Medieval university

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The first European medieval universities were established in Italy, France and England in the late 11th and the 12th Century for the study of arts, law, medicine, and theology.

For medieval universities in Asia see Medieval university (Asia).



With the increasing professionalization of society during the 12th and 13th centuries, a similar demand grew for professional clergy. Prior to the 12th century, the intellectual life of Europe had been relegated to monasteries, which was mostly concerned with the study of the liturgy and prayer; very 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 church administration, including logic and disputation for use in preaching and theological discussion, and accounting to more effectively control finances.

Learning became essential to advancing in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and teachers attracted prestige as well. However, demand quickly outstripped the capacity of cathedral schools, which were essentially run by one teacher. On top of that, tensions rose between the students of cathedral schools and burghers in smaller towns. So, cathedral schools migrated to large cities, like Paris and Bologna.

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Map of Medieval Universities

The predecessor of the modern university found its roots in Paris, especially under the guidance of Peter Abelard, who wrote Sic et Non (Latin "yes or no"), which collected texts for university study. Dissatisfied with tensions between burghers and students and the censorship of leading intellectuals by the Church, Abelard and others formed the Universitas, modeled on the medieval guild, a large-scale, self-regulating, permanent institution of higher education.

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 Jewish scholars and the decline in popularity of Platonism and Neoplatonism in favor of Aristotelian thought.


Medieval universities did not have a campus. 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 (the corporation).

Universities were generally structured along two 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. 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. In Paris the main subject matter was theology, for as the Church paid the salary, it set the topic. In Bologna, where students chose more secular studies, the main subject was law.

University studies took six years for a Bachelor degree and up to 12 additional years for a master's degree and doctorate. The first six years taught the faculty of the arts, which was the study of the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic and rhetoric. The primary emphasis was on logic because of its close ties to scholasticism, which was a popular method of teaching.

Once a Bachelor of Arts had been obtained, the student would choose one of three faculties -- law, medicine, or theology -- in which to pursue the master's degree and doctorate degree. Theology was the most prestigious area of study, and the most difficult.

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.

Students entered the University at 14 to 15 years of age. Classes usually started at 5am or 6am.

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 a church 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. This led to uneasy tensions with secular authorities. 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 (started by the students) left a number of students dead; the University went on strike and did not return for 2 years.

Women were not allowed in universities because of the clerical legal status of students, and women by law could not be clerics.

A popular textbook for university study was called the Sentences (Quattuor libri sententiarum) of Peter Lombard; theology students and masters were required to write extensive commentaries on this text as part of their curriculum. Much of medieval thought in philosophy and theology can be found in scholastic textual commentary because scholasticism was such a popular method of teaching.

Any University of international excellence in Europe was registered by the Holy Roman Empire as a Studium Generale. Members of these institutions were encouraged to disseminate their knowledge across Europe, often giving lecture courses at a different Studium Generale.

List of medieval universities

List of medieval universities, in order of foundation:

See also: List of oldest universities in continuous operation


  • Cobban, Alan B. English University Life in the Middle Ages Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999. ISBN 0814208266
  • Ferruolo, Stephen The Origins of the University: The Schools of Paris and their Critics, 1100-1215 Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0804712662
  • Haskins, Charles Homer. The Rise of Universities. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972. ISBN 0879683791
  • Rait, Robert S. Life in the Medieval University. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931. ISBN 0527736503
  • Seybolt, Robert Francis, trans. The Manuale Scholarium: An Original Account of Life in the Mediaeval University. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921.
  • Thorndyke, Lynn, trans. and ed. University Records and Life in the Middle Ages New York: Columbia University Press, 1975. ISBN 039309216X

See also

Town and gown

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