It may be hard to believe, but the young reprobates you see staggering out of Kraków’s bars and clubs actually represent the country’s educational elite. Kraków’s Jagiellonian University is rated as Poland’s best institute of higher learning, as well as being one of the oldest in the world – in Central Europe only Prague’s Charles University predates it. Its story begins in 1364 when, after years of pleading, King Kazimierz the Great finally persuaded Pope Urban V to grant permission to establish a seat of higher learning in Kraków, which the King primarily funded with proceeds from the nearby Wieliczka salt mines. Three years later the school bell was ringing in the lessons, namely philosophy, law and medicine. Originally named the ‘Kraków Academy’, the university started to flourish in the following century when math, theology and astrology were introduced, attracting eminent scholars from across Europe. The rapid expansion necessitated a larger campus and the building today known as Collegium Maius was built in the latter half of the 15th century. It was here that Nicolas Copernicus – who would later go on to revolutionise our understanding of the universe – studied from 1491 -1495.
The university’s ‘golden age’ was certainly during the Polish Renaissance in the early 16th century when the Jagiellonian Library was established and the school set an attendance record that wouldn’t be surpassed until the late 18th century. When the country’s capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596, the university’s fortunes declined along with those of the city. During Poland’s era of partitions the university was actually threatened with closure before being saved by a decree from Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I. In an about-face from their initial hostilities towards the university, the Austrians began to invest heavily in its development and by the 1870s the school had re-established its lofty reputation. It was at this time that the Neo-Gothic Collegium Novum was built and one of the university’s greatest moments came in 1883 when professors Zygmunt Wróblewski and Karol Olszewski achieved the liquefaction of nitrogen and oxygen.