A sketch of the Jesuit College (now the Athénée) in Luxembourg from 1686 / © Public domain
Tara Mancini takes a look at the history of public education in Luxembourg, which extends as far back as the early 17th century.
As I stood there looking at the simple two-story building standing before me on the streets of Diekirch, I was impressed. With its plain and undistinguished facade, it would appear insignificant to anyone who didn’t know its history. I was looking at one of the first buildings to host a school in Luxembourg, established as far back as 1633. Public education in Luxembourg has been a defining character of this nation for over 400 years. And here, right before me, was evidence of just how important knowledge and learning was to the residents of the small town of Diekirch.
In 1635, the people of Diekirch rebelled - not against education, but in favour of raising the bar. While larger towns in the Duchy of Luxembourg at the time could afford professional teachers, small towns often used municipal clerks and villages used church staff. And Diekirch was small: traditionally, the town court, parish, and city officials chose a “Kuster” (church clerk) to be a schoolmaster. At that time, the incumbent Kuster and schoolteacher was Michel Creutz, and the church thought he should continue to educate the children. However, this year was destined to be different. The public challenged the usual process and protested against using church staff to teach the students.
The municipality tried to find agreement between the church and the public, suggesting that the Kuster could teach half the year and the son of an educated resident (Burger) with a diploma could teach the other half. But the Diekirchians refused to accept this compromise.
Standing on the side of the public was a local notary, J. Mercatoris, who alleged that in 1621, a church teacher had “attacked” (“agreiert”) him. Despite this incident, the church, court and municipal officials refused to hear the voice of the parents and students. Not willing to accept a subpar education, the students and parents went on strike and refused to use the public school.
The results of the strike were a stunning success. The church was forced to back down, and a ruling was made in favour of the students and parents. The teachers of the Diekirch public school from then on would be both separate from the church and a child of a Burger who had graduated with a secondary school diploma (a Kollegsabiturienten).
But Diekirchians were far from the only ones interested in their children’s education. Public schools were popping up all over the region in the 17th century. From 1601-1650, the people of Luxembourg established at least 10 primary schools funded with government support.
So how many lower schools were there in 17th-century Luxembourg? Where were they located? Who was paying for the education? And how would this have impacted literacy? These are the questions we’ll be seeking to answer over this series on Luxembourg’s Silver Age.
The first public primary schools
The history of the Luxembourg school system has been well researched, with Pierre Gregoire’s Vom Scheden- Bis Zum Kloeppel-Kriege, written in 1982, a particular highlight. What is particularly interesting about Luxembourg is that primary schools were public schools, paid with public tax money. This was a major milestone in Western education... and it happened in Luxembourg!
The first public primary school in Luxembourg in the historical record was opened in Bettembourg in 1601, where the local notary was hired to work part time as a “scholmeister”. Esch-Alzette followed suit in 1602, with a certain M. Unselding being hired as a court clerk and scholmeister.
These first examples highlight a common trend in early 17th-century schools in Luxembourg: municipalities hired their employees to work part time as schoolteachers.
|1603||Jesuit College, Luxembourg||Johann Benninch|
|Pre-1607||Luxembourg||Lambert Vivius / J. Lincks|
|1622||St Michael's Parish, Luxembourg||Michel Creutz|
|1627||Congregational Sisters||Congregational Sisters|
|1633||Diekirch||Pastor Faber w/ Michel Creutz|
|1645||Esch & Schiffange||Johann Lorentz|
Despite the wealth of schools being founded, education remained voluntary in Luxembourg throughout the 17thcentury: it was not until December 5th, 1760, that education became compulsory in Luxembourg with a 3 guilder fine for lack of compliance.
Secondary schooling in Luxembourg
Most larger towns in Luxembourg had a primary school, but in the 17th century Luxembourg also saw the founding of two secondary schools, both located in Luxembourg City.
The Athénée de Luxembourg today / © RTL Archives
The first to open its doors was the Jesuit College (Jesuitenkolleg), which was founded in 1603 with space for up to 200 young men. (The Athénée de Luxembourg, today one of the country’s most prestigious schools, traces its roots back to the Jesuit College.) The program was five years long and included astronomy, theatre, music and Latin. The idea of a well-rounded, liberal secondary school education appears to have been the standard in 17th-century Luxembourg. With 200 boys in attendance, and new students each year, a rather large portion of the male population in the Duchy of Luxembourg acquired a high level of education.
Interestingly, the Jesuit College has a claim to being the first international school in Luxembourg. From 1640-41, the Duke of Luxembourg dictated that students in the secondary school had the right to be instructed in their “langues maternelles”, or mother tongue. Prior to this all classes were taught in the local dialect. A second class within the Jesuitenkolleg was formed, with instructors who taught the same subjects but in Walloon. Students were not being taught in the standard German and French language, but instead had the right to be taught in their mother tongues, a significant development for the history of the Luxembourgish language.
What about Luxembourg’s girls? Gregoire states in his book that in October 1627, Isabella Clara Eugenia, sovereign of Luxembourg, asked the Provincial Council of Luxembourg to give the Congregational Sisters support and assistance when they founded a secondary school for girls in Luxembourg. These were nuns who saw their calling as unpaid teachers to educate young women, including those from low-income families.
For the next 200 years graduates from the female school were recognized by the “Lorraine style of their writing and by their excellent French language skills.” This comment implies that the girls were taught and learned to read and write in the Lorraine dialect and learned to speak standard French.
All nations, states, and municipalities have ways to improve education. And Luxembourg has much to be proud of. It had established two secondary schools for both boys and girls prior to the year 1630. While there is no plaque to mark its significance, a school building from 1633 still stands in Diekirch.
Luxembourg established at least ten primary schools in the 17th century, funded with public taxes. The Jesuit College, founded in 1603, may well be one of the oldest international, multi-lingual schools in Europe. Since then, Luxembourg’s educational system has continued to evolve, closing the gender education gap, establishing additional international schools and creating establishments for students with special needs, such as the school for students with dyslexia at Michel Lucius. It is a growing and evolving system, exactly as it should be. Excelsior Luxembourg!
Tara Mancini is an author with Buffalo Raising Journal. Articles have covered topic categories such as culture, charitable fundraisers, and city and State infrastructure since 2016. Mancini’s hobbies includes reading and collecting data from 17th century documents, then inputing the data into a database using spreadsheets for use in her articles.
For those interested in Luxembourg’s educational history, Pierre Gregoire’s book is highly recommended, going into much more detail than can be achieved in a single article.
Special thanks to Claud Fox for lending me several books from his personal library, plus translating German texts, and identifying reference books about education that were useful for this article.