the end of the 19th century, in effect it was a French-language institution. Lectures in Dutch, the other official language of Belgium, began to be provided in 1930.

In 1962, in line with constitutional reforms governing official language use, the French and Dutch sections of the university became autonomous within a common governing structure. Flemish nationalists continued to demand a division of the university, and Dutch speakers expressed resentment at privileges given to French-speaking academic staff and the perceived disdain of the local French-speaking community for their Dutch-speaking neighbours. Leuven, however, is within Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium.

Tensions rose 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, to include it in a larger, bilingual 'Greater-Brussels'. 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. Student unrest and questions of discrimination against ethnic Flemish 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 Leuven, which remained in Leuven. The French-speaking university, called the Université catholique de Louvain, was moved to a greenfield campus, Louvain-la-Neuve, 20 km southeast of Brussels where French is the official language. Acrimony about the split was long-lasting. At long last, research collaborations and student exchanges between the two "sister universities" 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 looted by German troops. They set fire to a large part of the city, effectively destroying about half of it. The library was lost, as well as about 300,000 books; and a huge collection of manuscripts, such as the Easter Island tablet bearing Rongorongo text E. In the early stages of the war, Allied propaganda capitalized on the German destruction 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 Allied victory against Germany. It is one of the largest university buildings in the city. In 1940, during the second German invasion of Leuven, the building largely burnt down, including its (at that time) 900,000 manuscripts and books. Rebuilt after the war in accordance with Warren's design, it is now the Central Library of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The paintwork decorations of the original design were completed only in 2000, and marked 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. This was done 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 actually such series bear single shelfmarks.

Notable alumni

For post-1968 alumni, see Katholieke Universiteit Leuven or Université Catholique de Louvain.

See also


  1. ^  "University of Louvain". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  2. ^ Jeffrey M. Elliot and Mervyn M. Dymally, eds., Voices of Zaire: Rhetoric or Reality, p. 53


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