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Illustration from a 14th-century manuscript showing a meeting of doctors at the University of Paris.

A medieval university is a corporation organized during the High Middle Ages for the purposes of higher learning.

The first Western European institutions generally considered to be universities were established in the Kingdom of Italy, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of Spain, and the Kingdom of Portugal between the 11th and 15th centuries for the study of the Arts and the higher disciplines of Theology, Law, and Medicine.[1] These universities evolved from much older Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools, and it is difficult to define the exact date at which they became true universities, although the lists of studia generalia for higher education in Europe held by the Vatican are a useful guide.

"The word universitas originally applied only to the scholastic guilds— that is, the corporation of students and masters— within the studium, and it was always modified, as universitas magistrorum, or universitas scholarium, or universitas magistrorum et scholarium. In the course of time, however, probably toward the latter part of the 14th century, the term began to be used by itself, with the exclusive meaning of a self-regulating community of teachers and scholars whose corporate existence had been recognized and sanctioned by civil or ecclesiastical authority."[2]

From the early modern period onwards, this Western-style organizational form gradually spread from the medieval Latin west across the globe, eventually replacing all other higher-learning institutions and becoming the preeminent model for higher education everywhere.[3]



A map of medieval universities.

The university is generally regarded as a formal institution that has its origin in the Medieval Christian setting.[4][5] Prior to the establishment of universities, European higher education took place for hundreds of years in Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools (scholae monasticae), in which monks and nuns taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back to the 6th century AD.[6]

With the increasing growth and urbanization of European society during the 12th and 13th centuries, a demand grew for professional clergy. Before the 12th century, the intellectual life of Western Europe had been largely relegated to monasteries, which were mostly concerned with performing the liturgy and prayer; relatively few monasteries could boast true intellectuals. Following the Gregorian Reform's emphasis on canon law and the study of the sacraments, bishops formed cathedral schools to train the clergy in Canon law, but also in the more secular aspects of religious administration, including logic and disputation for use in preaching and theological discussion, and accounting to more effectively control finances. Pope Gregory VII was critical in promoting and regulating the concept of modern university as his 1079 Papal Decree ordered the regulated establishment of cathedral schools that transformed themselves into the first European universities.[7]

Learning became essential to advancing in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and teachers also gained prestige. Demand quickly outstripped the capacity of cathedral schools, each of which was essentially run by one teacher. In addition, tensions rose between the students of cathedral schools and burghers in smaller towns. As a result, cathedral schools migrated to large cities, like Bologna, Rome and Paris.

Some scholars such as Syed Farid Alatas have noted some parallels between Madrasahs and early European colleges and have thus inferred that the first universities in Europe were influenced by the Madrasahs in Islamic Spain and the Emirate of Sicily.[8] Other scholars such as George Makdisi, Toby Huff and Norman Daniel, however, have questioned this, citing the lack of evidence for an actual transmission from the Islamic world to Christian Europe and highlighting the differences in the structure, methodologies, procedures, curricula and legal status of the "Islamic college" (madrasa) versus the European university.[9][10][11]


Teaching at Paris, in a late 14th-century Grandes Chroniques de France: the tonsured students sit on the floor.

Hastings Rashdall set out the modern understanding[12] of the medieval origins of the universities, noting that the earliest universities emerged spontaneously as "a scholastic Guild, whether of Masters or Students... without any express authorisation of King, Pope, Prince or Prelate."[13]

Among the earliest universities of this type were the University of Bologna (1088), University of Paris (teach. mid-11th century, recogn. 1150), University of Oxford (teach. 1096, recogn. 1167), University of Modena (1175), University of Palencia (1208), University of Cambridge (1209), University of Salamanca (1218), University of Montpellier (1220), University of Padua (1222), University of Toulouse (1229), University of Orleans (1235), University of Siena (1240), University of Northampton (1261), University of Coimbra (1288), University of Pisa (1343), Charles University in Prague (1348), Jagiellonian University (1364), University of Vienna (1365), Heidelberg University (1386) and the University of St Andrews (1413) begun as private corporations of teachers and their pupils.[14][15]

In many cases universities petitioned secular power for privileges and this became a model. Emperor Frederick I in Authentica Habita (1158) gave the first privileges to students in Bologna. Another step was when Pope Alexander III in 1179 "forbidding masters of the church schools to take fees for granting the license to teach (licentia docendi), and obliging them to give license to properly qualified teachers".[16] Hastings Rashdall considered that the integrity of a university was only preserved in such an internally regulated corporation, which protected the scholars from external intervention. This independently evolving organization was absent in the universities of southern Italy and Spain, which served the bureaucratic needs of monarchs and which Rashdall considered to be their artificial creations.[17]

The University of Paris was formally recognized when Pope Gregory IX issued the bull Parens scientiarum (1231).[16] This was a revolutionary step: studium generale (university) and universitas (corporation of students or teachers) existed even before, but after the issuing of the bull, they attained autonomy. "[T]he papal bull of 1233, which stipulated that anyone admitted to be a teacher in Toulouse had the right to teach everywhere without further examinations (ius ubique docendi), in time, transformed this privilege into the single most important defining characteristic of the university and made it the symbol of its institutional autonomy . . . By the year 1292, even the two oldest universities, Bologna and Paris, felt the need to seek similar bulls from Pope Nicholas IV."[16]

Mob Quad, in Merton College, Oxford. This group of buildings was constructed in three phases and concluded in c. 1378.

By the 13th century, almost half of the highest offices in the Church were occupied by degreed masters (abbots, archbishops, cardinals), and over one-third of the second-highest offices were occupied by masters. In addition, some of the greatest theologians of the High Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas and Robert Grosseteste, were products of the medieval university.

The development of the medieval university coincided with the widespread reintroduction of Aristotle from Byzantine and Arab scholars. In fact, the European university put Aristotelian and other natural science texts at the center of its curriculum,[18] with the result that the "medieval university laid far greater emphasis on science than does its modern counterpart and descendent."[19]

Although it has been assumed that the universities went into decline during the Renaissance due to the scholastic and Aristotelian emphasis of its curriculum being less popular than the cultural studies of Renaissance humanism, Toby Huff has noted the continued importance of the European universities, with their focus on Aristotle and other scientific and philosophical texts into the early modern period, arguing that they played a crucial role in the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. As he puts it "Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Newton were all extraordinary products of the apparently procrustean and allegedly Scholastic universities of Europe... Sociological and historical accounts of the role of the university as an institutional locus for science and as an incubator of scientific thought and arguments have been vastly understated."[20]


Diagrams, in a volume of treatises on natural science, philosophy, and mathematics. This 1300 manuscript is typical of the sort of book owned by medieval university students.

Initially medieval universities did not have physical facilities such as the campus of a modern university. Classes were taught wherever space was available, such as churches and homes. A university was not a physical space but a collection of individuals banded together as a universitas. Soon, however, universities began to rent, buy or construct buildings specifically for the purposes of teaching.[21]

Universities were generally structured along three types, depending on who paid the teachers. The first type was in Bologna, where students hired and paid for the teachers. The second type was in Paris, where teachers were paid by the church. Oxford and Cambridge were predominantly supported by the crown and the state, a fact which helped them survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 and the subsequent removal of all the principal Catholic institutions in England. These structural differences created other characteristics. At the Bologna university the students ran everything—a fact that often put teachers under great pressure and disadvantage. In Paris, teachers ran the school; thus Paris became the premiere spot for teachers from all over Europe. Also, in Paris the main subject matter was theology, so control of the qualifications awarded was in the hands of an external authority - the Chancellor of the diocese. In Bologna, where students chose more secular studies, the main subject was law.

It was also characteristic of teachers and scholars to move around. There was often competition between universities to secure the best and most popular teachers, leading to the marketisation of teaching. Universities would publish their list of scholars, in a bid to entice students to study at their institution. Students of Peter Abelard followed him to Melun, Corbeil and Paris,[22] showing that popular teachers would bring students with them.

The studentsEdit

Students attended the medieval university at different ages, ranging from 14 if they were attending Oxford or Paris to study the Arts to their 30s if they were studying Law in Bologna. During this period of study students were often living far from home and unsupervised and as such developed a reputation, both among contemporary commentators and modern historians, for drunken debauchery. Students are frequently criticised in the Middle Ages for neglecting their studies for drinking, gambling and sleeping with prostitutes.[23]

Course of studyEdit

Universitas Istropolitana (A former university building in present-day Bratislava)

University studies took six years for a Master of Arts degree (a Bachelor of Arts degree would be awarded after completing the third or fourth year). The studies for this were organized by the faculty of arts, where the seven liberal arts were taught: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric.[24][25] All instruction was given in Latin and students were expected to be able to converse in that language.[26] The trivium comprised the three subjects that were taught first: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These three subjects were the most important of the seven liberal arts for medieval students.[27] The curriculum came also to include the three Aristotelian philosophies: physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy.[27]

Much of medieval thought in philosophy and theology can be found in scholastic textual commentary because scholasticism was such a popular method of teaching. Aelius Donatus' Ars grammatica was the standard textbook for grammar; also studied were the works of Priscian and Graecismus by Eberhard of Béthune.[28] Cicero's works were used for the study of rhetoric.[27] Studied books on logic included Porphyry's introduction to Aristotelian logic, Gilbert de la Porrée's De sex principiis and Summulae Logicales by Petrus Hispanus (later Pope John XXI).[29] The standard work of astronomy was Tractatus de sphaera.[29]

Once a Master of Arts degree had been conferred, the student could leave the university or pursue further studies in one of the higher faculties, law, medicine, or theology, the last one being the most prestigious. A popular textbook for theological study was called the Sentences (Quattuor libri sententiarum) of Peter Lombard; theology students as well as masters were required to write extensive commentaries on this text as part of their curriculum.[citation needed] Studies in the higher faculties could take up to twelve years for a master's degree or doctorate (initially the two were synonymous), though again a bachelor's and a licentiate's degree could be awarded along the way.[30]

Courses were offered according to books, not by subject or theme. For example, a course might be on a book by Aristotle, or a book from the Bible. Courses were not elective: the course offerings were set, and everyone had to take the same courses. There were, however, occasional choices as to which teacher to use.[31]

A university class, Bologna (1350s).

Students often entered the University at fourteen to fifteen years of age, though many were older.[32] Classes usually started at 5:00 or 6:00 AM.

Legal statusEdit

Students were afforded the legal protection of the clergy. In this way no one was allowed to physically harm them; they could only be tried for crimes in an ecclesiastical court, and were thus immune from any corporal punishment. This gave students free rein in urban environments to break secular laws with impunity, a fact which produced many abuses: theft, rape and murder were not uncommon among students, who did not face serious consequences[33] and students were known to engage in drunkenness.

This led to uneasy tensions with secular authorities - the demarcation between town and gown. Masters and students would sometimes "strike" by leaving a city and not returning for years. This happened at the University of Paris strike of 1229 after a riot left a number of students dead. The University went on strike and they did not return for two years. As the students had the legal status of clerics which, according to the Canon Law, could not be held by women, women were not admitted into universities.

Most universities in Europe were recognised by the Holy See as a Studium Generale, testified by a papal bull. Members of these institutions were encouraged to disseminate their knowledge across Europe, often lecturing at a different Studia Generales. Indeed, one of the privileges the papal bull confirmed was the right to confer the Ius ubique docendi, the right to teach everywhere.[34]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ de Ridder-Symoens 1992, pp. 47–55
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: History of Education. The development of the universities.
  3. ^ Rüegg, Walter (ed.): Geschichte der Universität in Europa, 3 vols., C.H. Beck, München 1993, ISBN 3-406-36956-1
  4. ^ Rüegg, Walter: "Foreword. The University as a European Institution", in: A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 1: Universities in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-521-36105-2, pp. XIX–XX
  5. ^ Verger 1999
  6. ^ Riché, Pierre (1978): "Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century", Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, ISBN 0-87249-376-8, pp. 126-7, 282-98
  7. ^ Thomas Oestreich (1913). "Pope St. Gregory VII". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  8. ^ Alatas, S. F. (2006), "From Jami`ah to University: Multiculturalism and Christian–Muslim Dialogue", Current Sociology, 54 (1): 112–132 [123–4], doi:10.1177/0011392106058837 
  9. ^ George Makdisi: "Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages", in: Studia Islamica, Vol. 32 (1970), S. 255-264 (264):

    Thus the university, as a form of social organization, was peculiar to medieval Europe. Later, it was exported to all parts of the world, including the Muslim East; and it has remained with us down to the present day. But back in the middle ages, outside of Europe, there was nothing anything quite like it anywhere.

  10. ^ The scholarship on these differences is summarized in Toby Huff, Rise of early modern science, 2nd ed. p. 149-159; p. 179-189.
  11. ^ Norman Daniel: Review of "The Rise of Colleges. Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West by George Makdisi", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 104, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1984), pp. 586-588 (587)
  12. ^ Pryds, Darleen (2000), "Studia as Royal Offices: Mediterranean Universities of Medieval Europe", in Courtenay, William J.; Miethke, Jürgen; Priest, David B., Universities and Schooling in Medieval Society, Education and Society in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 10, Leiden: Brill, p. 83, ISBN 90-04-11351-7, ISSN 0926-6070, In his magisterial work on European universities, Hastings Rashdall [considered that] the integrity of a university is preserved only when the institution evolved into an internally regulated corporation of scholars, be they students or masters. 
  13. ^ Rashdall, Hastings (1895), The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, 1, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 17–18, retrieved February 2012, The University was originally a scholastic Guild, whether of Masters or Students. Such Guilds sprang into existence, like other Guilds, without any express authorisation of King, Pope, Prince, or Prelate. They were spontaneous products of the instinct of association which swept like a great wave over the towns of Europe in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  14. ^ "10 of the Oldest Universities in the World". Top Universities. 2016-09-16. Retrieved 2017-05-30. 
  15. ^ Seelinger, Lani. "The 13 Oldest Universities In The World". Culture Trip. Retrieved 2017-05-30. 
  16. ^ a b c Kemal Gürüz, Quality Assurance in a Globalized Higher Education Environment: An Historical Perspective, Istanbul, 2007, p. 5
  17. ^ Pryds, Darleen (2000), "Studia as Royal Offices: Mediterranean Universities of Medieval Europe", in Courtenay, William J.; Miethke, Jürgen; Priest, David B., Universities and Schooling in Medieval Society, Education and Society in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 10, Leiden: Brill, pp. 83–99, ISBN 90-04-11351-7, ISSN 0926-6070 
  18. ^ Toby Huff, Rise of early modern science 2nd ed. p. 180-181
  19. ^ Edward Grant, "Science in the Medieval University", in James M. Kittleson and Pamela J. Transue, ed., Rebirth, Reform and Resilience: Universities in Transition, 1300-1700, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984, p. 68
  20. ^ Toby Huff, Rise of Early Modern science, 2nd ed., p. 344.
  21. ^ A. Giesysztor, Part II, Chapter 4, page 136: University Buildings, in A History of the University In Europe, Volume I: Universities in the Middle Ages, W. Ruegg (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  22. ^ James M. Kittleson, Rebirth, reform and resilience: Universities in transition 1300-1700, (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1984), p. 164.
  23. ^
  24. ^ H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, 3 Volumes, F.M. Powicke, A.B. Emden (Eds. of 2nd Edition), Oxford University Press, 1936.
  25. ^ G. Leff and J. North, Chapter 10: The Faculty of Arts, in A History of the University in Europe, Volume I: Universities in the Middle Ages, W. Ruegg (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  26. ^ Rait, R.S. 1912. Life in the Medieval University, p. 133
  27. ^ a b c Rait, R.S. 1912. Life in the Medieval University, p. 138
  28. ^ Rait, R.S. 1912. Life in the Medieval University, pp. 138-139
  29. ^ a b Rait, R.S. 1912. Life in the Medieval University, p. 139
  30. ^ O. Pedersen, The First Universities - Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1997
  31. ^ Pedersen, o.c., Chapter 10: Curricula and intellectual trends.
  32. ^ H. Rashdall, o.c., Volume 3, page 352.
  33. ^ H. Rashdall, o.c., Volume 3, page 360.
  34. ^ Rashdall, o.c., Chapter I, page 8.


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