Academic Vilnius (Part I)

Culture of Theses of the Old University

In 2023, Vilnius University Library has completed the research on the theses and dissertations of the old Vilnius University. The research focused on the graduation papers that are kept at Vilnius University Library and were prepared in the Jesuit period (1579–1773), printed at the University Printing House, defended in public disputes and were awarded scientific degrees by the University for the successful defence. The terms ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ in this text are used synonymously. Such research works that are accumulated in the Library comprise a collection of several dozens of printings.

During its history, Vilnius University has experienced periods of growth and decline. This text is focusing on one of the best periods of the University – the first half of the seventeenth century. Research papers prepared in this epoch at Vilnius University help to understand one of the key aspects of this period.

The graduation papers prepared by students might be attributed to the field of the early modern academic culture. They reveal the – then – dominating research topics along with the novelties of the time. The wider context of the academic community should also be taken into consideration as it was intertwined with the society of the time. Members of religious orders, lecturers, students, printers, aristocrats and kings are part of this story. 

When following this story, you are invited to transfer yourself in your imagination to the early seventeenth century, and, while looking through the University research papers, encounter the citizens of Vilnius and traces of their activities.  

Vilnius, 2022, From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
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Modern Vilnius - Šv. Jono Street

Views of Vilnius city (between 1920 and 1939) by Jan BułhakVilnius University Library

Vilnius panorama captured by Jan Bułhak in the first half of the twentieth century

Pilies Street and St. John’s Church (circa 1873) by Józef CzechowiczVilnius University Library

Vilnius by Józef Czechowicz. Church of Saint Johns and Pilies Street in the second half of the nineteenth century

Grand Courtyard (1786) by Franciszek SmugliewiczVilnius University Library

Grand Courtyard of Vilnius University in 1786 painted by Franciszek Smuglewicz

Vilnius University (1781)Vilnius University Library

Vilnius University in 1781

Vilnius (1649) by Daniel PelzeldtVilnius University Library

Vilnius panorama in an engraving of 1649

On 30 June 1647, Master of Philosophy and Liberal Arts Józef Butkiewicz Popuciewicz, a student of the eminent professor Aaron Alexander Olizarowski, defended his thesis Ecclesiastical Jurisprudence Thesis dedicated to the Vice-Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Kazimierz Leon Sapieha in a public dispute.

Thesis on Canon law (17th c.) (1647)Vilnius University Library

We cannot say for sure where this lay student defended his thesis on the last day of June in 1647. Theses were usually defended in the University premises, Jesuit residence in Lukiškės (located in the present-day Vingio Park), or in the Church of Saint Johns.

Vilnius, capital of Lithuania (1642) by Giacomo LauroVilnius University Library

Church of Saint Johns and Vilnius Jesuit College (No. 14) in the seventeenth century Vilnius.

Church of Saint Johns was a centre of spiritual public, and academic life in Vilnius. The rulers of the country were solemnly received in the church, and the plays of the student theatre were being performed in there; members of the public could also participate not only in the disputes, but also in the defence of academic theses.

After a successful defence, the diploma award ceremony that was called the ‘promotion’ would take place. It might be assumed that Józef Butkiewicz Popuciewicz’s promotion took place in the Church of Saint Johns.

Depending on the origin and status of the person defending a thesis, numerous guests would participate both in the defence and in the promotion ceremony. Usually, Jesuits, students, high-ranking state officials and town residents, as well as relatives and friends, would gather.

Graduation ceremonies have been taking place in the Church of Saint Johns to the present day.

Diary of Vilnius Jesuit College (between 1710 and 1723)Vilnius University Library

After the promotion, people would attend a feast outside the University.

It was mentioned a number of times in the Diary of Vilnius Jesuit College that, although it was not acceptable for the superiors of the monastery, after exams or the defence of a thesis, participants would be treated with vino absinthiaco – that is, absinthe.

Diary of Vilnius Jesuit College. Fragment (Between 1710 and 1723)Vilnius University Library

In 1579, the structure of the newly established Vilnius Academy and University of the Society of Jesus (further, we shall refer to it as Academy or University) consisted of a college and two faculties – those of philosophy and theology. Shortly after the establishment, the University was awarded the right to confer scientific degrees – Bachelor’s, Master’s, Licentiate and Doctor’s – to the graduates of the two faculties.

Thesis on Canon law (17th c.), 1652, From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Thesis on Mathematics (17th c.), 1633, From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Thesis on Philosophy (17th c.), 1649, From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
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Jesuits ensured the full course of academic teaching which the members of the religious order delivered in the Latin language. It took seven years of studies to graduate from the college.

Vilnius University (1781)Vilnius University Library

After the graduation, students could continue by studying philosophy for three years. Those choosing the path of the clergy had to study theology for four more years. In 1644, studies of law were also introduced at Vilnius University.

Jesuit professors under patronage of Virgin Mary (17th c.)Vilnius University Library

Professors of the University depicted in the fresco of the Academy refectory (at present, Franciszek Smuglewicz Hall of Vilnius University Library)

The establishment of higher education in Lithuania was the contribution of the Jesuits to the well-being of the society as their students often would become not only clergymen but also state officials and public servants because the quality of education was important for the State. The King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Władysław Vasa (1595–1648) was a generous patron of arts, culture and science.

Thesis on Philosophy (17th c.) (1640)Vilnius University Library

A portrait of the ruler appears in the students’ works through dedications and panegyrics – literary expression of praise – which often took a significant part in the theses.

Young people would look for patrons who could support their studies and might help them after the graduation. As an acknowledgement, students would print in their theses a panegyric praising their patron’s lineage, wisdom and courage.

Dedication to King Władysław Vasa (1633)Vilnius University Library

Thesis of nobleman Jan Rudomina-Dusiatski dedicated to Władysław Vasa. The student addresses the ruler as the most powerful king and as Atlas holding the burden of the whole world.

To him, the author of the thesis symbolically hands the heaven as royal hands can easily embrace it.

Thesis on Philosophy (17th c.), 1640, From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
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An image of the ruler has been preserved in a selection of thesis Universal Philosophy prepared by the king courtier’s son Michał Mniszek who studied in Vilnius and who dedicated his work to Władysław Vasa as well. It is assumed that the thesis defended by Mniszek in July 1640 was based on the course of moral philosophy delivered by Professor Lukasz Zaluski (1604–1673).

Each illustration is a combination of some text and imagery. The reflected themes of philosophy, namely ethics, economics, politics, logic, physics and metaphysics, are connected to the image with an allegorical portrait of the ruler.

Thesis on Philosophy (17th c.) (1640)Vilnius University Library

In the first illustration of the thesis, the ruler is surrounded by four virtues, namely Wisdom, Justice, Courage and Temperance, that are related to the king’s traits, authority and duties.

The virtues are reflected through the ruler’s figure by referring to his heart.

Vilna, Tomasz Makowski, 1600-1630, From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
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Władysław Vasa often used to visit Vilnius. During his visits, research, cultural and public life would intensify in the city. The king would participate in the outstanding events of the city, which included students’ promotions held in the Church of Saint Johns.

Military engineer Fryderyk Getkant adorned the Gate of Dawn with the head of Hermes which contained some features of Władysław Vasa himself. This is the only surviving gate of the historical Vilnius defensive wall.

The Jesuit Academy carried out humanistic studies which were common in European Catholic and Protestant universities. Commentaries on Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas laid down the foundation of theology studies, while philosophy focused on the analysis of Aristotle’s treatises.

One of the earliest philosophy courses in Lithuanian schools was the lectures on logic delivered by the theologian and philosopher Laurentius Bartilius (1569–1635) at Vilnius University in 1605–1606.

Lecture notes (1605)Vilnius University Library

Manuscript of Bartilius’s lectures delivered in 1606.

The Tree of Porphyry – Arbor Porphyriana – a schematic expression of commentary on Aristotle’s Categories that was widely used while teaching scholastic logic.

Structure of Society of Jesus (1671)Vilnius University Library

Laurentius Bartilius was known for zealous piety. After completing his theology studies at Vilnius University, this young alumnus went on a pilgrimage to Rome.

Following in the steps of the founder of the Jesuit Order St. Ignatius of Loyola in asceticism, Bartilius decided that, during his pilgrimage, he would live only on the collected alms.

When later he obtained a position of a Professor or even the Rector and provincial, Laurentius Bartilius still led the life of a humble monk – he would wear a worn out and patched robe and would gladly wash dishes in the kitchen. His contemporaries predicted that, in a short while, Bartilius would be declared a saint.

Laurentius Bartilius followed the rule of the Jesuit studies and would explain Aristotle’s philosophy based on Christian commentators. Theses of Bartilius’s students Johanne Kraykowski and Petrus Romulevicius (published in 1606) were written by employing the method of scholastics.

Thesis on Aristotle's Categories (1606)Vilnius University Library

Thesis of Vilnius University philosophy student Johanne Kraykowski Thesis on Aristotle’s Categories for obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and philosophy.

Thesis on Philosophy (17th c.) (1606)Vilnius University Library

Thesis on Universal Logic written by a student of philosophy Petrus Romulevicius (20 general statements of scholastic logic) to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and philosophy.

The theses of both students have survived to our days as they were bound in the manuscript of the lectures on logic by Laurentius Bartilius.

At the end of the sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century, the University’s theses were not printed as unified publications.

As there was a shortage of masters in Vilnius, the Academy invited printers from other countries. As a rule, new masters would come with their own sets of types.

In 1604–1606, Tomasz Lewicki, who came to work from Krakow, had in his set fleurons – small flowers cast out of metal. This Cracowian liked making frames out of fleurons, with the help of which he would decorate title pages of books. Lewicki’s Baroque style ornamentation is notable in the theses of Bartilius’s students.

Fleuron, Tomasz Lewicki, 1606, From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
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Academic Vilnius is a two-part story. The second part >>

Credits: Story

Research authors: Ina Kažuro, Nijolė Klingaitė-Dasevičienė, Brigita Zorkienė.

Creators and contributors: Gediminas Bernotas, Donatas Jarutis, Raimondas Malaiška, Marija Šaboršinaitė.

We are grateful to our colleagues Evaldas Grigonis and Aušra Rinkūnaitė for their insight and advice.

Translator Kristina Gudavičienė. Language editor (Lithuanian) Dalia Blažinskaitė. Language editor (English) Armandas Rumšas. 

We thank the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences for the image of the arithmetic textbook Arithmetica practica (Vilnius, 1635) by Oswald Krüger.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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