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Higher education plays a major part in today’s society. Expected to continue their education beyond high school, many students attend four-year universities and colleges. The emergence of such higher education was first recorded in Europe during the Middle Ages. The origins and characteristics of these medieval universities as well as details of the students and their masters (professors) will be thoroughly discussed in the following paragraphs. These universities became the foundation of and models for the higher education of today.
The Latin word universitas, or university, first appeared in the Latin text of Cicero, the word meaning the whole of mankind or the human race. The word gained educational meaning when the corporation of Paris masters and students first used universitas in 1221 to define the organized society of the entire body of masters and students. But even then the meaning of university was different. Unlike today’s university, the medieval universities referred to the students and masters rather than to a building or specific place. This is mainly due to the fact that the early universities did not own buildings but used rented rooms or available rooms loaned by the church as their classrooms (Previte-Orton 622). This flexibility also gave the university the power to secede from their town during a dispute with the townspeople, a strategy used often by the scholars who were often in need of protection (Thompson and Johnson 725).
Several conditions provided the way for the establishment of the university during the thirteenth century. The communal movement, or the migration of people to cities, and the formation of guilds provided a model for the scholastici, or scholars, to follow when forming universities. The existence of cathedral and canonical schools provided scholars and teaching material needed to begin such a university. The discovery and emergence of new disciplines and school manuals, translations of works, contact with the Arab world, the discovery of Aristotle’s treatises on logic, known as the Organon, and the revival of Roman Law also contributed to the rise of the university (Gabriel 282).
The university followed two main types of organization: 1) the magisterial type of Paris, and 2) the student-university type of Bologna. At the University of Paris, the teachers or masters, referred to as the honestas societas or honorable society by Alexander Neckham in 1180, were the powers of the university. The chancellor granted teaching licenses to students, but the society instituted the requirements a student must fulfill to gain the title of master. Initially opposed to the new independent corporation, the papacy ultimately approved the university with Pope Innocent III’s acknowledgment of the “community of masters’” right to act as a corporation around 1208 to 1209. An important feature of the University of Paris was its dominant position of the faculty of arts, considered there to be the mother of the higher faculties of saluberrima (medicine), consultissima (cannon law), and sacrtissima (theology). The Paris archetype was followed with slight modification by almost all the universities of Northern Europe (Gabriel 283).
The second archetype was the student-university type of Bologna. The University of Bologna ultimately formed two universitates, one organization for Italian students and one for foreign students. These student organizations were originally formed for protection but eventually took over the supervision of the teaching with much protest from the doctors, or professors, of the school (Hyde 311).
Bologna had been known as a center for legal studies during the second half of the twelfth century. Its fame increased due to the famous masters the city acquired as well as its teaching of Roman Law, which was forbidden in France and England in 1219. The university also offered lectures on practical sciences, such as the art of composition (Gabriel 284).
The university, said to have the best school of law in Europe, had other faculties which were of more limited significance. The faculties of arts and medicine were established during the latter half of the thirteenth century. Theology was added to these in 1364, making the university one of the few to have all of the four faculties of arts, theology, cannon and civil law, and medicine. The University of Bologna came to be known as the Italian peninsula’s center for legal and medical studies (Hyde 312).
The students’ power over the University of Bologna resided in their economic bargaining force. The students paid their masters directly. This teacher/student relationship was often strained by disagreements (Gabriel 284). According to Willis Rudy, professors were known to resort to cheap tricks to gain a large audience. Students were also known to have whistled, hissed, shouted, groaned, and even thrown stones at professors who spoke inaudibly, who spoke too slowly to cover material fully, or who spoke too fast making it difficult for students to take full notes (Beeler 4). At times, the strains on the relationship between the students and their teachers became so great that the students would secede from the university in protest. Such secessions led to the forming of the short-lived universities of Vicenza (1204), Arezzo (1215), and Vercelli (1228). The students most often won against their professors (Gabriel 284). However, the University of Bologna lacked the administrative and representative unity that the University of Paris achieved with the rector, or principle of the school, whom was entitled to speak in the name of the university (Gabriel 284). This lack of unity hurt the student body during the twelfth century when student power declined, leaving the commune in charge of hiring the professors (Hyde 312).
Besides organizational type, another defining feature of medieval universities was their manner of origin. Each university originated in one of three ways: 1) of spontaneous foundations, 2) of papal, imperial, communal, or joint foundations, or 3) paper universities, universities with foundation charters but never physically formed. The universities of Paris and Bologna were formed from spontaneous foundations, meaning they grew from existing schools. Oxford too had spontaneous foundations, emerging around 1208 to 1209 due to a conflict between the clerics and the townspeople. Oxford was organized like the Paris model but was close to the structure of Bologna (Gabriel 284). The first university founded by a papal charter was Toulouse, established in 1229. Toulouse was strengthened by the Parisian secession in 1229 to 1231. The scholars favored its teachings of civil law, which were forbidden in Paris. However, Toulouse ultimately declined in the fifteenth century (Gabriel 285). Princes who wished to establish a school in their name were mainly responsible for the foundation of paper universities, the third manner of origin (Gabriel 285).
The course of study for a medieval student was much different than that of today’s student. History and social science courses were nonexistent. However, the student was expected to be fluent in Latin and learned in Latin grammar before attending a university. Higher education limited to males, he was to spend four years studying the basic liberal arts, completing advanced work in Latin grammar and rhetoric as well as studying the rules of logic. After passing examinations, the student received his degree of Bachelor of Arts, the prototype for today’s B.A. Some students pursued advanced degrees to ensure themselves a place in professional life. The Master of Arts degree, or M.A, required three or four years of the study of mathematics, natural science, and philosophy. Doctorates required more specialized training. For example, a doctorate in theology required about twenty years of total schooling at the University of Paris. However, doctorates, including the degree in medicine, only gave the student the right to teach. Despite their intended purpose, all university degrees were recognized as great achievements and could lead to nonacademic careers (Binnell 3).
Information gathered from various sources indicates that the life of the medieval student, seemingly rough, primitive, and violent, was surprisingly fundamentally similar to the life of today’s students. Many students sent letters home to their parents begging them for “assistance.” Letters from disapproving parents have also been found which expressed the parents’ frustration with their underachieving sons (Thompson and Johnson 735). Again like today, medieval universities granted funds to poorer students allowing them the privilege of higher education. Medieval students also ranged significantly in age, from as young as fifteen to as old as twenty or twenty-five years of age (Dahmus 569).
Many people criticized the student population and its behavior. Students were said to be violent and quarrelsome, disturbing and attacking citizens and laymen. Armed, the students even fought each other over almost anything, especially women. Students spent much time gambling, drinking, and engaging in less than celibate behavior. However, the “rowdies”, attracting a disproportionate amount of attention, dominated the medieval universities no more than they dominate today’s universities. Serious students were much more plentiful (Thompson and Johnson 736).
The importance of this medieval invention is beyond measure. The university has substantially aided in the heightening of civilization and has become an educational icon of the twentieth century. The medieval university continues to influence the education of today’s scholars. As said by the late Professor Haskins, today’s universities, like medieval universities, “are still associations of masters and scholars leading the common life of learning” (qtd. in Dahmus 571). In conclusion, both the medieval and modern university represent the most powerful influences upon the intellectual life of their times.
Previte-Orton, C.W. The Shorter Cambridge Medieval
History. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1953.
Beeler, Stan. Scholarship and Education in Medieval
Europe. Online. Internet. 10 April 1999. Available:
Binnell, Brynn. Discussion Document: Is University Life
Any Different Today than it was “Yesterday”?. Online.
Internet. 10 April 1999. Available:
Gabriel, Astrik L. “Universities.” Middle Ages
Hyde, J.K. “Bologna, University of.” Middle Ages
Thompson, James Westfall, and Edgar Nathaniel Johnson. An
Introduction to Medieval Europe. New York: W.W.Nortan
& Company, Inc., 1937.
Dahmus, Joseph H. A History of Medieval Civilization. New
York: The Odyssey Press, Inc., 1964.
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