The medieval university
There are over 150 Universities in the UK today but 800 years ago there were only 2 - Oxford and Cambridge. The following brief list of questions and answers will help to explain a little about education in the medieval period.
How did universities come about?
The earliest universities were not in England but in Bologna (1088) and Paris (1160). Oxford University came about in 1167. Universitas, in Latin, is a term for the totality of something. So for instance it could be a university of carpenters; the term was apparently not exclusive to learning institutions.
By binding the teachers together the standards could be uniform. If you then recall that Latin was virtually a universal language for academics then you can see how mobility between universities became possible and this in turn encouraged their rapid growth.
What was there before universities?
There were four main routes to learning ...
1. The Courts - writing reading and poetry.
2. Cathedrals - very important, you needed people to run them.
3. Monasteries - children joined at an early age and in such numbers that education was almost by default.
4. A form of apprenticeship - lawyers, doctors etc; similar to a pupilage.
All these shared a commitment to a curriculum dating back to Greek and Roman times which was known as the system of liberal arts. This system could be broken down into seven sections:
1. Trivium - the three subjects were grammar, rhetoric and logic.
2. Quadrivium - the four ways or the four roads consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
However, just in case you think that the influence of the Romano Greek world was total it is also important to record the growth in learning within the muslim world. This applies especially to areas such as the translation of new works and algebra.
Why did universities come into being?
There appears to be no definite answer but here are some ideas:
1. Conflict between secular and religious authorities.
2. Increased availability of minted money permitted freedom of movement and the pupils could now go where they wanted.
3. Increased debate between scholars about what education should be.
What were the differences between a medieval university and a modern day one?
In the early 12th century if you wanted an academic career then this could be to the detriment of your teacher - you might try and steal his students. However, this changed so that going forward you were in competition with your fellow students. The power to bestow a degree was used to control the students.
Which is the oldest university?
Bologna is cited as the oldest university in the world. One should remember that Italy, at this time, was made up of City States as opposed to an Italian nation. In the 11th century the growth in civil law created a real pressure to teach large numbers of pupils. By the early 12th century both canon and civil law were placed on an equal footing and this created more demand for university places.
Lasting the course
There was a great demand for skilled people as secretaries, copiers, lawyers and so on and this meant that often students would leave part way through and as soon as they had acquired the necessary skills for the workplace.
Were the medieval universities truly international?
We think most definitely. With the freedom to chose and change came true international education. This was particularly strong in Paris where there was more than one place where you could learn. However, please note that in 1167 King Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris.
Development of colleges
Endowments and a desire to support the students outside their academic studies gave rise to colleges.
At what age did people go to university in medieval times?
It is believed to have been at about 14 or 15 years of age. There was no specific entrance requirement or test. You had to be interviewed and a student would need the funds to pay for his tuition. It was only ever men, there were no women admitted to medieval universities. It was not until 1869 that Girton College in Cambridge was founded to cater specifically for women students.
Were the terms the same?
Yes, three terms and long vacations.
Who paid for the students?
Mostly it was family money. However the Church also contributed. For instance a Priest was allowed to pay for a substitute whilst he went to university. There were also scholarships from an early day.
How were the students controlled?
The Chancellor of the university ran a virtually autonomous church court. So for instance if there was a dispute with a local trader then the case would be heard within the university law. The punishments were generally lax and this was a tremendous priviledge for students.
What role did the towns play?
From the mid 13th century Italian towns ran their universities.
How quickly did the idea of universities spread?
Very quickly. The universality of the curriculum made it easy to scale.
Padua was founded in 1222 and Cambridge in 1209.
Interested in the arts from the medieval period? Read more about medieval poetry, medieval music and medieval literature.