The History and Spirit of the University of Salamanca

Evelyn Rupert is a student at Washington and Lee University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Evelyn is currently studying abroad with ISA in Salamanca, Spain.

The old University of Salamanca facade at sunset

Last week I finally had the chance to see what’s behind the facade of the old University of Salamanca building. And I’ll be honest; it’s not much to look at on the inside. But I was still in awe throughout the entire tour, not because of the building itself, but because of the history it houses.

The University of Salamanca is the third oldest university in Europe, preceded only by Oxford and the University of Bologna. On our tour with one of the ISA directors, we learned some of the most interesting histories and legends associated with the university.

Centuries ago, when a student passed the rigorous exam required to graduate with a doctorate degree, his family would host a huge celebration for the entire city, including a bullfight. Apparently after the bullfight, the student’s name would be written in bull’s blood on a city wall. A lot of this morbid graffiti is still visible on many buildings in the historic center of town. Eerie, but very cool.

Writing on the wall of the Universidad Pontificia

We went inside the former classroom of Fray Luis de León, a Spanish friar, poet, humanitarian, and University of Salamanca professor of theology. He was jailed for translating the Bible into Spanish, which was then considered the vulgar language of the common people, and also for translating the Song of Solomon against the wishes of the church. Upon returning to his post as professor five years later, he famously said, “As we were saying yesterday…” as if nothing had happened.

Very uncomfortable looking desks in Fray Luis de León’s classroom.
Statue of Fray Luis in front of the University of Salamanca

Next, we went into the old classroom of Miguel de Unamuno. If you’re planning on visiting Salamanca, I’d recommend spending some time reading up on Unamuno. He’s a pretty big deal around here. There are at least 12 different cafés and restaurants named after him. Unamuno was a philosopher and writer who served as a professor and rector of the university in the early 20th century. During the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera he was exiled and escaped to France. When he returned to his classroom after six years of living outside of Spain and the fall of Rivera, it is said that he repeated the words of Fray Luis de León, “As we were saying yesterday…”

Unamuno was still rector when the Spanish Civil War began in 1936. It is said that during a discussion at the University, Unamuno got into a public quarrel with one of dictator Francisco Franco’s generals, Millán Astray. Unamuno criticized him for a speech he had made in support of Franco and the idea that Spain should cut off Cataluña, which to Unamuno would mutilate the country. When Unamuno finished his speech, Franco’s men raised their guns to shoot him on the spot. Apparently, Franco’s own wife put her arms around his shoulders and led him safely out of the room. However, after such a display in defiance of Franco, he was removed from his post, and his friends and colleagues were so afraid to associate with him that he died of loneliness and a broken heart only ten weeks later.

Carving of Miguel de Unamuno in the Plaza Mayor

Christopher Columbus came to discuss the viability of his voyage to India with university geographers. Later, intellectuals of the time would meet at the university and come to the revolutionary conclusion that the indigenous people of the New World should have the same rights as Europeans.

It is claimed that the first woman to ever graduate from a university went to the University of Salamanca, and the first woman to ever be a professor taught there.

So by the end of the tour, I was feeling pretty proud to be a University of Salamanca student. It was amazing to be where so many people who have shaped history have been before. And I also felt like I learned a lot about the history of the university, which is a new feeling for me.

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