History of Studentenverbindungen:
Austrian Burschenschaften & Catholic Fraternities

Over the course of the Middle Ages, certain professions within European societies increasingly specialised and formed interest groups with confined membership: Guilds, convents, orders. With the rise of scholastics (learning through the systematic formulation of thesis, anti-thesis and syn-thesis), the medieval convent and cathedral schools proved insufficient to satisfy the intellectual needs of a society of specialists. The first European universities formed in the Mediterranean area, with the University of Bologna (1088) fairly successfully claiming to be the oldest. Bologna makes a good example to illustrate how the social soil developed on which the Studentenverbindungen grew.

The "whole" (universitas) was divided into faculties (academics according to subjects) and "nationes", guild-like associations of students from roughly the same area and which looked after the interests of its members. These nationes (which is, by the way, the name by which Flamish and Dutch Verbindungen still go today) were self-administered in Bologna, giving one vote to each member in all decision-making bodies. In Paris, nationes were chaired by a "magister" and more hierarchical. Through the 17 nationes, the students of Bologna had direct influence in university policy matters - as early as 1158, Emperor Barbarossa formalised these privileges and the university emphasised the duality of teachers and students by referring to itself as "universitas magistrorum et scholanum".

From Nationes to Fraternities

The national organisation matched only roughly with modern concepts of a nation: In Paris, for example, the "natio anglicana" included students that were British, Scandinavian and German. Of the German universities, Leipzig was the only one founded after 1400 that relied on a nation system; newer ones did not organise the student body into nations. In Bologna, the "Natio Germanica Bononiae" or German nation existed into the 18th century. Elsewhere (Leipzig, Vienna), nations were in place until the 19th century, until they were replaced by a new system of organising the student body - like the academic staff - into faculties.

Note that the membership at a nation was compulsory, came with a membership fee and only supplemented the developing colleges at some universities such as Paris (four nationes), Oxford and Cambridge (two nationes each). Issues like housing, food and religious guidance were not met appropriately by the nationes. This is where colleges played a major role in France and England; in the Holy Roman Empire, "bursae" developed.

From Bursa to Burschenschaft

A "bursa" (Latin "purse" or "bag") was a communal house with a communal budget. The word "bursa" is the ancestor of the German words "Burschenschaft" (fraternity; the men belonging to a Bursa); "Börse" (purse, but also Stock Exchange; house with a communal budget) and "Bursche" (young man; student at a Bursa). The organisation was similar to a college: A fellowship of men that lived, studied and prayed under one roof (among other, less ascetic activities). Each bursa had its own dress code and colours - the origin of the Coleur (blazes for hat and band) of Studentenverbindungen.

In the social milieu of bursae and nationes, fraternity-like associations often called "Landsmannschaft" formed after the 15th century. They were usually organised according to mother tongue and often funded by royalty that wanted to support students from his specific principality. Associations of this kind became increasingly formal over the 16th and 17th century. Academic customs such as admission ceremonies, festive or social gatherings ("Commers" and "Kneipe") and songs gave rise to communities with distinct national and social identities as university students of a certain language. Membership ended with the graduation ceremony.

The importance of Landsmannschaften ceased in the 18th century, when their traditions merged with a new fondness for liberalism, secret societies and Masonic orders typical for the Age of Enlightenment: Fraternities now called themselves Studentenorden and later Corps, were often secret and critical with respect to state powers. In 1793, the "Immerwährende Reichstag" responded to the revolutionary tendencies within the Studentenorden by prohibiting them at all universities of the Holy Roman Empire. However, this did not include Landsmannschaften and many Corps, which around this time formalised their customs in written rules and introduced principles such as communal decision making and life membership.

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Further Reading

Wikipedia on Studentenverbindungen

Wikipedia on Burschenschaft

Federation of Austrian secondary school Studentenverbindungen

Federation of Austrian university Studentenverbindungen