The Reformation and Danish Society: The University and Scholarship

Both before and after the Reformation, scholarship, universities and religion were closely connected. No knowledge was independent of religion, because the entire worldview was religious. Scientific discoveries and investigations were seen as a means to procure detailed knowledge of God’s creation, so it was as important for scientists to base their work on the Bible as on accurate observations. The point of departure was that the Bible and scientific investigations of nature corroborated each other, and scientists could be censured or punished if their findings contradicted what was written in the Bible.

From the end of the 1500s the interest in observing nature grew. More precise experiments and observations increased the authority of medicine and science. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe is a good example. He developed new instruments and used them to make more accurate descriptions of comets, planets and stars. For Tycho Brahe, it was a given that this new knowledge was international. He was quick to publish his findings in Latin, and received visitors from throughout Europe at his observatory in Denmark.

The University of Copenhagen, founded in 1479, was Denmark’s only university. For centuries theology was the all-dominant subject. Studies in law, medicine or science were taught within a religious framework. After the Reformation, there was a high demand for educated pastors for the Lutheran church. To become a pastor people had to first attend one of Denmark’s grammar schools - or be privately tutored. The student was then examined at the University of Copenhagen. During the 1600s and 1700s it became more common to study for longer. Some students also studied abroad. The university was led by a consortium of professors. In particularly complex cases, this consortium could be called on as legal or professional experts. This could happen, for example in cases of witchcraft, where the extent of control by the Devil had to be assessed. With the advent of the absolute monarchy, there was an increased need to educate officials for the growing administration and here the university also played an important role.

The role of religion in science was also discussed during the 1700s, but it was not until the 1800s that the clear division between faculties and subjects we know today was established. Subjects in the humanities, like linguistics and history, became independent disciplines, and at the beginning of the 1900s the social sciences were established.

The sciences in particular have made major progress over recent centuries. The technological breakthroughs of the 1800s and subsequent changes in society contributed to increased interest in physics, chemistry and biology. Darwin’s theory of evolution led to the gradual separation of biblical explanations of life and explanations based on the laws of nature. There was a new story of evolution focussing solely on nature and its own laws - entirely independent of God and humankind. The goal now became to discover these laws. Further technological and social developments have also contributed to science today being seen as central to the work of universities. They are, to a large extent, responsible for defining the standards for science in secularised society