The Medieval University

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History of the University in Europe

Medieval university classroom

Before Charlemagne’s reign, higher education was mostly limited to the clergy and a select few members of the ruling class, as the only sort of curriculum was translating and examining holy texts. These kinds of schools were referred to as cathedral schools. There were also palace schools, which educated the young men of the ruling class on military and court tactics. These palace schools also hired chaplains to teach the young nobles about theology and language. The change came about with Charlemagne, who understood that the only way to keep his empire flourishing was through education. He started with the palace schools, where he expanded the curriculum to include the liberal arts.

His right-hand man at instituting these sweeping reforms was Alcuin, who was an expect at all things liberal arts: the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and the Quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). He became the head of the palace school at Aachen, in present-day Germany, in 782. Countless other palace schools followed Alcuin’s example, creating a real educational change by the start of the eighth century. Charlemagne instituted several enactments in the late 700s to continue furthering education in his kingdom. One in particular, referred to as the “Charter of Modern Thought”, instructed members of the clergy to teach not only religious matters, but also “letters” in order to perfect the clergy’s writing skills and interpretation of scripture. Another significant figure in the establishment of European universities was Pope Gregory VII, who mandated the creation of cathedral schools to educate the clergy. These institutions eventually evolved into universities as we know them today. (

Some of the first universities sprung up in Italy, specifically in Salerno and Bologna, and were known more as scholastic guilds than institutions of higher education. Scholars point out that these schools were not officially “founded”, but instead grew and evolved over time. One of the first of these universities was in Salerno, which focused on medicine. The university in Bologna, which is still running today, had a more expansive curriculum, but was primarily a school of law. It was not until the end of the twelfth century that these and other European schools became more than educational centers for local students and instead attracted scholars from all over the world. As the universities grew in influence, they naturally attracted a high number of international scholars and students willing to learn. The areas around these universities became more prosperous and cultural, growing with their schools. In many cases universities ran grammar schools in the towns they were located in to educate the local children. These grammar schools did not have an extensive curriculum, focusing mostly on Latin, and were established as preparation for the more rigorous universities. (Healey)

The name for these globally renowned institutions was studium generale, and they were generally founded by royalty or the clergy, whose reputations contributed to the prestige of their schools. The most esteemed schools, such as Oxford in England, were given the name studia generalia ex consuetudine. By 1300, about twenty-three universities were up and running in Europe, including the University of Paris, the most famous early European university, which focused on theology and philosophy. Many of these new universities were created to train middle class citizens in the fields of law and medicine. In fact, many students of the original universities were older citizens who wanted to advance their careers or expand their knowledge to help others. One especially renowned school of law in Bologna, Italy, has a fascinating history as a school run by students and not professors. A guild of students was in charge of hiring the professors, and each lesson was carefully observed by this same guild, who freely fined professors for even the smallest of mistakes. This structure was common throughout the rest of Europe in the ninth century, and higher learning was decidedly student-driven. However, not all universities had such intense student leaders, and eventually most of the European schools were instead run by a guild of teachers. In fact, the word “university” comes from a Latin word meaning corporation, or guild. (Healey)

Curriculum of Medieval Universities
Like today’s higher education institutes, the medieval university trained young students for a future job; however, unlike the schools of today, the ultimate career that awaited students after graduation was with the church. This fact had a significant effect on the curriculum taught at the medieval university. The main curriculum focused on seven academic subjects that would offer a young student a “liberal arts” education and prepare him for a life working as a cleric for the Catholic Church. (

The seven areas of study could be broken down into the “Trivium” and the “Quadrivium”, and consisted of the following:
The Trivium
Grammar : Unlike the study of grammar today, which focuses on the construction of speech, the medieval study of grammar was concerned with how words create meaning The goal of studying grammar was to be able to be an effective master of language as well as able to understand the subtleties of language. (

Rhetoric : This field of study was an exploration of persuasion, particularly in written communication. The arrangement of words and the presentation of information was at the heart of a good persuasive argument. (

Logic (or Dialectic) : the basis for learning and teaching the principle of logic is founded upon the theory that debate is an integral component of the learning process. In the medieval universities, it was common for both students and masters to participate in debates. (

The Quadrivium
Arithmetic : this field was concerned with the philosophy of numbers rather than the basics of computation. Ratios and relationships were more important than sums and products. (

Astronomy : the study of astronomy in a medieval university focused on Plato’s model of the universe, and focused on the relationships between planets and their movements in space. (

Geometry : in medieval times, the study of geometry was deeply connected to theories of the divine. It was believed that God constructed the universe using geometric principles, and studying geometry was a way of better understanding God’s creation. (

A Liberal Arts Education
A Liberal Arts Education

Music : music was considered to be fundamentally related to math, and was pursued for aesthetic, practical, and spiritual reasons. (

A church cleric would be expected to read and write proficiently in Latin, understand the laws of the physical and celestial worlds, perform practical tasks and participate in church ceremonies. Due to the nature and demands of this position, grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy were the subjects that made up the university curriculum.The first three were clearly applicable to the reading and writing of Latin. Geometry and astronomy taught the potential clerics about the divine precision and logic of earth and the heavens. Arithmetic was far more practical and would aide clerics in their accounting tasks, and music would ensure that they would be able to participate in the regular church services. (

Traditionally, students would enroll in a four year “liberal arts” Bachelors program where they would study the seven a
cademic areas discussedearlier. After completion of those four years, students would have the opportunity to become “masters” of the liberal arts by enrolling in three additional years of schooling; masters were responsible for teaching the bachelors program. (The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Culture)

Student Life
Attending university was oftentimes the first taste of independence that many of the students ever had. As a result, excessive drinking and rowdy behavior gave students bad reputations in the nearby towns. Most colleges allowed pastimes such as gambling, music, and chess. However, despite the tomfoolery that accompanies newfound freedom, much of these students’ lives were consumed with scholarly pursuits. Few holidays, except for religious holidays, were granted. Most student accommodations, such as the ones offered at Oxford, were sparse and offered only a minimal level of comfort (History of Learning Site). A common occurrence in the life of a medieval student was a scarcity of money. Many students wrote home often, begging for their parents to send more money. A common excuse for the money was the necessity to purchase more books, but likely it was needed for food or other pastimes (Haskins).

Demographic of Students and Professors
Most students began their university studies between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Before they enrolled in a university, these students were likely to have received some education at their local churches. Students came from diverse backgrounds, but they all had one thing in common. They were all male (Haskins). Girls received little attention from the education system during the middle ages. Only wealthy girls would be afforded an education, which would be in the form of private tutors ( many of the students came from noble homes, the students need not be wealthy; some students struggled to feed themselves while attending Oxford and Cambridge (History of Learning Site).

Degree Possibilities
When universities were first established in Europe as a system of higher education, there was only one degree that a student could receive: a Master or Doctor. The Baccalaureate, or Bachelor, was originally only a step in the process of gaining a Master. The Bachelor was given to the student that had successfully completed three to four years of Trivium-grammar, rhetoric and logic. Following the reception of a Bachelor, the student could move on to the next step of education: the Master. This system was modified during the thirteenth century, and a degree system was imposed upon universities where students could graduate as a scholar, bachelor, or Master/Doctor/Professor(the titles were interchangeable and tended to vary, based on what school the student attended). The system implemented in universities served as the norm for newer universities to follow.

Students could pursue studies in one of four subjects — law, medicine, theology, or art. A degree in theology qualified an individual for an administrative position in the clergy, or in the university itself. The three other subjects (law, medicine, art) also provided an individual career opportunities in that specific field. Different universities had strengths in different subjects, and would, therefore, attract students with specific career interests (O’Malley). For example, Italian university such as University of Bologna focused on law and medicine, more so than theology or art. Bologna had been founded by students who were intent on a career in law. Unlike English universities, Bologna did not have a theology program until 1364. All universities, however, prepared students for careers in at least one of the four faculties by teaching intellectual thought that would translate to professional skills.

A student could only receive a Doctorate at Italian universities, such as the University of Bologna, or the University of Padua. The student would continue their education, following their receiving both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. In order to gain this Doctorate, the student would need to assert their advanced knowledge in the subject of their study-philosophy, theology, etc. This was different from the modern PhD, as the degree was created to award advanced scholarship, rather than original research. The student had long residency requirements and thorough examinations, in order to prove their expertise in their field of study.

Establishment of the University in England

Aerial view of the University of Oxford, Oxfordshire, England. Credit: Wallace Wong Source:

The first established English university was the University of Oxford. Founded in roughly 1096(where a form of teaching was taught that resembled university format), the University began to increase in size and development in 1167, following Henry II’s banning English citizens from attending the University of Paris.In order to gain accreditation as a university, the king needed to grant a papal bull-royal charter. This led to discord within the University and following the execution of two scholars, professors left Oxford and founded the University of Cambridge (1209).

English universities, unlike their universities on the continent, were often established in cities that were not centers of state or religious activity (Swanson 29). This meant that they lacked a consistent source of local encouragement, including the monetary benefits that the church provided to faculty in other European cities (29). Also, with strained “town and gown” relationships, schools like Oxford and Cambridge could not rely on the local urban support that funded Italian universities (29).

The English University as a Means of Social Advancement and Source of Culture

Social advancement was primarily possible in the Middle Ages through the Church, the professions, or through the achievement of a university education. During the later middle ages, a university degree was particularly important in appointments made to the Church hierarchy (Clough). Between 1375 and 1461, in particular, bishops were recruited in increasing numbers from amongst clergy who had graduated university (Clough). In 1375 non-graduates occupied nearly two-fifths of the episcopal bench and were in places of high influence, but by the reign of Henry V only one-fifth of members of the episcopal bench had not attended university (Clough). By 1461, men that held high positions in the clergy were “not only graduates in the main but graduates who had achieved the doctorate” (Clough). This new emphasis on higher education also led to a shift in the nature of the work members of the clergy did throughout their careers (Clough). While previously the large group of non-graduates had been mostly lifelong civil servants, the new class of educated clergymen were commissioned by the king to “provide specific duties and services in government and diplomacy, often of an expert kind,” along with their usual responsibilities (Clough).

Attending university represented an investment in culture as a specific means of social advancement, a new feature of the later Middle Ages (Clough) By sacrificing resources and labor in order to send a young man to university, students, their families, and their patron made an investment in the culture that a university provided, which could pay off by improving the student’s social status (Clough). A university graduate’s new-found wealth and power within the church could also affect his family’s position (Clough). This was often done indirectly, as the students who would become priests could not marry and raise children with higher statuses (Clough). Instead, poor students who had done well in university might have improved their family’s lot by financing the studies of another relative, perhaps a talented nephew (Clough).

Patrons did not contribute to this kind of advancement in a poor or middle class family without receiving anything in return. When patrons provided the funds that allowed students to grow intellectually at university, advance their careers and move into new social classes, they were rewarded with an educated “servant” who would be useful in their given enterprise (Hanna). Whether they worked in the Church or government, wealthy patrons were interested in producing a group of men who could effectively carry out the tasks their vocations required (Hanna). Particularly in England, where the government bureaucracy’s records were documented extensively, education existed partly to create serviceable men who could handle such written systems (Hanna). This desire of patrons to create useful men in their own image explains the fact that all early Oxford colleges were founded and endowed by former royal bureaucrats (Hanna).
Students in England were not only interested in achieving intellectual distinction in their time at university, and graduates benefited from more than just their degree (Clough). Contacts students made while at school were often politically or socially advantageous or instrumental in the advancement of their careers (Clough). According to Clough, political and other activities within the universities themselves “were externally thought important” and might win a student recognition or notoriety. As Clough writes, many bishops were heads of halls, colleges and universities before they began their religious career.

In fact, intellectual progress often would have been secondary to the practical skills gained in university in advancing a graduate’s status. According to Clough, “the training of useful, vocationally-directed young graduates” competed with scholarly concerns as the final purpose of a university education. The needs of the Church would have been mostly administrative and political at the time, and students who had developed talent in either area would have been more likely to be recruited to desirable positions (Clough).

With a student’s advancement into a higher social class came new responsibilities in terms of culture (Clough). Culture and status were highly linked in the Middle Ages, and university graduates were expected to have a particular cultural knowledge that would have distinguished them from people in other social classes (Clough). Gentleman-bureaucrats, lay personnel and merchants were almost all non-graduates and their culture was correspondingly less sophisticated than that of those who had attended university, with more concern on display and on personal piety” (Clough).

Impact of Universities on English Culture
The social impact of the sort of trained literacy that occurred in universities was, according to Ralph Hanna, totally disproportionate to the number of students enrolled. As Hanna writes, “Oxford was probably never larger than 1,600 enrolled students at any time in the period. But its products…graduates, were integral to the life of the nation.” At the time, the Church was highly interested in the salvation of society through “Christian teaching” (Hanna). In 1214, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Church demanded a program of better pastoral care for the Christian laypeople of Europe, which would be carried out primarily through different types of oral religious instruction (Hanna). To the Church, educated university graduates represented new spiritual leaders that could help the clergy to achieve this goal (Hanna).

By creating a new reading public, the rise of the university in England also had a major impact on the trade of books (Clement). With the university came a need for secular, academic texts, commentaries and reference works that could not be produced by religious authorities (Clement). This segment of publishing became a “licensed appendage of the university, consisting of stationers, scribes, parchment makers, paper makers, bookbinders, and all those associated with making books” (Clement).

Timeline of Individual University
The oldest English-speaking university still functioning is Oxford University in Oxford, England. The official date of commencement is unknown, however, historians suggest that teaching began there in the year 1096, making the university 917 years old. In the mid 13th century, private benefactors began to establish constituent colleges within the university, such as University College and Balloil College. Today, there are 38 constituent colleges of Oxford University. In the 14th century some Oxford students tried to establish an entirely new university, but failed to do so after Oxford and the only other operating English university at the time, Cambridge, petitioned the then king Edward III to prevent any new university from forming. Therefore, until 1820, there were only two universities in all of England, which was unusual among western European countries. In 1636 the university established its statutes that would remain its governing regulations until the mid-19th century. One of these statutes was that in order for any student to receive a B.A. degree from the university, he had to be a member of the Church of England. This statute was amended in 1866. Four women’s colleges were established within Oxford University in the 19th century: Lady Margaret Hall, Sommerville College, St. Hugh’s, and St. Hilda’s (University of Oxford Web Page “A brief history of the University”).

Since Oxford is made up of constituent colleges, it does not have one main campus.
Two of the oldest buildings still operating on the University grounds are the University Church of St Mary the Virgin and the Sheldonian theatre. The church was the site of the trial of the Oxford Martyrs in 1555. the Oxford Martyrs were three Anglican bishops who were tried for heresy because of their religious beliefs and teachings. They were condemned to burn at the stake. It is claimed that the scorch marks can still be seen on the doors of Balloil College (“History of the Church of St Mary” University of Oxford Web Page).


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