“The Collège de France Opens Its Doors”: Virtual Exhibition (Episode 3)

Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.

Go to Episode 1 by clicking here.

During the Renaissance


At the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, the Université de Paris grew significantly and played a major role in the spectacular urban development of the left bank. It was structured around regulations and privileges and became a fully-fledged moral authority that was frequently involved in the controversies of the time. During the mid-fifteenth century, it took in more than fifteen thousand students, and constituted a counter-power capable of going on strike to protect its monopoly over education, its tax exemptions, or its specific rights in terms of justice.

This corporatism gradually led to considerable inertia; the Université reacted very strongly to the reform attempts initiated under the influence of the Italian Renaissance. Yet a strong desire for change was blooming in society, especially in intellectual circles. The rediscovery of ancient literature, philosophy, and science triggered an unprecedented cultural revolution that would spread across Europe. Comparison with different cultures through great discoveries and exploratory travel enabled Europeans to become aware of their own cultural identity.

It was also at this time that vernacular languages started to prevail over Latin. In 1539 in the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, Francis I of France declared French as the official language of law and the government.

In parallel, the improvement of the printing press increased the dissemination of each published work, and terminated the monopoly held by the Université and scholars up until then.

Education became secularized and opened up to citizens – princes, noblemen and members of the bourgeoisie – keen to acquire general knowledge.


According to many thinkers, the narrow-mindedness and educational practices at the Université de Paris were limiting the productivity of its teachings. These thinkers therefore advocated for the teaching of new disciplines, excluded by the Université, according to new methods based on a rational approach. This declared rationalism promoted biblical analysis along with the learning of languages and science, taught by professors capable of understanding and communicating these new disciplines in institutions that were largely open, such as the Collège de France.

The creation of the Collège de France


In 1530, at the recommendation of Guillaume Budé, François I appointed the first lecteurs royaux [royal readers]: three for Hebrew, two for Greek, and one for mathematics. They were responsible for teaching disciplines that were not allowed at the Université de Paris. From the outset, classes were free and open to all, and starting in 1573, certain classes were taught in French rather than Latin. Despite the attacks by the Université de Paris, these classes immediately appealed to a large public, including important figures such as Ignace de Loyola, Calvin, Ronsard, and Rabelais.

These lectures afforded the opportunity to completely renew the methods and the subjects taught. The lecteurs were free to teach as they wished. They explained to their audiences and commented on the works that they themselves had chosen. They often published booklets summarizing the texts in the curriculum, thanks to which students were able to take classes.

In 1539, François I wished to build a great and beautiful collège (“grant et beau colleige”) on the left bank of the Seine River, facing the Louvre Palace, at the current location of the Institut de France. The blueprints and drawings for this first building have been lost. A variety of delays followed by the king’s death in 1547 prevented this project from being implemented.

It was not until after the Wars of Religion and the reign of Henri IV that the idea of constructing a building for the king’s professors emerged once again. In 1610, the decision was made to purchase the Cambrai and Tréguier collèges and to demolish them in order to “build a new royal collège thirty toises long and twenty toises wide, at the lengthwise ends of which four large rooms must be built to conduct public classes: and at the end of these rooms, a library of his majesty must be built, the most beautiful library in the world for manuscripts”. The plans were drawn by architect Claude Chastillon.


The assassination of King Henri IV on 14 May 1610 once again stopped construction, but Queen regent Marie de’ Medici, wishing to respect the king’s wishes, laid the foundation stone for the building along with the young Louis XIII. The work was carried out according to the initial plans. Due to a lack of funds, only the wing on the location of the former Collège de Tréguier was built. It was completed in 1639. The Collège de Cambrai was left intact.

These premises soon proved to be inadequate, faced with the success of classes and the increase in the number of audience members. It was not until 1772 when Louis XV signed the letters patent that new work was undertaken, under the management of royal architect Jean-François Chalgrin. Classes were disturbed until 1775. Two wings were added, along with a large lecture hall. On the first floor, a large room was reserved for faculty meetings. Accommodation was provided on the second floor. The building was completed in 1778.


Close-up of a few documents

Certificate of aptitude for teaching Greek granted to Nicolas Goulu on 15 September 1567

Under the reign of Charles IX, it was decided that it would be necessary for candidates to undergo a competitive examination as a prerequisite to being allowed to teach. This certificate is an extraordinary piece of evidence for this procedure. It contains the testimonials of the jury, which was composed of members of the Collège de France: Jacques Charpentier (professor of mathematics), Jean Dorat, (stepfather of Nicolas Goulu and professor of Greek), Léger Duchesne (professor of Latin), Luis Duret (professor of medicine), and Denis Lambin (professor of Greek). It also includes what were henceforth called “external figures”. In this case, they were the members of La Pléiade, a circle of poets, namely Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Rémy Belleau, and Pierre de Ronsard.

Collection of study texts dating back to the sixteenth century belonging to Lazare de Clugny, a student of the classes of Adrien Turnèbe (1512-1565) [XV 4°165]

Adrien Turnèbe was appointed to the Collège des Lecteurs Royaux in 1947 to teach Greek and later Greek philosophy and Latin. Turnèbe, a great scholar, was a friend of Montaigne. Lazare de Clugny, passionate about philological precisions, copiously annotated his personal editions of Pliny the Elder and Ovid’s Halieutica, according to Turnèbe’s comments: the space between the lines and the margins are filled with isolated words or phrases in Latin that convey the teachings of the lecteur royal. The last page of Pliny’s text nevertheless contains an ink drawing of a fortress, which, if done by the student’s hand, demonstrates a degree of dissipation…

“To all who will see these present letters”: the Collège de France is established

This letter declaring the purchase of the Tréguier and Cambrai collèges dates back to 18 April 1612. The acquisition followed by the demolition of these buildings was intended to enable the construction of the project designed by architect Claude Chastillon (1559-1616). In their place, he planned a magnificent building dedicated to the teachings of the Collège Royal lecteurs, in accordance with the wishes of King Henry IV (1553-1610).  The original letter in Latin is accompanied by its French transcription. While the Collège de France was being built, the resident students and professors already present remained at the site, up until the destruction of the buildings they occupied, in 1767. The building complex was to be particularly dense: on a surface area of less than 2,000 m² were the Cambrai constructions, four cobblestone courtyards, three boutiques, and a printing shop.


Arabic grammar manual for the use of the elementary school students of the Collège Royal de France / Pétis de La Croix

François Pétis de la Croix (1653-1713) was a French Orientalist. He was an interpreter for Louis XIV and taught Arabic at the Collège Royal de France from 1692 up until his death. While still a young man, François was sent to the Orient by Colbert. During the ten years that he spent in Syria, Persia, and Turkey, he mastered Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Armenian, and collected a wealth of materials for his future writings. This grammar is considered the first of its kind written in French. It was completed with a practical guide on adverbs and particles, offering students the expressions and phrases necessary for communication, in a lively and quick-witted way. This textbook was published slightly before the one by Antoine Galland, holder of the second Chair of Arabic at the same collège, from 1709 to 1715.


Chalgrin Album (61.5 x 47.5 cm). Hand-coloured plates of the building, 1774

Album by architect Jean-François Chalgrin (1739-1811) describing the planned building for the Collège de France. The numerous colour illustrations describe the plans of the new building. Two wings were added, along with a large lecture hall. On the first floor, a large room was reserved for faculty meetings. On the second floor, more comfortable accommodation was set up. The architect, who did not live to see the end of the work, was also known for other buildings in Paris, in particular the Saint-Philippe-du-Roule Church and the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile.

Poem by the Abbé Aubert on the laying of the first stone of the new wing in 1774 by the Duke of La Vrillière

On 22 March 1774, the Duke of La Vrillière, secretary of state to the king, laid the first stone of the new building, for which Louis XV had entrusted the project to architect Jean-François Chalgrin (1739-1811). The work was completed in 1778.

Clarifications of the Collège Royal

In 1773, the Collège Royal, which had been independent up until that time, was annexed by the Université de Paris. This supervisory authority did not come to an end until the institution’s nationalization under the government of the Convention Nationale in 1795. In this document, Jean-Jacques Garnier (1729-1805), professor of Hebrew, gives a passionate defence of the Collège Royal, which had already made its own space in the French landscape, against the repeated attacks of the Université de Paris. The Université de Paris wanted the Collège Royal to be dissolved and its Chairs transferred to it.



Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Citer ce billet
Direction des réseaux et partenariats documentaires (2020, 26 février). “The Collège de France Opens Its Doors”: Virtual Exhibition (Episode 3). Colligere. Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/bdc8

Vous aimerez aussi...

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search