Western Humanities:  Analyzing Primary and Secondary Sources

Medieval Universities and Education


Image 1:  Merton chapel

Title: Merton chapel

[Tom Murphy]


Chapel at Merton College, part of the University of Oxford in England. Construction on the chapel began in 1290. The college is one of the earliest at Oxford, established in 1264.



Image 2:  Merton College quadrangle

Title: Merton College quadrangle

[Tom Murphy]


Quadrangle at Merton College known as the "Mob Quad." Construction of the quad was begun shortly after Merton College was established in 1264 and was completed in the mid-14th century. University quadrangles around the world are modeled after this early example.



Image 3:  Medieval students

Title: Medieval students

[Web Gallery of Art]


Detail of a tomb relief depicting students at the University of Bologna, about 1383.

Image 4:  Lecture at the Sorbonne (from an illuminated manuscript)

Title: Lecture at the Sorbonne



Fourteenth-century illustration of a lecture at the Sorbonne from Grandes Chroniques de France. The Sorbonne, one of the most famous colleges of the University of Paris, was established in 1257.

Document 1:  The Rise of the Medieval University – by James Daybell


The university was a quintessentially medieval institution, which developed from the late 12th century in places like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford.  The term "university" was rather fluid, originally commonly denoting a corporation or guild, but latterly meaning a community of scholars with the authority to confer degrees. Universities were distinct from "colleges," which at this stage were no more than halls of residence, such as the Sorbonne in Paris or Balliol College in Oxford. Unlike today, medieval universities were not marked by campuses or buildings. People rather than places were key, with students congregating around individual masters, and teaching facilities and accommodation organized in a rather organic and ad hoc fashion. Over the course of the Middle Ages, Western Europe witnessed an unprecedented expansion in university provision as part of the so-called "educational revolution" of the 12th and 13th centuries. Organizational developments led to the creation of universities with formal schools of liberal arts and fixed curricula as well as faculties of law, medicine, and theology; other institutions, however, such as Salerno, never progressed beyond the distinction of being a medical school.

As universities emerged across Europe from the shadows of previous educational incarnations, they tended to follow two dominant structural and organizational traditions of incorporation. The first was the University of Bologna, where the students themselves constituted the corporation, a model copied throughout Southern Europe in Italy, Spain, and southern France. In this situation ultimate authority was vested in the student body to hire and fire, regulate and fine teachers. Reprimands and punishments were meted out for teachers who were absent without leave, who failed to start and end lectures on time, who deviated from the subject or had the misfortune to be boring – perish the very thought! This was the epitome of student-power, and the young voted with their feet. An entirely different form of organization was prevalent in Northern European countries where universities developed along the Parisian pattern of teacher-led guilds. In Paris, masters and scholars retained the right to license teachers and control examinations, and the university attained a four faculty structure (arts, theology, law, and medicine) with each faculty headed by a dean. Patterns of university development were uneven geographically, intimately connected to issues of peace and patronage. Relatively stable, prosperous conditions sponsored the 13th-century development of universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Montpellier, and Padua. Indeed, the University of Naples was established by Frederick II in order to be "useful to us for the administration of Justice and of the laws"; the Holy Roman emperor recognized the link between the new learning and secular power. Elsewhere, however, progress was slower. The German states and Eastern Europe, for example, did not acquire universities until the 14th century with the emergence of Prague in 1348, Vienna in 1365, and Heidelberg in 1385. This slower pace of educational development no doubt reflected the degree of instability and disorganization within these regions.

While organizationally universities broadly differed across medieval Europe, there were great continuities and similarities in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. University students imbibed a scholarly regimen derived from classical tradition inherited from the foundational texts bequeathed to later generations by Boethius. The main staple of intellectual rigor was an immersion in the seven liberal arts, which were made up of the trivium (consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (comprising arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Echoes of this traditional broad based education are still evident today in liberal arts programs in the North American academic system. Once this basic course of study was completed, students could then opt to proceed to advanced instruction in medicine, philosophy, or law. Pedagogically, medieval universities are far removed from the innovative teaching techniques of classrooms today. Printed books were prohibitively expensive and textbooks as we know them were unheard of. Emphasis was placed upon modes of oral transmission. Lectures were the dominant form of delivery along with formal public disputations or debates, where rivals formulated vying arguments over questions or theses. Reading was aloud rather than silent; texts were generally copied in manuscript rather than printed; and rote memorization was central to the student learning experience. It is also possible to reconstruct student life outside of the medieval classroom from a range of sources, including songs, visual images, student exercise books, financial accounts, letters to parents, and contemporary descriptions. Indeed, Jacques de Vitry has left a particularly rich account of the life of students at Paris. Students customarily attended university in their early teens. Student life to all intents and purposes emerges as rather raucous and rowdy; scholars and students formed a separate community from townspeople, which in many cases exacerbated the divide between "town" and "gown."

The High Middle Ages undoubtedly witnessed the so-called "rise of the university" and the development of new learning, but the degree to which this represents an educational revolution must surely be called into question. Organizationally and structurally great improvements were made; and the medieval universities formed immensely productive environments for intellectual advancements, housing scholars such as Thomas Aquinas. However, much intellectual life existed outside of the hallowed walls of these scholarly institutions, which could in fact breed an air of comfortable complacency. Scholasticism, for example, which took hold of medieval universities, was attacked by Renaissance humanists for its methods of inquiry and viewed as staid and parochial in its aims and outlook. Furthermore, attendance at university during this period was socially restricted. Women were precluded from becoming students, a restriction that remained in place until the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America. Although some provision was made for the education of the "poor," this term is misleading and most students were from wealthy families, the sons of landowners, well-to-do merchants, and artisans. Lastly, these new educational institutions were largely dominated by the church; most students and teachers were members of the clergy. Far from being centers of intellectual innovation and instrumental in facilitating social mobility, medieval universities were marked by inertia and conservatism.


Source:  Daybell, James. "The Rise of the Medieval University." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. 2009. ABC-

CLIO. 8 Mar. 2009 <http://www.ancienthistory.abc-clio.com>.


Document 2:  Universities and Medieval Cathedral Schools – by Chris Mullin

If a modern university student were to travel back in time to Europe of the fourth century CE, that student would find a world tightly bound with endless miles of well maintained roads, heavily traveled sea routes safe from piracy, and well organized and constructed civic centers just a day's journey apart. The people of this era would be reasonably literate and certainly familiar with mathematics, natural science, philosophy, history, medicine, agriculture, politics, and the theater. Though religion, both pagan and Christian, was ever prevalent, it served more as a companion to scholastic pursuit than as an alternative. This was the world of the vast Roman Empire, stretching from England in the north to Egypt in the south and modern-day Turkey in the east.

The acquisition of knowledge was pursued both formally and informally as the children of wealthy families completed a great breadth of formal studies under the watchful eye of a Greek slave or hired tutor, while members of the less fortunate general public organically absorbed the theories of their social betters with whom they shared their complex urban lives. Universities as we know them today did not exist, but the level of communication was so robust that general knowledge was transferred from province to province with the rapidity of an Iron Age Internet. Yet by the end of the fifth century, this energetic and intellectual world was about to come crashing down. A combination of decline within the Roman Empire and continual harassment by migratory Germans on its periphery led to what many historians call the fall of Rome in 476. Along with the ascension of Odoacer, the first barbarian king of Rome, came the rapid decline of Roman trade, Roman communication, Roman government and above all, Roman knowledge.

By the end of the eighth century, however, Europeans were poised to awake from their academic slumber. By order of Charlemagne, schools were to be established in every monastery in the Carolingian Empire. This decree marked the beginning of the resurgence of learning in the West. Focusing on the studies of religious philosophy, law, and architecture, the new scholars began to standardize vulgate Latin into a common educational language. Intellects were attracted to the Carolingian court and a resurgence of the study of classical Greek helped unlock the secrets of the once mute classical past. In these early years of reemerging education, Scholasticism dominated the pedagogical landscape. This pursuit functioned by teaching acolytes to poise seemingly contradictory philosophical arguments (sententiae) side by side and then to systematically unify them into a single statement. Although this premise may seem limited in scope, it served as the academic prototype for the formal rational analysis that would ultimately supplant faith as the basis for accepted academic and scientific truth.

By the 11th and 12th centuries, these early medieval schools were beginning to develop into what we might now term universities. The word university, which loosely translated means "guild," is a testament both to the medieval roots and the sense of professionalism surrounding the emergence of these institutions. In the Middle Ages, guilds were a tightly knit group of professionals dedicated to a high quality of goods or service. Just so, the faculties and student bodies of these developing intellectual centers were determined to establish domains of expected rigor and intellectual respectability. The types of universities varied throughout Europe, some founded and supported by the Catholic Church and others by the civil government. Likewise, in some universities such as that in Bologna, the students themselves hired the teachers and designated the curriculum. In others, such as the Sorbonne, the faculty established the subjects of study and academic expectations.

Just as in modern universities, students would often begin their education with a compulsory study of the humanities. This pursuit, often referred to as the Faculty of Arts, consisted of topics such as grammar, logic, philosophy, arithmetic, music, geometry, and science. Today these same topics often comprise an undergraduate's mandatory breadth requirements before he or she may move onto upper division or graduate work. Once a student of the Middle Ages completed these entry level courses, he might specialize in any of the common higher level studies, primarily in law, medicine, or theology. Bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees were awarded based on the level of subject matter completion.

Beyond the pursuit of comparable, though considerably updated, core academic studies there are other areas in which medieval traditions are alive and well. Students then as now could get considerably rowdy. One might picture a medieval school room as a place of somber Latin language lectures. Indeed there were undoubtedly many such situations, but students were also encouraged to engage in debate and even to challenge their professors energetically. Likewise, young men of medieval colleges came from great distances and social life was undoubtedly robust and aggressive left in the hands of 20-year-olds free from the restraints of their families' watchful eyes. Frequent trouble would arise between townsfolk and the youthful temporary tenants of the local universities. Public brawling, destruction of property, and unfortunately even rape were not uncommon; over time, many universities were moved to larger cities to protect the students from the wrath of small town civic leaders. This medieval struggle between the "town" and the "gown" in some instances seems to have changed little. As today, students of the 13th century might even strike against a university's faculty or academic policies, taking their intellect and consequently their purses to other institutes of higher learning or simply enjoying the time off.

Today, many universities deliberately seek to echo their medieval forbears. Using Gothic architecture for dining halls and dormitories; dark robes, mortar boards, and colorful hoods for graduation ceremonies; and even divided, subject specific colleges within a larger university context, institutional leaders send the message that the roots and traditions of the school's fabric are stable, unchanging and by association worthwhile. Commencement ceremonies and diplomas of the older universities still see their share of medieval Latin, and apart from the admission of women and amplified microphones, one might swear for just a moment that we were living in the 13th century.


Source:            Mullin, Chris. "Universities and Medieval Cathedral Schools." World History: Ancient and Medieval

Eras. 2009. ABC-CLIO. 8 Mar. 2009 <http://www.ancienthistory.abc-clio.com>.


Document 3:  Medieval student correspondence:

The following selections are excerpts from late medieval correspondence concerning university life. While attending a university, some students wrote to their parents to ask for money, clothes, supplies, or to simply describe their situation at school. Other examples show parents scolding students for unruly or lazy behavior, while some are letters of reassurance that what may have been a long and dangerous journey to school was conducted safely, or that the difficult transition to student life was going well.


Excerpts from Medieval Letters Regarding Student Life :

"A student's first song is a demand for money, and there will never be a letter that does not ask for cash." (208-209)

"B. to his venerable master A., greeting. This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Therefore, I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus, Apollo grows cold." (210)

"To his son G., residing at Orleans, P. of Besançon sends greeting with paternal zeal. It is written, 'He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.' I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Therefore, I have decided to exhort you to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute." (214)

"I have learned—not from your master, although he ought not to hide such things from me, but from a certain trustworthy source—that you do not study in your room or act in the schools as a good student should, but play and wander about, disobedient to your master and indulging in sport and in certain other dishonorable practices which I do not now care to explain by letter." (214)

"After my departure from your gracious presence, the circumstances of my journey continued to improve until by divine assistance I arrived safely in the city of Brunn, where I have had the good fortune to obtain lodgings with a certain citizen who has two boys in school and provides me with food and clothing in sufficient amount. I have also found here an upright and worthy master, of distinguished reputation and varied attainments, who imparts instruction faithfully; all my fellow pupils, too, are modest, courteous, and of good character, cherishing no hatred but giving mutual assistance in the acquirement of knowledge and in honor preferring one another." (215)

"To their dear and respected parents M. Martre, knight, and M. his wife, M. and S. their sons send greeting and filial obedience.This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the city of Orleans and are devoting ourselves wholly to study, mindful of the words of Cato, 'To know anything is praiseworthy.' We occupy a good dwelling, next door but one to the schools and marketplace, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habits—an advantage which we well appreciate, for as the Psalmist says, 'With an upright man thou wilt show thyself upright.'" (215)

Source:            Haskins, Charles H., trans. "The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by their Letters." The American

Historical Review, Vol. 3, No. 2 (January 1898): 203–229.